IF SO, SO WHAT? • 275
Thankfully, there also were no long-term negative effects in Philip,
Lucas, and Ken. While we did not formally interview Kevin after his high
blood pressure episode, we saw each other socially a few times afterward,
and he seemed to have suffered no ill effects.
The few examples of visible change in volunteers' "outside" lives all
were underway in some form or another before they met the spirit mol-
ecule. Several divorces occurred in our subjects, but none were directly
brought on by the effects of DMT sessions. Perhaps Marsha's high-dose
DMT encounter with white porcelain carousel figures, described in chap-
ter 11, convinced her that she belonged "with [her] culture" on the East
Coast. She divorced her husband and left New Mexico. However, she had
been married and divorced twice before and clearly knew how difficult
was her current marriage.
No one left an established career for a more heartfelt vocation. Peter,
one of our recruits, had images while on DMT of a community in Arizona
to which he had been considering relocating. He made the move after
completing the dose-response study. He was wealthily retired, however,
so the move was easy and natural for him.
Sean, too, made good decisions about his career, cutting down on his
backbreaking hours as an attorney so he could "tend his garden" and
plant more trees on his remote rural acreage. In addition, he weathered
his then-girlfriend's departure with grace and began a new, more satisfy-
ing relationship during his DMT participation. In Sean's case, many of
these events also were in motion by the time he began working with us.
Andrea, whose screams of "No! No! No!" rang through the Research
Center, seemed like one of the most likely people to make major shifts in
her life. Her high-dose DMT sessions showed her the preciousness and
limits of the body and helped her remember some youthful idealism re-
garding her career. However, by the time I left New Mexico two years later
she had gone no further than obtaining some catalogs from local natural
Even in Elena's case, I was not convinced that she really had ben-
efited from her experiences in a practical way. We remained friends and I
continued to be involved in her and Karl's life, and there did not seem to
276 • TAKING PAUSE
be evidence of basic changes in her everyday pattern of interactions and
reactions to her world. Hers was one of the earliest cases causing me
some reluctance in accepting at face value the transformative power of
even the most profound and incredibly spiritual experiences.
It was especially disappointing that no one began psychotherapy or a
spiritual discipline to work further on the insights they felt on DMT. The
few people for whom therapy was an issue returned to therapy, or restarted
antidepressants, because of relapses into depression at some point after
their high-dose DMT sessions. That is, they sought help for possible ad-
verse effects rather than capitalizing on psychological or spiritual
breakthroughs from their sessions.
Why wasn't there more obvious benefit to our volunteers?
Within sessions, we were not focusing on helping people with prob-
lems. These were not treatment studies. Volunteers were relatively
well-adjusted. Neither did we intend to treat our research subjects. We
planned to, and mostly did, sit by and support them rather than steer or
guide them in any particular direction. When we did apply psychothera-
peutic principles or techniques, it was out of clinical necessity or prudence.
We scrupulously avoided working on a psychological level with the vast
majority of our volunteers. In fact, one of my most pressing questions was
whether a neutral environment would lead to positive responses in those
having powerful DMT experiences.
Another answer became clearer only as the study progressed. This
was the deep and undeniable realization that DMT was not inherently
therapeutic. Instead, we again had to face the crucial importance of set
and setting. What the volunteers brought to their sessions, and the fuller
context of their lives, was as important, if not more so, than the drug itself
in determining how they dealt with their experiences. Without a suitable
framework—spiritual, psychotherapeutic, or otherwise—in which to pro-
cess their journeys with DMT, their sessions became just another series of
intense psychedelic encounters.
IF SO, SO WHAT? • 277
As the years passed, I began feeling a peculiar anxiety about listening to
volunteers' accounts of their first high-dose DMT sessions. It was as if I
didn't want to hear them. These psychotherapeutic, near-death, and mys-
tical sessions repeatedly reminded me of their ineffectiveness in effecting
any real change. I wanted to say, "That's very interesting, but now what?
To what purpose?" By extension, these sessions' lack of lasting impact
began eroding the basic foundations of my motivation for performing this
type of research. Additionally, the reports of contact with invisible worlds
and their inhabitants, while utterly amazing, left me grasping at concep-
tual straws as to their reality and meaning. My attitude to high-dose ses-
sions started turning from hope for breakthroughs to relief at volunteers
emerging unharmed and intact.
The need to shift the focus of the psychedelic research in Albuquer-
que was clear. Risks were real, and long-term benefits vague. I began
looking for a way to improve the benefit-to-risk ratio. This required a
more concerted effort to develop a therapy study, one that would involve
working with patients instead of normal volunteers. It also called for us-
ing a longer-acting drug that would allow time to perform psychological
work during the acute intoxication.
