In this very special edition of Trippy Talk, Reality Sandwich is publishing three interviews by Priscilla Duggan. As a high school senior, Duggan decided to investigate the history and science of psychedelic research for an honors thesis. For this paper, Duggan interviewed psychedelic research giants: Dennis Mckenna, Brad Adams and Ashley Booth. We are so proud to present Priscilla Duggan’s interviews over the next three weeks.
After a short introduction by Priscilla Duggan, the second interview in the series will follow with Brad Adams. –RS
Growing Up Psychedelic
Living in LA, it’s hard to shelter your kids as a parent. Thankfully, that was not a concern of my own. And as such, I was exposed to every kind of person, religion, belief, experience, and setting growing up.
As a teenager in LA I was exposed to psychedelics early. The idea of “counter-culture” and identifying as a “non-conformer” is particularly popular in my generation. Ironically, both of these terms originate from a “one fish swimming against the current” situation, rather than a whole generation trying to not conform. Psychedelics, with their mysterious and extremely stigmatized past, fit perfectly into a “counter-culture” box. And duly spark the interest of the youth.
In Pursuit of Knowledge
Psychedelics sparked my interest early. I’ve never been someone who leaned toward taking “drugs” or drinking alcohol. I’m actually quite content staying sober at a party and people watching. But, there was something different about psychedelics that I couldn’t ignore. I wanted to know, why were psychedelics so stigmatized? And, why were people telling me at 17, that they made you “jump out of windows?” How did all this relate to the laid-back, hippie culture of the 60s?
I’m the kind of person that likes to do a little research on something that interests me. Knowledge is power! Who knew this interest would develop into a 100-page thesis research paper? And, go on to shape the path of the particular kind of science I want to study in college as well?
A Researcher in the Making
There was a special program open to juniors and seniors at my old school called “Honors Research.” This program allows a student to develop a year-long research paper with a mentor in a lab, generally at UCLA or USC. So, after my recent spark of interest in psychedelics and inherent love for science, I knew I wanted to study them in my Honors Research paper.
However due to the nature of my subject (drugs) and my age at the time (17), I couldn’t get into a lab and research the neuroscience, or therapeutic potential associated with these drugs hands on (psychedelic therapy). And, no one else around me wanted to study psychedelics. I stuck out like a sore thumb among my peers and potentially raised the concern of the faculty. But I was incredibly eager to continue studying psychedelics because of what I had learned so far about them; their intrinsic therapeutic value and unique neuroscience. So I created a plan for my own research and method with the help of my mentor. I didn’t work in a lab that year. Instead, I gathered research by conducting interviews with psychedelic researchers and attending conferences, symposiums, meetings, and lectures.
The further I traversed into the field, the more I realized that no matter how much I thought I knew, there is an infinite amount that I did not know. But the fact that I could help de-stigmatize psychedelics through evidence-based research, excited me more than anything. By the end of the year, I had finished my paper. “Investigations In the History, Mechanisms, and Research Development of Psychedelic Drugs.”
Throughout this research project, I found that people react in different ways to a topic like psychedelics. People are eager to offer plenty of opinions based on personal experience: stories they’ve heard, or books they’ve read. And every one of those opinions became critical for me to take into account.
Finding my way within the research world was intimidating. But, I capitalized on that and turned it into speculative interest. That drove me deeper into what brought me here in the first place. Even in the face of intimidating opinions from highbrow researchers, it felt valuable to listen to all corners. In an era of research trapped by its own need, to prove a proposed hypothesis, we’re becoming trained to ignore any opposing data. So, we’re drifting toward obscurantism.
So I listen and observe. Patiently, I take it all in. I watch as my own, hopefully maturing ideas, come to fruition or surprise me with another conclusion altogether.
