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Should Psychedelic Therapists Have Psychedelic Experience?

Should Psychedelic Therapists Have Psychedelic Experience?

Psychedelics are front and center of a new and rapidly growing medical industry that recognizes their profound healing potential. More and more people are taking psychedelics in clinical settings, with trained therapists guiding them through unpredictable terrain, helping them process and heal their wounds. 

However, as psychedelics become medicalized we are urged to explore the question: should a therapist have personal experience with psychedelics before working with clients who are on psychedelics? 

For those who’ve taken psychedelics and understand how utterly strange (and at times immensely challenging) the experience can be, the answer may feel like an obvious yes. While each psychedelic experience is unique, the thread that binds virtually all of them is their ineffability. Trusting someone to help you navigate that space can be difficult if they haven’t occupied it themselves. 

But as psychedelics intersect with western science, intuition alone cannot satisfy modern medicine’s inquiries around efficacy and safety. One possible solution is that space must be made for the perspectives of indigenous communities who’ve worked with psychedelic medicines for time immemorial and understand them in ways that transcend western epistemological frameworks. 

Western Medicine and Psychedelic Therapy

COMPASS Pathways, a UK-based mental healthcare company working with synthetic psilocybin, states on their website that therapists are not recruited based on their “willingness or desire” to take psychedelics. According to COMPASS, until evidence suggests otherwise, the best predictors of safety and optimal clinical outcomes are emotional maturity, compassion, and clinical therapeutic experience.

So far, there is no evidence within western medicine that suggests otherwise. Arguably, it is for lack of trying. As Elizabeth M. Nielson, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Guss, MD write in their article “Should Psychedelic Therapists Have First-hand Experience with Psychedelics?” for Chacruna, “no contemporary studies have systematically studied whether or how therapists’ first-hand experience with psychedelics affects clinical outcomes in psychedelic therapy.” 

When psychedelic therapy first garnered interest from medical practitioners in the mid-20th century, shortly after Albert Hofmann discovered LSD in 1943, researchers and clinicians “stressed the value of direct experience with a psychedelic compound” in order to be successful as psychedelic therapists, write Nielson and Guss. Hofmann wrote that first-hand experience would allow the therapist to truly understand the “strange world of LSD inebriation” and its related phenomena in their patients. 

But due to restrictive drug laws in the 1960s, and the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, conducting those studies became virtually impossible. Psychiatrist and substance abuse researcher Herbert Kleber came the closest in the mid-60s when he designed a study that would compare the outcomes in patients undergoing LSD-assisted therapy treated by a therapist that had taken LSD themselves versus a therapist who hadn’t. The study was cut short when the Swiss laboratory Sandoz halted LSD production in 1965. 

Should Doctors Have Direct Experience with Psychiatric Drugs They Prescribe?

Today, with the mainstreaming of psychedelics and their burgeoning reputation as legitimate therapeutic medicines, questions around what constitutes effective psychedelic therapy can be more formally investigated. But the unique nature of psychedelic therapy, which, as Nielson and Guss write, is an “unprecedented blend of pharmacological and psychotherapeutic approaches,” doesn’t fit squarely with the already established western medical models. 

Contemporary psychiatry does not necessitate that a doctor has direct experience with any psychotropic medication they prescribe to patients. It’s a standard that, according to Nielson and Gus, hasn’t been fully examined. They say that as of June 2018, they were “unable to locate a single study on the relationship between psychiatrists’ personal use of pharmaceutical substances, their prescribing practices with psychotropic medicines, and/or effects on patient outcomes.” 

Furthermore, in the 1960s, randomized controlled trials (RCTs), in which a treatment is randomly allocated to participants and isolated from the doctors prescribing them, became the “gold-standard” for demonstrating the efficacy of pharmacological treatments. While this approach may be effective with drugs such as antibiotics, Nielson and Guss say that psychiatric medicine, in particular psychedelic therapy, are “poor fits” for the RTC research method because of the psychotherapeutic intervention involved. 

