The Power To Heal
Once again, scientists are studying psychedelics—this time for clues on how they might help cure mental illness
By Jessica Fromm
THE first ceremony begins at dark. The participants come into the octagon spiritual room in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. They sit in a circle and state their intentions about what they want out of the ceremony. The more specific the question they want answered, the better.
The doses of ayahuasca are handed out in small cups. Everyone drinks it together, most wincing at the acrid taste that has been likened to "the entire jungle ground up and mixed with bile." As soft tribal music plays in the background, everyone lies down. They focus their attention and wait.
Ayahuasca is not the kind of psychedelic that one takes to go dancing at a party. A tea derived from two vines that grow in the Amazon jungle, this powerful psychoactive causes intense nausea in most people. It also catapults its users into an intense, introspective psychedelic experience that many feel is capable of curing addiction, anxiety and depression—or just healing past trauma.
Lakshmi Narayan, a Santa Cruz businesswoman who was introduced to ayahuasca years ago in Peru, describes it as a "powerful but gentle" experience that helped her recover from the pain of her father's death. "It was a wound I had no way of healing, it was so big and powerful," she says. After a hallucinogenic experience of several hours during which she was visited by the image of her father, she says, "I had nothing left to heal."
Over the last decade, ayahuasca has become a favorite among the psychedelic community. Also called yage, it is the very same plant that the beat writer William S. Burroughs sought out while corresponding with poet Allen Ginsberg in The Yage Letters.
Since the 1990s, there has been an upswing in the establishment of neoshamanic retreats in Brazil, Peru and Ecuador. More and more Westerners are traveling to South America with the intent of undergoing these psychedelic experiences for personal growth and healing.
Long used by natives in the Amazon basin for healing and divination, ayahuasca—the active ingredient of which is dimethyltryptamine (DMT)—can currently only be used in the United States by members of the União do Vegetal (UDV) and Santo Daime churches, both of which have won Supreme Court battles in the last three years.
But a growing body of research is examining the use of ayahuasca and other psychedelic drugs for healing purposes. After decades of social marginalization and governmental suppression, a renaissance is going on in the world of psychedelic research. In 2010, there are as many research projects on mind-altering drugs going on as there were in the late 1960s, before the U.S. government started cracking down on them.
Last week Deborah Quevedo, who has attended more than 50 ceremonies in South America, presented her own graduate-school research on ayahuasca at a conference hosted by the Santa Cruz–based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a nonprofit committed to mainstreaming the medical use of psychedelic drugs. Called "Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century," the San Jose conference was the biggest international psychedelic science gathering in almost two decades.
Quevedo, who with her husband has worked for decades in the fields of holistic and alternative healing at O'Connor Hospital in San Jose, Stanford University Medical Center and UCSF Medical Center, says she'd heard reports about ayahuasca being effective in the treatment of addictions.
The Quevedos made their first trip to a Brazilian ayahuasca retreat in 2001 to experience the drug themselves. "It was really life-changing for me," she says. "I had never had any experience with any mind-altering substances before, so it was all new and very expansive.
"I came home from that retreat when I was starting a Ph.D. I basically spent the next six years of my graduate school trying to figure out what had happened to me."
"I'm really glad people are recognizing what a tool it is for our own evolution," says Narayan. "There's something very feminine about ayahuasca. And that's kind of what the world needs, is more feminine energy."
ON A MISSION: From its home base in Santa Cruz, MAPS' small staff strives to educate the public about the therapeutic uses of psychoactive drugs.
The alternative medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil, who began his career in the 1960s as a psychedelic researcher and wrote several popular books on the subject, says people have always used certain drugs "to allow them to transcend their human and ego boundaries, to feel greater contact with the supernatural, or with the spiritual, or with the divine, however they phrase it.
"Drugs don't have spiritual potential," he says, "human beings have spiritual potential. And it may be that we need techniques to move us in that direction, and the use of psychoactive drugs clearly is one path that has helped many people."
Weil was a colleague of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert at Harvard, where the three men rocked academia with their studies. At that time, LSD was legal, but that changed quickly. After a brief public debate about its potential merits, LSD was outlawed in 1966.
Leary, who had by then become "the Psychedelic Messiah," was not surprised by the development.
"The effect of consciousness-expanding drugs will be to transform our concepts of human nature, of human potentialities, of existence," Leary said. "These possibilities naturally threaten every branch of the establishment. The dangers of external change appear to frighten us less than the peril of internal change. LSD is more frightening than the Bomb!"
Leary continued crusading for psychedelics, organizing events like the 1977 psychedelics conference at UC–Santa Cruz, the first to be held at a university. Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey and LSD pioneer Albert Hofmann attended.
Having learned from the mistakes of the acidheads of that era, today's psychedelic community might be better prepared to deal with some of the most powerful substances on earth, even as they discover further evidence of that power and try to harness it to cure persistent ills.
There are promising studies under way around the world into the use of psilocybin for cancer patients, MDMA (ecstasy) for autism and Asperger's syndrome, ibogaine for addiction and LSD-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of anxiety associated with terminal illness. Still, MAPS and the broader psychedelic community aren't out of the woods yet. It took the researchers at MAPS five years of fighting and navigating the bureaucracy of the Drug Enforcement Agency and Food and Drug Administration to get their most recent, and influential, study under way.