Contributor | Priscilla Duggan
Interview Priscilla Duggan + Brad Adams
Brad Adams received his Ph.D. in counseling psychology at USC and is currently working in cancer research at the UCLA Medical Center. He is the Founder of the Los Angeles Medicinal Plant Society (LAMPS), was the Chair of the Los Angeles Psychedelic Science (LAPSS) Planning Committee in 2018, and is again for LAPSS 2020, which will take place on July 11-12 in Downtown Los Angeles. He collaborated with Drs. Charles Grob and Dennis McKenna on a pilot study entitled, Ayahuasca, Psychiatric Distress, and the Meaning of Life: Results from a Pilot Study in Peru. He is also in the early stages of setting up a global alliance of psychedelic research centers called the Global Psychedelic Alliance, as well as collaborating to set up an Integral Medicine conference in Asia that will include a module on psychedelic plant medicines.
Priscilla Duggan: How long have you been in this field of research, and what does your position entail?
Brad Adams: Off the bat, I should say my day job is something different. I’m working in cancer research. And, I’ve always tried to work for good causes. I worked in AIDS research, cancer, depression, Alzheimers’. But it’s all big pharma-type stuff, nothing wrong with that, but my interest is more in the alternative methods. So, primarily plant medicine. The research I’ve done on the side is mainly a labor of love at this point, but I wanna figure out a way to transition my life into that work and sustain me, which is what I’m trying to do now.
Anyway, I got interested in the research while I was working at UCLA. We would get emails notifications all the time about new research coming in. And in 2011, I saw something about Charles Grob’s research, and I nearly fell off my chair. I had no idea they were allowing that kind of research, plus the results they got were amazing–you know, psilocybin for end-of-life-anxiety.
So I emailed him. We started having a couple meetings, and that’s how we had the idea of doing an ayahuasca study. I emailed Dennis Mckenna as well because he used to work with Charles. Long story short, Dennis said he wasn’t interested in doing research in this country because of the time it would take to get permission. So that’s why we did a study in Peru. And we got really good results. So, things have just been evolving slowly overtime. We then had the idea for the LAPSS conference, and things are in the works about getting a global network of psychedelic research centers.
PD: A lot of people I know, whether it’s friends or family, would group psychedelics with drugs like cocaine, heroin– “dangerous” drugs. I’m assuming you agree that there’s that hole in public knowledge. Do you have any idea of how we can address that or how we can work to overcome that?
BA: I have a lot of ideas on that. I agree that’s a problem. I remember when I grew up as a kid we had, well it wasn’t called DARE at that point, but I think it was probably similar. They used a lot of scare tactics. They lumped all drugs that are not legal into one big box–“bad drugs.” Now we are trying to resurrect psychedelics from there because as you know, they’re very different from heroin, from bath salts, from cocaine, which have zero medicinal value. I mean, there might be some, but not nearly as much as psychedelics.
So part of the way to address that is by getting information out any way possible. Conferences like LAPSS and MAPS and Exploring Psychedelics and stuff like that are excellent resources for getting the word out. A lot of people don’t even realize that there’s government-sanctioned research going on. It is also important having big arenas that disseminate the information on radio, cable, podcast, and television.
But it goes all the way down to the individual level too, with discussions with the family, and at the water-cooler at work. That’s equally important, I think. Because that’s where there’s this huge stigma still attached to it. And people will start to see “wow they’re saving lives by giving MDMA-assisted therapy to combat soldiers.” Very few people would have a beef against that if it works.
PD: As far as the future of psychedelic therapy, do you see any risks? Could this be a risk in that it might be too expensive, or a physical risk?
BA: Well, with any medicine you can have risks. But the thing with most psychedelic medicines is that they’re relatively safe compared to other treatments. I don’t know if you’ve seen that graph that’s going around a lot? Mushrooms are at the bottom in terms of risk, and most people don’t know that.
PD: And alcohol is at the top!
BA: I tell people this all the time, “Don’t think the FDA is there just to protect you.” Alcohol and tobacco are legally sanctioned, not encouraged, but they’re allowed. They create more death and destruction and problems for people. If you look at psychedelics, sure there’s possible harms involved but god! In terms of relative risk? They’re extremely safe if done in the right context!
So the thing about therapy is that there’s so many ways to mitigate the risks. Screening being number one. If you’re going to do Ibogaine therapy or Iboga, you don’t want people with severe heart issues because there’s cardiotoxicity involved. So, you gotta know to screen that out. For certain other things like psilocybin therapy, it’s pretty safe in the right hands. But yet again there are risks. If you don’t do proper screening the person could have a psychotic break or a breakdown of some sort. Of course, there’s always risks involved. MDMA therapy is great because those risks are less. But even with that there’re still things you need to look out for in terms of cardiotoxicity and whatnot.
