High Times: Transformational Tripping

Summary: HighTimes explores the field of psychedelic science, highlighting MAPS’ ongoing psychedelic research and education. “The organization has been instrumental in the fight to help medical researchers obtain legal access to MDMA,” explains Mary Jane Gibson. HighTimes also speaks with MAPS Policy and Advocacy Director Natalie Lyla Ginsberg. “Though our research is intended to maximize the safety and beneficial outcomes of psychedelic use, we really recognize that people use psychedelics in many other contexts—they have used it in other cultures for thousands of years, and experience great benefits,” explains Ginsberg.

Originally appearing here.

Earlier this year, author Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day hit bookstores across America (HT Aug. ’17). Waldman’s remarkable memoir of her experiences microdosing with LSD was well-received, but it didn’t cause a perceptible stir. Seemingly, the story of a well-to-do, highly educated professional and middle-aged mom choosing to treat her persistent mood disorders with lysergic acid diethylamide wasn’t shocking enough to attract the attention of the pearl-clutchers who are normally all atwitter about how shameful and dangerous drug use is.

Far from the hysterical message of those “This Is Your Brain On Drugs” after-school PSAs of the 1980s, many of today’s news stories report on treating depression with psilocybin, the microdosing trend taking over Silicon Valley, and the push to hold clinical trials for MDMA as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. The online journal Scientific Reports recently published findings that a single dose of ayahuasca rapidly reduced the symptoms of depression in treatment-resistant patients. Researchers also discovered compounds in the psychedelic Amazonian brew that actually stimulate the birth of new neurons—new brain cells. No wonder Ariel Levy, writing in the New Yorker, dubbed ayahuasca “the drug of choice for the age of kale.”

We live in an era “characterized by wellness cravings, when many Americans are eager for things like mindfulness, detoxification, and organic produce, and we are willing to suffer for our soulfulness,” Levy wrote. New Age lifestyle choices like hot yoga, jade eggs, and a never-ending parade of detoxes and cleanses espoused by slender celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow are all the rage. No more Atkins Diet beach bodies and The Secret–style affirmations—we want enlightenment, not self-help, and we want it now.

Who can blame us? The constant news cycle of never-ending disasters both at home and abroad is intolerable. Social media have sucked the soul from a generation suffering from “tech neck”—a hunch (and wrinkles) developed from constantly looking down at a smartphone. Desperate for a reset button, people are seeking out greater meaning and healing through ancient plant-medicine wisdom. Others just want to enjoy life to the fullest through a change in perspective—read about the Amsterdam chefs cooking with psychedelic ingredients on page 62.

Those in search of a path to enlightenment should avoid self-styled neo-shamans in hipster lofts and seek out a practiced guide to assist in what can often be a difficult undertaking. Veteran journalist Mark Franchetti has worked as a foreign correspondent in war zones; writing for the Times of London, he deemed his experiment with ayahuasca “by far the hardest thing I have experienced.” However, Franchetti added, “It was also the most profound.”

Ayahuasca, LSD and MDMA have received the lion’s share of media attention, but the list of therapeutic psychedelics is long. Most of them have been classified by the US government as Schedule I, meaning they’re designated as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. This includes ibogaine, a potent African entheogen with a long history of medicinal and ceremonial use, which has been proven to help treat opioid addiction. An exception to the Schedule I list is ketamine, which was developed as an anesthetic and mostly used as an animal tranquilizer. Ketamine has shown positive results in treating depression and PTSD; it is currently classified as Schedule III.

In Seattle, psychedelic guide Sebastian DeRosia avoids the draconian drug laws entirely with a process that uses kambo, the venom from the giant monkey frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor) native to the northwest Amazon rainforest. Kambo is legal throughout the world and is used to treat chronic pain, depression, headaches and more. DeRosia offers a kambo cleansing treatment at his cannabis-friendly bed-and-breakfast, the Winston House, where he provides guests with a “consciousness-expanding space.” People have started to seek out alternative therapies, DeRosia says, “because they no longer trust the medical establishment.”

If you’re looking for a specialist to help you with psychedelic-assisted therapy, start with the resources provided by the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. Since 1986, MAPS has been researching and educating people on the “medical, legal, and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful uses of psychedelics and marijuana.” The organization has been instrumental in the fight to help medical researchers obtain legal access to MDMA. MAPS also operates the Zendo Project, which employs a network of volunteers trained in psychedelic harm reduction to assist people at music festivals and other events.

Natalie Ginsberg, policy and advocacy director for MAPS, says that she hears stories every day of people taking psychedelics outside of clinical research, and finding healing on their own from PTSD and other conditions: “Though our research is intended to maximize the safety and beneficial outcomes of psychedelic use, we really recognize that people use psychedelics in many other contexts—they have used it in other cultures for thousands of years, and experience great benefits.”

For those taking psychedelics outside a medical context, Ginsberg warns that illegally procured substances can have a high risk of being adulterated. “The MDMA we are using in [MAPS’] research is often different than what’s found on the street. We are a proponent of reducing harms as much as possible. That involves testing the drugs, and making sure you’re taking the substances in a safe context, where you feel safe, both physically and psychologically.”

That’s also why the Zendo Project is in place at many events for festival-goers who have taken psychedelics and are having a difficult experience, says Ginsberg: “It’s there to help them through that difficult experience, and make it a more meaningful one.”

You can apply to volunteer for the Zendo Project, and learn more about how to help expand psychedelic peer counseling services and transform challenging psychedelic experiences into valuable learning opportunities at zendoproject.org.

Many of us are in search of that sense of “Be Here Now” that psychedelics can provide. At the end of her microdosing memoir, Ayelet Waldman recounts being surrounded by her husband and four children, all of them laughing while playing in the rain. She writes, “That day when I got out of my own head, stepped into the circle, and embraced the moment, in the rain—that was a really good day.”