The Edge Episode 10: A Shroom of One’s Own

Half a century after the counterculture movement swept through the Bay Area and “mind altering substances” were banished from the laboratory, researchers at the new Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics are reviving a long-buried field of research. Is this the beginning of a psychedelic renaissance? Are psychedelics the new frontier in both understanding and treating psychological disorders? And what happens when you “shake the snowglobe” of the mind? Laura and Leah speak with an optometrist/neuroscientist and an Indigenous healer to find out.

Show Notes:

  • A history of psychedelics and psychotherapy on Timeline.com.
  • A New York Times magazine article about psilocybin studies for the terminally ill
  • Ayelet Waldman’s memoir on microdosing and Michael Pollan’s book on psychedelics

This episode was written and hosted by Laura Smith and Leah Worthington and produced by Coby McDonald.

Special thanks to Pat Joseph, Maddy Weinberg, Michael Silver, and Celina De Leon. Art by Michiko Toki and original music by Mogli Maureal.

Transcript:

LEAH: Hey Laura, are you ready for this episode? 

LAURA: I thiiink so…

LEAH: But like, are you in the right mindset? Got some mood lighting? As you know…these things are very important when you’re getting ready to take a trip…back in time…

[WARPED MUSIC]

LAURA: Woah where are we?

LEAH: We are in the bathroom of a house near Berkeley’s campus. The year is 1964, and this is Owsley Stanley’s makeshift chemical laboratory where he’s synthesizing his very first home-made batch of lysergic acid diethylamide, aka LSD. 

LAURA: Who’s Owsley Stanley?

LEAH: Stanley was an undergrad at Berkeley who dropped out after only a semester. According to Rolling Stone, he moved in with an undergraduate chemistry major, and the two of them decided to to manufacture their own LSD. So Stanley went to the campus library, picked up a copy of the Journal of Organic Chemistry and in just a few weeks taught himself how to make LSD. As one does. He started a fake company called Bear Research Group to sound legit, of course, and ordered the chemicals he needed.  

LAURA: Wait, so Bear Research because he was a former Cal Bear? 

LEAH: No, actually it was his nickname, “Bear.” Because apparently he was very hairy. [Laughs]

LAURA: Oh. Not sure I needed to know that. But anyway, so he’s making LSD in his apartment. That sounds kind of… risky. 

LEAH: Well California didn’t ban LSD until 1966. So at the time the product was technically legal. I don’t know about doing chemistry in the bathroom…  

LAURA: Yeah, we don’t recommend that. 

LEAH: No definitely not. Don’t try this at home. But Stanley’s bathroom project pretty quickly turned into something much, much bigger. LSD was at the time pretty scarce, so his product was very sought after. He ended up expanding his operation and soon became the first person to mass-manufacture LSD, and basically he became the go-to acid supplier for the Bay Area’s counterculture movement.

LAURA: You mean, like students and local hippies?

LEAH: And the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles. You’ve heard of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and their acid tests? 

LAURA: Weren’t the Merry Pranksters that crew of poets and weirdos that traveled around in that bus with Ken Kesey?

LEAH: Yeah, exactly. And the famous acid tests were really just parties where everyone was high on Owsley Stanley’s LSD. So… it’s probably fair to say that Stanley’s acid was the creative fuel behind a lot of influential art and music of the 60s. 

LAURA: [reacts] Wow. It just goes to show even Cal dropouts go on to do great things. 

[THEME MUSIC] 

LAURA: This is The Edge, a podcast produced by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association.

LEAH: In this episode we’re talking with two Berkeley researchers about a new frontier in drug research to find out whether we’re really on THE EDGE of what some people are calling a “psychedelic revolution.” 

LAURA: I’m your host Laura Smith. 

LEAH: And I’m your other host, Leah Worthington. 

[MUSIC OUT]

LEAH: Okay, so the reason I started with Stanley is that he sort of represents the old Berkeley. You know, that counterculture that comes to mind when you think of ’60s “Berzerkeley.”

LAURA: “Let your freak flag fly” and “you’re either on the bus or off the bus,” and all that?

LEAH: Exactly. Turn on, tune in, drop out. But as we know, that era came and went.

