Over his half-century career at the Johns Hopkins University, Roland Griffiths has published hundreds of papers, most of them having to do with the downsides of drugs, attempts to understand the mechanisms of dependence and withdrawal. He examined how nicotine influences behavior, puff by puff. He compared the effects of cocaine and a prescription stimulant in baboons. He went deep on the world’s most widely used drug, caffeine, concluding that our love for espresso has elements of a diagnosable disorder.
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But he’s best known for one paper. Unlike nearly all the rest of his work, it’s focused on the possible benefits of a chemical compound. That paper, published in 2006 in the journal Psychopharmacology, helped resurrect an area of inquiry that had been stigmatized and mostly moribund. The title — “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance” — is a clue that you’re in for something different. In the study, about two-thirds of subjects who took psilocybin, a psychoactive compound in so-called magic mushrooms, rated the experience as either the most meaningful, or among the most meaningful, of their lives, right up there with the birth of a child. It’s a finding that takes a minute to process. The most meaningful? Of their entire lives?
That wasn’t the first time subjects in a study conducted at an elite university had their minds blown, but it was the first time in a long time. After Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, which put psilocybin and LSD in the same category as heroin and cocaine, the promising research into therapeutic uses for those drugs soon ground to a halt. The cultural moment had passed, and a new era of prohibition began. Griffiths picked up where the pioneers left off. A commentary that ran alongside his 2006 paper declared that the study “should make all scientists in human psychopharmacology sit up and take notice.”
Lots did. Type psilocybin into the database of ongoing trials and you’ll see more than a hundred (the same goes for LSD). Scientists are testing the drug as a remedy for a catalog of maladies such as depression, anorexia, post-traumatic stress, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. More than 50 publicly traded psychedelic companies have set up shop hoping to capitalize on what might be the new frontier in mental health. Meanwhile research centers are popping up like — what else? — mushrooms after a rainstorm, including at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the University of Texas’ Dell Medical School, in Austin. Psychedelics are in the midst of what journalists inevitably refer to as a “renaissance.”
How much of that is due to Griffiths’ paper? You might roll your eyes at a study that wouldn’t shock the average Grateful Dead fan. Or you could point out that giving Griffiths and his co-authors all the credit ignores other trailblazing research on psychedelics, notably by Rick Strassman at the University of New Mexico in the early 1990s. But it was Griffiths’ paper that really broke the ice. The results were attention-grabbing, and Griffiths had the necessary gravitas to overcome knee-jerk skepticism. He was a professor at a prestigious institution who had a reputation for being meticulous and strait-laced. One of his colleagues calls him the anti-Timothy Leary. In contrast to the infamous Harvard psychologist, Griffiths, who is 76, never escaped from prison with the aid of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love or inspired a generation to get stoned.
And yet they’re alike in other ways. Griffiths shares with Leary a belief in the potential of psychedelics to help us feel more empathy, to reflect on nature and our place in it, and perhaps to save us from ourselves. He’s raising millions of dollars to explore those big ideas despite the fact that, as he puts it, “my time is slipping away before my very eyes.”
Around then he rediscovered meditation. He had tried to meditate when he was younger but was too fidgety. Minutes felt like hours. This time, in part thanks to the encouragement of a girlfriend, it took. He started paying closer attention to the voice in his head, which he realized could be harshly self-critical. “What opened for me is this window of deep curiosity about inner knowing,” he says. “It’s about recognizing thoughts, emotions — feelings that emerge into the mind and appear within a larger framework of consciousness.”
He started mentioning meditation to colleagues, who mostly responded with polite nods and blank looks. He talked about it enough that word got around to Robert Jesse, founder of the Council on Spiritual Practices, a small nonprofit organization dedicated to “making direct experience of the sacred more available to more people.” Jesse had been trying to restart psychedelic research in the United States and wanted a scientist who could lead that effort. Griffiths didn’t know much about psychedelics and didn’t have any firsthand knowledge, with the exception of a forgettable experience in his youth — so forgettable that he’s not sure what he took. But the two shared an interest in meditation. Jesse encouraged him to read more about meditation traditions and also helped spark his interest in psychedelics. Griffiths delved into the literature from the ‘50s and ‘60s, the studies conducted back before psychedelics were demonized and dismissed.
