The Electric Kool-Aid Medicine Test
By Terrence McNally, AlterNet. Posted May 24, 2006.
1954, when the national mood was one of suspicion and conformity, Aldous
Huxley wrote, "All ... the hallucinogens that ripen in berries or can be
squeezed from roots -- all, without exception, have been known and
systematically used by human beings from time immemorial."
years later Timothy Leary was fired from Harvard for "systematically
using" LSD (admittedly not from a berry or a root) with students. Leary's
sensational promotion of turning on and dropping out closed the door on
serious dialogue or research into the potential benefits of psychedelic
substances. Yet today, in the midst of the current revival of patriotic and
moral paranoia, some are beginning once again to scientifically consider
their value as visionary or psychological medicine.
Grob, M.D., is director of the Division of Child and Adolescent
Psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and professor of Psychiatry and
Pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine. He conducted the first
government-approved psycholobiological research study of MDMA, was the
principal investigator of an international project in the Brazilian Amazon
of ayahuasca, and is now studying the use of psilocybin with advanced-stage
cancer patients. He is editor of "Hallucinogens: A Reader" and recently
co-edited, with Roger Walsh, "Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the
Continuing Impact of Psychedelics."
Terrence McNally: How and when did you decide to work with psychedelics?
Charles Grob: Growing
up in the '60s, it was impossible to not be exposed to
the controversies and the extraordinary powers of these compounds. In the
early '70s, I read much of the literature that was available at the time,
and I was struck by the potential these compounds had to help us understand
the mind and mental illness, and to help us develop new and novel
treatments. I was aware that, in order to speak out on this issue, one
needed credentials, so I went back to school and got all the degrees and
training I needed. It was always my intention to conduct proactive approved
research in this area, though in the late '70s and early '80s there was
virtually nothing going on in this country or elsewhere.
McNally: In 1973 I
interviewed Stanislov Grof, who was then doing
government-funded research in Maryland on the use of LSD with terminal
cancer patients. Six months later I tried to follow up, and the state of
Maryland wrote back that Dr. Grof was no longer in its employ. He had been
let go, and the government funding had ended.
Grob: Around the same
time, I heard Grof speak at the annual meeting of the
Humanistic Psychology Association in New York City, and I was impressed with
the enormous potential of the work he was doing.
McNally: Tell us about your study on anxiety in cancer patients.
Grob: At the L.A.
Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical
Center, we have full regulatory approval to conduct a study using psilocybin
-- the active alkaloid in hallucinogenic mushrooms -- in the treatment of
the anxiety associated with advanced-stage cancer.
McNally: What is the
status of the study at this time? Do you have any
Grob: We've been treating
individuals for the past year and a half who fit
all our inclusion/exclusion criteria. To date, we've studied five subjects
in entirety. We're approved for a total of 12, so we hope to treat seven
more. We're finding recruitment very challenging because we have very tight
inclusion/exclusion criteria. We've interviewed a number of individuals who
at first seemed to fit our criteria, but whose medical condition then
drastically deteriorated so that they could no longer participate. We're
very interested in talking with individuals who might fit.
McNally: Where would
potential candidates learn about this, and how would
Grob: Our website
-- canceranxietystudy.org -- details the
inclusion/exclusion criteria and provides information about the methodology.
McNally: Can you verify
Huxley's contention that all plant hallucinogens,
without exception, have been known and systematically used by human beings
from time immemorial?
Grob: Certainly the
anthropological and historical evidence is very rich
that even pre-civilization cultures highly valued hallucinogenic plants.
Aboriginal cultures often used them as one of the core activities for
reinforcing belief systems and tribal cohesion. This is quite apparent if
you look at the indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin in South America,
where the plant ayahuasca is used for religious, spiritual and healing
purposes. As far back as human habitation of the Amazon basin has been
established, there are indications that ayahuasca was an integral part of
their lives and belief systems.
McNally: I've traveled
a bit in the rainforest of Ecuador, and among the
Achuar people it is an important and seldom-used ritual taken at key
passages in life.
Grob: These are not
by any stretch of the imagination recreational
compounds. Indigenous peoples use them for very serious purposes, often
having to do with healing. (NOTE: Because it makes LIFE look like THIS!)
