When William Richards agreed to take part in a psychiatric experiment while a graduate student at Yale Divinity School, he had no idea that he was about to have a transformative experience.
The year was 1963, and Richards was studying abroad at the University of Göttingen in Germany when he heard that the university’s psychiatry department was testing a new drug. Intrigued by a description of its effects — it supposedly gave the recipient insights into early childhood — Richards volunteered to be a subject. The drug was psilocybin, one of many psychedelics that give rise to profound changes in perception and altered states of consciousness. Found naturally in so-called magic mushrooms, psilocybin was then at the center of a controversy at Harvard University, where psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass) had been fired in a dispute with the administration. But Richards was unaware of this. He had never even heard the word psychedelic.
The German researchers gave Richards a low-dose injection of psilocybin in a basement room and left him alone. To his great surprise the universe opened up to him. He writes that his “awareness was flooded with love, beauty, and peace beyond anything that I had ever known.”
He says he’s never been the same since.
Richards went on to earn graduate degrees in theology and psychology while studying the use of psychedelics in medical and religious contexts. In 1967, at a hospital near Baltimore, Maryland, he joined others who were testing their therapeutic potential. At the time such research was thriving. There were international conferences and numerous articles appearing in academic journals. But in the early seventies the U.S. government classified all psychedelics — including psilocybin and the laboratory compound lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD — as Schedule I substances, whose use is tightly restricted, ostensibly due to a high potential for abuse. Academic research became more difficult. Funding disappeared, and the psychiatric research program was shut down in 1977. By then Richards had started a private psychotherapy practice.
More than two decades later, the fear and controversy surrounding psychedelics had faded, and research into their beneficial properties was beginning to start up again. Since 1999 Richards and his primary co-researcher, Roland Griffiths — along with a team of doctors at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore — have legally given psilocybin to hundreds of patients who suffer from anxiety, depression, nicotine addiction, and other ailments, as well as to healthy volunteers who are interested in personal or spiritual growth. The volunteers receive carefully measured doses under controlled conditions in a comfortable setting that resembles a living room. They wear eyeshades and listen to music — mostly Western classical, Richards says, with a little Hindu chanting thrown in. And they often report positive outcomes. For instance, twenty-two-year-old Octavian Mihai had just finished treatment for Stage III Hodgkin’s lymphoma when he volunteered for an experiment at New York University in 2013. On psilocybin Mihai had an out-of-body experience in which he observed himself lying on a hospital stretcher and saw all his fears about cancer exiting his body in the form of black smoke. He later said the experience had a lasting effect on him, dissolving his obsessive worry about a recurrence of his disease. “I’m not anxious about cancer anymore. I’m not anxious about dying,” he told The New York Times. “The session made my life richer.”
Now in his seventies, Richards recently published Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences (Columbia University Press), which is both a memoir and an overview of the experiments he and his colleagues have conducted. He is also the coauthor, with Walter Pahnke, of the early psychedelic article “Implications of LSD and Experimental Mysticism.” His research continues to explore the powerful opportunities for psychological growth that come with mystical experiences, whether as a result of meditation, ritual, or drugs. He is currently implementing a pilot study in which priests, rabbis, and imams may legally receive psilocybin and report how it influences their ministry and faith. Does it promote more tolerance of other religions? Will it help them attend more sensitively to the dying, as clergy often do? This study and others are funded by the Heffter Research Institute. More information can be found at heffter.org.
I first met Richards in San Francisco. He was in town to attend a graduation at the California Institute of Integral Studies, which was giving out its first certificates in psychedelic-assisted therapies and research. (Richards had been a frequent visiting lecturer in the program.) Over breakfast he and I got to know each other, discussed big philosophical questions, and laughed a lot. After he returned home to Baltimore, we talked some more by Skype. Richards is easygoing but clearly regards the exploration of consciousness as serious business. In his opinion, uninformed use of these substances is like “playing marbles with diamonds,” whereas prudent use could transform modern life.
Leviton: When you first took psilocybin, you expected you might get a psychological insight about your childhood but nothing more.
Richards: Yes. I was a twenty-three-year-old grad student at Yale Divinity School, attending the University of Göttingen for the second of my three years of study. Most volunteers experienced perceptual changes but didn’t gain access to the depths of the psyche that — for whatever reason — I did that day.
Leviton: And you were taking notes during this experience?