The more he learned, the more intrigued he became. The early research, though not always up to modern standards, was serious and substantive. At Jesse’s encouragement, Griffiths met with William Richards, who was among the last researchers to perform a study using psilocybin. In the 1960s, Richards himself had been a subject in a psychedelic experiment and he wrote a paper on LSD and mysticism with Walter Pahnke, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist best known for the 1962 Good Friday study, in which divinity students were given psilocybin. Richards brought a rich background in the field. Griffiths had the academic bona fides. “We just liked each other and felt we could be a good team,” Richards recalls. They discussed a collaboration, one that would be funded in part by Jesse’s organization.
Griffiths was game, but several hurdles had to be cleared, including getting federal agencies to sign off. Johns Hopkins had to give its blessing as well, which he worried might be a problem. For the university, it was a public-relations risk. Sure, Griffiths and other psychopharmacologists worked with illegal substances routinely, but that was usually for research that dealt with addiction. This was different. Would Johns Hopkins be viewed as endorsing drug abuse? If something went wrong, would Griffiths and the university be seen as reckless?
Most of the subjects found the experience profoundly meaningful.
Many of his colleagues weren’t encouraging. First, Griffiths gets enamored with meditation, and now he wants to give people magic mushrooms? “When I told them I was interested in doing research on psychedelics, a number said, What are you thinking? Why would that be interesting?” he remembers. “Mostly it was like, That’s too weird or dangerous.” If given the chance, he felt certain some at the university would kill the project.
He and his co-authors, Richards, Jesse, and Una McCann, pressed ahead, and eventually received the necessary approvals. In the study, they gave some subjects a high dose of psilocybin and others a drug called niacin, which makes your face feel warm but not much else (a tricky aspect of psychedelic research is figuring out how not to reveal who has taken the real thing). Subjects were asked about their drug histories because the researchers wanted only those who hadn’t dabbled in psychedelics before. The scientists had each of them lie down on a couch, put on an eye-mask, and listen to classical music through headphones. Then they waited for the drug to kick in.
If you give someone a sizable amount of psilocybin, that person is going to get really high. That’s not a revelation. What was remarkable, however, was that most of the subjects found the experience profoundly meaningful. (A later study would find that subjects given psilocybin would still rate the experience as meaningful more than a year later.) Not everyone was equally effusive: Four of the 36 subjects suffered from anxiety or general unpleasantness during the entire session, and three said they never wanted to go through that again. Still, most of them said a single dose of psilocybin had a positive effect on their lives when researchers checked in with them again a couple of months later. “The results were just so astonishing,” Griffiths says. “It was unlike anything I’d ever worked with.”
When the study was published, it caused a minor media stir. The Economist‘s headline read “The God Pill,” though Griffiths would insist that psilocybin couldn’t prove or disprove the existence of the divine. Other stories sounded a cautionary note amid the general amazement. The New York Times stated that magic mushrooms had been a “stubborn part of the drug problem” and that those who partook could “warp their consciousness.” New Scientist quoted a psychiatrist who warned that psychedelics are “powerful agents that are just as likely to do harm as to do good.” Griffiths tamped down expectations, saying at the time that “therapeutic application is very speculative.”
But he was pleased. Thrilled, even. While it was only one study, and a small one at that, it had inserted psychedelics back into the mainstream conversation and nudged the research a bit closer to respectability. Harriet De Wit, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, and the editor of Psychopharmacology at the time, said Griffiths’s reputation as a solid, established researcher made pulling off the study possible, but she also notes that it came with risks. “It took some courage and initiative to get it going in the first place,” she says. “And he did it.” More personally, Griffiths was no longer weighing whether to hand in his resignation and embark on a life of yoga and inner contemplation: “If it had fallen on its face, I still might have ended up in the ashram.”
