‘Psychedelia’ Filmmaker: I Worry Today’s Psychedelic Drug Development Is Too Much, Too Fast

‘Psychedelia’ Filmmaker: I Worry Today’s Psychedelic Drug Development Is Too Much, Too Fast

By Brad Dunn —

In 2011, Pat Murphy was searching for a subject for his senior film project at New York University’s film school, when he overheard someone at a party talking about a new study at the NYU School of Medicine that was testing psilocybin to help cancer patients with end-of-life anxiety. The idea hit him immediately. A long-time fan of ‘60s culture and music, Murphy decided to make a short documentary about the history of psychedelics research that would lead up to the new psilocybin study. He figured it would take him a semester to complete. But the more he worked on it, the deeper his interest grew, and the larger the project became. He spent almost another decade to complete the final full-length documentary.

‘Psychedelia’ is now available on several streaming platforms. Featuring original interviews with researchers, psychiatrists and patients, as well as compelling and rarely seen archival footage, the film illuminates the history of classic psychedelics and their impact on culture. (Watch the trailer below.) Murphy fielded questions about his filmmaking process, the rapid shift in the public’s perception about psychedelics, and what lessons we might learn from history about the current “renaissance.”

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How much did you know about the history of psychedelics research when you started this project?

I knew the basics: Albert Hofmann’s bike ride, Ken Kesey, the acid tests, Timothy Leary. I’d read Aldous Huxley’s ‘Doors of Perception.’ Obviously I knew it got a little out of control with the hippie counterculture, and how the research basically came to an end with the scheduling of LSD and other psychedelics. But I had no idea just how much research had been done in the ‘50s and ‘60s leading up to that point. I always thought it was just secret CIA stuff, not real research.

What were some of the things that surprised you?

So much jumped out at me that I didn’t know. Even simple things, like where the word psychedelics came from. I figured it came from some hippie in the 60s, but it was actually the researcher Humphrey Osmond who coined it in the 1950s in a letter he wrote to Aldous Huxley about LSD. Huxley had suggested calling it phanerothyme, from the Greek “to show” and “spirit.” But Osmond suggested psychedelic, for “mind” and “made manifest” — and he wrote a poem about it: “To fathom Hell or soar angelic / Just take a pinch of psychedelic.”

Then there’s Albert Hofmann, his discovery and self-testing of LSD was such a crazy story. He first synthesized it in 1938, but he put it in a vial and literally stuck it on a shelf. Then, about five years later, he said he had this peculiar presentiment about that vial. So he took it down, some of it absorbed through his skin, and he felt something. A few days later he took a large dose, had a full-blown trip and took his famous bike ride home. But the premonition he had is a fascinating part of the story.

It’s remarkable how many scientific discoveries had some element of chance like that. Did you find that elsewhere?

Yes, definitely. Ken Kesey is a good example. He was one of the test subjects in an early LSD trial. But it was a total fluke how he got involved. He had a neighbor, a psychologist I believe, who had volunteered for this study but apparently chickened out at the last minute. He called Kesey and said, “Hey, do you want to participate in this study? You’ll get 20 bucks and you only have to go every other Tuesday for a few months.” He did it, and it not only changed his life, but ultimately led to the Merry Pranksters, the Grateful Dead, and the entire Haight-Ashbury psychedelics scene. All because his neighbor chickened out.

As you said, people like Kesey and Leary are most associated with that period. Are there any people you feel deserve more credit, or are unsung heroes of early psychedelics research?

Walter Pahnke, for sure. He was a Harvard student when he designed the Good Friday Experiment, where they gave psilocybin to theological students as a way to study the link between psychedelics and the religious mystical experience. It was a huge study, and often gets credited to Leary, who was Pahnke’s advisor. But Pahnke designed it himself. After that he joined a group of psychiatrists — including Stan Grof and Bill Richards — in Spring Grove, Maryland, where they basically created the first therapeutic model for LSD. They definitely deserve more credit for seeing the therapy potential of these drugs.

In your documentary, you point out how the Good Friday Experiment also played a role in the resurgence of psychedelic research in the early 2000s after being shut down for more than two decades.

Yeah, Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins decided to repeat the experiment with more controls and a longer follow-up time with participants. He found nearly the same results: After taking psilocybin, most people had what they called a mystical or spiritual experience — and they even ranked it as one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. Griffiths basically picked up where Pahnke left off and proved the positive impact psychedelics can have. And this really helped the research pick up steam again.