While psychoanalytic research and training values subjective personal experience, and doesn’t see it as potentially invalidating any research, pharmacological research values objectivity, and excludes personal experience as a source of knowledge. The “dual nature” of psychedelic therapy has generated “controversy regarding the relevance, importance, and danger of self-experimentation in the current psychedelic research,” write Nielson and Guss. 

Decolonizing Psychedelic Science

Healing with psychedelic substances is not exactly the uncharted territory of intrepid western researchers. Indigenous peoples have been the stewards of these medicines for centuries, and there exist rich traditions amongst various lineages involving the ceremonial use of plant medicines, in which shamans commune with plants as sacred sacraments. COMPASS’s claim that psychedelic therapists don’t necessarily need to be familiar with psychedelic modes of consciousness stands in stark contrast to traditional contexts in which only the shaman ingests the plant medicine.

As shamanic practitioner, Itzhak Beery, writes in his article “Are You Drinking Ayahuasca for the Wrong Reason?” for Lucid News, in some traditional contexts the shaman alone drinks the ayahuasca brew so that they may enter the “other world” and identify their patient’s ailment by penetrating both their physical and energetic bodies, clearing dark energies often with the aid of spirit animal helpers. Spirit worlds, energetic bodies, and animal guides are hardly the province of western science, a paradigm that fundamentally rejects intuitive wisdom in favor of rational, empirical knowledge. In her paper “The role of Indigenous knowledge in psychedelic science,” published by the Journal of Psychedelic Studies, Evgenia Fotiou writes that “in most cultural settings where ayahuasca is used, it is seen as an intentional agent, indeed a ‘plant teacher’, something that cannot easily be reconciled with scientific epistemology without broadening our lens.”

While western medicine enthusiastically embraces psychedelics, many believe we would be wise to meaningfully engage with indigenous perspectives, rather than uncritically appropriating these medicines into the current western framework, erasing those traditions. Fotiou argues that decolonizing psychedelic science “disrupts the legacies of colonialism and the systematic oppression of Indigenous peoples,” and could enhance western research efforts by widening its lens. For Fotiou, dismantling the hierarchy of knowledge systems that privileges western science above all others could allow for different perspectives and methodologies to coexist and contribute equally to psychedelic science going forward.

If this vision shared by Fotiou and many others is put into practice, it could help shed light on the tensions surrounding psychedelic therapy, and the challenges these medicines pose for the currently accepted medical standards. In the meantime, as Nielson and Guss suggest, the influence firsthand psychedelic experience has amongst psychedelic therapists and researchers deserves further investigation.

Image via Wikicommons: Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Session Room

Psychedelic Conversations with Author Don Lattin

Psychedelic Conversations with Author Don Lattin

Confessions of a Psychedelic Journalist: A Conversation with Don Lattin & Kat Snow

Join veteran journalist Don Lattin, and KQED Science senior editor Kat Snow at 7:00 PM, January 16th 2020 at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, for an insightful conversation traversing Don’s long, strange trip of a career investigating and writing about psychedelic substances . 

For over forty years, Don Lattin has written about the social, spiritual, and political aspects of the psychedelic drug movement as a newspaper reporter, freelance journalist, and the author of four books of narrative nonfiction.

In the 1970s, as a young reporter working in the East Bay, Don broke one of the first investigative stories about the US Army’s past efforts to use LSD as a hostile interrogation tool. He also covered the first local campaign to legalize marijuana in the United States—a political movement that continues today in ongoing efforts to decriminalize the use of magic mushrooms, peyote, and ayahuasca in cities and states across the nation.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as a staff writer and columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, Don wrote extensively about various cults, sects, and new religious movements including a generation of spiritual seekers inspired by psychedelic drug experiences in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Lattin’s most recent book, Changing Our Minds: Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy, builds upon his previous investigations, presenting a broad survey of the psychedelic renaissance, covering almost all areas of this resurgence, placing emphasis on the particulars of how psychedelic substances are being used for therapeutic as well as spiritual purposes.

