Perhaps psychedelics are transpersonal psychotherapy’s ‘Original Sin’. The forbidden fruit on the tree of our professional knowledge which, nowadays, is often not even recognized or discussed. Almost like a dirty or shameful secret, the historical importance of psychedelics to the development of transpersonal psychology as a professional field is often avoided. Even in writing this piece, part of me feels a level of trepidation at putting my name to it from fear to my ‘professional reputation’. There is always fear of talking about a subject which is illegal and socially taboo, especially around the prohibited benefits. For this reason, the discussion around the application of psychedelics in therapy needs to be forcefully confronted again and again. This is the only way to avoid being professionally complicit in what (ex government drug advisor) professor David Nutt called the ‘worst censorship in the history of medicine’.
‘the worst censorship in the history of medicine’.
Many forces are levelled against exploring the application of psychedelics from within transpersonal psychotherapy itself: puritanical impulses implicit in western culture and spirituality; the dismissal of psychedelic experiences as being caused by ‘something outside of the Self’; and references to ‘addiction’ ( a prevalent view yet pharmacologically incorrect) – to name a few. However the unavoidable, historical truth is that Transpersonal psychotherapy was a child of the 60’s, and the 60’s was a child of psychedelia. We cannot avoid the discussion without disowning our theoretical roots: pretending we never ate the apple, whilst trying to grow a tree from its core.
The ‘free love’ decade – a time of relative openness, gave birth to transpersonal psychology and psychotherapy in its current form. The inner exploration which characterised the 60’s was brought by a cultural wave fuelled largely by psychoactives. Due to the novelty and excitement permeating the scientific community around psychedelics and their effect on the psyche in the first half of the 20th century, it was inevitable that at some point psychedelics and psychology would become indelibly linked. In the 60’s this collision happened not only in academia, but in the wider subculture.
This was a group which would later produce a hindu guru and the ‘high priest of LSD’
Some of the most well known of the early transpersonal theorists (‘big names’ such as Albert Ellis/ Ram Dass, Stan Grof, Ralph Metzner, Timothy Leary) actually cut their psychological teeth on experimentation with LSD and psilocybin (the active alkaloid in ‘magic’ mushrooms). This was a group which would later produce a hindu guru and the ‘high priest of LSD’ despite having previously been stuffy, tie wearing, top-button fastened, company men. Leary, Alpert and Metzner (coming from a background in psychology rather than psychotherapy) were involved in a series of personal and group experiments which drew massive publicity to the potential of psychedelic substances to not only cause individual personal change, but also large scale cultural change and facilitating transpersonal experience.
These early experiments included one at Concord prison; a large scale operation over time where participants were prisoners who were given doses of psilocybin regularly along with regular psychotherapy, which suggested a reduced reoffending rate. Especially interesting to those working with the transpersonal was the ‘Marsh Chapel experiment’, in which divinity students from Havard were presented with doses of psilocybin in a church on Good Friday and all reported profound spiritual or religious experiences as a result of taking the substance.
He demonstrated an ability to use LSD to augment psychotherapy to levels of efficiency never before (nor perhaps since) seen – a therapeutic wonder substance; a truly alchemical agent.
Experiments like these meant that psychedelics for a while looked like an amazing new frontier for both psychological and psychotherapeutic inquiry. LSD assisted psychotherapy was embraced enthusiastically by Stan Grof (of holotropic breathing fame) and others. He demonstrated an ability to use LSD to augment psychotherapy to levels of efficiency never before (nor perhaps since) seen – a therapeutic wonder substance; a truly alchemical agent. Reports of being able to treat clients usually unreachable, or at least semi – reachable by standard psychotherapeutic methods (criminal psychopaths, incurable alcoholics etc) came in thick and fast. Alongside this was the reduction in time needed for treatment of minor grievances and issues, as well as radical changes towards death and dying for terminal patients – http://psychedelic-library.org/grofhist.htm
Large scale organizations grew – pioneering this new form of effective, professional and responsible application of these substances in a psychotherapeutic frame. In Europe we had the European Medical Society for Psycholytic Therapy, whereas the U.S. had its counterpart the Association for Psychedelic Therapy. Grof published his seminal book ‘LSD psychotherapy’, illustrating his own clinical approach to working with the substance during therapeutic sessions. Paradoxically (especially if you are one of the proponents of the ‘psychedelic addiction’ argument) even the founder of AA believed that LSD could be used in treating incurable alcoholism: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/aug/23/lsd-help-alcoholics-theory
the line between respectable academic researcher and long-haired hippy subversive had become blurry for the US government
As psychedelics became more ubiquitous through society as a whole, they were partly responsible (or at least blamed by the establishment) for many of the great social upheavals of the 60’s. Alongside of this, the vocal and constant engagement of Leary, Dass and other researchers within the counterculture meant that the line between respectable academic researcher and long-haired hippy subversive had become blurry for the US government. The psychological respectability that psychedelic psychotherapy and experimentation was giving to the burgeoning youth movement needed to be cracked down on. The formerly respectable Harvard researchers had become part of ‘the enemy’ camp; some of them bought into this image themselves, embracing the outlaw status and adding munition to an already potentially explosive situation.