Richards: I took a few notes during the session, because I was afraid I’d forget it. Then I wrote a full report afterward. I saw intricate, multidimensional, neon-colored geometric patterns, and I felt as though I could enter into the energy flowing within them. In some way I lost my identity while inside these patterns. I was outside of time. Awe, glory, and gratitude are the only words for what I experienced.
One thing I wrote was “Reality IS. It is perhaps not important what one thinks about it.” I remember clearly reaching over to a little piece of blue paper on the end table beside me to write this, and underlining is three times. [Laughs.]
It’s hard to put into words what I meant by “Reality IS.” I think I’d encountered what Christian existentialist Paul Tillich referred to as the “ground of being.” It was a deep sense of the origin of consciousness, far beyond the intellectual concepts I liked to play with in philosophy courses. There’s a source deep in the core of human consciousness that’s simply a given. It doesn’t come from our expectations or our beliefs; it’s just there, waiting for us to discover — or rediscover — it.
Leviton: You were alone in a narrow basement room. Clearly the importance of “set and setting” in psychedelic drug use hadn’t been recognized yet.
Richards: That’s right. Psychedelics open a door and provide an opportunity; how one responds to that opportunity often depends on what researchers call “nondrug variables.” “Set” refers to your state of mind and intention at the time you receive a psychedelic substance. For the best results you need a desire for personal and spiritual growth, even if it entails some degree of suffering. You also have to trust whoever might be with you and the sources of wisdom within you. And you need to be open to learning something new. “Setting” is your interpersonal and physical environment, which needs to be supportive, safe, confidential, and aesthetically pleasing.
Before the importance of set and setting were recognized, psychedelics were often administered in a cold, clinical environment with no preparation or support. Many volunteer subjects experienced confusion, panic, and paranoia, which led researchers to theorize that the substances caused “chemically induced schizophrenia.”
Leviton: It sounds like you were lucky to have the experience you did, under those circumstances.
Richards: Yes, it was as if universal truth had been revealed. It’s difficult to separate what was intrinsic to the experience in the moment and what I put together while reflecting on it in retrospect, but it involved what we call “mystical consciousness” — a sense of the interrelatedness of all life and humanity.
We can also receive insights into the relativity of time and space and perhaps the mysteries of matter. The energy that makes up the spiritual world is somehow eternal, existing outside of time. All the major world religions have said that there is such a thing as immortality or consciousness outside of time.
Maybe the most profound insight of mystical consciousness is the sense that love is an energy, and not just a human energy. As Dante writes at the conclusion of The Divine Comedy, it is love that “moves the sun and other stars.”
Leviton: Did you have any feeling that what you experienced wasn’t really an “insight” into life’s true nature but simply a hallucination caused by the drug?
Richards: No. It was more like the psilocybin was making it possible for me to behold or participate in — or even be experienced by — something deep within human consciousness. The substance doesn’t cause the experience. Mystical consciousness can be evoked without psychedelic substances.
Leviton: You’ve said that this experience made you feel more authentic, less a puppet of fate or outside forces.
Richards: In many years of giving these substances to patients, I’ve found that most report a sense of increased independence. They are more likely to make value judgments from within. In existential theory that’s called being “authentic.” The psychologist Abraham Maslow called this being “inner-directed” rather than “outer-directed.”
Leviton: It’s a bit of a paradox: Once you become aware of your true self, you also become aware that you are part of a larger consciousness. I’m both myself and not myself.
Richards: That’s right.
Leviton: After your first psilocybin dose, you took several more. What happened those times?
Richards: In this particular research project I’d agreed to undergo four tests, using two different derivatives of psilocybin at two different dosage levels. The next three were not mystical at all, although the dosage in two of them was a little higher. I went into each consecutive session prepared to walk through the gates of awe, and instead I had some interesting philosophical insights, but nothing of any great magnitude. Clearly more was involved than the type of drug and dosage. Following the fourth ingestion of psilocybin, I found myself perplexed and began to doubt the significance of that first experience.
Leviton: Do you think the other experiences were less profound because you were trying to push them to be significant?
Richards: That might have been why. Expectation and anxiety were certainly important. Maybe I was thinking too much. There are factors we still don’t understand.