Listen to Don’s previous interview on the KQED Radio. 

Buy Tickets Here

The “Post-Prohibition” Era of Psychedelic Substances 

It is safe to say that we find ourselves approaching the “post-Prohibition” era of psychedelic substances. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted “Breakthrough Therapy” status to psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, as a treatment for major depressive disorder (MDD). Psychedelic substances are once again establishing themselves as therapeutic modalities, promoting both spiritual and psychological insight. In the closing chapters of Changing Our Minds, Lattin reflects on this changing paradigm:

“What is most striking about the psychedelic future is how much it looks like the psychedelic past. If today’s vision becomes tomorrow’s reality, it will be possible – sometime in the 2020s – for regular people struggling with depression, addiction or other psychological woes to seek help from therapists using psilocybin or MDMA as treatment tools – just like people could do back in the late 1950w with psilocybin and in the early 1980s with MDMA.”

Don Lattin young

Don Lattin

Psilocybin mushrooms are being decriminalized in various cities and states across the US, including Denver, CO, Oakland, CA, and Chicago, IL. It is forecasted that psilocybin, alongside many other drugs, will follow marijuana’s trajectory from illegal to medically approved to decriminalized to eventually being legalized. 

Moving beyond the first wave of psychedelic exploration, and the backlash of prohibition that ensued as a reaction to what happened in the sixties, we find ourselves in a wholly new era. We now see a massive resurgence of legitimization, with psychedelics being ‘rebranded’ or rather repositioned within the public mind, due to the growing body of scientific research that continues to highlight the psychologically beneficial aspects of these substances. Psychedelic substances are not only being used for those who suffer from mental health conditions, they are increasingly being used for the’ betterment’ of well people. However, Lattin wisely cautions:

“Psychedelic plants and chemicals are not for everyone. They affect different people in diverse ways, depending in large part on one’s intention and the setting in which these drugs are taken. But, in sometimes subtle and other times dramatic ways, they often inspire awe and wonder, providing the heightened insight and meaningfulness one may also find in dreams or religious excitation.”

Changing Our Minds: Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy 

Changing Our Minds by Don LattinChanging Our Minds is one of the most comprehensive and up-to-date books on psychoactive substances, their socio-cultural trajectories of use over time and their place in contemporary society. Lucid, well researched and written, Don covers the global movement of scientifically-grounded exploration of how psychedelic drugs – such as LSD, MDA, MDMA, psilocybin, ayahuasca, ketamine, and many others – have been utilized to treat conditions like PTSD, depression, addiction, and end-of-life anxiety.

“Changing Our Minds expertly explores the healing and spiritual journey catalyzed by psychedelic psychotherapy through the courageous voices of those who are pioneering the study of these treatments. An essential read for those interested in the expanding field of psychedelic research for therapeutic and spiritual uses, this volume lands at a crucial time during the re-emergence of psychedelic research as we approach the mainstream, scientific acceptance of psychedelic psychotherapy and the reintegration of the legal use of psychedelics into Western culture.” — Rick Doblin, PhD., Founder & Executive Director of MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies

Learn More About Changing Our Minds

California Institute of Integral Studies LogoAbout California Institute of Integral Studies

California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) is an accredited university that strives to embody spirit, intellect, and wisdom in service to individuals, communities, and the earth. CIIS expands the boundaries of traditional degree programs with transdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and applied studies utilizing face-to-face, hybrid, and online pedagogical approaches. Offering a personal learning environment and supportive community, CIIS provides an excellent multifaceted education for people committed to transforming themselves, others, and the world.