Griffiths went into the cancer study with trepidation. “I was really concerned that we could damage people with this kind of big, opening experience when they’re confronting their own mortality,” he says. Similar studies had been carried out decades before and found that psychedelics lessened psychological distress for patients. Griffiths’ study backed up those earlier findings and found that patients emerged feeling more at peace with their mortality. The positive effects remained evident six months later.
When they were conducting that study, Griffiths couldn’t imagine what those subjects were going through. Recently, though, Griffiths was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. In the wake of that news, he stepped down as director of the university’s Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research, though he’s stayed active in its work. He likes to say he cut back from 70 hours a week to 40. He also married his longtime partner.
I spoke to Griffiths in the living room of his Baltimore home on a chilly February afternoon. On the day I saw him, he had just completed a round of chemotherapy and worried that he might not be sharp enough for an interview. In reality, he had no trouble speaking about his life and research for more than two hours, reflecting on his midcareer shift and where he thinks psychedelic research is headed. He also spoke about the prospect of his death. Shortly after the diagnosis, he felt what cancer patients understandably tend to feel: fear and sadness. But he’s made an effort to steer his thoughts toward acceptance and gratitude, and the result has been a kind of new awakening. “Who wants to be depressed or angry or resentful?” he says. “And going to war with it just really felt like the wrong posture.” Where he’s landed instead, he says, is in a place of “joy and equipoise and well-being I couldn’t have imagined would have emerged from a terminal-cancer diagnosis.”
He gives some of the credit to psychedelics. Before his diagnosis, he had been reluctant to mention his own drug use, preferring to keep the attention on the science. As a rule, psychedelic researchers either don’t discuss or else downplay personal use, lest they leave the impression that their enthusiasm is more than professional. “I haven’t had extensive experiences with psychedelics, but I’ve had enough to certainly encounter some very dark places,” he says. In the literature, those dark places are referred to as “challenging effects” — i.e., bad trips. He advises people who encounter troubling visions or negative emotions after taking a psychedelic to confront whatever’s upsetting them directly, to realize that it’s only in their minds. “If you see a demon and it’s frightening, you don’t want to run from it, and you don’t want to fight it, because in both cases you reify it,” he says. “You want to be curious about it.”
That’s the approach he’s taken with cancer. He’s curious about death, about the process of dying, and about what comes next, if anything. As a scientist, he remains firmly agnostic. “I can’t simply adopt a metaphysical worldview that says, ‘Oh yeah, this is all going to be great and I’ll end up in heaven,’” he says. “I’m way too much of a skeptic for that.” He doesn’t subscribe to any particular theory about the persistence of consciousness, but he’s open to the hope, slim though it might be, that there’s something more. As a meditator and occasional user of psychedelics, he’s familiar with a sense of transcendence, with glimpses of what seem to be other realities. “Where are we going? What happens when we die? We’re in the middle of this astonishing mystery,” he says. “The reflex I have is being in the mystery and awakening to the privilege of being embodied and having this experience we don’t understand.”
Not long after his diagnosis, Griffiths started working on his will. When he got to the prompt for charitable causes, he paused: What did he want to give? He considered endowing an annual lecture on psychedelics and “secular spirituality,” Griffiths’ term for mystical experiences minus theological implications. Then he got more ambitious. Perhaps he could set up a professorship that would focus on secular spirituality, one with an ample research budget. By his calculation, that would cost around $20 million if he wanted the professorship to continue in perpetuity. While he didn’t have that kind of money, what he did have was a fair amount of goodwill in the burgeoning psychedelics community. He’s the guy who ushered in the renaissance after all. He’s most of the way to that goal in donations and pledges, and he hopes to close that gap while he’s still around.
The emphasis will not be on the treatment of disease, though work in that vein will continue at the center. Instead he wants the project to take on basic, universal questions. “A bigger and more aspirational goal is the flourishing of mankind,” he says. Griffiths points to findings that suggest psychedelics can cause people to feel more empathy for one another and can engender a sense of connection to nature. The word “oneness” comes up frequently when people are asked to describe their trips. Griffiths fears that humanity may be hurtling toward disaster, listing bioweapons, climate change, and artificial intelligence as potentially “species terminating” problems on the horizon. The use of psychedelics has “really profound implications for our understanding of core ethical and moral beliefs, because a hallmark feature of these experiences is that we’re all in this together,” he says. “It opens people up to this sense that we have a commonality and that we need to take care of each other.”