In the next two chapters, I will describe how the cessation of my work
began with research involving the longer-acting drug psilocybin and with
plans to treat patients. Events from both within and outside of the re-
search environment combined to exert tremendous personal and
professional pressure. At a certain point I felt I had less to lose, and more
to gain, by discontinuing the psychedelic research.
wide range of difficulties began affecting our psychedelic drug stud-
ies. Their cumulative effect led to my leaving New Mexico and stopping
the research. I will begin describing those events in this chapter.
Some difficulties were built into the study from its very inception,
and it was only a matter of time before they began causing problems. The
biomedical model was the most obvious of these concerns.
Others resulted from a series of unfortunate events. Such was the case
of the university's Human Research Ethics Committee not allowing us to
take the psilocybin project out of the hospital into a more pleasant envi-
Many of the stumbling blocks were ones I dimly saw but chose to
minimize, hoping they might "take care of themselves": There should
have been little surprise that a critical mass of collaborators at the Uni-
versity of New Mexico failed to materialize as promised. I suspected, but
needed to see for myself, that there would be few sustained beneficial
effects on our volunteers from isolated high-dose DMT sessions. I kept on
WINDING DOWN • 279
the research team an especially troubled and troubling graduate student.
I chose to disregard reports I had heard about contact with beings on
DMT and was unprepared for dealing with their frequency in our work. I
ought to have predicted what would be my Buddhist community's response
to publicly linking psychedelics with Buddhist practice.
Certain developments truly were completely unexpected, but in ret-
rospect they appear related to the strain of performing the research, and
its effects on those around me. My former wife's sudden development of
cancer falls into this category.
The repercussions of working with spirit molecules are so complex,
so widespread and far-reaching, that no one who was not there from the
very beginning could really understand what this research was like. How-
ever, the purpose of this book is to tell the entire story. Part of every story
is its end. For those who are now working, or wish to work, with psyche-
delic drugs, it's important to convey these details, in a spirit of "informed
consent." You'd better know what you're getting yourself into.
There were several threads running through these projects, and early on
they all lined up rather neatly. I wanted to give a lot of DMT, see what
various doses did, and then give more. The first two projects, the dose-
response and the tolerance studies, felt like the appetizer and the main
course. Single high doses of the spirit molecule were incredibly psyche-
delic, and repeated dosing made it possible to assimilate and work more
effectively with the access it provided to profound altered states. How-
ever, the model that allowed me to begin also negatively constrained sub-
sequent research projects with DMT.
The biomedical model's explicit task is to dissect, dig deeper, and
explain-by-describing the biological phenomenon under examination.
Since this model holds sway in psychiatric research, I learned it thor-
oughly and presented the DMT studies in those terms.
In the dose-response and tolerance studies, the biological measure-
ments were less personally compelling than were the psychological
effects of DMT. We drew blood and measured vital signs and tempera-
ture, and with these data we could mathematically demonstrate that
280 • TAKING PAUSE
something really was going on. The rating-scale data also nicely straddled
the clinical and objective realities; that is, the questionnaire provided
objective validation of subjective effects. Nevertheless, the most fasci-
nating and rewarding data were obtained by listening to and watching
our volunteers in Room 531.
However, once we began the required mechanism-of-action research,
the biomedical model was going to exert greater restrictions upon the
types of studies we would be allowed to perform. In chapter 8, "Getting
DMT," I described these follow-up DMT studies, which examined the
effects of pindolol, cyproheptadine, and naltrexone. We combined these
receptor-blocking drugs with DMT and compared responses to this com-
bination with those of DMT alone. We thus could infer the role of the
relevant receptor in mediating specific effects of the spirit molecule.
These types of studies no longer placed the subjective effects of DMT
at the forefront of our inquiry. The mechanisms were now more important
than the experience. The explicit setting had shifted in a titanic manner.
These protocols now approached our subjects less as individuals under-
going a psychedelic experience and more as biological systems with which
we could define drug mechanisms more precisely.
It wasn't easy to be as enthusiastic about these studies as the earlier
ones. In fact, volunteers did as much to encourage me to perform them as
I did to request their participation. Adding to this discomfort was my
sense that I had learned something deep and basic about the workings of
the spirit molecule. In the last chapter, I describe this conclusion—that
is, that lasting or substantial benefit from high-dose DMT sessions in our
setting was difficult to see. Combined with the gradually growing inci-
dence of adverse effects, I saw the risk-to-benefit ratio turning less
favorable. I needed to change the model to one in which people might
benefit from participating in the studies.
The two frameworks that might contain projects where people "got
better" were the psychotherapeutic and the spiritual. A spirituality-based
project was unlikely in a clinical research environment. So I began work
on a psychotherapeutic project, a psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy study
with the terminally ill.
Documents you may be interested
Documents you may be interested