Stay tuned with CIIS public programs & updates for similar events @CIIS_sf

 

More About Don Lattin


Don Lattin, author of Changing Our Minds

Don Lattin is an award-winning author and veteran journalist. His five previously published books include The Harvard Psychedelic Club, a national bestseller that was awarded the California Book Award, Silver Medal, for nonfiction. His feature articles have been published in dozens of leading magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and San Francisco Chronicle, where Lattin worked as a staff writer for twenty years. Additionally, Don has taught as an adjunct faculty member at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, where he holds a degree in sociology. His most recent book, Changing Our Minds: Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy, was published in 2017.

Arizona Psychedelics Conference 2019

Arizona Psychedelics Conference 2019

 

Volunteer, Robert Hoberg, holding a copy of ‘Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs’ at the Synergetic Booth.

 

The First of its Kind

We were delighted to attend the first-ever conference related to the medicinal and therapeutic properties of psychoactive substances in the state of Arizona: The Arizona Psychedelics Conference! The conference, hosted by Entheogenic Research Awareness (ERA) at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine (SCNM) at the University of Tempe, Arizona, took place February 8-10th 2019. While there, we met and connected with many like-minded and inspiring people who are dedicated to furthering the discussion on this important topic.

The 3-day event featured over 40 speakers including, among many others, Bia Labate, Brad Burge, Joe Moore, Mike Magolies, Kyle Buller, and Joe Tafur. The lineup was far-ranging and diverse, with speakers from varied backgrounds and disciplines such as anthropology, psychology, and neuroscience in addition to therapeutic practitioners, indigenous healers, herbalists, and veterans. Among the specific substances discussed were MDMA, cannabis, ayahuasca, ibogaine, psilocybin, 5-meo-DMT, kambo, peyote, ketamine, and San Pedro cactus . While the therapeutic use and potential risks of these visionary plant medicines and psychoactive substances was the focus of many workshops, attendees also had the opportunity to discuss important issues related to the responsible use of psychedelics in modern societies in workshops on issues of cultural appropriation, ecological sustainability, and healthcare as a human right.

A Revolution in Medicine

As the general public and medical practitioners become more aware of the age-old use of psychoactive substances as tools of spiritual and mental well-being, many previously stigmatized substances are increasingly viewed as valuable to our future growth and development. Conferences like this provide a beneficial opportunity for enthusiasts and experts to come together to expand their knowledge in order to continue to work with these powerful substances from an informed standpoint.

Congratulations are in order to the event organizers, Amanda and Raymond Ryskowski, for their massive personal efforts to make this inspired dream a reality. The event itself was so well-received, both by members of the university’s medical faculty and the general public, that it sold out quickly and more tickets had to be issued to enable more people to attend and learn about this growing field of research. We expect that this was the first in a succession of ‘Arizona Psychedelic Conferences’, and we look forward to being at more in futures to come!

 

Interested in learning more? Check out the conference video below, queued to the section in which our publisher, Deborah Snyder, discusses some of our featured titles:

 

 

 

 

 

About the Organizers

The conference was hosted by Entheogenic Research Awareness (ERA), a student-run organization based at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine (SCNM) at the University of Tempe, Arizona. ERA is led by Amanda Ryskowski and Elliot Zyglis. ERA’s vision is to help create a new paradigm for healthcare which honors indigenous peoples and their knowledge of the natural world, integrating such understanding with the highest standards of evidence-based medicine. Their focus is to educate medical professionals and the general public about entheogens, and their potential applications in medicine through the integration of traditional uses alongside the current research on these powerful substances.

Check @ERA.SCNM out on Facebook to keep up-to-date with their future events.

In Memoriam, Dr. Ralph Metzner (1936-2019)

In Memoriam, Dr. Ralph Metzner (1936-2019)

Ralph in 1963, photographer unknown

In Loving Memory of the Visionary Ralph Metzner

Psychologist, writer, pioneer in the field of psychedelic and consciousness research, Dr. Ralph Metzner passed away peacefully in his sleep earlier this week, March 14, 2019. He was truly an asset to this planet and will be greatly missed by us all.