It was at this point that psychedelic researcher Walter Pahnke arrived in Germany from Harvard. He convinced the head of research, Dr. Hanscarl Leuner, to do one more experiment and raise the dosage even higher. They would also take me out of the basement room and put me somewhere with sunlight and plants and music. And Pahnke would be with me, in case I needed emotional support. The mystical dimensions of consciousness were once again revealed, this time with even more vividness. I wrote about it in Ralph Metzner’s book The Ecstatic Adventure, under the pseudonym John Robertson. That was well over fifty years ago, and I’ve never doubted its significance since then.
Leviton: And psychedelic drugs were legal at the time?
Richards: Completely. Similar studies were being done not only in the United States but also in Canada and different European countries, although I wasn’t aware of this until I read a Time magazine article about the controversy over Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert’s experiments at Harvard. It was surprising to me that there would be objections to researching these substances in the U.S. There were no problems in Germany.
Leviton: I notice you favor the word substances rather than drugs or hallucinogens. Many people now advocate calling them “entheogens.” What does that mean?
Richards: Entheogen was coined by Carl Ruck, a classics professor who has studied the use of psychoactive plants in Western culture. I’m not fully happy with that word either. It means “generating the divine within.” Perhaps one could say that psychedelics are potentially entheogenic. They give access to a whole spectrum of non-ordinary states of consciousness, only some of which are religious or spiritual. Other psychedelic experiences might involve sensory changes or personal insights that have little to do with religious beliefs. I also feel that, when we do access mystical consciousness, it’s more like discovering the divine within rather than generating it. You can find accounts of such experiences in all the major world religions.
Leviton: How do we know such experiences are real?
Richards: We have no way of knowing. What we can say is that the revelatory experiences sometimes reported following the ingestion of psychedelic substances are similar to religious experiences described in sacred texts: Isaiah’s temple vision. Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. The visions of Mohammad. The writings of mystics such as Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa of Ávila, Meister Eckhart, al-Ghazali, Rumi, Shankara, Plato, Plotinus, and others. The biblical prophets had some psychedelic-like visions. Ezekiel described creatures with four faces coming out of a whirlwind.
One common aspect of mystical experiences is their intuitive validity. They feel “more real” than the everyday world. Whether or not one accepts such a feeling as revelatory truth becomes a personal choice.
Philosopher William James suggested a pragmatic way of evaluating such experiences: by looking at how people who claim to have had them behave in the world. Is there some evidence of growing compassion and wisdom? Are they exhorting others to wake up spiritually and not just talking about how enlightened they are? If so, I’m more inclined to listen to them.
Leviton: It is possible to achieve such states through meditation, sensory deprivation, and other methods, right?
Richards: Yes. Psychedelics are potent and reliable tools for giving access to these states of consciousness, but such experiences can occur in conjunction with various forms of meditation, or spontaneously during athletic performance — such as the “runner’s high” — or during natural childbirth, or from both sensory isolation and sensory overload. At concerts we can be swept into profoundly sacred places.
We must judge for ourselves whether any life experience is “real” or not. Many volunteers who have received psychedelics in research settings have reported profound benefits and significant changes in values and priorities. The experiences were “real” for them.
Leviton: Do you make any distinctions between the experiences provided by psychoactive compounds found in nature versus those synthesized in a lab?
Richards: Not at this time. If we researched it, perhaps we’d find some subtle differences in potency. I do know that psilocybe mushrooms often contain other, possibly psychoactive, chemicals besides psilocybin. And it matters what the growing conditions were, how long ago the mushrooms were harvested, how long they’ve been dried, and so on. With psilocybin synthesized in a laboratory, which is what we use, we know the exact purity and dosage. It’s scientifically a much cleaner substance. And there is no question that the synthesized form of psilocybin can engender profoundly sacred responses.
Again, I tend to think of the experiences as being not in the substances themselves but rather in the human mind. Different keys can all unlock the same door to other states of consciousness. Some may open the door faster or slower or hold it open longer, but the experiences themselves appear to be within human consciousness — whatever that may be!
Leviton: You also don’t like the phrase “altered consciousness,” because it suggests there’s a static mind with fixed characteristics.
Richards: Yes, I’d prefer “alternate or alternative states of consciousness.” It’s more accurate.
Leviton: When I read your accounts of early psychedelic research, it seems to me there were two paths playing out — one led by Timothy Leary, who was an evangelical advocate for getting everyone high on psychedelics, and the other by Richard Alpert, who changed his name to Ram Dass and undertook a quest to find spiritual truth without drugs.