Tim Leary especially has been accused as inadvertently leading to the banning of psychedelics through his attempt to become the ‘High priest of LSD’, with a career inclusive of a prison break, hitching up with the Black Panthers in Algeria, running for office as well as abandoning his position in Harvard and setting up a commune. The John Lennon song ‘Come Together’ was even penned by Lennon to be the theme song to Leary’s political campaign.
The spectre of Leary as politician caused serious panic within the establishment at the time. The moral panic and clampdown soon followed the euphoria and in 1970, almost as the full stop at the end of the 60’s, LSD was classified as a ‘Schedule 1’ substance in the US. All other well known psychedelics (psilocybin, DMT, Ayahuasca, Mescaline etc.) were soon to follow. Amazingly the decision to place these substances into this prohibitive scheduling was made with no thorough testing of the potential benefits or harm the could occur as a result of their use. All that mattered was that these substances were ‘like’ LSD, and LSD was bad, “it made you think you could fly and jump out of windows” according to the urban legend.
Most people are unaware of the rationale behind scheduling – so for reference the definition of a schedule 1 substance is
“(1) the drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse,
(2) has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and
(3) that there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.”
ironically, yet unsurprisingly, psychedelics did not fit into any – let alone all – of these three categories. Besides scare stories involving Charles Manson and the seemingly ever popular hobby of ‘thinking he/she was superman and jumping out of a window’, they have been demonstrated as relatively safe in comparison to other (often legal) substances such as alcohol and tobacco. This was proclaimed most vocally by professor David Nutt in 2007 – who was then (following the publishing of his research) promptly fired by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to incredulous public uproar. the ACMD drug harm index had shown that psychedelics are not physically addictive in terms of pharmacology, and must be taken at quantities near unimaginable to cause genuine overdose. As a substance administered by psychotherapeutic professionals in controlled doses, the risk for overdose and psychosis would be minimal to say the least.
the ACMD drug harm index had shown that psychedelics are not physically addictive in terms of pharmacology, and must be taken at quantities near unimaginable to cause genuine overdose
In addition to this relatively safe pharmacological profile Grof, Leary and Dass had demonstrated an accepted and highly promising medical use for three decades before the banning of psychedelics, under medical supervision. Large regulatory bodies had emerged in Europe and the US, along with frameworks for working with the substances therapeutically. There was no rational justification for the ban and it seemed like the statement attributed to Leary that “LSD causes massive paranoia in people who haven’t ever taken it” Held true. We were being deprived of not just a single alchemically healing substance, but an entire category of potentially healing substances arbitrarily. It is worth repeating the assertion of David Nutt here – that this ban constituted “The worst censorship in the history of medicine”.
The aztec name ‘Teo nanacatl’ meant ‘flesh of the gods’ and it is interesting to wonder about the threat this immanent experience of spirituality might have brought with it to the Spanish
The ban in the US and UK was unashamedly ideological, seeming to echo the first recorded prohibition of psychedelics – the banning of mushroom ceremonies by the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico. The aztec name ‘Teo nanacatl’ meant ‘flesh of the gods’ and it is interesting to wonder about the threat this immanent experience of spirituality might have brought with it to the Spanish, who also ‘ate their god’ in a completely different way during communion. Perhaps this threat; the ability for psychedelics to facilitate an immanent connection to transpersonal experience, and the resulting changes in culture, was also what scared the establishment the most during the 1960s.