Ralph was always far beyond his time and will be remembered for histories to come. He traversed the boundaries of traditional psychology through the integration of shamanic techniques that alter consciousness, and enable us a deepened awareness of the human psyche. As a graduate student in the early 1960s, Ralph worked closely with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass) on the Harvard research into psilocybin. Beyond research, in the 1970s Ralph’s focus shifted to the intensive study and practice of yoga, incorporating a meditative system of life-energy into his work. Furthermore, he was a brilliant author, and some of his books include: Searching for the Philosophers’ Stone; Encounters with Mystics, Scientists, and Healers, Ecology of Consciousness; The Alchemy of Personal, Collective, and Planetary Transformation, Birth of a Psychedelic Culture and many more.

A planetary steward, Ralph was the founder and president of the Green Earth Foundation which strove to harmonize human understanding with the planet that we live in. In 2014, Ralph was interviewed by Michael Gosney at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Conference in Oakland, California regarding his views on ecology for the Eco Evolution Podcast. This podcast examines the ecological crisis that we are living through, illuminating the fact that our relationship to the divine has been severed.

“The idea that the spiritual and the natural are opposed or that spirituality must always transcend nature is a culturally relative concept not shared by non-monotheistic religions or traditional societies. In indigenous cultures around the world the natural world is regarded as the realm of spirit and the sacred; the natural is the spiritual. From this follows an attitude of respect, a desire to maintain a balanced relationship…-in short, sustainability.” Ralph Metzner, “The Psychopathology of the Human-Nature Relationship,” 1995

Listen to the podcast in full here.

A Tribute to Our Beloved Friend

Dr. Ralph Metzner and publisher, Deborah Parrish Snyder, when she visited him in his home late November 2018.

“Our beloved Ralph Metzner, pioneer in consciousness research, left the planet early this morning. His friends agree, there is no person better prepared for death than Ralph. As he makes the ultimate transition, I say so long, friend, as you transcend, know how much wisdom you have left behind, and how we treasure you.” Deborah Parrish Snyder, Synergetic Press Publisher

Global treasure Ralph Metzner, one of those on whose shoulders our evolving consciousness stands, passed over today. A quickening in the force as his human wisdom and inspiring journey informs the broader Gaiamind.

As the relatively obscure member of the “Harvard Psychedelic Club” trio, unlike Leary and Alpert he kept pushing the envelope in the field of psychology all the way until his final days, studying, researching, teaching, evolving. He held the first major conference on Ayahuasca in San Francisco in 2002 (we produced the private after party at the Anon Salon space), and was the guide of the guides one might say, in fostering the neo-shamanic movement of psychedelic Work, a culture just now making its way out of the underground as psychedelic-assisted therapy emerges as a new legal paradigm of caregiving and life enrichment, and a new respect for the spiritual and healing powers of ayahuasca, fungi and other plant teacher/healers dawns. He was a thoughtful, very kind man, and from early on saw the need for awareness and care of our planetary body while we are taking our human journey, as expressed through his Green Earth Foundation and contributions to the Eco-Psychology movement. His newest book, just released, is a wonderful biographical account “Searching for the Philosophers’ Stone: Encounters with Mystics, Scientists, and Healers”. He explored and taught us about the passage of death, making his own transition all the more poignant. As is often the case with our visionaries, his work and life’s legacy will now be more widely recognized, and we hope received, by the mainstream.

May your path bring more light, love, and life to you dear friend. Thank you from all of us.” —Michael Gosney, Synergetic Press Associate Publisher

An Exploration into Other Worlds

In 2013, Ralph collaborated with us to commemorate the publication of The Mystic Chemist, in the Collected Works Bookstore, Santa Fe, NM. In this talk, Ralph recounts personal stories of his extraordinary experiences into Other Worlds, whilst reflecting on the life of the late Albert Hoffman. 