Michael Mithoefer's 7-1/2-year, $2.2 million trial study into the use of MDMA in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was the first legal pilot study of its kind in the United States in decades and has been widely hailed by the medical community as a breakthrough in psychedelic research.
Despite the DEA putting up roadblocks at every turn, Mithoefer's MAPS-funded research will be expanding this summer into the MDMA treatment of Iraq war veterans' PTSD.
Drugs Against Drugs
Meanwhile, the power of psychedelics to combat addiction is gaining attention. Brian Anderson, a Stanford University medical student, says he has seen evidence that ayahuasca "really works" in the treatment of addiction.
"I think a lot of other medical professionals are starting to reach into this literature," he says. "They say this is a good reason we should investigate these substances in controlled trials, in a more medical setting here in North America."
Randolph Hencken, MAPS' director of communication, says it wasn't a Brazilian vine but an African shrub that cured his addictions. In his early 20s, Hencken says, he was a heroin addict.
"I'd been a junkie for four years," he says. "I'd pissed off my family, I'd pissed off my friends. I didn't like myself anymore, but it was easier to keep using heroin."
After he tried 12-step programs and methadone clinics, Hencken heard about ibogaine. While it has a long history of use in African spiritual rituals, there is also a large international underground movement of people using the drug to treat addiction. Desperate, Hencken made the trip down to Mexico City in 2001 to take capsules of the drug with a doctor (ibogaine is currently illegal in the United States).
"It wasn't a fun trip," Hencken says. For more than 24 hours he experienced ataxia, rendering him unable to move as the substance's psychoactive effects took hold, bringing with it visions from throughout his life. "I don't think I had any epiphanies that day," he says, "but it did stir up all these things I was suppressing about my childhood that were interrelated as to why I was a drug addict."
Hencken says he has been clean for nine years. Since then he has earned degrees from San Diego State University and is dedicated to spreading the word about alternative drugs.
"Getting through something that is so mentally tough, I think gave me some strength," he says. "It made me confident that if I could get through that, then I can stay away from using heroin."
If human beings are set apart by their ability to design and use tools, then, in a way, psychedelic drugs are a form of technology. Whether they be synthetically synthesized substances like MDMA or LSD or naturally occurring drugs like psilocybin and mescaline, psychedelics can be viewed as a tool for the brain to be able to tune into diverse states of consciousness.
Considering the extraordinary power of psychedelic drugs, it's not shocking that when LSD and other mind-altering substances first appeared in the mainstream in the 1960s, some people were terrified. A mere 50 micrograms of acid, an amount that could fit onto the head of a pin, can launch a person into a full-blown psychedelic experience.
"What we often hear from the media is that psychedelics will bring out your demons and make you go crazy," Hencken says. "Or they'll give you schizophrenia or you'll jump off the roof—things that have only really happened to a very few people. I think the bulk of people, if they have these experiences and do them in the right setting, they'll find them to be very beneficial to their lives."
As an organization, MAPS would like to see psychedelics accepted to the point that they can be administered safely.
"I first did psychedelics when I was in high school, and I remember friends taking friends to go tripping in a graveyard," Hencken says. "That's a terrible place to go tripping. You're opening yourself up to a situation where you're going to see dead people, and you're going to freak out. A lot of people choose terrible places to do these drugs for the first time."
Hencken says that the bulk of the "bad trips" that people experience on psychedelics could be prevented if the drugs were regulated and the users were properly informed about how to conduct a safe trip.
"Ideally, MAPS would like to see a situation in the near future where people who are interested in these drugs can get honest information. Where they can get unadulterated, clean, safe drugs, and they can do them with a guide that understands the power of these things."
The Psilicon Valley Connection
IT'S a poetic coincidence that last week's MAPS conference took place in the heart of Silicon Valley. Many of the engineers and entrepreneurs who created the digital revolution were inspired by the use of psychedelics in their formative years.
Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs is probably the most candid of the Silicon Valley pioneers on the subject of his drug use. He has called taking LSD and traveling in India in the early 1970s "one of the two or three most important things I have ever done in my life."
Jobs' former partner Steve Wozniak has also discussed his experimentation with psychedelics, as have Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and Lotus founder Mitch Kapor. Bob Wallace, the early Microsoft employee who went on to found Quicksoft and coined the term "shareware," is known as an "online drug guru" and donated generously to MAPS and other psychedelics research before his death in 2002.
Programmer Mark Pesce, one of the early developers of the Virtual Reality Modeling Language, says he was inspired by an LSD experience, as was Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the first mouse prototype at the Stanford Research Institute in 1963.
Internet pioneer John Gilmore, one of Sun Microsystems' first employees and co-founder of the free-software firm Cygnus Software, says psychedelic drugs have been an essential tool in his life's work. "It sort of taught me that our relationship to reality is a little bit fuzzy," he says. "It's mediated through our senses and through our expectations. That knowledge has helped me puzzle my way through a bunch of situations in both programming and business, sort of not taking the obvious at face value but looking around the corner to see, well, how does it look from that angle?"
Gilmore is responsible for a well-known saying about the nature of the Internet: "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." He says he has taken drugs when confronting big life decisions—moving to a new town, taking a new job, breaking up a relationship—because they help him see things in a different light. "Having had the experience, I could then use the knowledge I'd learned in everyday life," he says.
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