Lunch with a pioneering psychonaut:

An interview with Dennis McKenna

“Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third-story window. Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behaviour and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.”
- Terence McKenna

Anyone who has ventured into the dark and unknown recesses of the mind with the help of magic mushrooms likely understands why such a powerful substance has been made illegal in many countries around the world. The experiences facilitated by the Psilocybe cubensis and other psilocybin- and psilocin-containing species of fungi can lead to monumental, reality-shattering ideas that turn our experience in and of the world entirely on its head.

Take, for example, the way the proliferation of mushrooms and other psychedelics, namely LSD, facilitated a cultural shift in the late 1960s. With so many people embracing the insights and wisdom cultivated on massive trips through their own consciousness, successfully standing up to “The Man” must have seemed like a tangible goal to the hippies and beatniks who rallied and raged against authority in the name of peace and love.

While the start of the war on drugs in the summer of 1971 successfully stifled the free love movement, and the political rebellion and social upheaval that went along with it, the secret of psychedelics was out—only now, propagators and purveyors of these drugs were subject to President Nixon’s heavy-handed penalties. In an effort to avoid harsh changes to the law that included no-knock warrants and mandatory sentencing, the movement went underground.

Until 1976, instructional literature on the cultivation of psilocybin-containing mushrooms was hard to come by. One of the first books to present growing instructions in a non-threatening and accessible way, Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide: A Handbook for Psilocybin Enthusiasts, describes the process as “only slightly more complicated than canning or making jelly.”

Rather than inventing their own method, the authors of the prolific volume combined previously touted methods into one that offered greater efficiency and efficacy. Authored by O.T. Oss and O.N. Oeric (pseudonyms), it became the choice guide among so-called kitchen mycologists, selling over one hundred thousand copies within its first five years of publication.

The book is still in print today and continues to be endorsed widely by cultivators, including those who’ve been inspired to author their own grow guides. In the prologue to Psilocybin Mushroom Handbook: Easy Indoor & Outdoor Cultivation, authors L.G. Nicholas and Kerry Ogamé describe their first encounter with the book:

“In 1992, while perusing the dusty aisles of a Manhattan antiquarian bookshop, we happened upon a dog-eared copy of O.T. Oss and O.N. Oeric's Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide. This slim volume, with its densely packed text and fanciful, otherworldly line drawings, held for us an immediate and irresistible allure. Like an illuminated manuscript or a book of spells, it glimmered and hummed with meaning, reaching out to us from the crowded shelves. It seemed less a book than a communique, a missive cast out into the world, waiting silently for years to at last make its way into our hands. We already held a considerable affection for the mushrooms in question, but we had never before contemplated growing our own. Yet by the time we exited the shop, book in hand, the idea seemed self-evident, organic: Of course, we thought, we will grow our own mushrooms!”

Praised for its cost-effective approach and simple instructions that can be replicated by nearly anyone with ease, the book comes complete with a glossary, numerous illustrative photographs, historic depictions of fungi, and two-tone drawings that can only be described as trippy. Since its subsequent success, the book’s authors have published beefier, updated versions bearing their real names: Terence and Dennis McKenna. The two brothers and plant medicine enthusiasts originally hailed from Paonia, Colorado, and their lives had been dramatically altered after a visit to the Amazon just five years before publishing the original book.

On first experiences

The Mixtec representation of the psychedelic experience, from the Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus 1. (From Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide)

It’s mid August and I’m enjoying the heat on a shaded garden patio, sitting across from prolific psychonaut Dr. Dennis McKenna, trying to maintain my cool as he describes the effects of his first experience with Psilocybe cubensis. Dennis makes it easy with his casual approach; he had arrived in a plain grey t-shirt, black jeans, and frameless glasses bearing the Transitions coating, which faded to clear as he approached our table. I’d reached out via email hoping to meet in person and was thrilled that he’d accepted my offer to meet for lunch in Abbotsford, a sleepy city outside of Vancouver he and his wife had moved to several years earlier.

“We like Vancouver but it’s just too expensive,” he says.