Meditations on Mortality

After Ralph’s departure, it is comforting to have video footage from an interview taken for the revolutionary documentary, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, exposing his thoughts on the nature of death. Being avidly involved with research into psychoactive substances, Ralph discusses the ability of these mind-manifesting substances to transform our conception of death, helping us to evaporate fear in the realization that we are not our bodies, and that there is ultimately “nothing to be afraid of.”

Ralph, you were truly an inspiration and a guide to all that met you, the world has yet to digest the lessons that you spent your life teaching. 

R.I.P. Ralph Metzner (1936-2019)

 

Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs with Dennis McKenna

Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs with Dennis McKenna

Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs eBook Newly Available

For those who like to save paper, keep things minimal, or merely have their research library on easy tabs, we are excited to announce that the Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs (ESDP50) Volume 2: Proceedings of the 2017 conference held in Tyringham Hall, UK, is now available in eBook format!

 

McKenna’s Milestone Publication

The milestone publication, ESPD50, emerged as the brainchild of Dennis McKenna. McKenna, having attained a copy of the original publication from the 1967 conference, found himself inspired to shape his career in light of the book, delving into a lifelong investigation of the pharmacology of traditional medicinal plants.

“The realization that real science was being pursued in this field was a revelation to me, partly because it opened the possibility that one day I, too, might be able to achieve a place in this exclusive fellowship. At first, I thought I would be able to prove to my parents that I was serious about psychedelics and not just a confused hippie in search of cheap thrills, but they were not very reassured. However, over the years, they came to recognize the merits of my chosen career.”Dennis McKenna, The Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs: Reflections on a Book that Changed My Life.’

The first international gathering of researchers held on this subject was in 1967. It was an interdisciplinary group of specialists gathered in one place to share their findings on a topic that was gaining widespread interest: The use of psychoactive plants in indigenous societies. It was intended that follow-up conferences should be held about every 10 years. However, the War on Drugs soon limited any advances in this field of research, putting a prohibitive ban on psychoactive drugs, denying their medicinal value altogether.

 

The Future of Medicine

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of research into the medicinal and therapeutic properties of psychoactive substances. In spite of their prohibitive ban, researchers persevered. With their substantial discoveries and findings helping to reverse public opinion and reestablish the medical legitimacy of certain substances.

In June 2017, a group of interdisciplinary researchers from around the world convened to review their research and findings together in what was known as the second Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs Symposium. The papers given at the 2017 Symposium, organized by Dr. Dennis McKenna, have been collected and curated into what is now known as the ESPD50, representing the most significant body of knowledge in this field available.

 

McKenna Speaks at ESPD50 Conference

 

 

Interested in ESPD50, but find the science hard to digest? Make your reading interactive by watching the video lectures of individual authors presenting their research papers at the 2017 Symposium here

Check out Dennis McKenna’s recent interview on the Future Fossils Podcast with Michael Garfield, where they discuss the applications of psychoactive substances as tools for scientific investigation.

What Reviewers Had to Say:

For decades, the keepers of the psychedelic therapy and ethnobotany flames have guarded and passed along rare copies of the published proceedings of this January 28–30, 1967 conference at UC San Francisco, which were released later that year as “Public Health Service Publication No. 1645” and briefly sold for $4 by the U.S. Government Printing Office.

This month, the historic research papers from that mostly forgotten conference, along with the proceedings of a symposium held in England last year to mark the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco gathering, have been published by Synergetic Press in a beautifully boxed, two-volume hardcover edition. 

Don Lattin, award-winning journalist & author of Changing Our Minds: Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy

Much of their discussion centers around the indigenous peoples of the world who have utilized these miraculous psychedelic fungi and plants (even the skin secretions of frogs and toads) in their cultures and religions. Of course, what’s most exciting is the potential for additional therapeutic discoveries, once the substances are better understood. 

Matt Sutherland, Foreword Reviews

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