Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Magic Mushroom Medicine

Chemist Albert Hofmann discovered LSD in 1938 but didn't take his first trip until he accidentally took a taste of it five years later, in 1943, opening a whole new era of drug research.

It should be noted that shamans all around the world had been using various hallucinogenic plants for healing purposes for millennia. But the discovery of LSD opened a new chapter on clinical research into hallucinogens. One of the first uses of it was to treat various forms of mental illness, including alcoholism. Then when the military and CIA discovered it, they tried using it in various covert experiments, which may or may not have been combined with psychic experiments, known as the MK Ultra Program. Whether or not one set of experiments led directly to another or whether they were tangential, there were subsequent experimental programs, including what is known today as Remote Viewing. Although the world had heard of Hofmann's research, the military experiments were not known to the public at that time. The linkage between hallucinogenic drugs and the expansion of the psyche have long been linked.

And then came another group of people who became very excited about the possibilities of hallucinogens. The exuberance of people some of those early researchers like Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later to become Ram Dass)was scorned by various regulators and by other people in academia. In this same time period came the books of Carlos Castaneda, who gave much of the American reading public their first exposure to the subject of shamanism and the use of various "plant allies." Hallucinogens became the recreational drugs of choice for a generation of young people, and given that, serious further research came to a halt for decades.

40 years later, things look different again. Today, researchers are excited about the possible uses of hallucinogens in treating depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder. Johns Hopkins Medical School, University of Arizona, Harvard, New York University, the University of California, Los Angeles among others are now researching the usefulness of psilocybin, which is found in certain types of mushrooms, in treating these disorders.

These schools are using money from private non-profit foundations to fund the research. During the last 40 years the growth of hospice movement, the broad acceptance of meditation practices, and perhaps the growing success of the medical marijuana movement are all contributing to a more receptive environment to this type of research now.

How many times have we seen this pattern in history, when the first people to advocate a new concept are ridiculed, then later validated.

Several years ago, I was listening to an interview with another advocate for hallucinogens, Terence McKenna, who had gone in a bit different direction than Leary. In fact, you might say he sort of extended the early work, as one of the people who also championed traditional shamanic substances, such as ayahuasca, which has also become quite well known in the last couple of decades.

McKenna, who was a serious student of the subject, but also quite witty, answered the interviewer's question about the value of hallucinogens. I am paraphrasing from memory here. McKenna said, "We can talk about enlightenment for the next hundred years. We can put it on cereal boxes and milk cartons. But the only thing I know of that can make a person's consciousness stop and turn on a dime is a psilocybin mushroom."

Like marijuana, we appear to be approaching a time when hallucinogens will be seen not only as a recreational drug or a spiritual sacrament, but also as a powerful healing agent.

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