Having studied psychedelics for the better part of forty years, Dennis is known for his work as an ethnopharmacologist, researcher, lecturer, and author. He continues his work as a founding board member at Heffter Research Institute, a non-profit scientific organization dedicated to the study of classic hallucinogens, with a focus on psilocybin.

While Terence was known for his loud proclamations and potent advice, the quieter of the two McKenna brothers has committed the majority of his life to spreading the word in other ways, hosting retreats and participating in seminars and conferences where he speaks vibrantly about the inherent benefits of numerous psychedelic medicines, including mushrooms, ayahuasca (which he studied at the University of British Columbia in the 1980s), and DMT.

We’re both sipping higher-than-average doses of the socially acceptable intoxicant, caffeine, in the form of cold brew coffees—he takes milk; I don’t—as he begins to detail his formative experience with mushrooms on a trip to South America with his brother by his side, the same year Nixon declared the war on drugs.

“It changed my life profoundly…mushrooms have been very important in my psychedelic education,” he says. “But Terence and I went to South America in 1971 looking for something completely different.”

The McKennas had travelled to a small mission village in the Southern Columbian Amazon called La Chorrera in search of an “exotic and unheard of” psychedelic drug called oo-koo-hé which can be harvested from several species of trees in the Virola genus. Found only in the South American rainforest, the trees produce sap that contains an orally active form of dimethyltryptamine, or DMT.

Upon arrival, he and Terence found that residents of La Chorrera had cleared a nearby pasture and brought in a herd of zebu cattle, whose dung happened to act as the perfect substrate for a particular variety of magic mushroom.

“These things were everywhere,” Dennis says, conveying their abundance by spreading his hands out across the table. He and his brother were familiar with the mushrooms from an academic perspective, but had never actually had any first-hand experience ingesting them.

“We sort of thought, ‘these will be fun to play with while we’re looking for the real secret’. The mushrooms quickly made it clear to us that they are the real secret, and from there, our whole program went off track in some ways.”

On the impact of Psilocybin

After having their priorities—and their lives—significantly reorganized by their experiences with the psilocybin-containing mushrooms of the Amazon, the McKennas returned to the United States with two things: a lot of “funny ideas, most of which never really panned out,” Dennis admits, and spores of the psilocybe they had journeyed with in La Chorrera.

Committed to learning how to grow the mushrooms at home, Dennis and Terence mucked around inoculating petri dishes with spores and experimenting with different growing mediums.

“We had two motives for doing this. One was a mercenary motive. We thought, ‘we can grow mushrooms and never have to work again’,” Dennis recalls, laughing. While their plan to get rich didn’t quite work out, having a closet full of mushrooms at all times was a nice way to supplement his stipend as a graduate student. The server interrupts us briefly to take our lunch order; he orders huevos rancheros; I order a farmer’s salad.

“The more important thing is, we wanted to give people access to the psilocybin experience—and to confirm, or not—that all these things that had happened to us were really happening to us; that it really did seem to open up the doorways to some very strange places. We were looking for affirmation or confirmation of our own experiences.”

The result of their garage experiments may have been small in size, but it would turn out to breed inspiration around the world. Several years after their return from the fateful trip to La Chorrera, the McKennas published their research in what Dennis refers to today as a “glorified pamphlet”.

“It had an impact. As a matter of fact, it still sells… It put within easy reach of a lot of people with a little patience, the ability to cultivate these mushrooms. You could essentially go to the grocery store and buy the ingredients and have enough to supply yourself and your friends forever,” he says.

I bug my eyes out slightly at the notion of it being that simple, but Dennis assures me in his own unique way that the simplicity is all by design.

“The more important thing is, we wanted to give people access to the psilocybin experience—and to confirm, or not—that all these things that had happened to us were really happening to us; that it really did seem to open up the doorways to some very strange places. We were looking for affirmation or confirmation of our own experiences.”

“Like my brother said, we’re involved in a symbiotic relationship with something that has disguised itself as an alien invasion, so as not to alarm us,” he chuckles. I nod and smile, but internally I’m questioning my ability to make sense of his brother’s quote without at least a microdose.

