God’s Medicine

The latest installment of the ground-breaking study on the effects of psilocybin, aka magic mushrooms, brings more interesting news:

The experiment was funded in part by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The results were published online Tuesday by the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Fourteen months after taking the drug, 64 percent of the volunteers said they still felt at least a moderate increase in well-being or life satisfaction, in terms of things like feeling more creative, self-confident, flexible and optimistic. And 61 percent reported at least a moderate behavior change in what they considered positive ways.

That second question didn’t ask for details, but elsewhere the questionnaire answers indicated lasting gains in traits like being more sensitive, tolerant, loving and compassionate.

And yet this completely non-toxic naturally occurring substance is still illegal in the US. We don’t know whether psilocybin could be integrated into existing mental health treatments, or simply become a recreational spiritual resource for responsible adults.

Banning Shrooms

This has to be one of the more depressing pieces of news in a long time:

The Dutch cabinet has proposed a ban on the sale of all hallucinogenic "magic" mushrooms because they could induce life-threatening behaviour. A bill will now pass to the Dutch parliament, where a majority of lawmakers are expected to back a ban after a teenage French girl who had eaten mushrooms died jumping from a bridge in 2007.

So all responsible adults are to be punished because of the actions of a handful of teenagers. The beneficial effects of psilocybin have now been documented extensively. Their responsible usage has led many to spiritual insight and emotional catharsis. They are non-addictive and far less toxic than many legal substances. Yes: they can be abused and some regulation, especially with respect to the young and reckless, is perfectly defensible. But that doesn’t mean something that grows in the ground should thereby be banned for everyone. When even Amsterdam is becoming a center for extinguishing individual freedom, you know our age is getting darker.

Groovy Medicine

Scientific American has a very informative piece up about new research into the uses of LSD, psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs for mental illness:

Much remains unclear about the precise neural mechanisms governing how these drugs produce their mind-bending results, but they often produce somewhat similar psychoactive effects that make them potential therapeutic tools. Though still in their preliminary stages, studies in humans suggest that the day when people can schedule a psychedelic session with their therapist to overcome a serious psychiatric problem may not be that far off.

Awesome illustrations as well. Hat tip: Mind Hacks.

Drugs and Toxicity


One way to measure the dangers of various drugs is to examine how toxic the drug is at various levels. Can too much kill you? And how much is too much? Here’s an interesting article on what we know scientifically about the matter. Money quote:

The most toxic recreational drugs, such as GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate) and heroin, have a lethal dose less than 10 times their typical effective dose. The largest cluster of substances has a lethal dose that is 10 to 20 times the effective dose: These include cocaine, MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine, often called "ecstasy") and alcohol. A less toxic group of substances, requiring 20 to 80 times the effective dose to cause death, include Rohypnol (flunitrazepam or "roofies") and mescaline (peyote cactus). The least physiologically toxic substances, those requiring 100 to 1,000 times the effective dose to cause death, include psilocybin mushrooms and marijuana, when ingested. I’ve found no published cases in the English language that document deaths from smoked marijuana, so the actual lethal dose is a mystery. My surmise is that smoking marijuana is more risky than eating it but still safer than getting drunk.

Alcohol thus ranks at the dangerous end of the toxicity spectrum. So despite the fact that about 75 percent of all adults in the United States enjoy an occasional drink, it must be remembered that alcohol is quite toxic. Indeed, if alcohol were a newly formulated beverage, its high toxicity and addiction potential would surely prevent it from being marketed as a food or drug. This conclusion runs counter to the common view that one’s own use of alcohol is harmless.

The least toxic drug known to humans is now illegal. The most toxic is available at Safeway. None of this makes any sense at all. And yet we continue to imprison people for ingesting substances far less harmful than others freely available. One has to wonder what the prohibitionists are smoking. Maybe nutmeg.

The Politics of Psilocybin


A reader makes a realistic point:

The one area of your blog I’ve without exception agreed with is your admirable and consistent defense of liberty. But don’t expect any politician to share those views.

Psilocybin and THC are chemicals that are less toxic and less addicting than currently legal psychoactive substances. And they may have significant physical and mental health benefits. However, a major difference between these two substances and legal intoxicants is the for the former to induce new ways of thinking (sometimes disturbingly so, it must be granted). In early 21st century USA, what politician would want to support anyone thinking outside of  Republican and Democratic orthodoxy? In a world where we cannot be trusted to plan for our own retirement or health care, where we must be protected from nicotine and transfats, how can our “leaders” allow us to ingest substances that may encourage thinking?

(Painting: Michelangelo’s psychedelic version of Heaven.)

Religious Freedom and Psilocybin


We now have very solid evidence that magic mushrooms – or, more scientifically, mushrooms containing psilocybin – are astonishingly effective in giving humans life-changing mystical experiences. More research is needed – but the National Institute for Drug Abuse won’t cough up the funds. Memo to wealthy libertarians: open your checkbooks. Mark Kleiman makes a further point:

Though psilocybe mushrooms grow wild in much of the country and are fairly easily cultivated, the psilocybin they contain is a Schedule I controlled substance, contraband except for specially-approved research purposes, and therefore so are the mushrooms themselves.

But the Supreme Court recently held (Gonzales v. O Centro) that the use of hallucinogens in religious ceremonies is protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and must be permitted unless there is a particularized showing of harm. It is well-established fact that psilocybin is neither addictive nor physically toxic, though it is not without psychological and behavioral risks, especially when used haphazardly.

If taking a dose of psilocybin under controlled conditions has a better-than-even chance of occasioning a full-blown mystical experience, it seems fairly hard to argue that forbidding such use doesn’t interfere with the free exercise of religion. How the courts will deal with those who want to seek out primary religious experience on an individual rather than a congregational basis remains to be seen.

This strikes me as a very basic principle for religious freedom. I look forward to the Christianist movement standing up for the religious freedoms of others. But I don’t have my hopes up.

The Spirituality of Shrooms


Finally, a controlled scientific experiment about the psychological and spiritual effects of psilocybin. The interaction between the spiritual and psychological remains a mystery, of course – but mushrooms certainly seem to point people in a more spiritual direction:

Psilocybin’s effects lasted for up to six hours, Griffiths said. Twenty-two of the 36 volunteers reported having a "complete" mystical experience, compared to four of those getting methylphenidate.

That experience included such things as a sense of pure awareness and a merging with ultimate reality, a transcendence of time and space, a feeling of sacredness or awe, and deeply felt positive mood like joy, peace and love. People say "they can’t possibly put it into words," Griffiths said.

Two months later, 24 of the participants filled out a questionnaire. Two-thirds called their reaction to psilocybin one of the five top most meaningful experiences of their lives. On another measure, one-third called it the most spiritually significant experience of their lives, with another 40% ranking it in the top five.

Can we please have more research? If mankind’s technological potential for destruction is now threatening to upend civilization, surely some research into the pharmacology behind love, peace and joy is worth some federal dollars. On this, at least, I agree with Juan Cole:

The human mind has the capacity to feel the oneness of things, to put aside selfish ego and the violence, psychic and physical, that it promotes. The drug just demonstrates that the capacity is there. This was known. The question is, what one does with it. A peak experience can just be an experience. Or it can be the beginning of a more fulfilled, kind and giving life. The drug by itself is no more important than a parlor trick. As with anything in life, it matters what is done with it. And, the true mystic does not need mushrooms to have peak experiences.

See the mountain-top, and the valley of despond is not so grim.

(Photo of Pyramid Lake from a reader.)