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In 1998, Griffiths, Jesse, and Richards began designing a pilot study loosely based on the Good Friday Experiment. “It wasn’t a psychotherapy study,” Richards points out. “It was a study designed to determine whether psilocybin can elicit a transcendental experience. That we were able to obtain permission to give it to healthy normals is a tribute to Roland’s long history of commanding respect both at Hopkins and in Washington.” In 1999, the protocol was approved, but only after wending its way through five layers of review at Hopkins as well as the FDA and the DEA. (Many of Griffiths’s Hopkins colleagues were skeptical of the proposal, worried psychedelic research might jeopardize federal funding; one told me there were “people in the Department of Psychiatry and the broader institution who questioned the work, because this class of compounds carries a lot of baggage from the ’60s.”)

“We had faith that the people on all these committees would be good scientists,” Richards told me. “And with luck maybe a few of them had tried mushrooms in college!” Roland Griffiths became the principal investigator of the trial, Bill Richards became the clinical director, and Bob Jesse continued to work behind the scenes.

“I can vividly remember the first session I ran after that long twenty-two-year hiatus,” Richards recalled. He and I were together in the session room at Hopkins; I was sitting on the couch where the volunteers lie down during their journeys, and Richards was in the chair where he has now sat and guided more than a hundred psilocybin journeys since 1999. The room feels more like a den or living room than a room in a laboratory, with a plush sofa, vaguely spiritual paintings on the walls, a sculpture of the Buddha on a side table, and shelves holding a giant stone mushroom and various other nondenominational spiritual artifacts, as well as the small chalice in which the volunteers receive their pills.

“This guy is lying on the couch right there where you are, with tears streaming down his face, and I’m thinking, how absolutely beautiful and meaningful this experience is. How sacred. How can this ever have been illegal? It’s as if we made entering Gothic cathedrals illegal, or museums, or sunsets!

“I honestly never knew if this would happen again in my lifetime. And look at where we are now: the work at Hopkins has been going on now for fifteen years—five years longer than Spring Grove.”

• • • IN 1999, an odd but intriguing advertisement began appearing in weeklies in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., area, under the headline “Interested in the Spiritual Life?”

University research with entheogens (roughly, God-evoking substances such as peyote and sacred mushrooms) has returned. The field of study includes pharmacology, psychology, creativity enhancement, and spirituality. To explore the possibility of participating in confidential entheogen research projects, call 1-888-585-8870, toll free. www.csp.org.

Not long after, Bill Richards and Mary Cosimano, a social worker and school guidance counselor Richards recruited to help him guide psychedelic sessions, administered the first legal dose of psilocybin to an American in twenty-two years. In the years since, the Hopkins team has conducted more than three hundred psilocybin sessions, working in a variety of populations, including healthy normals, long-term and novice meditators, cancer patients, smokers seeking to break their habit, and religious professionals. I was curious to get the volunteer’s-eye view of the experience from all these types, but especially from that first cohort of healthy normals, partly because they were participants in a study that would turn out to be historically important and partly because I figured they would be the most like, well, me. What is it like to have a legally sanctioned, professionally guided, optimally comfortable high-dose psilocybin experience?

Yet the volunteers in the first experiments were not exactly like me, because at the time I doubt I would have read past “Interested in the Spiritual Life?” There were no stone-cold atheists in the original group, and interviews with nearly a dozen of them suggested many if not most of them came into the study with spiritual leanings to one degree or another. There was an energy healer, a man who’d done the whole Iron John trip, a former Franciscan friar, and an herbalist. There was also a physicist with an interest in Zen and a philosophy professor with an interest in theology. Roland Griffiths acknowledged, “We were interested in a spiritual effect and were biasing the condition initially [in that direction].”

That said, Griffiths went to great lengths in the design of the study to control for “expectancy effects.” In part this owed to Griffiths’s skepticism that a drug could occasion the same kind of mystical experience he had had in his meditation: “This is all truth to Bill and hypothesis to me. So we needed to control for Bill’s biases.” All of the volunteers were “hallucinogen naive,” so had no idea what psilocybin felt like, and neither they nor their monitors knew in any given session whether they were getting psilocybin or a placebo, and whether that placebo was a sugar pill or any one of half a dozen different psychoactive drugs. In fact the placebo was Ritalin, and as it turned out, the monitors guessed wrong nearly a quarter of the time as to what was in the pill a volunteer had received.

Even years after their experiences in the trials, the volunteers I spoke to recalled them in vivid detail and at considerable length; the interviews lasted hours. These people had big stories to tell; in several cases, these were the most meaningful experiences of their lives, and they clearly relished the opportunity to relive them for me in great detail, whether in person, by Skype, or on the telephone. The volunteers were also required to write a report of their experiences soon after they occurred, and all of the ones I interviewed were happy to share these reports, which made for strange and fascinating reading.

Many of the volunteers I spoke to reported initial episodes of intense fear and anxiety before surrendering themselves to the experience—as the sitters encourage them to do. The sitters work from a set of “flight instructions” prepared by Bill Richards, based on the hundreds of psychedelic journeys he has guided. The guides go over the instructions with the volunteers during the eight hours of preparation all of them receive before commencing their journeys.

The flight instructions advise guides to use mantras like “Trust the trajectory” and “TLO—Trust, Let Go, Be Open.” Some guides like to quote John Lennon: “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.”

Volunteers are told they may experience the “death/transcendence of your ego or everyday self,” but this is “always followed by Rebirth/Return to the normative world of space & time. Safest way to return to normal is to entrust self unconditionally to the emerging experiences.” Guides are instructed to remind volunteers they’ll never be left alone and not to worry about the body while journeying because the guides are there to keep an eye on it. If you feel as if you are “dying, melting, dissolving, exploding, going crazy etc.—go ahead.” Volunteers are quizzed: “If you see a door, what do you do? If you see a staircase, what do you do?” “Open it” and “climb up it” are of course the right answers.

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