Research on hallucinogens
Altered states of consciousness and the hallucinogenic molecules which facilitate them, have been part of the human story since time immemorial. In more recent times, the “War on Drugs” stigmatised the personal use of conscious altering substances by making them highly illegal to possess. This in turn derailed legitimate scientific research on hallucinogens which was beginning to uncover and understand the range of potential applications of hallucinogens. Recent reports and research publications, suggest there is a reawakening to the potential of entheogens in both people’s personal lives and mainstream society.
Plants with hallucinogenic properties have been used by humans longer than our recorded history can account for. The nature of the experiences induced by ingesting the plants have been recognised as having profound effects on the thinking of individuals and the direction of human civilisation.
The Stoned Ape Theory attributed to Terrence McKenna theorizes, that as some of our tree-dwelling ancestors transitioned to roaming the grasslands, their diets changed. Among the new items in their diet were psilocybin-containing mushrooms growing in the dung of the animal herds they followed through the plains. He hypothesised the introduction of the psilocybin gave rise to new synesthetic experiences (blurring the boundaries between the senses) and resulted in the development of spoken language – the ability to form images in the mind of another by creating vocal sounds.
Indigenous cultures have long used peyote, psilocybin and ayahuasca as both medicines and portals to their spirit worlds. The role of shaman is revered in these cultures as they are the one tasked with proper use of the plants and guidance through the spirit realms. Much of the shamanic knowledge – how the plants should be prepared and how the person ingesting them should be prepared – has been passed from generation to generation and survives to this day.
In the 1950s and 60s, academics began research to understand the effects and potential applications of psilocybin, peyote and LSD. LSD is a relatively new addition to the hallucinogen family, with its psychedelic properties first observed in 1943 by Albert Hoffman. The research which followed its initial synthesis was focused on psychotherapy and addiction-treatment applications as well as understanding its role in facilitating creativity.
The consciousness altering nature of LSD quickly made it’s way through mainstream American society and a generation “tuned in, turned on and dropped out”. The LSD-inspired flower-power movement was monumental in shifting American perceptions towards the war being waged in Vietnam. The morality of drafting and sending soldiers to war began to tear at the social fabric of US society. The action required to quell the debate on this moral dilemma was swift but its effects still linger to this day.
In 1968, the possession of LSD became a crime in the US and three years later most psychedelics found themselves listed as Schedule 1 substances of US laws and a UN treaty.
Schedule I substances are those that have the following findings:
- The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse;
- The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment; and
- There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.
This scheduling prohibited “all use except for scientific and very limited medical purposes by duly authorized persons, in medical or scientific establishments which are directly under the control of their Governments or specifically approved by them.”
Since the 1930’s, marijuana use had been subjected to an intense propaganda campaign to demonise its use and the same playbook was used to drive people away from any self-exploration facilitated by the now highly illegal substances. These substances remain listed as Schedule 1 to this day.
It is by inspiration that we advance.
It is by contemplation that we understand.
It is by following our heart that we make sense of our mind.
In 2006 a team at John Hopkins University identified that “psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences”. On one level, this is stating the obvious but from a scientific research perspective this “should permit rigorous scientific investigations about their causes and consequences, providing insights into underlying pharmacological and brain mechanisms, nonmedical use and abuse of psilocybin and similar compounds, as well as the short-term and persisting effects of such experiences.”
In 2008 a follow-on study from the same team concluded that “carefully conducted research that respects hallucinogens’ unique and often powerful psychological effects may potentially inform the treatment of various psychiatric disorders, as well as lead to significant advances in our understanding of perception, cognition, behaviour, the psychology of religion and the biological underpinnings of consciousness.“
In essence, the team at JHU posed the following questions:
- Is there a medical application worthy of investigation?
- Is it safe to conduct these investigations?
The answers to both questions is yes, or to be more scientifically rigorous, “most probably”. These findings stand in stark contradiction of the scheduling of psilocybin as a Schedule 1 substance.
The research will continue in labs across the world and the findings may further illuminate a path for exploration of our own personal consciousness.