Richards: Leary had his spiritual insights, too, but Alpert was more interested in integrating what he learned from psychedelics into the meditative traditions of the world. It can take many years of disciplined study and practice to achieve such states through meditation alone, however, and the effects are often less intense.
In reality one doesn’t “achieve” these states, with or without psychedelics. It’s not an accomplishment of the ego or the everyday self. Rather these states come as gifts to be humbly received and vividly recalled. The theological word for such gifts is grace. Our task is to integrate the insights they provide into the everyday world, and meditation may help with that. It’s easy enough to “love all mankind,” but try loving your boss or the guy who cuts you off in traffic.
Some people’s interest in meditation was probably sparked by a psychedelic experience that awakened them to the spiritual dimension of being human, but then some become so involved in their practice that they wouldn’t be interested in taking a psychedelic again even if it were legal.
Leviton: The spiritual teacher Adyashanti has said that, in his experience, taking consciousness-altering drugs is like “sneaking into the temple without permission.” It’s not wrong, he says, and it may start some down the spiritual path, but those drug experiences aren’t the real thing, just an “interesting vacation.” How would you respond to that?
Richards: I would respectfully suggest that no permission is required to be loved by God, and that the “temple” is open to all regardless of belief or lack thereof. We must judge for ourselves whether any life experience is “real” or not. Many volunteers who have received psychedelics in research settings have reported profound benefits and significant changes in values and priorities. The experiences were “real” for them.
Leviton: It’s interesting that different people experience similar sorts of visual images and feelings of timelessness and interconnectedness.
Richards: Yes, the ego, or sense of a separate self, that goes with your proper name is still there, but only as an observer. You may witness something beautiful and inspiring: the Christ, the Buddha, a precious stone, a scene from another civilization. But you’re still participating in what philosophers call the subject-object dichotomy. There is a “you” who is observing.
The step beyond that is when the ego dissolves into a unified consciousness. It’s what Hindus call the drop of water merging with the ocean. Suddenly you are part of something that includes all of humanity. After people emerge from this mystical consciousness, many appear to manifest more compassion.
The scholar of comparative religion Huston Smith described having such an experience after taking mescaline. He said he entered a world that was “uncanny, significant, and terrifying beyond belief.” What had been conceptual theories to him before he could now actually see, and he marveled at the paradoxes: he could be “both myself and my world,” and his experiences could be “both momentary and eternal.”
When responding to taking psilocybin in a 1962 Harvard study, Dr. Smith reported that, although he believed in God and had experienced the divine presence before, this was a divine personal encounter “of the sort that bhakti yogis, Pentecostals, and born-again Christians describe.” He called it a “powerful cosmic homecoming.”
People often see vivid patterns: mandalas, a lotus flower, wheels. Those who close their eyes sometimes report feeling as if outer space is flying past them — and through them. In a sense, they become the mandala. Jeremy Narby, a Canadian anthropologist now living in Europe, has posited that at the subatomic level our brains and our DNA emit photons, and perhaps the light we see with closed eyes is coming from those deep biochemical processes.
Leviton: A lot of science today seems quite reductionist, with scientists describing all experience as a result of electrical and chemical events in the brain and suggesting there is no “mind” outside the brain tissue.
Richards: Maslow, in The Psychology of Science, wrote about two kinds of science: one that wants to stick with what it can easily measure and control, ignoring the rest; and one that has the courage to work on the frontiers of knowledge, where we have to develop new concepts to explain what we find. The latter is where science encounters the sacred and asks such questions as “What is consciousness?”
Leviton: How do you personally define consciousness? Does it exist in animals, plants, matter?
Richards: Those are complex questions and probably beyond the scope of this interview. In my book I use consciousness to refer to the experiential field: that of which we are aware. This field can contract, as it does in depression, or it can expand, moving toward increased knowledge and enlightenment. Philosophers known as panpsychists view consciousness as the ultimate nature of reality.
Leviton: Maslow talked of people becoming “self-actualized” or reaching a “higher consciousness.” Does that seem elitist?
Richards: Remember, self-actualization as Maslow described it is a never-ending process. If you think you’ve arrived, it only demonstrates how far you have to go. The insights I’m speaking about appear to be available to everyone. I’ve given psychedelics to hundreds of people with different educational and socioeconomic backgrounds. Nearly all were able to have profound spiritual experiences.
