By Mark A.R. Kleiman
Suppose a pilot study on a new smoking-cessation program found that 80 percent of the subjects had quit successfully, most of them without much struggle.
In a sane world — considering that some 400,000 Americans die each year from smoking-related diseases — a dozen labs would have moved quickly, with federal funding, to test that finding, and further success would have generated a quick move toward large-scale trials.
But when Matthew Johnson and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins reported precisely that result in 2012 — in a study with 15 participants, all of whom had previously failed to quit smoking more than once — that rapid follow-up didn’t happen. The treatment involved the use of psilocybin, the active agent in psychedelic "magic mushrooms."
Of course, the Hopkins result may turn out to be a flash in the pan. It had a small sample and no control group, and was not "blind" (that is, subjects and experimenters all knew the material involved was psilocybin, so expectation effects might have influenced the results). But 80 percent success in treating stubborn nicotine addiction is unheard of and worth following up.
Four years later, the only follow-up currently in progress is another study by the same team: a randomized (but still not blind) trial of psilocybin against the nicotine patch. That work is funded by two small foundations, the Heffter Research Institute and the Beckley Foundation. Both Heffter and Beckley focus on the psychedelics; the much larger private and public funders focused on smoking and health aren’t yet interested. That lack of enthusiasm, among both funders and the broader scientific community, speaks volumes about how edgy the whole topic of psychedelics as therapy remains.
Still and all, as we come up on a half-century since the Summer of Love created national awareness of the "psychedelic culture," ideas around these drugs are changing. The psychedelics are attracting fresh attention, in an entirely different key.