Paul Stamets (left) with Pat Murphy
Paul Stamets (left) with Pat Murphy
Pat Murphy interviews Dr. Julie Holland
Murphy interviews Dr. Julie Holland

Your documentary features many of the key researchers today — Rick Doblin, Paul Stamets, Charles Grob, Matthew Johnson, Julie Holland — many of whom were also featured in Michael Pollan’s 2018 bestseller “How to Change Your Mind.” How has the field changed since you began documenting it?

It’s like night and day. The environment in which I started making the film was so different than the environment when I finished it. Back in 2011, not many people were talking seriously about psychedelics. There was still a heavy stigma around it. Pollan’s book changed all that. I had actually sent an early version of the documentary to film festivals in 2015 and 2016. But the world of psychedelic research just exploded after that, and I decided to go back and keep working on it because there was so much more to talk about.

How would you compare the research era of a half-century ago to the one today?

The research today has a much wider scope and is being done with much higher standards of control and knowledge of the brain. Also, the range of conditions psychedelics could treat is incredible. But it’s important for people to realize that the reason we’re in this so-called psychedelic renaissance is because of the research. And now there’s this rush to get drugs approved as fast as possible. But good research can take a really long time.

Are you concerned that some drug-approval processes are moving too quickly?

I just worry that psychedelics are being way overhyped now, and that the drug development is too much, too fast. If we don’t take time to do thorough research, there may be casualties along the way. Then those casualties hit the headlines and public perception could change back in an instant. Public perception is a huge part of this. Look how quickly this went from an extremely stigmatized topic to now everyone and their mother wants to take psychedelics. The cynic in me thinks it could all flip around again in a second. All it takes is a few bad things to happen — or even one high-profile bad thing to happen.

What kind of bad things do you mean?

Well, keep in mind that with drug trials and studies, they screen out certain people from participating. For instance, people with certain mental health conditions or a family history of psychotic disorders. But once these drugs are more available, I think the chances of bad outcomes go up. I mean, is a for-profit retreat center going to do the same level of screening as a government-funded university study? I hope so, but probably not. Then what if someone has a psychotic break and that hits the news? That could change everything.

And psychedelics research gets shut down again?

Yeah, I guess my fear is that we’ve come so far in this field because we’ve taken the time to do it right. But if we move too fast now, we could end up with another generation-long moratorium — before even being able to deliver some of the psychedelic medicines we all hope for.

If the proper research does happen and psychedelics become approved, do you think they should be available to anyone who wants them?

I’m torn on that. On the one hand, I think people have a basic right to alter their consciousness. You shouldn’t need a doctor’s prescription to do that. On the other hand, psychedelics are so powerful that I do see the danger in letting people on a large scale self-experiment with them. I could see how that could get dangerous. If we ever made them widely available, public education would be absolutely critical — so that we can ensure people are taking them in a safe place and with a trusted friend, family member, or trained sitter. Otherwise, if people aren’t aware of the risks, I think bad things will happen and psychedelics will just get banned again.

Do you see that as an almost inevitable historical pattern based on the research you did for the documentary? Discovery leads to research, which leads to widespread usage, which leads to public-perception problems, which leads to fear and moratorium?

I mean, look at the real history. Look at indigenous usage going back centuries. Psychedelics have always been used in very specific rituals. Like peyote, there were very strict rules on how and where you take it. And in ancient Greece with the Eleusinian mysteries, they were very strict and secretive about their rituals with ergot. I think it’s because they knew as a culture that psychedelics had to be contained. They also knew that so much of the experience relies on context and setting, and that’s why it was so controlled.

Terrence McKenna had this theory that in some cultures the religious hierarchy became so controlling about psychedelics that people got sick of it and revolted — which he said explained why in places like India, there’s little in the historical record about psychedelic usage.

What we’re going through now is really just another repetition of finding a power structure that can keep a lid on the power these chemicals have. Only in our case, it seems like it will be a capitalistic kind of power. Because it won’t be a church, we don’t have a single religious power structure like in earlier cultures. Will it be the medical establishment, which is also pretty corporate? Will people trust that? Will the profit instinct interfere with the safety instinct? This is the tricky part. Who’s going to contain these substances the way they were contained historically by shamans and others?

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Watch the trailer:

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