When it LOOKS like that, you RELAX and trip on it. You aren't bored. You can stare at its beauty for timeless moments. An hour? Two hours? You have no sense of time. And totally mindless, your heartsoars with JUICE. Your heart seems to SECRETE HORMONES of ecstasy!You feel gratitude toward the Universe, God becomes absolutely REAL. You want to serve this universe, discard your unsalubrious habits, that lump in your gut for instance……whatever heavy thing you ate…..you just want to be LIGHT like this forever. And you make VOWS to do so.
McNally: Do you view
the recent Supreme Court decision to allow ayahuasca to
be taken in a religious context as an isolated instance based on specifics
of the particular case or something more?
Grob: On February
21st, the court ruled unanimously that a branch of a
Brazilian syncretic church, the Unial de Vegetal, or UDV, in Santa Fe, N.M.,
had legal sanction to continue to utilize ayahuasca as a psychoactive
sacrament in their religious ceremonies. This is really an extraordinary
decision and establishes a remarkable precedent, although at this point I
believe it only applies to the UDV.
I was an expert medical witness
for the UDV, and so followed the case very
closely. I had been the principal investigator of a series of research
studies in Brazil, using members of the UDV as subjects. I did not expect
the case to win in a conservative federal court in the throes of a vicious
decades-long drug war.
McNally: This was
one of the first decisions of the Roberts-Alito court,
Grob: I believe it's
the first decision that Chief Justice Roberts penned
himself. Though Alito was not part of the decision because he had not heard
the arguments, he subsequently stated that he would have gone along with the
The Justice Department appealed,
and the appeal was heard by a panel of the
Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Again I was not overly optimistic and
again I was surprised: the UDV's position prevailed. It was then appealed to
the full Circuit Court of Appeals and won again. Then it went to the Supreme
Court, where on February 21st they issued their unanimous decision.
McNally: There was
the precedent of the peyote churches of the Native
Grob: The Native American
Church has for some time had permission to use
peyote as part of their religious ceremonies. Whereas peyote use among
native peoples is established by treaty between the sovereign Indian nations
and the United States, the Santa Fe case does not involve indigenous people.
This was the first time in almost 1,600 years that a nonindigenous people
had gained permission from the government to use a plant hallucinogen for
religious ceremonial purpose -- not since Alaric the Hun sacked Elevsis in
the year 396.
McNally: I guess you
can't use that as precedent. What leads you to believe
that psychedelic substances might have therapeutic use?
Grob: There's a very
rich body of literature dating back to the mid-late
1950's that demonstrates it. Though methodologies at the time were not like
methodologies today, they offer ample indication that we should at least
study this further.
There were a number of studies
which demonstrated therapeutic response among
patient populations that did not normally respond well to conventional
psychiatric and medical treatments -- first and foremost, chronic hardcore
alcoholics and drug addicts. In the late '50s and early '60s, Humphrey
Osmond in Western Canada demonstrated that some seriously ill alcoholics who
had not responded to any conventional treatment did remarkably well after
even a single dose treatment.
McNally: So your mission
is to reopen the pursuit of this knowledge for the
benefit of society?
My goal has always been to get this research back on
track. By the early 1970s, all of the exciting and promising studies were
forced to terminate because of the cultural turmoil of the time. Thirty-plus
years later, I think it's high time that we review the old data and initiate
McNally: In addition
to your cancer anxiety study, are there other studies
Grob: Dr. Francisco
Moreno at the University of Arizona just completed a
pilot study using psilocybin to treat chronic refractory
obsessive-compulsive disorder. A psychiatrist named Michael Mithoffer in
Charleston, S.C., has permission to use MDMA in the treatment of chronic
post-traumatic stress disorder.
Though there are no clinical
application treatment studies in Europe, Franz
Volenwieder (also affiliated with Heffter) at the Burhholzi Clinic and the
University of Zurich has done extraordinary work mapping the effects of MDMA
and other hallucinogenic substances on the brain, using state-of-the art
brain imaging technology.
McNally: What's your
aim in the new book, "Higher Wisdom," which includes
Ram Dass, Hofman, Sasha Shulgin, among others.