LAURA: Aw no more bathroom drugs?!

LEAH: Don’t worry. Don’t despair. Because there’s something new happening on campus that I think you’ll be interested in.

LAURA: Dope!

LEAH: No, not dope. Shrooms! In September, a group of Berkeley researchers announced the launch of Berkeley’s Center for the Science of Psychedelics, a multidisciplinary effort bringing psychedelics back to Berkeley in a big way. 

MICHAEL SILVER: This is a dream come true, for me. I’ve been fascinated by psychedelics my entire life. So, yeah, I didn’t need to be asked to participate more than once for sure.

LEAH: That’s Michael Silver, the director of the Center for the Science of Psychedelics.

MICHAEL: I’m also a professor of neuroscience and optometry on the UC Berkeley campus.

LAURA: And could you tell us a little bit about how you got connected with the study of psychedelics, because when I hear “optometry,” psychedelics are not the first thing that come to my mind.

MICHAEL: There’s a pretty direct connection between the visual effects of psychedelics in terms of visual distortions and hallucinations and how the brain generates visual experience—which is, you know, not a passive process, but a very active, constructive process. And so psychedelics are a tool, then, for modifying those processes in the brain, that we can then study the effects of very directly using brain imaging and perceptual methods to gain deeper insights into the fundamental mechanisms of how the brain generates visual experience. As little as micrograms of a substance can have really dramatic effects on how we experience and represent the world. And so for someone interested in the brain mechanisms of that it’s a very natural place of intrigue.

LEAH: This project has been a long time coming. In fact, there’s been almost no research for decades…

MICHAEL: It was really not feasible to do psychedelic research and human subjects for many years, really more than 50 years, there’s been almost no research on all these compounds in human subjects for political and legal reasons. 

LAURA: But Leah, acid tests aside, wasn’t there some pretty legitimate research being done on the psychological uses of psychedelics in like the 50s and early 60s? 

LEAH: Yes, and drugs like LSD were showing a lot of potential in clinical trials as treatment for things like addiction and mental illness. But then, hallucinogens started to make their way into the counterculture movement of the 60s. And Dr. Timothy Leary, who you’ve probably heard of—and who actually got his Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Cal—and some big names like Aldous Huxley founded the Harvard Psilocybin Project, which began advocating for and distributing psychedelics. Their experiments helped bring these drugs into widespread, recreational use—you know, think Grateful Dead concerts in Golden Gate Park, that sort of environment. But mainstream America wasn’t super excited about these young, long haired agitators with their trippy clothes and trippy lifestyles. And drug use was one thing that people really latched onto as proof that hippies were degenerates who were changing the world for the worse. Reports of LSD psychosis and bad trips didn’t help. Not to mention all the political unrest at the time. All of this sparked a sort of moral panic around the use of psychedelics, ultimately leading to, in the late 60s, the government completely outlawing psilocybin, LSD, and other “hallucinogenic drugs.” They were labeled Schedule 1 substances, meaning they have “high potential for abuse” and no “currently accepted medical use in treatment.”

LAURA: And so research came to a grinding halt?

LEAH: Yep, exactly. Scientists, like Michael, who may have wanted to explore the effects of psychedelics on the mind really couldn’t, for years. 

MICHAEL: It seemed that there were just so many regulatory and legal obstacles to doing the work that scared me away from it.

LEAH: But! Then, things started to shift again… slowly. It’s hard to say exactly what sparked it, but here’s what we know: In the 90s and early 2000s, there was a renewed interest in the potential clinical applications of psychedelic drugs. 

MICHAEL: And some of these clinical trials show very encouraging results in people that are otherwise resistant to treatment. And some of these results are just incredible.

LEAH: One study at Johns Hopkins found that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy helped like 80 percent of participants who were suffering from PTSD. Another, showed evidence that LSD can help treat anxiety associated with life-threatening diseases. It helped people not be so afraid of death.

MICHAEL: People who really were kind of at the end of the road in terms of what conventional psychiatry has to offer them, or really any mental health treatment has to offer them.