Rescuing humanity from its self-destructive tendencies is a laudable goal, albeit one that doesn’t fit squarely within the scope of most psychiatry departments. Griffiths knew the project might be a hard sell, but it was crucial to him that the mission wasn’t watered down or hijacked. So he was careful about the terms for the professorship and “made clear that the endowment would not end up at Hopkins” unless his wishes were respected. In the end, he was satisfied that they were.
Psychedelics research is a means to studying something “more important, which is that our minds have the capacity to positively transform.”
Griffiths isn’t shy about making his case, no matter the subject. “He is going to determine what he thinks is important,” says James Potash, director of the Hopkins psychiatry department. “He was exactly the right person to lead the psychedelic renaissance because he would not be deterred by what anyone else thought.” I spoke to several colleagues who seconded that opinion. “There’s a side of Roland that can be a little pedantic, you know?” says Bill Richards, who continued to work with him after that first psilocybin study. “But it’s what makes a good researcher.” He’s also someone who revels in debate. David B. Yaden, an assistant professor at Hopkins and a co-author of the recent book The Varieties of Spiritual Experience: 21st Century Research and Perspectives, says he’s had marathon back-and-forths with Griffiths, sometimes wrestling over a single word (they’ve written several papers together). “He’s able to disagree agreeably to a remarkable extent,” Yaden says. “There’s rigor paired with radically open curiosity.”
Griffiths chose Yaden as the first recipient of the professorship. An overwhelming mystical episode Yaden had in college — for the record, not one elicited by any illicit substance — piqued his curiosity, and he devoted himself to understanding that seemingly inexplicable, yet surprisingly common, type of experience. He was told numerous times along the way that pursuing psychedelics, mysticism, and well-being as research topics was tantamount to career suicide. “I think Roland and I share a kind of agnosticism in regards to those questions about the ultimate nature of reality and consciousness,” Yaden says. “In an important sense, it’s not about psychedelics. They’re the means to study something else I think is more important, which is that our minds have the capacity to positively transform.”
They also share a concern about psychedelic hype. Back in 2006, the difficulty was getting people to take psychedelics seriously, to at least consider whether claims made about their beneficial qualities might be valid. Now there’s a psychedelic industry made up of companies with names like Compass Pathways and MindMed betting that at least a few of these compounds will wend their way through the regulatory process and make it to market. This year’s South by Southwest conference featured sessions including “Psychedelics & the Next Economy” and “The Future of Psychedelics: Culture vs. Capitalism.” Prince Harry, Aaron Rodgers, and other celebrities have spoken openly and positively about their use of psychedelics. The tone in journalism has increasingly shifted from alarmism to normalization. A recent article in The Washington Post explained “Why some moms are microdosing mushrooms for anxiety and depression,” while the The New Yorker asked, “Can Psychedelics Heal Ukranians’ Trauma?”
Griffiths and Yaden, along with Potash, published an opinion piece last summer in JAMA Psychiatry, arguing that researchers need to better understand the promise of psychedelics while remaining wary of over-the-top claims. The truth is that some recent studies have had mixed results, and psychedelics don’t work well for everyone. “We encourage our colleagues to help deflate the psychedelic hype bubble in a measured way so that we can get on with the hard work of more precisely determining the risks and benefits of psychedelics,” they wrote.
He didn’t begin his personal research into psychedelics until he had been studying them for years. One reason is that he didn’t know where to obtain the drugs, an irony considering that he had administered psychedelics to hundreds of subjects. His inaugural experience wasn’t with psilocybin, but instead with 2C-B, a compound that was synthesized in the 1970s by Alexander Shulgin, a legendary chemist and psychopharmacologist. Griffiths took a small dose just before a meditation session. Like any good scientist, he made sure to have pen and paper on hand so he could record his reaction. What he wrote down was: “It’s all true.”