Bioneers, the green conference held in San Rafael, California, covers topics that have been marginalized in the past: youth, women, indigenous cultures and even psychedelic drugs. I surprisingly found myself in a session on the current state of psychedelic research. Many other conferences wouldn't touch this topic with a ten foot pole, and normally the word psychedelic conjures up (for me) unpleasant images of Haight Ashbury and tie dye, but neither of these images came up. The talk focused instead on the results of recent studies, some led by Bioneers panelists, which have proven that psychedelics can be used safely, within certain parameters, and can be therapeutic when taken under appropriate circumstances.I'm not sure why I had such a knee-jerk reaction at first. After all, my initial interest in ecology bloomed after reading The Shaman's Apprentice, where Ethnobotanist Plotkin detailed his discoveries of alternative medicines via Amazon rainforest shamans. Perhaps my aversion is because psychedelics, such as LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline are regarded in the U.S. as taboo, and are classified as Schedule 1 , banning them for most purposes. While psychiatric drugs such as anti-depressants are legal with a prescription, and are currently openly discussed, psychedelics are usually discussed by the general public within the realm of addiction and viewed negatively. Although psychedelics have been widely used, their therapeutic applications are not widely known.
The 1960's saw an initial burst of medical studies in the U.S. on psychedelics, but then the next four decades were dominated by concern about psychedelics potential adverse societal effects. Scientists who had devoted their careers to these drugs had to fight professional dismissal and clinical frustration with the hope of one day seeing these compounds in the hands of therapists. These researchers soldiered on with the belief that psychedelic plants and medicines can be used to help humans adapt to difficult situations. Of course, the world was not waiting for certified American researchers to arrive on the scene; psychedelics have been used for thousands of years by native cultures for healing and religious ceremonies.
One of the panelists, Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatry professor at UCLA, was a principal investigator working in the Brazilian Amazon studying Ayahuasca. Dr. Grob credits in part the ritual context of working with the Amerindians that helped him establish safety parameters and efficacious outcomes. Some people are familiar with the religious context of Ayahuasca. The 2006 Supreme Court ruling allowed the Uniao church the religious freedom to use the plant in ceremonies. But few people are familiar with the medicinal use of Ayahuasca in its original cultural context, as well as its potential in modern medicine.
Dr. Grob wanted to explore Ayahuasca and its potential use as a healing aid for patients with anxiety and advanced stages of cancer. In the clinical study, Grob used psilocybin, the main ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms because of its shorter acting experience and its decreased chances of causing paranoia. To receive treatment, patients would go into a room decorated with flowers set up to create a comfortable environment.
The results of the study showed there were no adverse psychological effects from psilocybin (i.e. no one had a bad trip). The study also indicated an improvement of mood in patients. After treatment, patients were able to discuss topics like close relationships with family and friends, and how their disease affected their lives.
In the study many of the patients had never taken psychedelics before and most were not taking it to alleviate pain but to help them approach loved ones and manage feelings of anxiety, PTSD and regret. For some, taking psychedelics was midwifery for the experience of dying.
Dr. Ralph Metzner, a seminal researcher, who worked with Timothy Leary in the 60s, said that as a culture we don't do a good job preparing people for dying, even though it is something that will happen to all of us. The modus operandi is to ignore what we fear, and fear the unknown. Similarly, in the sustainability world it seems we often advise people how to live better (i.e. eat organic, bike to work) but we rarely offer guidance to people on how to die or how to change their lives or prepare mentally and emotionally for when the outlook is bleak. From the results of the Psilocibin study, psychedelics afforded the participants the opportunity to change the way that they were thinking and deal with depressing forecasts. One of the participants had come to the realization through the psilocibin treatment that she had been allowing her fear of the future to destroy her present. Stopping a mind that is in a cyclical downward spiral of depression via psychedelic use is like stopping a record that is stuck on repeat. In short, the drug offered participants a paradigm shift.
Dr. Metzner is also a proponent of Green psychology, which posits a fundamental reorientation of human attitudes toward the earth, and an increased receptivity to indigenous knowledge. As the environmental devastation wrought by the industrial revolution increases, the realization has grown that indigenous cultures have often preserved sustainability habits that we are now trying to re-invent. Seekers have turned to shamanic practices - including the use of psychedelic plants -- to cultivate a more conscious connection with the natural world.
Psychedelic means "mind-manifesting". A psychedelic experience can be the mind being liberated from its ostensibly ordinary way of thinking. In a way every morning when you wake up, your consciousness is expanded. Moving forward I will now think about psychedelics in a new light. I am not planning on trying these drugs and I still dislike tie-dye, yet perhaps one day psychedelics will be prescribed with the same social and professional acceptance as Zoloft.