LEAH: As leading psychedelic researcher Rick Doblin told the New York Times, “We want to break these substances out of the mold of the counterculture and bring them back to the lab as part of a psychedelic renaissance.”

LAURA: Wow. So, it only took 50 YEARS. 

LEAH: Yeah, who knew hippies were so dangerous. 

LAURA: One thing I’ve noticed in the last few years is a lot more positive, or at least not negative, coverage of psychedelics in mainstream media…  And a number of books by famous authors. Like, didn’t Ayelet Waldman write about using LSD?

LEAH: Yeah, in 2017 she published, A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life about microdosing on LSD to treat her anxiety. And, of course, Berkeley’s very own Michael Pollan published How to Change Your Mind, about the “new science of psychedelics.” 

LAURA: And thus, the study of psychedelics, after lying dormant for decades, had fully blossomed once again. Far out, man.

MICHAEL: And so that has led to a reawakening of interest and, and funding sponsorship of conducting these clinical trials to determine the efficacy of psychedelics for these mental health disorders, which has then opened the door for more research into what do they actually do in the brain? What are the mechanisms of their action? So, seeing things open up in terms of their uses as medicines, that was extremely exciting.

LEAH: And one day not too long ago, Berkeley psychologists Alison Gopnik and Dacher Keltner sat down with Michael Pollan and got to talking over tea. 

LAURA: That’s a hell of a tea party. 

LEAH: Yeah, no kidding. The Berkeley brain trust. So they had their own questions about psychedelic drugs like “how do they shape consciousness?” and “could they transform the human nervous system?”

LAURA: Let me guess: After a lot of talking and a LOT of tea—the non-hallucinogenic kind—the Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics, or BCSP, was born?

LEAH: You got it, dude. And so Berkeley, the former epicenter of the psychedelic movement, is looking to be a leader in this new scientific psychedelic space, which could eventually lead to new treatments for people with PTSD, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse problems. All sorts of things.

LAURA: So, I have a question. Where’s all the money for this coming from? I mean… since these drugs are still illegal and everything? 

LEAH: So, the government is still shy about putting money into psychedelic research. So the BCSP isn’t getting any federal funding. At the moment, they’re still relying on philanthropic foundations and a mysterious anonymous donor.

LAURA: And what exactly are they doing with those donations?

LEAH: Yeah, so the center is primarily a research and education hub. They’re planning to conduct all sorts of studies to try to quantify the effect of psychedelics on people’s brains, both from a physiological perspective, like which neurons are firing, and also how that impacts people’s perception and experience of the world. And then, they’re also developing a training program with the Graduate Theological Union, and we’ll get into that a little later. But for now, let’s focus on some of the research projects in the works—the first of which will involve magic mushrooms, also known as psilocybin mushrooms.

LAURA: Okay, but what do out-of-body, psychedelic experiences have to do with treating psychological disorders?

MICHAEL: The theories are very much under development. And I think the field is very much in a place of just developing what the efficacy of psychedelics are for different disorders. So, there’s a lot of work to be done to determine what works and what doesn’t and under what circumstances. But in terms of mechanism, it is incredible the same compounds can be used to treat so many disorders based on the results of these clinical trials. So one idea about what relates these all to each other is some sense of being stuck in a rut, whether it’s addiction or depression or substance use. And so you have these patterns, these habits that have been learned that, in this case, are not adaptive—they’re not helpful—but they’ve become rigid in the brain. Going along with that is this idea of rumination, that a lot of patients who can be helped by psychedelic assisted psychotherapy, not only have these habits, but they have this sort of circular aspect to it where, you know, the experience of depression itself leads to lower self-esteem, lower self-worth, and then that intensifies the depression. And so, with psychedelics, the idea is that it sort of relaxes these expectations and patterns that have been established, allowing new ones to form. 

LAURA: Ok so people get stuck in patterns of negative thought or behavior and they just need a nudge to pop out of the rut? 

LEAH: Yeah, pretty much.

MICHAEL: The analogy that people have used sometimes is the psychedelic experience shakes up the snow globe, and allows a fresh coat of snow to fall on the mountain. And so, you know, instead of starting at the top, and following all of the routes that have previously been established, that are easy and familiar to kind of fall into, there’s a fresh coat of snow, and then you can plot a new route down the mountain.