Acknowledging that he and Terence were certainly not the first to cultivate Psilocybe cubensis, nor the first to author a guide explaining the process, Dennis says he’s confident that they were the first to grow them “in a way that almost anyone could duplicate”. With the war on drugs well underway by the time the book was released, he says it was a way for them to keep the conversation around psychedelics alive at a time when both the volume of research on hallucinogenic substances and their prominence among the counterculture had diminished significantly.

“I think it had a lot to do in some ways with keeping an openness to psychedelics. Terence was really the only one out there talking about mushrooms or psychedelics in a positive way—it was a kind of a brave thing to do, or maybe a reckless thing to do—but he kept the conversation alive, and look where we are now.”

Terence began experimenting with psychedelics as a teenager after reading the work of science fiction writers like Aldous Huxley and Arthur C. Clarke. He started with milder intoxicants like cannabis and morning glory seeds, and tripped on acid for the first time at age 19. Following subsequent experiences with acid and eventually DMT, and encouraged by the slogan popularized by psychologist and psychedelic advocate Timothy Leary, Terence took “turn on, tune in, and drop out” rather seriously. He travelled to Nepal where he studied shamanism for several months, supporting his trip by smuggling hashish out of the country.

After U.S. Customs intercepted a shipment destined for the United States, he went on the run, spending time in Southeast Asia before returning home to continue studying biology. When their mother passed away in 1971, his and Dennis’ studies were interrupted by the urge to visit the Amazon and explore the effects of DMT more deeply. Following their trip to the jungle, Dennis went the academic route, while Terence became an outspoken advocate for psychedelic plants and substances, referred to by some as the “psychedelic Bard”, and eventually by Timothy Leary himself as “the Timothy Leary of the 90’s".

I ask Dennis what he and his brother had expected of the book—did they imagine that the impact would be so colossal, particularly on young Americans?

“Well, we definitely wanted to corrupt the youth of America, or enlighten them—that was the way we looked at it—but I don’t think either of us ever imagined that 40 years down the line, mushrooms and psychedelics in general would be changing medicine and mental health care; changing the perception of how you really treat these disorders,” he says.

(From Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide)

On mental health

“We are terrified of madness. We fear it because the Western mind is a house of cards, and the people who built that house of cards know that."
- TM

In the years following Albert Hofmann’s first significant LSD trip in 1943, research about the powerful substance—a derivative of lysergic acid he first synthesized in 1939—began to trickle into medical journals. Psychiatrists observed that individuals who were under the influence of acid exhibited psychotic-like symptoms, and wondered if taking the drugs themselves would help them better understand their psychotic patients. At the same time, the CIA was funding projects to see if the drug could be used to aid in mind control missions during the Cold War. It wasn’t until 1953 that psychiatrists began considering the role of psychedelics as a therapeutic agent, or an adjunct to psychotherapy. Some of the earliest research in this area occurred in Saskatchewan of all places, where British physicians Humphry Osmond and Abram Hoffer were the first to conduct experiments on willing participants who were suffering from alcoholism.

By 1963, psychedelic clinics offering guided therapeutic trips were operating in several countries around the world, including Canada, the United States, Germany, Holland, Great Britain, the Czech Republic, Spain, Argentina, and Mexico. One such clinic, the infamous Hollywood Hospital, operated in an area now occupied by a strip mall in New Westminster, BC, until 1975. Visited by the likes of Cary Grant, who claimed he was “saved” by LSD, and Ethel Kennedy, whose husband Senator Robert F. Kennedy once said the drug “can be very, very helpful in our society if used properly,” the private hospital offered $500 sessions that were popular among the upper class. Five other clinics in Saskatchewan offered LSD-assisted therapy to alcoholics, and were government-funded.

Today, the only legal way to access psychedelic substances for medicinal purposes in North America is through clinical trials (religious exemptions do exist for hallucinogens like peyote), though underground networks offering an array of therapeutic and ceremonial experiences exist in many cities around the world.

Acknowledging the state of the world today and the slow, drawn-out pace of government reform on drugs at large, Dennis believes that accessing these clandestine communities is the way for society to heal itself from the trauma that leaves so many of us mentally ill. Dennis speaks firmly when he describes our society’s “largely ineffective” mental health care practices:

“It’s a criminal conspiracy between the biomedical and pharmaceutical establishments… you have to take these things two times a day for the rest of your life. That really fits the pharmaceutical company’s revenue model; not so much if you want real change to be brought about.”

