A New Era of Psychedelics
Opening our minds to what’s possible in clinical settings
by Louisa McCune
Back in the 1980s, during my high-school years in Enid, I read a few memoirs that have had a lasting effect on me. One, Is That It?, is by Irishman Bob Geldof (b. 1951), creator of the epic two-continent concert Live Aid, which benefitted efforts to help ameliorate the mass starvation in Ethiopia. Geldof, of the Boomtown Rats, also starred in Pink Floyd’s British rock opera, The Wall—remember the eyebrow scene?
Another is FlashBacks, the autobiography of Timothy Leary (1920-1996), the controversial and fearless psychologist who espoused a new approach to repairing and expanding the mind: psychedelics. His vocabulary was so vast that I began underlining every word I didn’t understand and pecking them onto a sheet of paper on my Brother electric typewriter with the complete definition. I think I still have my Leary glossary in a box in the garage.
Dr. Leary, a clinical psychologist at Harvard with bona fides from the top universities in the country, believed in the psychiatric value of psychedelics, founding the Harvard Psilocybin Project. In 1963, due to a confluence of social circumstances and his own unorthodox (read, loosey-goosey) teaching and research styles, he was ostracized from academic life (fired, actually) and villainized by the United States government, arrested a total of thirty-six times. An eventual touchstone for the Sixties’ counterculture movement—Nixon called him “the most dangerous man in America”—Leary was hardly alone. From Cary Grant, Bill Wilson of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Time publisher Henry Luce (and his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, the American ambassador to Italy) to some 5,000 Army soldiers, 40,000 people experienced LSD in a fifteen-year period, to profound effect. By 1973, the federal government made psychedelics illegal.
Today, those restrictions have loosened in response to a landmark regulatory approval back in 2000—for a group of John Hopkins researchers. The still-largely illegal drugs that Timothy Leary experimented with, lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD (“acid”), and psilocybin (“shrooms”), are now the subjects of expansive medical research. Multi-disciplinary scientists are developing legitimate and respected clinical programs based exactly on the work Leary pioneered and even modeled. Rather than rebranding this university research with a less-controversial vocabulary, the most important academic institutions in our country have deeply embraced psychedelics in therapeutic and even non-therapeutic research of psilocybin, LSD, MDMA (Ecstasy), and Ketamine.
While mushrooms have been decriminalized in a few places (Denver, Seattle, Washington DC, Cambridge, Oregon, etc.), these psychedelic drugs are generally only legal in a clinical setting and, starting with the first major publication in 2006, are having blockbuster results. Therapeutic treatments past and present are addressing addiction and its cessation, anxiety and major depression disorder, existential distress caused by life-threatening disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-treatment Lyme disease, and several more areas of urgency for sufferers. Non-therapeutic use is the newest frontier and will require tolerance from the medical community and regulators, too, to gain a critical threshold for controlled and guided use.
This growing academic renaissance is led by the John Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research, home to a large team of researchers, clinicians, fellows, coordinators, and the godfather of modern psychedelics and psychopharmacology, Dr. Roland Griffiths, PhD. With more than fifty years of rigorous research at Johns Hopkins (where my grandfather became an expert in tropical medicine having served as a World War II chief medical officer in Guadacanal and The Philippines), Dr. Griffiths—whose mannerisms remind me of Apple’s Tim Cook, his vision for humanity much like Albert Schweitzer, and his tone a bit like Mr. Rogers—advocates passionately for the research use of these hallucinogens for elevating consciousness, spirituality, and human flourishing, known in philosophical circles as eudaimonia, coined by Aristotle and meant to express the highest human good. He believes the research may be crucial to the survival of our species.
The mystical truths and transcendent experiences in these John Hopkins non-therapeutic studies have yielded three prevailing—and sustained—insights from participants, says Dr. Griffiths: 1) that we are all one and “in this together” (giving rise to “ethical caretaking”); 2) that this knowledge and understanding is precious and even sacred; 3) and that the experience is “completely true and more real than every-day waking consciousness.” These clinical experiences have even produced the John Hopkins Psychedelic Spotify playlist, one of the most popular and searched playlists on the music streaming app. (The final song is Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”)
The Stanford Psychedelic Science Group at Stanford Medicine has a similar program. “The resurgence of psychedelic research is occurring in the context of an enormous burden of untreated and refractory mental illness in the US and abroad,” says its website. Back on the East Coast, at New York University’s Langone Medical School, the Center for Psychedelic Medicine likewise focuses on research and education. According to its website, “Over the past two decades, clinical research…has steadily progressed from pilot studies confirming safety and feasibility, through early phase trials providing preliminary evidence of clinical efficacy.” The University of Utah is studying healthcare provider burnout using psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. Even the Veterans Administration is participating in five clinical studies. “This is a time for a lot of hope,” said Dr. Rachel Yehuda, a VA director of mental health, to the New York Times.
Clearly, psychedelic research is more than a trend in academic institutions worldwide—it’s become a bedrock conversation on how to perhaps rewire and heal neuropathways for improved patient outcomes. Just this past summer, the city of Denver hosted the massive, five-day Psychedelic Science 2023 conference at the downtown Colorado Convention Center, presented by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS—a different kind of MAPS!), truly the largest such conference in history with nearly 10,000 daily attendees, hundreds of presenters, 300 sessions, and dozens of impressive sponsors. It even had Olympic-style opening and closing ceremonies. Here in Oklahoma, House Bill 2017 by Representative Daniel Pae (R-Lawton) would authorize medical research into psylocibin and passed 66-32 on March 9, 2023. The bill never got a hearing in the Senate Health and Human Services committee but is still eligible to be heard next session.
Sometimes it can seem like society at large and government in general have become more retrograde, more authoritarian, and more divided on matters of belief, human experience, and science. In whatever manner our personal experiences inform, affirm, or judge the renewed frontier of psycho-nautical journeying for therapeutic and non-therapeutic research, psychedelics are officially back and firmly rooted in the most prestigious bastions of modern medicine. To that, having helped establish in the 1950s and 1960s the very methods used today—appropriate dosing in a peaceful setting guided by trained psychologists—Timothy Leary would surely approve.
Club 29 member Louisa McCune is executive director of Kirkpatrick Foundation. Her father, Edward A. McCune, MD, was a longtime member of Enid Rotary Club. In the mid-1990s, her oldest sister, Allison, was one among the first class of three women admitted into Enid Rotary Club.