[MUSIC] 

LAURA: Ooh I like that analogy. 

LEAH: I know, we could all use a fresh coat of snow sometimes. [Laughs] But going back to your earlier question, Michael says that we already have some understanding of what psychedelic drugs physically do, in terms of what receptors they bind to in the brain, stuff like that. What we don’t totally understand yet, or really at all, is what happens next: how the brain responds to the drugs.

MICHAEL: A major part of our center is we’re really focusing on these basic mechanisms, partly because we are motivated to understand the mind and brain better, but partly is that we hope eventually, that will give us insights into how to make psychedelic interventions for mental health more precise. If we have a better understanding of what these are doing in the brain, then we’ll be able to target certain drugs or certain kinds of therapy for certain kinds of conditions, we might be able to predict who’s likely to respond well to a certain type of therapy drug combination compared to someone else. We actually know a lot about what the drugs do in terms of what receptors they bind to in the brain; the effects they have at the neuronal level are reasonably well-characterized. But there’s still a huge gap between that level of understanding and how they’re able to have these transformative effects on people’s lives, both in a mental health context and outside of that context. 

LAURA: So, how are these experiments gonna go? Will the researchers, like, put some dried shrooms on a pizza and serve it to the participants? And just be like, bye, have a good trip? 

LEAH: Heat to 420 degrees!

MICHAEL: Critically, it’s very unlike other kinds of medications, including psychiatric medications, where you get a prescription and you kind of take the drug on your own. Here, the setting in which you take the drug is critical. So people talk about the three components of the experience are: the drug itself—the physical actions of the drug; the set—which is the participants’ mental, the intentions, the reason they’re interested in the experience, what they’re bringing to it in terms of their preparation; and then the setting—the environment in which it takes place. So there’s a lot of work to be done just to determine what works and what doesn’t, and under what circumstances. 

LAURA: I guess you can’t just shake up someone’s snow globe and leave them hanging…

LEAH: Yeah, ideally not. And at the center, the amount of guidance they provide depends on the amount of the drug they’re administering. Currently, the research they’re planning is divided into two distinct categories.

MICHAEL: One is fairly low doses of, we’re starting with psilocybin, which is the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. And so it’s pharmaceutical grade. It’s, you know, produced in a laboratory, and it’s purified, so it’s the purified active ingredient in the mushrooms.

LAURA: So basically microdosing? 

LEAH: Right. 

MICHAEL: And for the low dose experiments, certainly, there needs to be supervision and monitoring of vital signs, and so forth. But the idea is that this will be a relatively subtle change in conscious experience, so much so that we can study the drug scientifically, while it’s active in the body. So we will have people sitting in front of a computer, and viewing images and pressing buttons on the keyboard. We’ll put them in a brain scanner, and use fMRI to be able to record activity in their brain.

LEAH: So they’ll be, for example, looking at simple geometric forms or listening to a spoken story while the researchers look at participants’ brain scans for patterns of activity. The goal being to figure out how exactly small quantities of psychedelics disrupt our perception of the world.

MICHAEL: So they’re not so far off baseline that they would have trouble complying with the requirements of doing this task. So they’re not having the ego dissolution, full blown mystical experiences that are present with the higher doses. 

LAURA: But those full blown mystical experiences will be part of the research too. And in case you’re imagining acid trippers wandering around campus befriending birds and trees, don’t worry. The participants’ mindset and physical surroundings, or “set and setting” as it’s called in the world of psychedelics, are something they take very seriously at the center.

MICHAEL: For these higher dose experiments, those will be done in a dedicated space that’s specifically for this. It’s with therapists and psychiatrists who have a lot of experience in conducting these kinds of experiments in clinical populations. The idea is to really focus on the quality of their experience during that time and then to look afterwards at what are the transformative effects of that experience. And so there we’re interested in the effects of emotion, other psychological variables, the immune system, people’s openness, people’s experience of awe. So this is mostly work that’s mostly being overseen by a Dacher Keltner in the psychology department. So two very different kinds of procedures depending on the dose and really different kinds of questions that one can ask for these different doses.

