Sixty years ago on this day, R. Gordon Wasson received two letters: one from the poet Robert Graves, containing clippings from a pharmaceutical journal that quoted the ethnobotanical legend Richard Evans Schultes describing a mushroom cult in Meso-america; the second letter was from Giovanni Marderseig, with an enclosed sketch of an artifact from Meso-america- a stone carving, clearly of a mushroom.[i] This synchronous arrival of information would spark the pursuit and eventual emergence of the 'Magic' mushroom in North American culture.
While the story of how that happened describes a peculiar and intriguing course of events, it must wait for another day. In the fifty years past, of all the influences and integrations, the development of Psilocybin- the principal psychoactive compound within 'Magic' Mushrooms- as a medicine has revealed an ocean of potential for modern therapeutic practice. Still, relatively little water has been explored. This post will cover not all, but what I have interpreted as being the most significant examples of psilocybin applied in medical settings.
"Psychedelic therapy should be made legal and insurance coverage extended to include it." -Terence McKenna, 'Food of the Gods' [ii]
1961-63: The Concord Prison Project
The notorious Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary, along with a group of selected graduate students (including Ralph Metzner) undertook an experiment that would explore whether psilocybin (synthesized) could be used in therapy for the prison's inmates in order to reduce recidivism after release. Leary insisted that psilocybin would be taken not only by the patients, but also by the psychologists involved with the experiment, in order to increase comfort and trust between the two roles. Visiting academics to Harvard would be invited to come take part in the project- including the philosopher and author Alan Watts, as well as the author Aldous Huxley. Follow up programs with prisoners were completed two years after, which led Leary to claim that 75 percent of inmates released had stayed out of jail- cutting the average recidivism rate in half.[iii] Many didn't believe Leary's optimistic claim. Since there was no control group it was difficult whether to tell if it was the psilocybin, or just spending a great deal of time individually with each inmate over the course of the project, that really made the difference.
The validity of the project's results were discussed in a 34 year follow up study completed by Rick Doblin. In Doblin's follow-up, he concludes by suggesting that this failed experiment should not be interpreted as to make psychotherapy of prison inmates with psychedelics seem innefficacious, but to show that psychedelic therapy cannot act as a 'magic bullet'- working with one or very few experiences and expecting long term positive results. [iv]
Authors of this study interviewed 53 patients who suffer from cluster headaches and use psilocybin and/or LSD to treat their condition: Significant instances of psilocybin use showed the substance's abilities to absorb attacks, termination of cluster period and remission period extension.[vii]
2005-2008: End of Life Existential Anxiety in Patients with Terminal Cancer
Conducted with 12 individuals suffering from terminal cancer and the existential implications of their disease, this research showed psilocybin as a impressive agent in reducing the terrors and depression that patients feel when facing the loss of their own life.[viii]
These are just a few of the breakthrough studies that have been completed, or are still ongoing, in efforts to bring Psilocybin into medicine and therapy. For more information on Psilocybin research, as well as many other psychedelic studies, I urge you to visit and support M.A.P.S. (www.maps.org).
The lessons of the past are evident in the attitudes and professionalism of psychedelic researchers in the past 10 or 15 years: learning more from the likes of Stanislav Grof, than the self-promotional antagonistic approaches of Timothy Leary. Due to legal prohibition of these substances, getting permission to undertake these studies is a long and difficult process that many haven't succeeded in completing. Thanks to many individuals and organizations we are in what is known as a 'Second Infancy', or better yet a 'Renaissance' of psychedelic study. Whether this will continue to flourish, or be once again oppressed and prohibited, is a matter of professional discipline, scientific consistency and unbiased observation. Psilocybin has demonstrated a great deal of potential for therapeutic application, I hope to see great success in further study of this complex substance.
[i] R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, and Carl A. P. Ruck, The Road to Eleusis, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanich, 1978), 26.
[ii] Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods:the search for the original tree of knowledge , (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 269.
[iii] Don Lattin, The Harvard Psychedelic Club:How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass. Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the fifties and Ushered in a new age for America, (New York: HarperCollins, ), 68-72.
[iv] Rick Doblin, "Dr. Lear'ys Concord Prison Experiment: A 34-Year follow-up study ," Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 20, no. 4 (1998): 419, http://www.maps.org/research/1998_Doblin_ConcordPrisonFollow-up.pdf
[v] DM Perrine, "Hallucinogens and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder," American Journal of Psychiatry, no. 156 (199): 1123.
[vi] Fransisco A. Moreno, Christopher B. Wiegand, E. Keolani Taitano, and Pedro L. Delgado, "Safety, Tolerability, and Efficacy of Psilocybin in 9 Patients With Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder," Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 67, no. 11 (2005): 1735-20, http://www.maps.org/w3pb/new/2006/2006_Moreno_22868_1.pdf
[vii] RA Sewell, JH Halpern, and HG Jr. Pope, "Response of cluster headache to psilocybin and LSD,"Neurology, 66, no. 12 (2006): 1920-2.
[viii] C.S. Grob, "The Use of Psilocybin in Patients with Advanced Cancer and Existential Anxiety,"Psychedelic Medicine: New Evidence for Hallucinogens as Treatments., 1 (2007): 205-216,