‘I’ve experienced states of consciousness beyond this life’: The people turning to psychedelics on their deathbeds

Thomas Hartle is an unlikely psychedelic adventurer. The 53-year-old father of two from Saskatoon, Canada, describes himself as being “about as ordinary and boring as white bread.” Until a few years ago, he had never even considered taking any sort of illegal substance. “I grew up in the ‘This is your brain on drugs’ generation,” he tells me when we speak over a video call, referring to the notorious anti-drugs campaign launched in 1987 which featured that memorable slogan over the image of an egg frying on a skillet. “I considered that whole class of drugs as not just unhelpful, but as something that ruins people’s lives.”

In 2016, Hartle was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. He went through multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, but the cancer returned in August 2019. Faced with the very real prospect of death, he decided to seek out new ways of coping. It was then he remembered research he’d come across online, published by Johns Hopkins Medicine in 2016, which suggested (via a small sample of 51 patients) that therapeutic use of psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – could help decrease depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer.

Last year, Hartle wrote to Canada’s Ministry of Controlled Substances to ask for a legal exemption to try psilocybin for himself. He was one of four patients in the country to be granted permission and became the first Canadian to legally experience a psychedelic therapy session on 12 August 2020. The results were immediate, and measurable. The day before, Hartle had registered 36 on the Beck Anxiety Inventory, on which any score above 25 is considered ‘severe anxiety’. The following day, using the same metric, he scored six, considered ‘minimal’. “I knocked 30 points off my standing level of anxiety,” says Hartle, “And that really lasted for a very long time.”

For Hartle, the benefits of psilocybin therapy went far beyond simply reducing his fear and anxiety over dying. He says he found the experience itself to be a profound one, and that it gave him new belief in the possibility of life after death. “My views on death have really changed tremendously,” he says. “Before, life after death was a sort of academic, intellectual concept, whereas now it feels tangible. I’ve physically experienced states of consciousness that have nothing to do with this life or anything that I would identify with ‘Thomas’.”

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