One patient was a narcotic addict with a junior-high-school education. He was incarcerated, and the prison administrators allowed him to participate in a research project testing the effects of psilocybin on narcotic addiction. During his session he described seeing strange, semi-nude figures dancing with crown-like objects on their heads, and he didn’t understand who they were. Later he stumbled across a book of Hindu art and came running into my office, pointing to pictures of Shiva and other Hindu gods and goddesses and saying, “This is what I saw!” This is anecdotal, of course, but it makes you wonder.
If more of us were spiritually awakened, I imagine there would be more love, respect, and compassion in the world — also more tolerance and appreciation of diversity. Perhaps we would be better able to care for the self without becoming selfish.
Leviton: Do you feel your research has proven the existence of a collective unconscious, as described by psychoanalyst Carl Jung?
Richards: I would say that psychedelic research validates Jung’s concept. Philosopher John Locke theorized that we come into this world as white sheets of paper upon which each of us may write, but this simply isn’t true. We come into this world with a huge archive of universal archetypes — the concepts, characters, and stories that form the basis of all mythology. Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, says myth depicts our spiritual journeys; that it is a symbolic language we all speak, regardless of what we were exposed to growing up in our particular culture. Jung identified that incredible reservoir of knowledge as the “collective unconscious.” We know things we didn’t learn in school and that our parents didn’t teach us. This has profound implications for understanding what we truly are and what the human mind is capable of.
Leviton: Have volunteers in your studies ever had bad trips?
Richards: Experiences of severe confusion, panic, and paranoia are possible but rarely occur when the substances are administered competently with adequate preparation and guidance. If someone takes a psychedelic outside of a controlled setting and isn’t ready for it, he or she can experience a waking nightmare and even end up in a psychiatric emergency room. I often say if you just want a recreational experience, psychedelics are poor choices.
But even some so-called bad trips can become good trips if they are handled properly. A person who takes a psychedelic hoping to have a good time may start reliving the death of a parent and call that a “bad trip”; I would call it an opportunity for psychological growth. Encountering repressed grief can be difficult, but it can also take you into the depth of your being.
Though working through grief and guilt and fear isn’t fun, when participants come out the other end, they are often thankful for it.
Leviton: I was once with someone who was tripping, and she was having some kind of death experience. I kept telling her it would be over soon and to hang in there. Reading about your studies now, I wish I had been trained to help her confront her fear of death. It was a missed opportunity for growth.
Richards: Psychedelics can trigger a feeling of psychological death and rebirth that is profoundly helpful, especially to many of the cancer patients I see in my work. We prepare volunteers by saying, “If you feel like you’re dying during the drug experience, go ahead and die. Explore it. Though it may feel very real, your body will be fine. Your heart will keep beating and your lungs will keep breathing.”
Leviton: Are experiences of death and rebirth more common among terminal patients?
Richards: Actually no. What many people label “dying” seems to be the common experience of letting the every-day self dissolve into a deeper consciousness.
Last August the results of a Johns Hopkins study of “bad trips” were released in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. Nearly two thousand people who said they’d had an unpleasant experience with psilocybe mushrooms filled out an online survey about it. Their stories were overwhelmingly of recreational use in uncontrolled settings. The average participant was twenty-three years old at the time of the bad trip. Thirty-nine percent rated it as one of the most challenging experiences of their lives, and more than 10 percent felt it had put them or others at risk. And yet nearly 85 percent described the experience as beneficial overall. Other studies have found similar claims of benefit after difficult, cathartic psychedelic experiences.
One of our patients, a fifty-seven-year-old man named Kevin, had a bone-marrow transplant for acute myeloid leukemia. In remission he developed chronic pain and fatigue. Even with those difficulties, after taking part in our study, he achieved a greater sense of peace. He told a reporter, “You have to approach the session with the right intention of why you’re doing it. Because you’re going to meet yourself.” Some people require more preparation than others in order to be able to relinquish control and courageously explore their own minds. The “door” may be unlocked, but they are not yet ready to open it.
The indigenous South American religions that use the psychedelic ayahuasca teach that if you see the “great anaconda,” you should dive into its mouth and look out through its eyes. That’s how those cultures prepare people to receive a psychedelic: in a religious context. And it works. They don’t run away; they go in.
