The best way to overcome the taboo and re-integrate these invaluable compounds into the fabric of society is by use of the very best scientific research.
It has been almost 72 years since the day Albert Hofmann, founding member of the Beckley Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board, rode his proverbial bicycle from the Sandoz laboratory where he used to work to his home in Basel, Switzerland. Until his discovery of the psychedelic properties of LSD, ‘modern’ scientific research had ignored compounds that had for so long been at the centre of the social and spiritual lives of so many different cultures worldwide. Albert’s journey towards understanding the nature of these substances is very much ongoing after his passing. I had promised him that I would open the doors of neuroscience to his ‘problem child’ as his 100th birthday present – sadly I missed the date but now, finally, have fulfilled the promise!
I became aware of the deep transformative potential of LSD at the height of the first wave of scientific research into it, in the 1960s, realising that it did not only potentiate healing but also creativity and spirituality. Hundreds of varied studies were conducted at the time and, although they sometimes lacked the rigour and means that are today’s standard, the results suggested psychedelics had promising applications in medicine, especially for psychiatric conditions. Having studied comparative religions at Oxford, I was particularly interested in shedding light on the brain mechanisms that favoured subjective mystical experiences in those consuming psychedelics. What was it that attracted the stars of the classical world to the elixir of the Kykeon, or the Aztecs to the ritual consumption of the teonanácatl, the ‘divine’ mushrooms? Why have mescaline-containing cacti become fundamental in the rites of different American cultures?
I have dedicated most of my working life to these questions, investigating the mysteries underlying consciousness and opening the doors for the use of these compounds as valuable tools to explore and heal the mind. This quest has not been, by any means, an easy one. Psychedelics are surrounded by stigma and huge misconceptions that have crystallised into highly obstructive and repressive laws. The zeal of the United States to ban these substances towards the end of the 1960s was translated into the international arena by the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971), which declares that psychedelic substances such as LSD, psilocybin and MDMA have a high risk of abuse and little or no therapeutic value and are therefore placed in the highest schedule of prohibition and control. The scientific research already carried out was ignored and new research was blocked.
Finally, after 40 years of hammering on the walls of taboo, the edifice of censorship that once obstructed psychedelic research is finally beginning to crumble. In recent years, supported by new and evolving means to capture and interpret data, we have resumed the development of a scientific evidence-base for psychedelics. Having worked at this front since the 1970s, in 1998 I set up the Beckley Foundation to expand the frontiers of our knowledge on these compounds. Our participation in the ongoing renaissance of psychedelic research cannot be understated. Over the years, I have initiated, co-designed and developed dozens of scientific studies partnering with those leading experts in universities around the globe who are willing to enter this taboo but vital field of research
One of the most prolific of these collaborations has been the Beckley Foundation – Imperial College Psychedelic Research Programme. Co-directed by Prof. David Nutt and myself, and supported by the excellent work of Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, the pioneering studies that we have designed using the latest brain-imaging techniques have explained the seemingly chaotic thinking that characterises psychedelic experiences. Our research on psilocybin, for example, has demonstrated that the substance alters our perception by reducing blood flow to the censoring mechanisms of the brain and encouraging different parts of the brain to establish freer, more primal connections. This capacity has great potential to tackle entrenched patterns of negative thinking such as addiction, PTSD and depression, among other medical conditions, and also to stimulate creative thinking and the mystical experience.
This is, in fact, what another of our partnerships, this time with Johns Hopkins University, led to demonstrate for the case of nicotine addiction. Our pilot study on the use of psilocybin as an aid to psychotherapy for cases of protracted nicotine dependence had an 80% success rate (in terms of abstinence measured at a six-months follow-up). While the pilot study was small, this result is unprecedented; alternative options rarely manage to attain even 10%.
While these are early days for the new generation of studies on psychedelics, I am thrilled by the implications that some of our studies seem to have for the treatment of debilitating conditions. And it is equally encouraging and gratifying to see some of our work having echoes beyond specialised scientific media. The article to be published in the upcoming edition of The New Yorker magazine, by Michael Pollan, does a fine job at giving an overview of some of the recent milestones of this long and exciting bicycle journey that I decided to join a long time ago.