Some of the early results are so remarkable that they fall into the too-good-to-be-believed category, at least until far more research is done. A recent study on major depressive disorder, published in JAMA Psychiatry, found more than half of the subjects in remission four weeks later, after just two treatments alongside psychotherapy. A study on tobacco addiction, out of Johns Hopkins, found two-thirds of the subjects who received psilocybin in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy abstinent a year later. These would be miraculous effect sizes if they hold up in larger samples and other contexts. Even if further research finds psilocybin only 50 percent as effective as these experiments suggest, it would be still be a breakthrough.
There isn’t a simple explanation for why psychedelics possess these powers. M.R.I. scans show the psychedelic brain aflame with activity, with areas that rarely connect lighting up in electric conversation. “I think that’s what’s responsible for this radically different associative net, this different ability to absorb the gestalt,” Johnson told me. You are hearing, thinking, processing differently than normal, which can lead to new experiences and epiphanies. Some of those are classic psychedelia, the kind of thing visualized in “Yellow Submarine.” Synesthesia, for instance, where you’ll hear in colors. But just as often, the experience defies those expectations: It’s more like a difficult, but powerful, therapy session.
I avoided psychedelics when I was younger, fearful of the loss of control, and tried them later, desperately, when there was more darkness in my mind than light. It was not an easy time for me, and these were not easy experiences. They kicked down doors around my anxiety, my marriage, my work, my family, my resentments, my attachments, my self. Those rooms were often unpleasant to enter. There was ecstasy and beauty, yes, but also fear and, often, so often, intense nausea. Things I’d fought to ignore resurfaced. Disparate parts of my life and beliefs and personality connected, and I became more legible to myself. I am not cleansed of anxiety, but I am more aware that my outlook, at any given moment, is just a dance of brain chemistry and experience, and far from the only state possible. That a few micrograms of chemical was all it took to upend my confident grip on reality shook me in ways I’m grateful for. I hold my judgments and worldviews more lightly, and I am friendlier to mystery and strangeness.
But as with more traditional therapy, to the extent that these experiences changed me, it is because I acted on the insights later, once sobriety had returned. A trip is of little value if you refuse to leave the hotel after you arrive. “You can have an amazing experience, but if you don’t do the work to ground it in a practice of self-development, it may not have the impact you would hope,” Eckert told me. It “can fade, like a dream.”
Or it can crack you. Psilocybin isn’t addictive, and there is no known lethal dose. “If you look at the safety profile of psilocybin, it’s dead last in terms of its risk of harm either to self or others,” Korthuis told me. But these experiences can be psychologically searing, even scarring. There is evidence that terror-filled trips can cause lingering trauma or even trigger psychosis or suicide in rare cases. Looking back, I wish I had had the option of skilled support, both to get more out of the experiences and to protect me from harm. These are not trivial chemicals. Here there be dragons.
The Eckerts wanted to bring back not the louche psychedelic use of the late ’60s and ’70s, but the supported psychedelic use of the ’50s and early ’60s. “We wanted to put psychedelic therapy and wellness on its own foundation,” Tom told me. Under Measure 109, no one will be able to walk into a store and buy magic mushrooms. Instead, there will be regulated centers, with trained and licensed facilitators who are there both for the trip itself and to help people integrate the experience afterward. There will be screening for psychological and physical conditions that could make the experience unsafe and help on-site for anyone who does fall into psychological or physical crisis. “We wanted to think deeply about how we might integrate psychedelics back into the culture,” Eckert said.
The Eckerts’ initiative caught the attention of a broader group of organizations trying to shift the laws around psychedelics. They were invited to present at a meeting of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS. There, they met with other key groups that would become backers of their project: David Bronner, the chief executive of Dr. Bronner’s soaps, which uses some of its profits to support drug reform initiatives, and Graham Boyd, a co-founder of the Psychedelic Science Funders Collaborative, who brought his experience winning ballot initiative campaigns to the effort.