The Ethics of Taking the Drugs You Study
Should psychedelic scientists trip on the drugs they research?
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?