PD: So, MDMA-assisted therapy seems to be really successful with PTSD and trauma. What about the whole “3 month rule” about MDMA? If MDMA therapy would eventually become legal, would that be a rule?
BA: Yeah, I’m not sure that three months is the magic number. I think it should be based on research and data. But sure, you don’t want to do it too often because some people are a lot more prone to the after-effects and the depletion of serotonin. There should be standards of practice set up so that people know what to do, and know the best ways to mitigate that. You know, some people can probably do it more frequently and not have any problems. But, on average most people do need some sort of recovery period. Plus, you don’t wanna do it too often because you need to integrate everything, which is probably more important than just a serotonin depletion. Because if you stack all these experiences on top of each other and don’t integrate them, you could be doing more harm than good.
Regarding other risks, certainly the cost is another thing, until insurance starts covering this. As you probably know, ketamine treatment is very, very effective as a therapeutic for many people with depression, but it’s not covered for a lot of people. So they have to pay out of pocket. Some people can’t do that. Same with combat veterans. Unless it’s covered, they’re probably not going to be able to pay out of pocket. And, psychotherapy itself is just expensive. People need to realize, it’s not just giving them MDMA. It’s within the context of psychotherapy, which includes sessions before, during, and after the MDMA itself. So it can be very expensive.
Priscilla Duggan: It’s crazy to think someone who just wants to take mushrooms could be forced to take SSRi’s instead because they can’t afford it.
Brad Adams: It’s ridiculous. Things are changing though. It’s really heartening to see things like cannabis therapy coming up. I’m seeing some amazing stuff being done. I feel like there’s a lot of hope. So, we need to get other things taken off Schedule I as fast as possible.
PD: As far as spiritual versus recreational versus therapeutic use, I think it’s hard to make a distinction between them.
BA: People say: “this should only be used therapeutically, or sacredly, it should be treated with respect.” And I agree with that 100%. But I’m not against recreational use in certain circumstances. I’m not saying people should do anything illegal, but it’s impossible to stop recreational use. Let’s face it, people do it for different reasons. Regardless, a side effect could be that some people get tremendous gains from it. I remember some of my recreational uses as a teenager. I had some tremendous breakthroughs and I wasn’t necessarily thinking, “Ok I want a mystical experience” but it happened.
PD: That’s why you can’t really draw a line and say: “I don’t want anything spiritual.” People have been doing it for thousands of years so it’s kind of crazy to think that this can only be for therapeutic or medical purposes now.
BA: I think there’s even a stigma against the idea of “fun.” Granted, if someone is going in for PTSD treatment, you wouldn’t consider “fun” a goal. Whereas recreationally, it is usually a goal. Is that necessarily a “bad” thing? Is it bad to have fun? The answer can be yes, if it’s causing harm in your life. But actually the interesting thing about psychedelics is that, depending on what it is, sometimes you take it for recreation to escape things, and it’ll have the opposite effect. It’ll pull up what you’re trying to avoid and show it to you. Because they have a way of revealing the shadow.
People tend to focus too much on the light aspects and want to bliss out and expand consciousness, which is good. But you also need to get rid of the shadow elements and deal with the stuff that’s holding you down. You know there’s one of my favorite quotes by Ram Dass. He would typically take LSD very frequently and get these mystical experiences. But, he would always be dismayed. He would always try to keep his ego from going back and reassembling, but nothing worked. So after a while he said that, instead of focusing on getting high all the time, he decided to focus on getting rid of the things that were keeping him down.
I like the analogy of a hot air balloon. You know you can concentrate on putting more and more hot air or hot gas into it to make it rise, but if you also keep tying bags to it, or keep poking holes in it, it’s a problem; you’re not gonna keep rising. You gotta focus on cutting off the sandbags, plugging up the holes, and making sure you don’t sabotage yourself by poking holes in it, which is a very common human thing–to sabotage your own progress to stay in the comfort zone.
