The latest John Hopkins study on psilocybin has been getting a lot of favourable attention in the international press. Eighteen volunteers were given one session a month for five months, and almost all reported it to be either their most spiritually significant experience ever or in the top five. They also reported positive changes in their behaviours, such as improved relationships with family and others, increased physical and psychological self-care, and increased devotion to spiritual practice - claims that were objectively corroborated.
The study worked not with magic mushrooms but with pure psilocybin, so it was able to establish the ideal dose to get positive effects, and at what point anxiety starts to kick in. In all the studies to date, 100 volunteers have been given some 210 sessions, almost all with positive results.
The study's lead scientist, Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and neuroscience, said: 'We wanted to take a methodical look at how its effects change with dosage. We seem to have found levels of the substance and particular conditions for its use that give a high probability of a profound and beneficial experience, a low enough probability of psychological struggle, and very little risk of any actual harm.'
All very good. Question: what use is going to be made of this information?
If it had been around when I was popping acid and mescaline in the early 1970s I could have saved myself some quite tense moments. You know, the ones that come on three hours after you've gone back to double the dose because nothing seemed to be happening, when you're clinging to your sanity by your fingernails.
The best way to avoid a bad trip, I hear someone say, is not to take a trip at all. Yes indeed. But what a miserable philosophy of life.
I guess the real purpose of the Hopkins research is to try to overcome policymakers' prejudice against the recreational or even therapeutic use of entheogenic substances. This encouraging quote from former US drug czar Dr. Jerome Jaffe is being widely quoted:
The Hopkins psilocybin studies clearly demonstrate that this route to the mystical is not to be walked alone. But they have also demonstrated significant and lasting benefits. That raises two questions: could psilocybin-occasioned experiences prove therapeutically useful, for example in dealing with the psychological distress experienced by some terminal patients?
And should properly-informed citizens, not in distress, be allowed to receive psilocybin for its possible spiritual benefits, as we now allow them to pursue other possibly risky activities such as cosmetic surgery and mountain-climbing?
Well, yes... In a sane world, a substance that can help turn a person into a healthy, fully functional member of society has got to be a good thing. And if scientific trials can establish the safe dose, a serious obstacle has been removed.
But the world is anything but sane, and if this helps to start a serious discussion about lifting the ban on psychedelics then you can bet there'll be all kinds of objections. I can anticipate the infuriating 'sending out the wrong signals' argument, but I wonder what other forms the opposition will take.
Perhaps the rigour of the science will be questioned. One distinctly sceptical comment, the only one I've found so far (in an admittedly quite incomplete search) complains that the study was not properly blind because of the degree of interaction between the researchers and subjects before, during and after the experiments.
When the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, and other well-known facilities, are engaged in research demonstrating that sustained, thoughtful contact between doctor and patient demonstrably produces favorable outcomes, it seems a pity that the researchers in this particular study chose to ignore the ways in which their behavior may or may not have influenced the subjective experience of the study's participants, and the directly observable effects that the active substance and placebo had on same.
What I think this means is that positive life changes might be attributed not to the substance but the human contact. It seems daft to me, but then I have first-hand knowledge of these sorts of things. It must seem rather mysterious to the uninitiated, who are not about to take the word of mere scientists on such matters. Any more than sceptics do on the subject of the near-death experience, where the transformative effects of nearly dying can be just as profound.