Former MAPS, Johns Hopkins Researcher: ‘Psychedelics Work If You Do the Hard Work’

Katherine MacLean is an accomplished research scientist who has studied the effects of psychedelics on cognitive performance, emotion wellbeing, spirituality, and brain function. As a post doctoral research fellow and faculty member at Johns Hopkins, she worked with Roland Griffiths on the groundbreaking clinical trials of psilocybin that were featured in Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind.”  

In June, MacLean published “Midnight Water: A Psychedelic Memoir,” which explores the sudden death of her younger sister to cancer, the grief that spurred a series of unexpected detours in her life, and the ultimate healing she found through the ceremonial use of psychedelics.

MacLean recently discussed some of the themes she develops in the book, the evolution of her life-long experimentation with various psychedelics, and her vision — and concerns — for the future of these medicines as they become more accessible.


Your memoir deals with many aspects of psychedelic drug use, but let’s start with one of the non-psychedelic themes I noticed throughout: Your life-long effort to find your people, to find and connect with like-minded, like-spirited people — and to recognize those who are not your people — which is something we all do to some extent. What role do you think this has played in your journey so far?

Well it’s interesting, I ran into a Buddhist teacher early on who said that friendship is the real connector in a spiritual life. You can have the beliefs, the place to worship, the practices, the rituals, the teachers, all of that. But without friendship, without a sense of camaraderie, you’re toast — because it’s just too hard to go through it alone. You can follow all the instructions and still never get “enlightened” because you never felt taken care of or able to care for another person.

So I think for me I was very lucky early on to find people who I really gravitated to and resonated with. I took this for granted as an undergrad and in grad school. Then I switched to a more institutional medical system at Johns Hopkins, and I realized there were people who weren’t my people. They had the same training as me, same interests, same abilities, but we were coming from very different cultural backgrounds. I realized this when I started the process of leaving Hopkins and meeting people who are outside of academia. It was really my wake-up call.


How would you define friendship in that spiritual/connector sense? What are the aspects of that kind of friendship?

That’s a good question. I would say there’s a mutual care and respect regardless of whether you share the same views or not. There’s a permanent love and care for each other no matter how frequently or infrequently you see each other. It’s not build on obligation, it’s built on ongoing interest and care for the other person. I do think having shared hobbies can make a big difference. For example, some of my closest friends in college stopped taking psychedelics after they graduated, which is something we had shared. So I had to find new people like me who were doing that in a responsible way, you know someone who’s a good parent, who’s committed to their job, who shows up in their community. It can be hard to find your people, but they’re out there.   


Two friends in your book come to mind — Patrick and Eileen — who come in and out of your life at key times.

Exactly. So, the interesting thing about Eileen is she emerged very early on in the journey, and she created the artwork for my cover, but we go years without seeing each other. Yet she’s one of those very special kinds of friendships that will always be an undercurrent in my life. You might only find five of those people in your whole life if you’re lucky.

Patrick is interesting because he was and still is one of the most influential people in my life.  But we’ve also diverged at different points in how we relate to the world and how we relate to psychedelics. Yet still I can send him a copy of the book and he can write such a thoughtful caring understanding reflection on it in a way that many of my colleagues in the psychedelics space have not been able to.

To me it’s really fascinating and also sad. The same people who have worked to prove that psychedelics can open your mind and make you more mature and compassionate, many of those people seem more closed off and intolerant than ever. So these medicines don’t magically make you an enlightened person. You have to put in the work in.


This gets at one of the other themes in the book: The difference between using psychedelics to address one’s mental health issues, and using them to simply enhance one’s experience or enjoy life. Do you believe these drugs operate at different levels in your mind depending on your intentions — or is the psychedelic mechanism the same regardless of intention?

I think they operate at different levels, but I also think a lot of people don’t realize that deep trauma might come up whether you expect it or not. So it’s a little it’s tricky. I don’t think you can just have fun with psychedelics, at some point you will learn something about yourself, about your patterns or relationships. Inevitably I believe psychedelics are revelatory, and they reveal things that could be positive — like, oh I really like spending more time in nature, I’m learning so much about my marriage or my kids. But they also reveal things that could be negative, things you didn’t know you had tucked away in your consciousness.

I don’t agree that everyone has trauma, but I do believe we haven’t done a great job of raising children into adulthood in the modern era. So a lot of adults now who do psychedelics for fun might find some of these nuggets of difficulty or hidden things or difficult emotions. And when they discover these aspects of themselves, I think people should confront the difficulties. Don’t just bury them again. Psychedelics work if you do the hard work. It will enhance the joyful part of your life. The hard work will actually let you have more fun.


Your experiences doing the hard work with psychedelics vacillate between ceremonial or therapeutic settings and doing them by yourself. Do you believe in one approach over another?

Another great question. So I took the do-it-yourself approach from age 18 until about 30. When my sister died I started seeking more ceremonial contexts. Which is to say: when I was having fun I didn’t need the ritual, but when stuff started to come up and it was no longer fun, I needed a container to hold what was coming up. I couldn’t hold it by myself.

I think it also varies between medicines. Mushrooms, in my opinion, work a whole lot better in a ceremonial container. Yes, you can have fun with them — I did, for sure — but what revealed itself to me through the ceremony was way more than I could have ever imagined. It changed my life. Now with MDMA, because of how it works in the body, I think it’s easier to use alone or with friends. But these are just my experiences, it’s not the same for everyone.


And for those confronting difficult issues, doing the hard work and trying to integrate these psychedelics experiences afterward, the therapeutic process is also very different for everyone. Is that your experience?