Dennis, who earned a Master’s degree in botany at the University of Hawaii, a doctorate in botanical sciences at the University of British Columbia, and several post-doctoral fellowships, including one at the National Institute of Mental Health, believes that psychedelics do have the ability to provide a solution to people suffering from depression, addiction, anxiety, and PTSD—but he’s not sure the medical system is appropriately structured to enable the intense therapy that is required “if these drugs are to be used effectively.”

“It’s not about, ‘take two and call me in the morning’. Rather, you’re going to take these substances under very special circumstances… either in a shamanic or a biomedical context, but a structured environment, an optimal set and setting so that the therapeutic process can take place.”

Under these circumstances, he says, psilocybin and other psychedelics can actually “get to the root” of the trauma, while medicines offered by the biomedical establishment merely act as band-aids.

“You don’t have to be sick to benefit from psychedelics. Essentially we can all learn from our psychedelic experiences, we don’t have to have a specific cognitive or psychological defect. Indigenous peoples talk about these things as plant teachers—we’ll make an exception for mushrooms, technically they’re not plants—but I think the idea that they are teachers, that you can learn from them, is something that everyone can benefit from.”

“[Biomedical treatment] has its own conventions, its own rituals… psychedelics have the potential to completely overturn that paradigm. The result is more people will receive treatment that actually helps.”

He paints a picture of the local “psychedelic spa of the future”: not clinical in appearance, but resembling retreat centres or community centres, opening first in cities like Oakland, where plant medicines were recently decriminalized.

“That idea needs to grow. There was never an idea in my mind that you could criminalize these things in the first place. I mean, who gave our species the authority to criminalize another species?”

But, as both his brother and other psychedelic researchers have stated before him, the merits of working with psychedelics are not limited to those who are suffering.

“You don’t have to be sick to benefit from psychedelics. Essentially we can all learn from our psychedelic experiences, we don’t have to have a specific cognitive or psychological defect. Indigenous peoples talk about these things as plant teachers—we’ll make an exception for mushrooms, technically they’re not plants—but I think the idea that they are teachers, that you can learn from them, is something that everyone can benefit from.”

In a dysfunctional culture, he says, psychedelics can provide healing on both collective and individual levels, especially while our world contends with challenges that scientists agree threaten life on earth.

On the earth

“Western civilization is a loaded gun pointed at the head of this planet.”
- TM

Even if you’ve intentionally checked out of the climate change news cycle so as to avoid sinking deeper into depression and anxiety, it seems impossible to ignore the statistics and blaring background noise that seem to say, “impending doom is near”. Maybe I’m naïve, but I think partaking in a piece of the earth—let’s be honest, mushrooms do taste like dirt—could inspire empathy for our planet in even the staunchest climate change denier. After all, one of the cornerstones of any psychedelic experience, particularly one facilitated by mushrooms, is the feeling of a deep and inherent connection to nature.

This idea is obviously not foreign to Dennis, who takes to referring to our planet as the feminine conceptualization and primordial Greek goddess, Gaia. Though it’s not clear if it was an idea prompted by a psychedelic trip, we begin discussing the Gaia Hypothesis, a theory largely ignored by scientists during its initial development, but one that gained some traction in the 21st century.

In the 1970s while conducting research for NASA, British geophysicist James Lovelock joined a group of scientists who were searching for signs of life in the solar system by studying planetary atmospheres and their differences. Lovelock discussed the origin of his hypothesis with David Suzuki in the 2002 film adaptation of The Sacred Balance:

“When you look at the atmospheres of the R3 planets, Earth, Mars, and Venus, they’re enormously different. Mars and Venus, which are dead, both have atmospheres which are dominated by the gas carbon dioxide, which is what you’d expect from the distribution of elements. But when you look at the earth, it’s a totally different matter. We have methane, hydrocarbon, oxygen; and they’re reacting all the time, burning like a cold flame in our atmosphere. If you were a martian astronomer so to speak, looking at the earth to detect signs of life by atmospheric analysis, it would shout back at you, ‘We’re a living planet!’ …

“It began to come into my mind… [that] if our atmosphere is so extraordinarily different, so reactive, and yet it stays constant for millions of years, something must be regulating it. And since I knew that these gases all came from living organisms, it must be life that is doing the regulating.”

