BERKELEY, Calif. (RNS) In his new book, “Changing Our Minds: Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy,” award-winning author and former religion reporter Don Lattin looks at how therapy sessions with psychedelic drugs are helping heal the psychological and spiritual woes of cancer patients, alcoholics, war veterans and the seriously depressed.
As Lattin details in the book, there are sometimes positive spiritual and religious changes for those who take these drugs under clinical supervision — a key component of the treatment. During sessions to treat addictive behavior, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, some patients report everything from a greater “oneness” with the universe to visions of Jesus on the cross.
Lattin, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, is about to embark on a summer book tour that will take him from the Telluride Mushroom Festival in the Rocky Mountains to a psychedelic consciousness convention in London. He sat down with RNS to discuss the changing attitudes toward these drugs — psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”), ayahuasca (a psychoactive tea brewed from two Amazonian plants), MDMA (“ecstasy”) and more — and how they can bring religious and spiritual insight to some.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
How is taking psychedelics therapeutically different from taking them recreationally?
Well, the first difference between recreational use and the clinical trials now underway into psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is a difference of legality. Taking these drugs for fun is illegal, not to mention dangerous because when you buy psychedelics on the street you are never sure what you are getting. The clinical trials are legal — approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. The purity and the dose are clearly established. Many people in my book are trying to overcome some serious psychological problem, or they are people in ayahuasca churches who are seriously trying to commune with God. Both are in it for the long term and will tell you this was not always a fun or easy experience. But it was cathartic. It was healing. This is not the way most people take psychedelics — many thousands of people take MDMA (ecstasy) every weekend and most have a good time. The difference here is the intention — healing or insight — and that those who take these medicines or sacraments are being guided through the experience and get help to integrate whatever insights they have into their real lives.
Speaking just about those seeking a connection to God — is taking a pill to do that just too easy?
There is some truth to that critique. Someone in my book calls the psychedelic experience “gratuitous grace.” In a recreational drug context, it is too easy, and it becomes too easy to just dismiss it as some weird experience. But people in some of the clinical trials I write about say what they experienced in a couple of sessions with a therapist and psychedelics was like 10 years of normal therapy. It can take less time. But psychedelics are not a magic bullet. They can show you another way to be. They can be an opening, that is all. The goal of a lot of this work, whether it is therapeutic or spiritual, is to help people make some lasting changes in their lives. They (researchers and spiritual guides) are trying to take psychedelics more seriously than one does at a party or a concert or a festival. Even though it can take one to a mystical place, the goal is to bring all this back down to earth.
Drugs are chemicals. Can God — or any experience of the divine — be reduced to brain chemistry? Are such experiences “real”?
You can have a mystical experience through lots of different means. You can have it by fasting — a very accepted practice in almost every religious tradition. What happens when you fast? Things happen in your brain, a biochemical reaction. If you go on a hardcore meditation retreat with sensory deprivation, you are having a biochemical reaction in your brain. So whether it is through fasting or meditation or drugs or plant medicines, I believe what is happening in your brain is the same — an alteration of consciousness through brain chemistry. It can happen through prayer and through meditation, and it can happen with psychedelic drugs. That is why the experiences are so similar. But the rubber hits the road with what you do with the experience. Does it make you a better person, kinder, more aware? (Religion scholar and mystic) Huston Smith used to say of psychedelics, “It is not about altered states, it is about altered traits.”
Is there a role for organized religion to play in destigmatizing these drugs?
There are actual churches in the U.S. that can legally have psychedelic communion with ayahuasca under a 2006 Supreme Court ruling, but they must be affiliated with one of two Brazilian sects. Outside of those brands of “organized religion,” I don’t see much destigmatization. Religious leaders, like a lot of other people, have a very black-and-white attitude toward drugs. Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins is doing a study of religious professionals with clergy burnout to see if these substances could revive their interest in their calling through a mystical experience that might hit the reset button for them. But he has found it very hard to find clergy who want to volunteer. That said, I think psychedelics are slowly being destigmatized by the universities and medical centers across the country that are sponsoring research. People’s minds are changing about these substances when used in the proper context. The media coverage of the clinical trials has been very positive. At the same time, I think it is important to say these drugs are not for everyone. They are probably not for most people. But there are a large number of people these medicines can help.