I’ve described taking psilocybin as exploring a dark house with a powerful flashlight. You look in every corner, go into the basement. If there’s a trapdoor down there, maybe you open it and investigate deeper levels. I deserve to know what’s in the “house” of my mind. If there’s a monster in the basement, I want to see what it looks like. That monster isn’t there just to scare me. It wants to teach me something.
Leviton: Do your subjects ever experience “flashbacks”?
Richards: The so-called flashback phenomenon is extremely rare in the medical research. When it is reported, it may be connected to other substances or to drug abuse in general. One theory is that it occurs when the person “runs” from difficult material that the psychedelic unlocks. Later, when the person is under stress or sleep deprived, that material resurfaces. In general, though, flashbacks don’t seem to be a cause for concern. It’s improbable that there’s a chemical remnant in the body that might evoke alternate states when we don’t want them to occur.
Leviton: Open academic experimentation with LSD, psilocybin, and other substances ended in the seventies. What happened?
Richards: It’s quite incredible to me that psychedelic programs were successfully repressed for more than twenty years.
I think the research ended because people feared the social changes that were occurring during that period — the role of women, racial attitudes, sexual understandings — somehow all this got associated with LSD. President Nixon claimed that Timothy Leary was “the most dangerous man in America.” The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put all psychedelics on Schedule I. To attempt a proper study of a Schedule I substance was a professional risk. I had the honor of being perhaps the last researcher to give psilocybin to a cancer patient in that era. This was in 1977. The research stopped not because of federal-government interference but due to a lack of funding and support at the state level. But after many efforts to gain government approval, my colleague Roland Griffiths and I were able to restart our research at Johns Hopkins in 1999, and it’s been thriving ever since.
Leviton: What kind of permissions are needed to be allowed to use Schedule I drugs?
Richards: You have to present a compelling research protocol to the FDA, one that is scientifically tight. You hope to receive an “investigational new drug” permit, or IND, to do that particular project, and to have the drugs in your pharmacy legally and prescribe them for your clinical volunteers. And there are other hoops you have to jump through. It’s made doing research unreasonably difficult.
Leviton: What was your first study at Johns Hopkins?
Richards: It was a double-blind project using healthy volunteers who had never taken psychedelics before. We gave them either psilocybin or Ritalin; neither the volunteers nor the staff assisting them knew which one. We were testing to see if psilocybin had unique spiritual properties, independent of expectation and suggestion. We found that psilocybin did trigger profound spiritual experiences, whereas Ritalin did not.
It was kind of a repeat of Walter Pahnke’s 1962 Good Friday Experiment: As a PhD candidate at Harvard, Pahnke had given volunteers either psilocybin or niacin. It quickly became apparent that the participants who’d received psilocybin were experiencing profound changes in consciousness, and the others were rather bored.
Leviton: Why repeat the experiment?
Richards: We wanted to use more rigorously scientific methods in more sophisticated clinical surroundings. Pahnke’s study was done in a group setting, using all theological students, and was conducted in a university chapel on Good Friday. Our volunteers at Johns Hopkins were tested one at a time, and most were not theologically trained. Our research also standardized expectations: guides were led to believe subjects would receive a low dose of either psilocybin or Ritalin, when in fact only high doses were administered. Every participant was prepared in the same way and listened to the same music during the experiment.
We provided validation of Pahnke’s study and demonstrated that further research was in order.
Leviton: Some of the earliest LSD experiments were done by the U.S. military and the CIA.
Richards: That’s an embarrassing part of our national history. The military and intelligence agencies were only interested in seeing whether they could use psychedelics to disable a population, or as a truth serum in interrogations. The therapeutic potential of these substances was outside the scope of the government’s interest. The controversy those experiments caused may have been a factor in the decision to stop all research. But, unintentionally or not, they demonstrated that set and setting are of crucial importance, and that a substance with the potential to facilitate peace and brotherhood doesn’t have much potential as a tool of control, intimidation, and war.
Leviton: Why do you use psilocybin rather than other psychedelics in your research?
Richards: One significant advantage of psilocybin is its short duration of action. In high dosage it lasts about six hours. LSD lasts eight hours, often longer. Mescaline is fourteen hours. So psilocybin fits into the researchers’ schedule. It also goes to work faster. The most intense effect is reached sixty to ninety minutes after ingestion. With LSD you have to wait until about the third hour. And psilocybin has been used by indigenous cultures for a few thousand years, so it has a known safety profile. It doesn’t provoke the controversy and irrational fears that surround LSD. Perhaps it gets less negative press than LSD because it’s harder to spell. [Laughs.]