PD: What’s your opinion on whether psychedelics should be used for just mentally ill patients or for the betterment of everyone?
BA: Oh it should be available for everyone for whom it is safe. Certain things should not be sold over the counter. I would need to think about that more. You know, LSD used to be sold in shops. That could cause a lot of problems. It’s a tough question. I don’t have an easy answer, and I don’t think anyone has an easy answer.
PD: For example, someone who is extremely depressed and anxious might go to therapy, but someone who’s “healthy” might go to therapy to maintain their wellbeing. If psychedelics were available through therapy, should that healthy person also be able to request that as a treatment?
BA: Of course! I mean Rick Doblin talked about every six months or year or so, he and his wife would do it together just to sort of renew the bond, and I think that’s perfectly fine and good. I know the tendency now is to target the most in need populations, especially when there’s no treatment for it, like treatment-resistant depression. That’s good, and I also think it’s a very important thing for people to go in for psycho-spiritual development. It should be a treatment for problems. But it should also be looked at for maintenance, also recreation, again with certain parameters in place. The bottom line is nobody wants to see a repeat of what happened in the 60s.
Priscilla Duggan: Do you think that one drug is proving to be more beneficial than the rest?
Brad Adams: You could definitely set up some sort of pecking order in terms of what’s “hot” now. I wouldn’t come to the conclusion that one is a better drug or more efficacious, but now for instance there’s evidence showing that MDMA is a poster-child for the movement even though it’s not a classic psychedelic per se. But there’s a lot of evidence, and the evidence is bordering on “miraculous.” Especially compared to what the standard treatments are for PTSD, it blows everything out of the water. So I’d definitely put that up there as one of the ones that should take priority and should get through the doors quicker.
There’re other ones like peyote, where I think there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence, and some clinical evidence. I haven’t seen a lot but I would say that it’s not an inferior drug, or plant, or sacrament at all. There’s some evidence from the Native American church showing that people who participate in the peyote ceremonies derive a lot of benefit in terms of alleviating alcoholism and addiction. Along the same vein, I would say obviously psilocybin is one of the hot new kids on the block. And ketamine is currently making a huge splash!
PD: Psilocybin–correct me if I’m wrong–I’ve seen more research with addiction like nicotine addiction, alcohol addiction with psilocybin and then PTSD with MDMA.
BA: There is some crossover though. Psilocybin shows promise for treating addiction, but also treatment-resistant depression, and people are also looking at it for treatment of PTSD. The thing about psychedelics as a whole is that almost all of them show some promise for the treatment of depression. I’d love to eventually see some head-to-head studies. In fact, I would love to set up something where you get people with treatment-resistant depression randomly assigned to ayahuasca, psilocybin, ketamine, etc.
PD: That would be really cool.
BA: Then you could tease apart what works best for which type of people. You could get blood samples to collect markers in blood that might best predict what they could best respond to. That would be a bit in the future, though. I certainly wouldn’t say to concentrate on MDMA or psilocybin and exclude these other things. Like for example, 5-MeO. We’re at the tip of the iceberg studying 5-MeO. There’s some anecdotal evidence. There’s some early scientific evidence showing that it might be useful for an assortment of things from addiction to depression and so forth. So I wouldn’t say just because there’s not a lot of evidence now that we should not look at it.
PD: Ok so one of my last questions. I’ve heard multiple times: “Yeah, but can’t psychedelics change your brain forever.” And I feel like this is a common misconception. I don’t know how to respond to it other than: “no.”
BA: Well, there’s evidence showing that, for example, ayahuasca does change your brain in terms of chemistry, function, and connectivity but in a positive way.
PD: And increases connectivity right?
BA: Yeah. And also evidence shows that it dampers amygdala responses, fear response. Similar effects are found with MDMA. As far as lasting effects, a lot more research needs to be done on that. However, my argument would be that it’s possible that it does. Look at the MRI and fMRI data for ayahuasca. Look for clips and research from a trusted source. Give people information through sources they trust. If they’re more conservative and watch Fox News, go look for clips from Fox News. This will allow the information to enter people’s minds by bypassing their cognitive gatekeepers, who may be operating on sorely outdated information about these compelling medicines!