LEAH: How much of the psychedelic experience do you think is knowable? And how do you research and quantify that and how much of it will remain sort of mystical, if you know what I mean?

MICHAEL: Yeah, so as scientists we’re kind of committed to using scientific techniques to better understand this. So, I would say our tools right now are fairly limited. So, I mean, certainly the psychedelic experience, people describe it as ineffable, and rightly so I mean, it’s often so radically different than other experiences, it’s difficult to find common language, especially for someone who has never had a psychedelic experience, such that they’ll truly appreciate it. Having said that, though, it’s an experience that can be described and can be quantified along different dimensions, however imperfectly. So that’s sort of the first steps towards a more scientific understanding of the psychedelic experience.

LEAH: Subjects will fill out questionnaires and rate and describe their psychedelic experiences to help researchers turn these mystical, out-of-body experiences into quantifiable data. 

LAURA: Obviously, the ratings would be subjective, but Michael says that’s okay.

MICHAEL: It’s not as straightforward to interpret certainly, as, you know, making direct measurements of brain activity, for example. It’s more fraught with interpretive challenges, but I don’t see it as impossible to study scientifically. 

LEAH: I’m curious as a, you know, a neuroscientist, as an optometrist, like, what would you be most excited to learn through this research? Or, what question are you most excited to be able to try to answer?

MICHAEL: My big picture question is, how does the brain construct our reality? We kind of think of our perceptual systems as cameras where we just look around and we take in information just like a video camera does. But that’s really not the case at all. We add a tremendous amount of our own expectations and our intentions, where we pay attention. All of these cognitive factors profoundly influence how we represent the world around us. And so, through doing psychedelic research, I would love to learn more about how that actually happens, the nuts and bolts of what brain areas are doing what sorts of computations to construct this experience of the world in this very active way.

LAURA: We should mention that Michael and his fellow researchers aren’t the only ones anxious to see how these experiments go…  

MICHAEL: It has been staggering, since the center was announced, the variety of different kinds of requests I’ve received from people. And some of them are really heartbreaking. Some of them are like, “I’ve struggled with depression my entire life, is there something you can do to help me?”

LEAH: Of course, not all the people lining up to volunteer are in psychological dire straits. 

MICHAEL: Some of them are, you know, people who just would get a kick out of tripping in a laboratory, and everything in between. 

[MUSIC]

LEAH: So, where do we sign up? 

LAURA: Seriously. I want my snow globe to get shaken. 

LEAH: Just a little. Just a tiny blizzard.

LAURA: Then you can be in the low-dose study, Leah. I think I want the brain melt. 

LEAH: I am curious what these experiments will be like. I mean, they’re obviously not your typical lab, clinical experiments. 

LAURA: Yeah, will they have like lava lamps and Jimi Hendrix on the record player…?

CELINA DE LEON: It will be very comfortable, very ideal, to have that type of experience.

LEAH: That’s Celina De Leon, one of the senior guides who will be facilitating experimental sessions at the BCSP. 

CELINA: The participant will have guided music, likely, eye masks, and will be on a couch, and will have two sitters there, and just we’ll be really holding space for them to have their experience in the best possible way.

LEAH: And her work with psychedelics is really informed by Indigenous practices, which was where she first encountered these drugs.

CELINA: My first experience was with an Indigenous healer. And it was, yeah, I was 21. And it was a really, really powerful experience for me. I was navigating some challenges. And I felt like I got a lot out of that experience that really just opened the door for me to be more interested in it and into how to bridge that work for other people. 

LEAH: She’s been working with psychedelics for about 20 years, mostly in the context of traditional Indigenous practices, and previously worked at an ayahuasca healing center in Costa Rica. And at Berkeley, once the center is up and running, she’ll be guiding participants through the high-dose, “full blown mystical” psilocybin experiences Michael was talking about.

LAURA: Okay, okay. So, I’ll go to her for my brain melt.

LEAH: That’s right, that’s right. And she’ll give you some psilocybin in a nice, controlled little pill.

LAURA: I like it. And how else is the center going to make sure subjects are safe?

