The Ethics of Taking the Drugs You Study
Should psychedelic scientists trip on the drugs they research?
VICE.com, May 14 2019
From 1960 to 1962, the Harvard Psilocybin Project conducted unconventional experiments, like giving psilocybin to prison inmates to see if it would reduce recidivism, or doling it out to theology students to provoke a religious experience. Led by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, their goal was to test the potential applications of the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.
Leary was a clinical psychologist and professor at Harvard. After taking mushrooms in 1960, he “declared that he learned more in the following five hours than he had done in 15 years of study and research in psychology,” wrote psychologist and consciousness researcher Sue Blackmore in The Guardian.
Leary began to regularly consume hallucinogenic drugs, leading to his dismissal from Harvard and a questioning of the validity of his research. His reputation morphed from respected professor to drug-addled hippie—he allegedly gave LSD to hundreds of students and stopped showing up to the classes he was teaching. Leary’s name became associated with the counterculture movement he advised to “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” and the drugs he once studied became linked to that notoriety as well. (He eventually went to prison, only to escape and run away abroad, until he was arrested in Afghanistan.)
Researchers like Leary were, perhaps, irresponsible with their drug use and promotion. But they were also used as scapegoats to illustrate the potential danger of these medications, said Dominic Sisti, an associate professor at the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1966, the federal government banned the manufacturing and possession of hallucinogens.
Today, the study of psychedelics and their potential application in medicine and research is undergoing a revival and reclaiming its legitimacy. Psychedelics are promising treatment options for depression and other mental health disorders, and tools for scientists to probe the inner workings of the brain and perception.
But a sticky question remains: how much first-hand knowledge should a researcher have with hallucinogens? Leary’s scientific rigor was doubted because of his personal experiences (and exuberance) with these drugs. Unlike other medications, these compounds alter the mind and consciousness. Is it possible that they create a kind of positive bias, or are the insights from taking them important for scientists to experience?
In this next wave of psychedelic research, should the researchers be taking these drugs themselves? And if they are, will we allow them to be honest about it ?
I talked to about a dozen psychedelic researchers, and found that opinions about first-hand drug experiences varied widely. One of the common effects of psychedelic drugs is that they create meaningful and transcendent experiences, and some felt that was a source of positive bias that could influence research. Others thought the opposite: that clinicians who prescribe these drugs should intimately know what the experience is like in order to properly design their studies and provide informed consent.
David Luke, a psychologist at the University Of Greenwich, said that if you are a psychologist who wants to understand the psychedelic experience, there is something to learn from taking them yourself. “It really depends on your field,” he said. “If you are a biochemist working in translational medicine with rats, then maybe you don’t need to take psychedelic particularly. But if you a psychologist wanting to understand the psychedelic experience then, there’s something perhaps to be gained.”
Luke thinks that some of the early studies in psychedelics, where people had traumatic experiences, were a result of a lack of insight from the clinicians. He told me his own psychedelic experiences have been useful for guiding research questions.
One medical doctor and psychedelic researcher in the UK, who asked not to be named, told me he’d tried LSD, DMT, MDMA, ketamine, and psilocybin—all legally—in approved research studies. He has also administered most of these drugs legally to people in medical and research contexts.
“You need to be able to negotiate the landscapes of the drugs as a guide for your patient,” he said. “You cannot do this effectively—or be able to reassure the patient—if you have not also been there yourself under controlled clinical conditions.”
Sisti, at UPenn, said that informed consent might only be possible if researchers really know what the experience of psychedelic drugs is like. For example, last year a study conducted at Johns Hopkins gave people psilocybin to help them quit smoking. By the end of the study, quitting smoking was reported as “one of the least important effects of the study.” Instead, the participants said they had “long-term changes in thoughts, affects, deciders or behaviors,” and “increased aesthetic appreciation, and heightened altruism and pro-social attitudes.”
These aren’t necessarily negative effects, but they don’t have much to do with smoking. Testing these drugs as medication goes beyond just their physical effects, and informed consent should include all potential outcomes of a trial. “Many of these drugs do have a profound impact on one’s identity,” Sisti said. “And to be able to really articulate that might mean trying it.”
Marc Wittmann, a neuropsychologist at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Germany, agreed that researchers should know what an experience is like if they intend to study it. He doesn’t think a team that hasn’t taken these drugs can’t do good research, but he thinks there’s power in knowing what altered states of consciousness are like. He said this can also be achieved without drugs through meditation or floating tanks.
“Someone in the team has to know something about the impact of mind-altering substances in order to be able to understand the profound changes one can go through,” Wittmann said.
Manoj Doss, a postdoctoral research fellow Johns Hopkins University studying the cognitive, emotional, and neural mechanisms of psychedelic drugs, told me that he isn’t convinced taking the drugs is necessary, and that he thinks subjective experiences have biased work in this field.