Dennis, a proponent of the idea, explains it this way: “The basic idea is that the earth is compatible for life because life is keeping it that way. Life is maintaining the parameters of the planet that make it possible for life to survive; the atmospheric composition, temperature, and the pH and salinity of the oceans, ocean temperature, all of these enormous planetary geophysical forces that have to stay within critical parameters if life is going to survive.”

Emphasizing the geophysicist’s academic background, Dennis says in no way was Lovelock “some kind of new-age nut”, but it didn’t prevent his skeptical counterparts from dismissing and ridiculing his work.

“This is a classic example,” Dennis says, “of something I like to quote by Arthur Schopenhauer:

“‘All truth comes in three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second it is violently opposed. Third it is accepted as self-evident.’

“My pitch is basically that if we’re going to address the problems that we’re facing, we have to first shift consciousness on a global level. We have to shift our frame of reference. We’re coming out of 2,000 years or more of this notion fostered by the Abrahamic religions that we own nature, and it exists for us to exploit. We’re seeing the consequences of that now. We don’t own it. We’re not running it.”

“This is happening with psychedelics too. If you think about it, our tendency is to dismiss things; it’s a knee-jerk reaction.”

Though our biosphere is resilient, Dennis says it’s time to acknowledge that there are limits to this resilience: take the runaway greenhouse effect, the idea that when enough greenhouse gas blocks thermal radiation from leaving the planet, the heating of the earth cannot be reversed, and instead, begins to accelerate.

Mushrooms, Dennis says, are here to wake us up to that reality.

“My pitch is basically that if we’re going to address the problems that we’re facing, we have to first shift consciousness on a global level. We have to shift our frame of reference. We’re coming out of 2,000 years or more of this notion fostered by the Abrahamic religions that we own nature, and it exists for us to exploit. We’re seeing the consequences of that now. We don’t own it. We’re not running it.”

On empathy, oneness, and Donald Trump

“Part of what psychedelics do is they decondition you from cultural values. This is what makes it such a political hot potato. Since all culture is a kind of con game, the most dangerous candy you can hand out is one which causes people to start questioning the rules of the game.”
- TM

How many novice psychonauts have fallen into believing the idea that psychedelics, if consumed once by all, and in particular by our world leaders, could “save the world”? For some, the idea that Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un could theoretically sit in a circle and share a bag of LBMs (little brown mushrooms, for the uninitiated) only to have their entire outlook on life shifted is farfetched, but for the less cynical individuals among us, it might feel like the perfect solution.

“Unfortunately for the people that run things, compassion is not a part of their reality… You think, ‘Wow, let’s just give Trump psilocybin and he’ll be anew.’ I don’t think it works that way. I think you have to be a certain kind of person, and he’s clearly a sociopath.”

A shaman once advised Dennis that there were two types of people he would never give psychedelics to: “I won’t give them to schizophrenics because it’s not going to benefit them, and I won’t give them to sociopaths because they’re immune to it—there has to be an interior there to be changed,” the shaman had said. Some believe that psychedelics might just help sociopaths become better at mastering sociopathic behaviour, although studies have shown that both psilocybin and LSD can enhance emotional empathy.

“For a lot of people, their psychedelic experiences are revelatory, in the sense that they help them reframe their understanding… This is where I think psychedelics can make a huge difference on a global level.” He pauses.

“But also, am I optimistic? I like to say, ‘On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I’m optimistic; the rest of the time I think, ‘we’re totally fucked’,” he says. We laugh, our lunch arrives, and Dennis comments on the “enormity” of my salad. We take a few bites and I ask if some of that ‘we’re fucked’ mentality comes from having contended with knowing so much about the capabilities of these plants while they continue to be viewed as a threat by people in power.

