Discover more from The Trip Report by Beckley Waves
The Life & Legacy of Roland Griffiths
In 2006, a paper published in the journal Psychopharmacology changed the world.
The article, Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance, would become the “shot heard round the world” and hailed as the catalyst for the revival of psychedelic research, a field that had lain dormant since the early 1970s.
The lead author was an accomplished psychopharmacologist who had grown tired of the work upon which he built his career—caffeine pharmacology—and had been looking for a new adventure.
He had recently taken up a meditation practice and, for a time, thought about leaving his scientific career altogether for life in an ashram.
Fortunately for us, psychedelic research was just the thing to reawaken his curiosity and halt a career-ending decision to join a monastic community.
Of course, this scientist was Roland Griffiths, who would become a giant upon whose shoulders the field now stands.
Dr. Griffiths passed away this week after a
battle life-affirming encounter with stage 4 colon cancer.
From the Baltimore Banner:
“Roland Griffiths, a Johns Hopkins researcher credited with reigniting scientific interest in psychedelics and demonstrating that a compound derived from “magic” mushrooms can help people struggling with depression, among other conditions, died Monday at his Baltimore home, his daughter said. He was 77.”
Griffiths left a mark on the field by not only reviving it but also by placing the mystical experience and spirituality at the center of his research.
It would have been very convenient to adopt a strict biomedical approach to investigating these substances given the cultural stigma of psychedelics broadly and the stigma against anything spiritual in the halls of academia, but as a long-term meditator, Griffiths came to psychedelic research with an eye towards the mystical.
Kickstarting a Renaissance
Keep in mind Griffiths started this psychedelic work in the late ‘90s, before real policy developments in cannabis and drug reform efforts took hold, so to say that psychedelic research was risky would be a massive understatement.
However, his reputation as a top-tier researcher solidified him as a systematic and thorough investigator. It made him the perfect candidate for the contentious journey of investigating psychedelic drugs.
Beyond the fact that he was carrying out the first trial in human subjects since the early 1970s, his 2006 paper was crucial for at least two reasons:
It demonstrated that a high dose of psilocybin is safe with appropriate screening, preparation, and support—something that was not obvious then; and
It successfully introduced the concept of Mystical Experience into the field of psychopharmacology and, importantly, showed that these experiences yielded lasting positive transformations for participants.
First, we have to remember that most people at the time (and perhaps still) considered psilocybin a “drug of abuse” with only adverse effects like “scrambling chromosomes”— a sticky residue from the age of D.A.R.E. and the “Just Say No” campaign.
Showing that psilocybin was safe and tolerable reassured other researchers, regulators, and ethics boards.
Secondly, using the Mystical Experience Questionnaire as the primary outcome introduced a non-pharmacological endpoint into a field that a strict biomedical approach could have easily usurped.
Furthermore, the importance of the mystical experience in potentiating lasting psychospiritual change would become a focus for the field.
As Griffiths told Tim Ferris on his podcast (emphasis added):
“I’d never seen anything remotely approaching that after having studied dozens of different psychoactive compounds. So at this point, I’ve given high doses of sedatives, and opiates, and stimulants, and other chemicals to people who are both drug experienced, drug abusers, and drug naive. So I’m really accustomed to understanding and being able to assess the subjective effects and what people say about them.
Different drugs produce different kinds of effects, and people report different things, and I knew that. And so that you give a dose of psilocybin and they’re going to produce effects, in this case, an unusual profile effect. Yeah, fine. What makes that any different? What makes it different is that months after the session, people are saying that experience, two months ago, was the most interesting, most meaningful experience in my lifetime, or among the top five, to be compared to birth of a first-born.”
Since that first 2006 paper, Griffiths and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins went on to study the effects of psilocybin on smoking cessation, meditation, religious leaders, and, of course, end-of-life anxiety from terminal illness.
Psilocybin & End-of-Life Anxiety
Ten years after his first psychedelic publication, Griffiths and colleagues published their findings on the effect of psilocybin on depression and anxiety brought on by terminal illness.
Again, in the Journal Psychopharmacology, he published Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial.
It was a study that proved prescient for his own life’s journey.
From the paper:
“The present study demonstrated the efficacy of a high dose of psilocybin administered under supportive conditions to decrease symptoms of depressed mood and anxiety, and to increase quality of life in patients with a life-threatening cancer diagnosis…The data show that psilocybin produced large and significant decreases in clinician-rated and self-rated measures of depression, anxiety or mood disturbance, and increases in measures of quality of life, life meaning, death acceptance, and optimism.”
“Before the diagnosis I considered myself to be reasonably awake, with a long history of practicing meditation, aware that I am aware and interested in practicing that. After the diagnosis there was a magnitude, a degree of awakening that occurred that far surpassed anything I had experienced before.”
There is a crude saying that “science advances one funeral at a time.”
It is a provocative, tongue-in-cheek expression suggesting that scientific progress sometimes occurs slowly because entrenched or established scientific ideas and paradigms can be resistant to change.
The life and work of Roland Griffiths is a glaring exception to this idea.
In fact, Griffiths’ example is the complete opposite.
His openness, curiosity, and wonder enabled him to embark—confidently—into an ostracized and stigmatized area of inquiry at a point in his career when many accomplished scientists would have rested on their laurels.
And it was not just the substances that were professionally risky for him but how he approached the psychedelic experience—not just the pharmacology, but the phenomenology as well.
In pursuing mystical experiences, spiritual practice, and death anxiety, he opened non-obvious lines of inquiry for the field to pursue.
While the majority of the capital invested into psychedelics and the convincing rationale for policy reform has emphasized their therapeutic potential, I think that over the long arc of history, it will be the psychospiritual aspects of psychedelic experiences that are most interesting, most impactful, and most consequential.
And we have Griffiths to thank for this.
The fruits of this early work on psychospiritual aspects are beginning to reveal themselves with increased awareness and funding for the spiritual dimensions of psychedelics.
Recently, the establishment of two endowments has secured the future of this scientific inquiry:
The Roland R. Griffiths, Ph.D. Professorship Fund in Psychedelic Research on Secular Spirituality and Well-Being, a $24 million endowed professorship to advance research on psychedelic substances and their effects on human health, behavior, and worldview; and
A $16 million gift to Harvard, announced this week, to study psychedelics within the broad focus on human health and flourishing, including at the Center for the Study of World Religions’ Transcendence and Transformation Initiative.
And finally, it has been the manner in which he faced terminal illness and the message he echoed throughout the final months of his life that feels most lasting:
“I came to recognize rather quickly that what I had learned about the nature of mind from both meditation and psychedelics was critical to how I might manage this. We don’t need to identify with thoughts or emotions as they arise, instead we can turn great interest to investigate the present moment, to cultivate this power of grattidue for the astonishing mystery in which we all find ourselves.
Just consider it for a moment that we are this highly evolved sentient creatures, we can see and taste and touch and feel, we’ve developed language, mathematics, scientific method for discovering something about the nature of reality. But most astonishingly to me is that we have this capacity to be aware that we’re aware; it’s actually the only thing we know to be true, we can’t validate it in anyone else, and yet we don’t understand the nature of consciousness, we certainly don’t understand how this entire project started nor where its going.
So for me, the psychological off ramp from potential emotional misery has been this cultivation, this intentional cultivation of gratitude for the presciousness of the gift of life itself, of being conscious, of being awake for the mystery of the present moment.”