Leviton: How do you choose participants for your studies, and how do you prepare them for the experience?
Richards: Whether someone qualifies depends on what the research project is. We might be looking for people who have cancer or are addicted to drugs, if that’s what is being studied. And they have to meet certain health criteria: no acute cardiac condition, no history of schizophrenia, and so on.
We usually have four two-hour meetings to prepare each person before we administer a psychedelic substance. The main goal of the meetings is to establish trust. We want people to feel safe during the experiment, so they can relax and allow their experiences to occur, without feeling a need to meet any particular expectations. As in psychotherapy, the participants are given permission to be themselves and to let it all hang out in an environment that’s safe and confidential. People need to choose to be out of control and trust the experience. They can be agnostic or religious, but they must be open and willing to experience whatever comes. We usually have two staff members, ideally one man and one woman, present with each participant during the experiment.
There’s a source deep in the core of human consciousness that’s simply a given. It doesn’t come from our expectations or our beliefs; it’s just there, waiting for us to discover — or rediscover — it.
Leviton: Participants in your studies fill out a questionnaire afterward. What sort of information do you gather?
Richards: We have several different questionnaires. One attempts to establish whether a mystical experience occurred. Others capture volunteers’ changes in attitude or behavior over time. Typically we want to know whether they view what they experienced during the session as “more real” than their usual awareness of everyday reality, whether they gained insight “at an intuitive level,” and whether they now feel that “all is one.”
Leviton: Is this data empirical even though it is self-reported?
Richards: We do the best we can to make objective observations, and we quantify the results as responsibly as we know how, but there are always going to be subjective elements.
Leviton: How long do you track your subjects after the experiment, and what lasting effects do they report?
Richards: Follow-up assessments usually go on for six to eighteen months. Reductions in depression or anxiety tend to be immediate. Participants also claim to receive lasting benefits and say that the insights that occurred during the psilocybin sessions are not just something that happened to them one afternoon. They report feeling more open, more tolerant, more compassionate. They have a greater ability to live in the present, instead of obsessing about the past or worrying about the future. They tend to be more socially active.
Sometimes the person will need to take appropriate actions in life afterward to receive the full benefit of the psychedelic intervention. For example, someone may experience a sense of reconciliation in a troubled relationship while taking psychedelics, but no real reconciliation can occur until the subject talks through those feelings with the other person.
Eighty percent of cancer patients in our most recent study showed clinically significant reductions in depression and anxiety. There appear to be no negative side effects when pure psilocybin is competently administered with appropriate dosage, set, and setting.
At Johns Hopkins participants have all the medical care they could wish for immediately available if they need it. The emergency room is next door, though we’ve never had to send anyone to it.
Leviton: What’s the closest you’ve ever come to needing medical intervention for a volunteer?
Richards: There have been rare cases of high blood-pressure readings. In such an event our medically conservative protocols require us to administer nitroglycerin to rapidly reduce the pressure. This problem has not been critical and tends to accompany intense emotional release. All research volunteers receive a thorough physical examination prior to participation.
Leviton: How do psychedelics help someone overcome an addiction?
Richards: The research is still in progress, and there are different ways of explaining the beneficial results we have seen so far. When people have a mystical experience, they often come away with a renewed feeling of self-worth. There’s less sense of being a victim or being hopeless, and more awareness of inner resources and confidence that the addiction can be overcome. For many the “Higher Power” of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous becomes an experienced reality. It’s as if they’d only read about Paris before, but now they’ve really been there and have memories of sidewalk cafes and cathedrals.
Our research has shown that a significant number of smokers who’ve failed to quit through other means did so after taking psilocybin. The abstinence rate after six months in our pilot study was 80 percent — much higher than the 35 percent success rate of the most popular smoking-cessation drug, varenicline.
Leviton: Would psilocybin be effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder?
Richards: We really don’t know. There are isolated case studies but no systematic research.
I will say that people who take psilocybin often relive traumatic memories in a way that brings insight, forgiveness, and resolution. One PTSD patient said she felt “a hundred pounds lighter” after the experience: “The drug gave me the ability not to fear fear.”
Leviton: You’ve said that people undergoing mystical experiences receive what they need rather than what they want.
