Five minutes with psychedelics researcher Bill Richards

Psychologist Bill Richards studies the medical potential of the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin, the active ingredient in ‘magic mushrooms’.

He’s part of the research team at the respected Johns Hopkins Medical School who are studying whether psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can help people with cancer cope with the psychological impact of their condition.

The project is a hot topic at the moment, partly because the research team are looking for volunteers with a diagnosis of cancer to take part in the pioneering study, and also because several of their recent findings have made headlines.

These have included the widely-reported results from their recent studies where participants reported that some of the psilocybin experiences remained deeply and personally meaningful, even after a year.

Bill has been a clinical psychedelics researcher since the 1960s and so has a wealth of experience with these curious compounds, and he’s also kindly agreed to talk to Mind Hacks about the current pioneering research project.

Can you say a little about the study that’s running at the moment and what sort of volunteers you need?

Following up on our first studies with healthy volunteers, we are reactivating research into the promising application of brief counseling assisted by psilocybin for persons with a diagnosis of cancer. Studies in the 1960’s and early 1970’s suggested that this intervention could decrease anxiety, depression, interpersonal isolation, fear of death, and preoccupation with pain, thus enabling persons to live whatever time remained more fully.

Volunteers for the present study need to be between the ages of 21 and 70, without personal or family histories of schizophrenia or severe mental illness, and experiencing some degree of psychological distress. Persons may be terminally ill, or in earlier stages of coping with cancer, though if there is no recent disease progression, one year since initial diagnosis is required.

More detailed information is available at All participants receive medical screening and, if accepted, work with skilled professional who provides preparation, guidance during two 6-hour psilocybin sessions and assistance in the initial integration of the experiences that occur.

Clinical research with hallucinogenic drugs was effectively outlawed for many years since the 1960s. What had to happen before research like this could start again?

Before the recent rebirth of this type of research, studies continued at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center until 1977 when they became dormant due to administrative changes and different priorities. It wasn’t really “outlawed”; financial and institutional support on the State and local levels ceased.

Following a “think tank” sponsored by the Council on Spiritual Practices in 1999, Roland Griffiths, Robert Jesse, Una McCann and I designed a study with psilocybin and submitted it to an FDA committee for approval. It was approved, presumably on the basis of its scientific merits, both by the FDA and the Johns Hopkins Institutional Review Board and we began our first study in 2000.

A recent study by your research group found that some psilocybin experiences were still considered deeply significant, even spiritual, after a year. Do you think this sort of research can help us understand the neuroscience of mystical experience?

We have demonstrated that mystical experiences indistinguishable from those recorded in the history of religions can be occasioned with the skilled and respectful use of psilocybin. This now opens up a fascinating research frontier, not only into possible neurochemical correlates in brain activity, but also into correlations between the phenomenology of different states of consciousness and subsequent alterations of mental health, creativity and spirituality. Many research projects await design and implementation in the years ahead, some of which may help us better understand the mysteries of our own being.

Which other hallucinogens do you think might have therapeutic potential?

There are many molecules that appear to trigger changes in human consciousness, some that have been synthesized and catalogued by Alexander Shulgin, and in all probability many yet to be discovered. In time each needs to be carefully investigated in terms of efficacy and safety.

We have focused on one substance, psilocybin, which has been used in religious and healing rituals by indigenous people for some two thousand years and which appears to be reasonably safe when used in medical research in accordance with the guidelines we have published.

Name three under-rated things.

1. Human consciousness — that there is “something, not nothing” (Schelling)

2. The beauty of everyday sense perception (without psychedelics).

3. The power of individual acts of compassion

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