The Second Coming of Psychedelics
Inside the mind-tripping, soul-changing, ground-shifting, 21st century therapy.
Ric Godfrey had the shakes. At night, his body temperature would drop and he’d start to tremble. During the day, he was jumpy. He was always looking around, always on edge. His vibe scared the people around him. He couldn’t hang on to a job.
He started drinking and drugging, anything to numb out.
Years passed before a Department of Veterans Affairs counselor told him he had severe posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The former Marine had spent the early 1990s interrogating prisoners in Kuwait. Years later, he was still playing out the Persian Gulf War.
Counseling helped a little, but the symptoms continued. He went to rehab for his substance abuse, then tried Alcoholics Anonymous. “That went on for 10 years,” he said. “I don’t know how many times I hit rock bottom.”
Then one of his Seattle neighbors—a woman who also suffered from PTSD—told him about a group of veterans who were going down to Peru to try a psychedelic drug called ayahuasca, a jungle vine that is brewed into a tea. Indigenous Peruvians called it “sacred medicine.” A wealthy veteran had started a healing center in South America and would pay all his expenses.
The next thing Ric knew, he was crawling into a tent on a platform out in the middle of the Amazon jungle. The sun went down. The shaman gave him the tea, a blessing, and a pail in which to vomit.
“Your body will not keep it in you,” Ric recalled. “At first, it’s the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life. Then all of a sudden you blink your eyes and you are not there anymore. You get out of your body and look back and see what is wrong with you. I saw the shell of the person I didn’t want to be and stepped out of it. It was the most amazing thing. I’ve taken lots of drugs before, but I never remembered. I think this is the key. You actually gain knowledge from this. I don’t even consider it a drug. It’s an eye-opener. It makes you think about stuff. Your deepest, darkest secrets, stuff you have been holding on to since you were eight years old—it washes out of you, and you feel like a totally different person. People look at you differently. Your whole world changes before your eyes.”
Three years later, Ric Godfrey says he hasn’t had a single symptom of the shakes or night terror since he came back from the jungle. He’s relaxed and holding down a great job.
“I’ve always been afraid that someone was out to get me, but I don’t have that fear anymore,” he says. “I still like to sit with my back to the wall. I still have certain military idiosyncrasies, but I’m not afraid anymore.”
Psychedelic drugs are back. Not that they ever really went away. You could always find them on the street, in the psychedelic underground, and along the more enlightened edges of the drug culture. What’s new is that these powerful mind-altering substances are coming out of the drug counterculture and back into the mainstream laboratories of some of the world’s leading universities and medical centers. Research projects and pilot studies at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Purdue University, and the University of California, Los Angeles, are probing their mind-altering mysteries and healing powers. Psychedelic drugs like psilocybin and Ecstasy are still illegal for street use and cannot be legally prescribed by doctors, but university administrators, government regulatory agencies, and private donors are once again giving the stamp of approval—and the money needed—for research into beneficial uses for this “sacred medicine.”
“This field of research is finally coming of age,” said David Nichols, a veteran researcher and recently retired professor from the Purdue University College of Pharmacy and the Indiana University School of Medicine. “As Crosby, Stills, and Nash said, it’s been a long time coming.”
TO THE FRINGE AND BACK
Mainstream America’s panic over psychedelics began after experiments at Harvard in the 1960s by the notorious psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert spun out of control. What began as the Harvard Psilocybin Project had morphed into a crusade to turn America on to the wonders of LSD. The researchers were eventually removed from the school’s faculty, and Leary served prison time for marijuana possession. “Timothy Leary played a very significant role in the backlash,” said Roland Griffiths, a professor in the departments of psychiatry and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, who has emerged as one of