Richards: A good example of this is a number of Catholic priests I worked with who wanted to experience what they called “the beatific vision.” They went into their sessions expecting a sublime encounter, but instead some of them confronted sexual conflicts from their early childhoods or unresolved experiences of being molested. It was as if, for them, this trauma had to be dealt with first.
In Sacred Knowledge I write about an Australian psychiatrist who wanted insight into his aboriginal ancestry. He saw Christianity as having contaminated aboriginal culture, and he wanted to go back to his roots. During his psilocybin session he experienced becoming the Christ and being crucified and resurrected. He was totally embarrassed by it. [Laughs.]
We recently had a volunteer who said, “I’m an atheist, and I saw God. . . . I have to think about that.”
Leviton: Do many people have a sense that they become God?
Richards: It’s hard to put a psychedelic experience into language. Saying, “I was God,” may just be a way of expressing that sense of a unified consciousness belonging not only to you but to every human on the planet. You are God, but so is everyone else.
Leviton: Do you think federal and state drug laws are likely to loosen up in the future?
Richards: I hope so, but I believe in providing accurate information about how to use these substances wisely. A lot of education would need to occur before the average person would have sufficient knowledge to decide if, how, and when to use psychedelics in safe and responsible ways. There’s so much more to taking a psychedelic than just throwing it in your mouth and seeing what happens.
A good first step would be legalization of psychedelics for palliative and hospice care, and for the treatment of addiction and depression. Not long ago the only hospice in the world was St. Christopher’s in London. It was the creation of Cicely Saunders, a physician who felt we could do a better job of dealing with terminal illnesses. Now there are thousands of hospices, trained hospice workers, and hospice associations. Why can’t the same thing happen with psychedelic treatment centers?
Leviton: In the Johns Hopkins studies and in your own private psychotherapy practice you often deal with terminal patients.
Richards: Most of us are, you know — terminal. [Laughs.]
Leviton: Right, I don’t want to forget that. What’s it like to deal with these individuals and their families?
Richards: It’s a great honor. People tend to be more open when they are getting close to death. Those who have had meaningful experiences with psychedelics are often insightful and appreciative and quite courageous. The terminal patient can become like the family therapist: someone who gets the rest of the family to talk about important matters instead of trivialities and who challenges them to stop tiptoeing around the subject of death, as many will do for fear of upsetting the patient. Rather than a time of isolation and fear and avoidance, the final months of someone’s life can be a good experience for everyone. When this happens, it’s beautiful to see.
A woman I’ll call Rosa was in the final stages of uterine cancer. She welcomed the experiment as a chance to prepare for death and perhaps decrease the psychological distress of leaving her two daughters. During the treatment, she described making her way through a rocky landscape and coming to a gate, beyond which were roses as far as the eye could see. She heard angels singing. Then she heard one of her daughters calling for her, and reluctantly she turned to see what her daughter wanted. To Rosa’s dismay, the alternate state of consciousness abruptly ended, and she was back in the hospital bed. She said, “If I ever see that gate again, I’m going right on through!” In the following weeks she interacted with her daughters and family with a new openness. One of her daughters — a self-described black sheep — told me of the forgiveness and friendship that blossomed in those last weeks of her mother’s life.
Leviton: You’ve written about visiting two terminal women in the same morning: one living in a mansion and the other living in one of the poorest areas of Baltimore. How did each react to her condition?
Richards: Unfortunately I wasn’t able to develop enough trust with the wealthy woman for her to benefit from her psychedelic experience. We gave her LSD, but she couldn’t let go of her desire to control everything and never achieved a change in consciousness. She was just waiting for the drug to wear off. In contrast, the woman whose home had torn linoleum on the floor and cockroaches crawling everywhere was able to have a spiritual experience and felt increased connection with members of her family.
Of course, how much money you have in the bank is not an important variable. Some poor people have very difficult experiences, and some rich people have great experiences. We can’t generalize. Nevertheless that was a poignant moment for me, getting to work with these women at opposite economic extremes.
Leviton: One more question: You think it’s a mistake to replace the word religion with spirituality. Why?
Richards: I understand why some people prefer spirituality, but religion is a good word. It’s been around a long time. And religion is something we do together, whereas spirituality is more individual. Our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom of spirituality. World religions have always honored the mystical experience. Rather than give up on the word religion, I would like to reclaim it and apply it to revelation in the present. Religion can refer to pedantic, fossilized institutions, but it can also be a living force in our lives, cultivating love, compassion, and insight.