Six years ago, when journalist Michael Pollan started work on a book about the potential of psychedelic drugs such as mescaline, psilocybin, MDMA and LSD to treat a variety of mental health conditions including OCD, PTSD, alcoholism and depression, he met academics who were wary about declaring their interest in a subject then still considered taboo. “I interviewed several scientists who knew a lot about psychedelics and were really interested in them,” he recalls. “And when I would ask them: ‘Well, why don’t you study them?’ They would say things like: ‘The reputational risk is too great’, or ‘It would be the kiss of death for my graduate students’.”
Times have changed. When Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind, was published in May 2018 it became an instant sensation. It topped The New York Times best-seller charts and has since been adapted into a four-part Netflix documentary series that hit screens last month. The book kick-started a conversation that has had real-world impacts – and not just for those with a pre-existing mental health diagnosis. In 2020, voters in Oregon backed a measure that from January next year will establish a state psilocybin program offering guided psychedelic therapy sessions to anyone 21 and older, regardless of whether they have a prescription.
Meanwhile, groundbreaking research is taking place at universities such as Johns Hopkins medical school in Maryland and California’s University of Berkeley, where Pollan himself recently co-founded the Berkeley Centre for the Science of Psychedelics (BCSP). “The psychedelic renaissance is well under way,” according to Imran Khan, the BCSP’s executive director, who spoke at a press conference last week. “We’re at the dawn of an exciting new era of scientific, social and spiritual exploration of psychedelics after several decades of their political and cultural suppression.”