As a result of the irrationality of the scheduling, suggesting no beneficial use in research or medicine, psychedelic research in the US and UK became near impossible to gain funding or ethical approval for, with psychedelic psychotherapy becoming impossible to enact without breaking the law and risking stiff prison sentences as well as the loss of professional licensing.
The Dark Ages
from 1970 until around the start of the 90’s there was a relative blackout around psychedelic informed psychotherapy and psychology. Substances were too difficult to obtain as they were under strict control of the government. This was before even the issue of ethical approval reared its head. Ethics became circular: participants in psychological research couldn’t be given psychedelics as they were schedule one and had ‘no medical use’ – Medical use couldn’t be supported by evidence as ethical approval for experiments was unobtainable.
When psychotherapy was conducted with psychoactive substances it was restricted to a ‘dark web’ of professional networking between a few individuals. It was only during the 90’s that this research ‘fog’ was broken through studies into consciousness and DMT conducted by Rich Strassman. Psychoactives started to become involved again in legitimate therapeutic trials through politically informed lobbying by societies such as MAPS – the multidisciplinary association for psychedelic studies, founded in 1986.
Most of the first half of Strassman’s popular book ‘the Spirit Molecule’ actually concerns his battle to get ethical and government approval to conduct his research
Strassman somehow through a minor miracle managed to obtain ethical approval to conduct research into the psychological effects of intravenous DMT, which was at that time little known as a recreational substance and also produced internally to the human body. This meant it managed to slip the net which was more rigorously tightened around better known chemicals such as LSD and Mescaline. Most of the first half of Strassman’s popular book ‘the Spirit Molecule’ actually concerns his battle to get ethical and government approval to conduct his research and provides some idea of how difficult this was to obtain.
Strassmans research produced incredible transpersonal experiences – contact with alien entities and radical states of otherness. An unintentional consequence (perhaps ironic for someone responsibly exploring frontiers of consciousness) was that he was expelled from his Buddhist community for conducting the experiments. This was paradoxical – as Buddhist practices may have never gained a foothold in the west to the same degree without the influence of psychedelics on culture during the 1960’s. Today this paradoxical attitude of ‘rejecting the roots’ has even unfortunately permeated some transpersonal training institutes. It is sad to see dogmatic prohibition the very places which should be at least objectively assessing or promoting research into the frontiers of consciousness.
Strassmans research was not really ‘therapeutic’ in it’s scope, however the fact that he had managed to gain some kind of approval into conducting psychological research into psychedelics was groundbreaking. As an additional plus point, during the experiment no one had even thought they were superman, or tried to jump out of a window. The seal had been broken somewhat; psychedelics began to once again emerge as a legitimate field of study in the world of psychology. LSD remained difficult to obtain and problematic to gain ethical approval for, owing to the moral panic around its reputation. However associations such as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies headed by Rick Doblin began clinical trials with other substances and have since demonstrated especially powerful positive results in regards to using MDMA to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, showing effects to be greater and dropping out rates lower than with the more conventional treatments (T.Amoroso, M.Workman, 2016). Positive results were also shown in psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) assisted psychotherapy to treat terminal cancer patients, demonstrating a marked decline in anxiety and acceptance of their situation (D. Spiegel, 2016).
It is important that we maintain respect for safety of clients within the therapeutic process and recognize that these substances would not be suitable for everyone, just as not all psychiatric medications are safe for every client
Current research demonstrating the positive benefits of responsible, psychedelic augmented psychotherapy is opening up new possibilities for practice in the future. It is important that we maintain respect for safety of clients within the therapeutic process and recognize that these substances would not be suitable for everyone, just as not all psychiatric medications are safe for every client. However for us not to question laws which were constructed hastily in a time of moral panic. For us to overlook the potential benefits to clients and society who might be amenable to these methods. For us to ignore modern research – this would be collusion of the worst kind in an incredibly unhealthy act of medical censorship.
Nick Opyrchal is a transpersonal psychotherapist in private practice who helps individuals to integrate past psychedelic experiences into their day-to-day lives, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org