LEAH: Yes, great question. Safety first. So, apparently, they have pretty extensive inclusion/exclusion criteria. So people with pre-existing conditions that might put them at risk of an adverse reaction to psilocybin won’t be included in the study. 

LAURA: Okay, that makes sense. But once subjects pop their shroom pills, how is the center gonna keep “full blown mystical” from turning into “full blown panic attack”?

LEAH: Well, so, for the low dose experiments, the risk of having a really traumatic or anxiety inducing experience is really low. So subjects will be supervised, but there’s not much danger there. For the high dose, the guide is going to be really important. It’s not just babysitting, it’s not just trip-sitting. They’ll hold multiple sessions before the trip to help subjects set their intentions, and they’ll be with the subjects every step along the way, through the trip, the aftermath, processing, everything. 

CELINA: And that’s like such a huge part of the, I think, the efficacy and the long term benefits that one gets is that they need to have the support and the scaffolding to really integrate the experience, or else it just becomes an experience that comes and passes, some insight happens. But how do we really look at lasting change and true integration? 

LEAH: Celina’s working on building a training program at the BCSP that will help participants practice mindfulness and other skills to better equip them work through and integrate these experiences into their lives. And she says the community aspect is an important part.

CELINA: I think that’s also something that we really learned from Indigenous contexts, that these aren’t, these aren’t isolated experiences that people have. And it is with other people that we have the reflection, the meaning making, the true kind of integration that can happen in a deeper way, when there’s other people that are experiencing it with us.

LAURA: Okay, so Celina brings up an important point: While the center is new, the practice of using psychedelics for healing is not. Non-Western cultures have been using psychedelics for thousands of years for their healing properties and as a way to connect with the spiritual plane. 

LEAH: Yeah. And that’s one of the things that Celina has focused on in her work, which is incorporating the more traditional ideas about psychedelics into her present day work with them. 

CELINA: We are seeing now more and more in research, the impact on depression, on PTSD, on these labels that we have in our Western concepts. From Indigenous perspectives, they could be seen also as forms of spiritual crisis, or forms of unprocessed emotions, or unprocessed life experiences. Even if it’s in clinical or research settings, I think that there’s a lot that we can do to still honor that these are sacred experiences, in my opinion.

LEAH: And part of how she’ll be doing that is in collaboration with the Graduate Theological Union, which we mentioned earlier. So Celina, who has a master’s in divinity, is one of several theology scholars who are attached to the Center and who are working with the GTU on a project that’s pretty remarkable.

CELINA: We’re gonna be really looking to build a psychedelic chaplaincy training model. 

LAURA: Wait wait wait. Psychedelic chaplaincy?! Can I just say, “psychedelic chaplain” is maybe the coolest job I’ve ever heard of.

LEAH: Who are you training? And what will you be training?

CELINA: Initially, our first cohort will actually be focused on religious and spiritual care providers. People that have some type of background in spiritual care whether that’s as a chaplain, or as the minister, or a leader of a religious group. So we want that cohort to be very diverse in terms of faith traditions that are represented, in addition to diversity across the board. 

LEAH: So, the idea is that someone who wants psychedelic therapy could find a trained practitioner from their spiritual community. Somebody they’re comfortable with. 

CELINA: For some people, that is with their minister or their rabbi or their imam. For other people that’s with a physician or a therapist. For other people that’s with an Indigenous healer in a more traditional setting.

LEAH: For you, as a guide, what are kind of the moments in leading someone else’s psychedelic experience that are—like, what’s the most challenging moment? And what’s the most enjoyable or rewarding moment?

CELINA: In terms of the most challenging moment, is often when somebody confronts the root of their challenge or of a blockage or of a memory of one’s patterns that are creating suffering. To like truly encounter, that can be really, really hard. And yet that also can be like the seed of transformation, and what can be so enriching, because you can really see something and perhaps see it from a different angle and not see it from the same repetitive place that maybe you have come to it before.

LAURA: So in some ways, the hardest part is also the best part.

CELINA: Yeah, I think that’s where it’s so powerful that these these tools and substances and practices exist that can facilitate these experiences in a way that maybe an antidepressant or medication or even like years and years of therapy might not even touch, you know, the origins of some of the heart of the challenges that somebody can have. 