Grob: In the late
1980s, when I moved from Johns Hopkins to the University
of California, I established a friendship with Roger Walsh, a psychiatrist
at UC Irvine, who felt that it was important to preserve the stories and
experiences of the leading early investigators and theorists on the issue of
psychedelics. Along with Gary Bravo, another UC Irvine psychiatrist, we
interviewed anyone we could find who had established a reputation in the
field of psychedelic research in the 1950s and 1960s.
McNally: What were
a couple of the big lessons you drew from your
conversations with them?
Grob: These individuals
were profoundly influenced personally by their
experiences. They shared the vision that, under optimal circumstances and
with all the proper safeguards in place, these compounds had an
extraordinary capacity to help heal, to help enlighten and to help us learn.
McNally: MDMA was originally used in therapy, wasn't it?
Grob: In the late
'70s and early '80s a large number of psychotherapists,
mostly in California, formed an underground where MDMA was used for a
variety of clinical indications, though very little of their clinical work
Unfortunately the secret
got out to the greater society at large, and it
became a very popular recreational drug, particularly among the youth
culture in California and Texas. It then spread throughout the country, over
to Europe and around the world, setting off the ecstasy rave phenomenon.
McNally: What are the dangers, warnings and cautions with MDMA?
Grob: Oh, there are
certainly dangers with MDMA, and individuals really need
to be apprised and not to take foolish risks. There's a serious danger of
malignant hyperthermia, or overheating, which is exacerbated by vigorous
exercise in a hot, stuffy environment, and the failure to replace lost body
fluids. This is just what happens in the rave setting, and there have
unfortunately been some fatalities secondary to malignant hyperthermia.
The flipside risk is water
intoxication. Several young people have actually
drunk so much water that they have lowered their serum sodium and
experienced seizures, and died as well. It can be a very tricky compound.
Perhaps the biggest danger,
though, is drug substitution. A large percentage
of what passes as ecstasy actually does not contain MDMA, but other drugs.
Some are relatively benign like caffeine or aspirin, but others are
potentially dangerous or lethal, like paramethoxy amphetamine, PMA, the most
potent and potentially lethal amphetamine known. You have no idea what
McNally: Because it's
illegal, the greatest danger comes from buying
something on the street with no oversight or regulation, correct?
Grob: There are absolutely
no controls. In fact, I can't think of a drug
which is more frequently misrepresented and substituted than the ecstasy
McNally: In other
words, the fact that we have closed our eyes and pushed
all of these psychedelic substances aside as illegal creates many of the
problems associated with them.
Here's a big two-part question.
Do you suspect that the roots of any
cultural or scientific trends grew out of the use of psychedelics in the
'60s and '70s? For instance, the rise of Buddhism or other Eastern spiritual
and health practices, or the internet or electronically networked
Grob: Yes, of the
several million people who presumably took psychedelics
back in the '60s in this country and in Europe, many were profoundly
influenced. It influenced their attitude towards their own career choices,
their relationships, their attitudes towards peace and conflict. During the
'60s there was a tremendous sense that these compounds, if utilized
optimally, could catalyze very salutary changes around the world.
Until his death in 1963,
Huxley held the vision that if these compounds were
introduced wisely, quietly and discreetly to the leaders of our culture,
there would be a ripple-down effect with enormous positive changes. He
believed it might be a mechanism through which the very likelihood of world
survival would be enhanced.
The cultural turmoil, with
youth culture radically split off from mainstream
culture, led to a move not only to shut down research but also to distance
mainstream culture, mainstream scholars and scientists from even exploring
the potential benefits of the use to individuals, families and culture.
McNally: Final question.
What do you know of the current cultural context?
What's happening out there these days?
Grob: There's certainly
a concern for widespread misuse and abuse of
compounds like ecstasy. Serious use of these compounds has had to go deeply
underground. There's increased interest in ayahuasca, particularly in the
Amazon basin. A big article in a recent National Geographic Adventure
magazine highlighted ayahuasca shamanism, and has had a very strong
apparently positive response.
I think individuals are starting
to wake up to the possibility that, when
taken under optimal conditions, these plants might have profound potential
to facilitate positive change. That being said, one also has to employ all
the essential safeguards to minimize the likelihood of harm.
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