01/03/2024

Roland Griffiths’ research has shown how psychedelics can ease depression in people with terminal illnesses.

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Andre Chung/The Washington Post via Getty Images


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Andre Chung/The Washington Post via Getty Images


Roland Griffiths’ research has shown how psychedelics can ease depression in people with terminal illnesses.

Andre Chung/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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Imagine for a moment that everything you’ve built in your professional life around things that have motivated, inspired, and defined you has started to feel irrelevant? Like it no longer fit who you wanted to be in the world.

Maybe you don’t have to imagine it. I must not. After 20 years of capital ā€œNā€ news, I found myself yearning for a different kind of inner exploration: about the human condition, which is the essence of this series.

The same thing happened to Dr Roland Griffiths. Today he is known as the scientist who helped demonstrate that psychedelics, particularly a drug called psilocybin, can ease depression and mental anguish in cancer patients and others facing terminal illnesses. Before that, his professional focus was on the risks of mood-altering drugs, including various sleep medications.

But after starting a personal meditation practice, Griffiths began asking several questions that seemed out of place in the world of science. Questions like, is there a god? Do we have a soul? And can we use our minds to somehow alleviate our physical suffering?

He began working with a group of researchers and enthusiasts to develop a series of experiments that tested the medical value of psychedelics.

Griffiths told me the results were amazing. Not only did the drug reduce anxiety and depression in the patients, but it unlocked a spiritual experience for some of them.

Now, Griffiths is looking at all of this from the other side. In early 2022 he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Doctors think he only has a few months to live. I had an incredible conversation with this world-renowned scientist and healer about how he’s coping with his own mortality and the mystery of what comes next.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Martin: You started working a lot with psilocybin. Can you describe what it is about in simple terms?

Roland Griffith: It is a classic psychedelic drug. It comes from psilocybin-containing mushrooms and has been used for hundreds or thousands of years in indigenous cultures for ceremonial healing or sacramental religious experiences. It comes on pretty quickly and doesn’t last as long as LSD or mescaline, so it’s easier to work with.

Martin: Do you use the expression “travel”?

Griffith: No, I avoid it because it just has all the baggage from the 60s.

Martin: You were running these trials explicitly on cancer patients to see how psilocybin would affect them.

Griffith: That was our first therapy trial that we conducted at Johns Hopkins with psychedelics. I remember feeling very cautious about what an experience like this would do to someone who is facing the most significant existential threat possible.

As it turns out, the effects were nothing short of amazing. This cohort of people, who met criteria for clinical depression or anxiety, after a single dose of psilocybin in our supported conditions, anxiety and depression decreased markedly immediately and markedly and sustainably. This was the most important feature: We followed people for six months and they were left with very low symptom profiles.

Martin: What did they tell you about how they lost their sense of fear or anxiety?

Griffith: I remember one man, I’m reluctant to give this example but I will, he came to believe in the reality of God. But what was so interesting is that this changed his whole frame of reference.

It wasn’t that it was full of spiritual language like “God will save me.” No, it was an acceptance of his condition and a reassurance to the people he loved most, that all was well, all was as it should be, and they felt relieved by that.

Martin: If I may ask, why were you reluctant to share that example?

Griffith: The language of God.

Martin: We are all limited by our language, right? Perhaps some people use the word God because we don’t know what other words to apply to these ideas or experiences.

Griffith: I think that’s exactly how it is. We live in the midst of this amazing mystery. And we don’t have a coherent scientific explanation of what’s going on. The thing we understand best about our experience of being sentient is that we are aware of being aware. That we have an interiority, and it is only we as individuals who can affirm it.

Martin: You’ve found yourself on the other side of this whole thing as someone contemplating these very existential questions with new urgency. When were you diagnosed with cancer?

Griffith: In early 2022, I went to have a screening colonoscopy, thinking I was completely healthy, and walking away with a diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer. And as improbable as that sounds, it was a call to celebration. My wife and I have been in that mode despite multiple surgeries and chemotherapy.

Martin: Are you going to take psilocybin anytime?

Griffith: No. Initially, I actually didn’t want to touch a psychedelic, because I was worried it would alter the state I was in.

Martin: You didn’t want to sabotage this clarity of mind you had.

Griffith: Yes, right. And so there came a point where I thought, I wonder if I’m defending against anything here, I wonder if my reason for refusing to take a psychedelic is that I’m masking something. That there’s a skeleton in my closet and I’m just saying I’m happy and everything is beautiful.

So I decided, OK, so I’m going to take a psychedelic fix. I took LSD.

Martin: How did it go?

Griffith: Fantastic. I’ve dealt with cancer as an other, and in general I don’t think it’s wise to reify something in the mind as anything other than a mental object. But in this case, I turned to the cancer itself and said, “OK, what’s going on here?”

The cancer didn’t respond. Then I went into a dialogue and said, “You know, I’ve considered you a blessing. I actually really respect everything that’s happened to me since this diagnosis. I’m really grateful for the diagnosis, but do you have to kill me?” ?”

Martin: Whoa. Was there an answer to that?

Griffith: Yes, the answer was, “Yes, you will die but that’s how it should be. There’s a deeper meaning. There’s a deeper purpose. And you should keep doing what you’re doing.”

I felt implied that I should speak more broadly about what I was going through, because I was reluctant to. So, I have something to say here. And so I asked, “How about you give me more time?”

Martin: I like that you chose the sequel.

Griffith: I went for the sequel. But I have radio silence. She didn’t answer. Was I in dialogue with cancer? No, this does not fit into my world view. Some people would say I was, but he was deeply affirming what I was doing and it felt like a power to speak.

My farewell invitation is to celebrate. I invite you to celebrate what I am celebrating and that is this experience of the miracle of where we are. You don’t need to have a terminal diagnosis to lean more fully, and I promise you it’s worth it.

To ensure his work continues, Dr. Griffiths founded The Roland R. Griffiths, Ph.D. Chair Fund dedicated to the study of psychedelics in “the service of human prosperity for generations to come.”

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