Baltimore is known to many as the heroin capital of the US . If William Richards has anything to do with it, it may also become the nation’s most psychedelic city.
For the past 15 years, a Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine program co-founded by Richards has dosed hundreds if not thousands of people with a variety of psychedelic drugs. Richards, who specializes in the psychology of religion, sees the “sacred molecules” in such chemicals as nothing more than keys to what is already in the brain.
The drug most often and reliably used in his program is psilocybin . Found in magic mushrooms, it induces mystical experiences. It has shown promising results in treating conditions from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to addiction, and may be able to improve the lives and spiritual practices of otherwise healthy people.
Richards, who began studying psychedelics in Germany in 1963, is convinced such drugs can transform people’s lives for the better. Instead of using the term “psychedelic drugs”, he calls chemicals such as LSD and psilocybin “entheogens”, which means “generating god within”.
Of course, such research isn’t for everyone. But the program follows a strict protocol, which begins with the screening of volunteers.
“Bill was part of the pioneering team here in the US doing psychedelic research and psychedelic therapy model,” said Albert Garcia-Moreau, a post-doctoral researcher in the Hopkins program who is involved in a study that seeks to use psilocybin to help people quit smoking.
Garcia-Moreau described the model in simple terms: “Basically you give someone a really high dose and they have a really transformative experience. And you’ve prepared them for that and then after the fact, you help them integrate it and they get on with their lives.”
In 2006 , the Johns Hopkins team’s first study of psilocybin and mystical experience was commended for its rigor and called a “landmark” by a former director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse . In the decade since, the experimental evidence has grown.
In his new book, Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experience , Richards writes that he and his colleagues have so reliably been able to induce mystical experience that they have empirically proven Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious – the idea that there is archetypical imagery we all share, regardless of our culture.
Richards tells the story of a narcotics addict “who had a junior high school education, got addicted to heroin and imprisoned and then in his early 20s he was paroled for a project … to see if [LSD] would help in the treatment of narcotic addiction”.
In a report, the young man described a series of strange dancing figures.
“And then he came across these later in the waiting room, a book of Hindu art, and he saw the pictures of the dancing Shiva and Vishnu and came running into my office,” Richards writes. “I can still see him – excited. ‘This is what I saw! This is what I saw! This is what I saw!’ So the question is: how does a dancing Shiva get into the mind of the inner-city Baltimore narcotic addict?”
Dancing gods and angels are only one type of experience Richards and his team claim they can reliably produce with psilocybin, given the right dose and setting.
More profound is what Richards calls “unitive consciousness” – a mystical state of unity described by visionaries of all religions in which subject and object merge, somewhere beyond space and time. Richards writes that roughly 75% of volunteers for his studies have reported experiencing unitive consciousness.
“Within that state there’s infinite variation,” he said, but he added that all of the experiences share certain features – “unity, transcendence of time and space, intuitive knowledge, sacredness, deeply felt positive mood, and claims of ineffability” – that define mystical consciousness.
Richards knows the experience firsthand. Sacred Knowledge begins with a long description of the scientist’s first mystical experience – in a laboratory basement in Germany, in 1963.
He filled out some paperwork, Richards writes, and the next thing he knew he was experiencing something that would change the course of his life.
“To my utter amazement, I soon discovered in my visual field the emergence of an exquisitely beautiful multidimensional network of neon-like geometric patterns, drawing my attention ever more deeply within,” he writes.
Soon, he continues, “I seemed to fully become the multidimensional patterns or to lose my usual identity within them as the eternal brilliance of mystical consciousness manifested itself.”
Richards continued to work with psychedelics in Germany and eventually began to work at Spring Grove hospital, in Maryland . As he put it, in 1977 he was the last person to “leave a sinking ship” before that program was shut down by the government. The research lay dormant for 22 years.
“There was always the hope that the research would come alive again in my lifetime, but I didn’t know that it would and it’s really wonderful now that it’s coming so alive,” he said. “Things are just opening up all over the place, so it’s a very hopeful time.”
Of course, it is still quite difficult to gain permission to work with psychedelics, which are classified as schedule I drugs : of no research or medical value and with a high potential for abuse. But for serious research, the situation is getting better.
“It’s sort of like at night when you see a couple stars and then you see a couple more and then a couple more and pretty soon, I hope to see the whole galaxy,” Richards said.
“One study at a time, more and more research, more and more universities getting involved, people getting over the fear that it’s going to hurt the reputation of their school or destroy their professional credentials if they get involved in psychedelics.”
Despite this, Richards is cautious.
“Around 1970, there were people all over the world doing research with psychedelics, especially western Europe and here and all that,” he said. “There were four international conferences on psychedelics and thousands of professional papers published and you would have thought it could never be stopped or repressed. But it happened.”
These mystical states are more than just wonderful emotion. There’s knowledge to be had in these states
As one of the few people to have been at the forefront of research – and to have been legally allowed to use psychedelics – both in the 1960s and now, Richards feels something like a moral imperative to share his insights.
“These mystical states are more than just wonderful emotion,” he said. “There’s knowledge to be had in these states. Someday, in the right context, they ought to be available to people who are well-established in their professions.
“Take a bunch of physicists who really are on the growing edge of physics: they know the concepts, the know the mathematical formulas. Give them a psychedelic and I bet they come up with something and they can articulate it and they can apply it and they can plug it into their theories.”
Most of Richards’ research is focused on the spiritual dimensions of the psychedelic experience. His group recently completed trials for a study on spiritual practice, working with “75 people who want to learn meditative techniques and were willing to receive psilocybin”. He is also engaged in trials with 24 religious leaders who work directly with congregations.
“Just to see if a little religious experience might enrich a ministry,” he said.
“There always have been mystics, people who just spontaneously have these transcendental experiences. Whether Shankara and Plotinus and Meister Eckhart ever took psychedelics, who knows, but they may have just generated their own biochemical ingredients unconsciously. But the important thing is that they had these profound experiences and wrote of them.
“Maybe those of us who use psychedelics don’t generate enough of our own. We need a little boost, you know.”
Related: What is ayahuasca?
Richards says he does not need to take the drugs himself these days – though he did take a trip recently to South America to experience ayahuasca , a powerful hallucinogen used by shamans.
“I’m not opposed to taking major psychedelics again but I don’t feel a great need to,” he said. “I feel like if I spend the rest of my life integrating what I’ve already experienced, frankly, when physical death comes I’ll experience it again, I believe.”
“I don’t have to look again to see if God is still there,” he added – and started laughing.
Richards laughs easily. He marvels that he has helped induce mystical experiences in people of “all races, early 20s to early 80s in age, men and women, close to death and in perfect physical health”.
There’s a “huge variety of people I’ve been privileged to work with and yet the experiences are so universally common. Even those who aren’t terminally ill are usually mortal. These profound experiences are really profound, you know.”
Richards, who used his experience with psychedelics while grieving the loss of his wife to cancer, decades ago, is deeply attached to the individuals who volunteer for his studies.
Twig Harper, who runs a sensory deprivation tank in Baltimore, said of the Johns Hopkins studies: “I’ve done a few studies with them.
“The real secret sauce there is it takes skilled facilitators to get people in those spaces … the compound gets people to those states but their compassion, their empathy, their guiding of the session is really what did that. If those sessions were going on with a bunch of fuddy-duddies they wouldn’t be getting such good results.”
Harper paused a moment, before adding: “I’m sure that just hanging out with Bill for an afternoon would be good for anyone.”
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