Absolutely. I’ve been beating this drum since I was just out of Hopkins. Sometimes integration can take a decade, even for just one psychedelic experience. But it’s worth it! It’s only 10 years,  it’s not your whole life. That’s how long it took me, and it was worth the trade-off. Did I want to live a mediocre life with pain, anxiety and being haunted by my past for 60 more years? Or did I want to really have an intense, hard 10 years and then 50 more awesome years?

And the harder the work, the more you have to stick with it. You can’t become demoralized because you’re not fixed or healed instantly — like some of the hype around psychedelics leads people to believe. I wrote the memoir in part because I wanted people to know that it can take a really long time and can be very unpleasant.


OK, let’s talk about some viewpoints you’ve expressed outside the book, including the negative impact you believe capitalism is having on psychedelics. The first big question: Do you think psychedelic medicine can exist in a capitalist system in any kind of positive way?

Well, I think about the things that I like to buy that make my life better. A mixture of herbs, say, that will help with my headaches. And let’s say someone has already prepared them, grown them, figured out a mix of different ingredients that work well, and then they package it and tell me how to take it. That’s amazing. I will buy that. It makes my life better, and I will happily contribute to their hard work for doing it.

Honestly, I see my book in the same way. I’m offering it through a capitalist system, of course, but it’s offered in the spirit of helping others learn from my experiences. And I guess that’s the heart of it for me: Is something being offered in the spirit of helping, or is it being offered purely for profit? Has any new or original value been created in the offering? Or is its value purely based on ideas of ownership and property rights?

With herbalism, with food, even with clothing, I think we’re starting to see a shift in intentions. People ask, why was this thing created? How was it created? Who did the work?  What I would love to see in psychedelics is that we don’t repeat the same mistakes that capitalism has made in so many other areas.


So what’s a real-world example of a positive, capitalistic psychedelic offering?

OK, so I went to Jamaica last January, and I was able to buy a mushroom chocolate bar from an awesome woman. She could tell me where the mushrooms were grown, what variety they were, how the bar was made, and exactly how much to eat: “Take a quarter of the first square the first night. Take it before bed. See how it feels. Then make your decision to take more after that.”

I was like, OK, I feel good about this. I know my views on capitalism are extreme, but that’s because the damage done by capitalism has been extreme. But this is where I find my middle ground. I want to be able to buy a mushroom chocolate bar in the States. I want the same kind of person with a small store telling me how to do it safely. That would be awesome.


Mushroom chocolate bars are available on the gray market in many U.S. cities where psilocybin has been decriminalized, like Washington D.C., Oakland, Seattle, Detroit, and recently Minneapolis. But you’re talking about something above board?

Yes. I want to know what’s in something when I buy it. How much psilocybin in this bar? Is there fentanyl in this MDMA? Is there any methamphetamine in it? Because it’s outside the law, the gray market doesn’t have to tell you. So we need a legal model for quality control. I think we can figure that out, it’s not that complex. The question is: Who benefits from that information? If the benefit is on the behalf of the public — and not the big-money interests — there’s going to be less motivation to make it happen.


The big-money interests are certainly more interested in the medical/pharmaceutical side than the legalization side. What impact do you think this will have on the immediate future of psychedelics?

Well, it’s funny to remember this: We used to have five beers in America, you know, five big corporations. And now we have all these microbreweries and literally thousands of choices. And you see that same kind of correction happening with cannabis, with a ton of boutique brands and products popping up everywhere.

What I’m advocating for in psychedelics is let’s not do the Budweiser beer version of MDMA. That’s what will happen if the FDA approves it. MAPS will own the one version of MDMA that’s available to people. I say, let’s just skip ahead to the cool part where there are many ways to get your drugs or medicines or whatever you want to call them. We’ll make it safe, we’ll make it legal, and we can put certain regulations in place so that if someone screws up and their product hurts you, there’s a mechanism of accountability. Like with any product in America.

I think we can do that without involving the huge corporate medical system. But the only way to do it is through the people and ballot measures and that kind of policy. It’s not going to be through MAPS, because there’s just no benefit for them.


I also understand you’re against drug-development efforts that aim to remove the actual psychedelic component or mystical experience from the medicine. You’ve said doing so could lead to a dystopic future. Can you elaborate on that?

You know, Aldous Huxley in “Brave New World” wrote about a drug called Soma, which basically makes a mediocre existence tolerable to people — tolerable to the point that we don’t even notice we’re high anymore, we’re just kind of getting by in a numb state. I think the coolest thing about psychedelics is that you actually feel something. And the people who have felt the most and have explored themselves the most, they are the ones who become changemakers, in their own lives, their families, and their communities.

I would hate to lose that kind of revolutionary thing that happens when people wake up and say, “Oh, I could live a different way than before.” You don’t need psychedelics to have that wake-up call, but it’s a pretty reliable method. So if you take away the aha moment, if you take away the revelation, then what’s left? Maybe: “Oh, I’m a little less depressed and a little less anxious. I’m a little less bothered by that difficult person in my life. So I guess I’ll just go back to work now. Work hard and do the good citizen thing.”

This type of thing is already happening. The FDA just approved a drug that’s specifically for postpartum depression (Zurzuvae). I hate it. And I would hate to have it advertised to me. I did have postpartum depression with my second kid. I would hate it if my doctor said, “Oh, there’s this new pill that will make you feel better. It doesn’t provide any more support for mothers. It doesn’t provide maternity care. It doesn’t provide paid leave. It doesn’t give you any of the factors that would actually help you. But just take this pill for two weeks and you’ll feel better and can get back to work.”

So it’s already happening. We’re already trying to numb people through these life transitions. Removing the psychedelic part of the medicine is just another example. It’s the sweet spot that big-money interests truly want: It’s medicine that serves the system, it doesn’t serve us.