[MUSIC]

LEAH: So it seems like, between the research and the guide training program, Berkeley’s center is kind of laying the groundwork for a future in which psychedelics are more readily available. So, let’s hear what Michael has to say about where things are headed.   

MICHAEL: In this area, it’s very hard to predict the future. And obviously, things are changing very quickly. But the data from the clinical trials, just focusing on the mental health applications, are very promising. Just in terms of considering them as medicines that are effective for mental health disorders, it could well be that they will receive FDA approval. Of course, psychedelics are fraught because of the legal and cultural history, political history around them. Certainly you know, in parallel to the momentum for these drugs being approved as medicines is various decriminalization and legalization efforts that are going on. I think, one needs to be very thoughtful about who will control access to these different kinds of compounds, and how will you deal with things like “set and setting” in those situations? There also needs to be some mechanism in place for identifying who are the mental health practitioners who are going to be able to administer or oversee the use of these drugs in this clinical setting.

LEAH: Yeah, it’s so interesting, I’m thinking like, you know, you go to Walgreens to pick up your prescription, and it says, you know, “take one small dose in the presence of a trained psychedelic therapist in, you know, a safe space with nice tapestries and make sure you’re in a good mindset.” [Laughs[ The prescription’s just a little more complicated.

MICHAEL: Indeed. And it’s a very different model for thinking about, you know, how the economics of it would work and how health insurance companies deal with this different kind of model of applied care. How would Medicare, think about something like this? You know, some of these clinical trials show really dramatic effects after a very limited number of sessions, sometimes, you know, just a single session. And so that’s also very different than the way psychiatric medicines are usually prescribed and used where people are taking them for very long periods of time.

LEAH: So, the researchers are optimistic, but they haven’t forgotten what happened the time we thought LSD was going to revolutionize healthcare…

MICHAEL: We’re all a little wary that, you know, in the 1960s, there was also tremendous excitement about psychedelics use as medicines, and there was this enormous backlash that not only made them illegal for everyone, but also completely shut down the research. So, as excited as we are, it is tempered somewhat by concerns about how this is received by society and by the government in terms of how the field is going to progress given its recent history.

LAURA: Hm. That makes sense, yeah.

LAURA: Of course, we had to ask one very important question. 

LAURA: This might be a taboo question, you don’t have to answer it. But I’m just curious if you’ve done it.

MICHAEL: I think I will pass on that given the audience. Maybe I could say just more generally, like, as a neuroscientist, there are many people who have shared with me part of their motivation for getting into neuroscience was having a psychedelic experience and just being full of awe and wonder about how that can happen. How can such a small amount of a physical substance completely change the way that I experience the world? So, you know, of course, these are illegal and have been illegal for a long time. And so, you know, anyone in this field needs to be very careful about whatever experiences they’ve had personally. And some people you know, are vocal about it. But as the director of the Center I, you know, I don’t…my personal experiences are, you know, private and not that relevant to what the center’s doing, but also the legalization issue is a very thorny one. And, you know, there’s a lot of discussions, and we want to be a part of these conversations about policy development, about under what circumstances should people be permitted to take them? And what sort of precautions should there be? But yeah, I’ll pass on your question. It’s a perfectly fine question.

LAURA: No, that’s a good answer, actually, I think it’s in some ways a lot more illuminating than anything else you could have said.

[MUSIC IN]

LEAH: Well I guess we need to wrap up then. You have to say “why?”

LAURA: Why?

LEAH: ‘Cuz there isn’t mushroom for more. 

LAURA: [Laughs] Good one…

LAURA: This The Edge, brought to you by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association. I’m Laura Smith.

LEAH: And I’m Leah Worthington.

LAURA: This episode was produced by Coby McDonald, with support from Pat Joseph and Maddy Weinberg. Special thanks to Michael Silver and Celina De Leon. Original music by Mogli Maureal and the track “The Psychedelic And” by Six Umbrellas.

[MUSIC OUT]

LEAH: Yeah well, I can be a fungi. That’s for sure. Nobody can tell me that I can’t be a fungi.

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Interesting!

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