Can Psychedelic Drugs Help Us to Die Gratefully?

Originally appearing here. When acclaimed novelist and philosopher Aldous Huxley was dying, his final words were: “LSD, 100 micrograms I.M.” Huxley’s wife Laura complied with his wishes, and the celebrated author of Brave New World crossed over the post-biological threshold into the White Light with Albert Hofmann’s magic molecules nestled in the synapses of his brain. The inspiration for this final journey was based upon the work that early LSD researchers had done with terminally ill patients; however, the relationship between the psychedelic experience and the experience of dying, death, and rebirth is ancient, and likely began in prehistory. Modern cultural links in art and music abound, and it’s no accident that the most celebrated psychedelic rock band of all-time is known as The Grateful Dead. Some of the most valuable and promising research that’s been conducted with psychedelics has been in the area of treating the terminally ill. For example, the studies of psychiatric researcher Stanislav Grof and colleague’s at Spring Grove State Hospital in Baltimore, with terminally ill patients, provided strong evidence that a psychedelic experience can be immensely beneficial for people in their final stages of life. Between the years 1967 and 1972 studies with terminal cancer patients by Grof and colleagues showed that LSD combined with psychotherapy could alleviate symptoms of depression, tension, anxiety, sleep disturbances, psychological withdrawal, and even severe physical pain that was resistant to opiates. It also improved communication between the patients and their loved ones. Considering that the dying process is probably the most universally feared of all human experiences, that the death of loved ones causes more suffering in this world than anything else, and that death appears to be an inevitable fact of nature–it seems like it might be a good idea to pay attention to what researchers have learned about how psychedelics can help to ease the dying process. The Tibetan Book of the Dead–a religious manual about how to navigate through post-corporeal space, which is read to Tibetan Buddhists as they’re dying–is also known for its uncanny application to the psychedelic experience. In fact, the first LSD-tripping manual–The Psychedelic Experience–was based upon an interpretation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead by psychologists Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), and Ralph Metzner. Many people believe that psychedelic experiences can not only give us insight into what happens after we die, but that they actually model or simulate the afterlife experience to a certain extent. Psychiatric researcher Rick Strassman’s studies at the University of New Mexico with the powerful psychedelic DMT (which is also found naturally in the brain), and physician Karl Jansen’s work with the dissociative psychedelic ketamine, may provide evidence for the type of biochemical and psychological changes that occur in the brain when we’re dying, as they appear to simulate some important features of the near-death experience. When I asked Rick Strassman how he thought that the DMT experience is related to the near-death experience, he replied, “I hypothesize that DMT levels rise with the stress associated with near-death experiences, and mediate some of the more “psychedelic” features of this state.” When the late LSD researcher Timothy Leary, was dying of cancer he announced to the world that he was “thrilled” and “ecstatic” to be entering the mystery of death. Tim spent the last year of his life celebrating, and interacting with the media, really enjoying himself, despite his illness. Many people in human history have attempted to die with dignity, peace of mind, or as a process of spiritual awakening, but it was Tim’s admirable and innovative idea to try and make dying fun and exciting. I was fortunate to have been able to spend time with Tim while he was dying, and witnessed how he courageously and playfully utilized his dying process as a way to help change our culture’s negative attitudes about death. Tim told me that one should approach death in the same way that one approaches a psychedelic experience, with special attention to set and setting. He suggested crossing over the threshold surrounded by sacred music and beautiful art, loving friends and family, flowers, incense, and candles. My dear friend Valerie Corral, cofounder of the world’s most leading-edge and politically successful medical cannabis cooperative, the Santa Cruz Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), spends much of her time with people who are dying. Like Grof and Leary, Corral has also been a powerful force in changing our culture’s views about death, and the form of hospice care that she helped to create, utilizes cannabis, not only for its medical properties and symptom relief, but also for it’s psychedelic mind-changing properties, and potential for psychological and spiritual transformation. Death is the hardest thing to face about life, to accept that our time here is temporary. A lot of people successfully ignore thinking about this obvious fact for much of their lives, but I think it’s vital to always remember that every moment is sacred, and each embodied second is precious. Maybe there are wonderful new and everlasting adventures awaiting us after we die. After experiencing the powerful mind-altering perspective of a deep psychedelic experience, it’s hard for me to believe that consciousness doesn’t continue on in some form–but, of course, this could all be a magnificent illusion. However, despite the ever-mysterious metaphysical truth hiding inside us about the ultimate source of consciousness, the dying process itself appears to be significantly eased by psychedelic therapy. So we can all be thankful for this, and rejoice that these promising therapies are once again being explored by modern medicine. Studies are currently underway to see how LSD and psilocybin (the psychoactive alkaloid in the ‘magic mushroom’) may help people people with advanced stage cancer, or terminal illnesses. At New York University medical researcher Stephen Ross is currently conducting a study with psilocybin to see if it can help to reduce the anxiety in people who are dying. The final subject in the first clinical LSD study since 1972 completed his last experimental therapy session on May 26, 2011. This was the first clinical LSD study on the planet in over thirty-five years. The Santa Cruz-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) sponsored the research, which began in 2008, by Swiss psychiatrist Peter Gasser. Gasser’s LSD study was conducted in Switzerland, where LSD was discovered in 1943 by Albert Hofmann. The study examined how LSD-assisted psychotherapy effects the anxiety associated with suffering from an advanced, life-threatening illness. There were twelve subjects in the study with advanced-stage cancer and other serious illnesses. Although the research data hasn’t been fully analyzed yet, according to Gasser, the results look promising. Early researchers found that LSD-assisted psychotherapy has the extraordinary ability to help many people overcome their fear of death, and this is probably a major contributing factor in why the drug can be so profoundly helpful when people are facing a life-threatening illness. When asked, if there was something that psychedelics could teach us about death, spiritual philosopher Ram Dass replied, “Yes, absolutely. Starting with Erik Kast’s work back in the Sixties at the University of Chicago. One quote from his work stands out in my mind. It was from a nurse who was dying of cancer and had just taken LSD. She said, “I know I’m dying of this deadly disease, but look
at the beauty of the universe.”” To learn more about how psychedelic drugs can help with death and dying, see the MAPS Bulletin that I edited on this subject: Author David Jay Brown writes for the Santa Cruz Patch about research into LSD and psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy as treatment methods for anxiety in people with life-threatening illnesses. Brown examines current and past psychedelic research, making a strong case for these studies to continue helping people.