“The thing is, perseverance furthers, as the I Ching says, so you just keep talking about it and eventually more and more people listen.” But he has limits on who he offers this wisdom to. For obvious reasons, Dennis sees no point in discussing the efficacy of psychedelics with an individual who hasn’t bothered to dip their toes in the acid-laced water.

“The beautiful thing about psychedelics is it’s one of those things where you don’t have to have faith; faith just gets in the way. What you have to have is courage. My first question to the people that say, ‘Oh, this is so terrible’, is, ‘Have you tried it?’

“If you haven’t tried it, you’re not qualified to talk about it. The proof is in the pudding… it takes courage to trust yourself enough, trust the medicine enough, trust the circumstances to sit down and smoke that pipe or take that cup; whatever it is. Once you’ve done that, we can have a conversation about the usefulness of these things.”

While he knows it’s not realistic to expect everyone to give psychedelics a try, he says it’s about finding a way to talk to people who might be open to the conversation. That’s where hearing other people’s stories comes in.

(From Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide)

On research at Heffter

“The psychedelic experience is simply a compressed instance of what we call understanding, so that living psychedelically is trying to live in an atmosphere of continuous unfolding of understanding, so that every day you know more and see into things with greater depth than you did before. This is a process of education.”
- TM

In 1888, a German pharmacologist named Lewis Lewin received a shipment of dried peyote buttons from Parke-Davis Pharmaceutical company. Several Native American tribes used peyote, a sacred cactus found in the southern United States and Mexico known for its hallucinogenic effects, both medicinally and ceremonially. After Lewis determined that the cactus contained several alkaloids, a team of scientists began isolating the chemical compounds in the cactus to determine which one was responsible for the plant’s mind-altering effects. Lewin and his counterparts planned to sample each one in small doses and titrate up in order to determine the correct compound and amount required for a full-blown psychedelic experience.

While Lewin went on to write an encyclopedic overview of the psychedelics known at the time, he wouldn’t be the lucky scientist to take the dose that would determine the cactus’ active component, or the one to go down in the history books as the first scientist to study a naturally occurring psychedelic compound. It would be his nemesis; chemist, pharmacologist, and physician Arthur Heffter, who would take the trip that determined mescaline to be the hallucination-inducing alkaloid.

In 1993, David E. Nichols and other founding members, including Dennis, would create a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting research of classic hallucinogens and psychedelics in Heffter’s name. At the time, research of this nature was not eligible for government funding, so Nichols and his counterparts created their own model and used private funding to support projects that they deemed worthy.

“Heffter was like a nerd organization; we were all nerds in some kind of speciality,” Dennis remembers. Aside from his brother Terence, who acted as the organization’s spokesperson until his death in 2000, Heffter’s founders and board members were all scientists and clinicians.

Dennis says what separates Heffter from other organizations focused on this area of study, particularly from MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which was founded in 1986), is that the non-profit organization is focused primarily on science, rather than public activism.

“We don’t have the visibility that MAPS has, or the PR budget… they can raise money because they have a very active stance of public activism. We don’t. We rely primarily on the support of individual donors with deep pockets, who really for one reason or another want to support specific projects,” he says.

“We try to identify interesting work that is being done by existing investigators, like Roland Griffiths. He’s established, he’s got a stellar reputation, he’s well-respected in his field as an addictions specialist, who one day gets it into his head to research psilocybin… he got a lot of pushback but he persisted, and now it’s paid off because he’s done all this amazing work,” Dennis says.

The professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine was among the first to study the personal significance of experiences with psilocybin in an article in the journal Psychopharmacology in 2006. In 2016, he helped author a study that examined the way experiences with psilocybin affected the outlook of person with terminal cancer.

“In biomedicine, we don’t do death well. It’s something everyone has to face sooner or later, and I think psychedelics can foster the approach that you can have a beautiful death… it helps us to re-examine our attitudes to it,” he says.

Some of Griffiths’ more recent work explores the way psilocybin and other plant medicines can inspire “God encounters” and “mystical-type experiences”. For an addictions specialist, Dennis is right to say that his work is “out there”. But the popularity of Griffiths’ and other scientists’ studies has helped drum up enough interest that earlier this year, the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research was established, thanks to a $17 million donation from private donors.

Ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna poses for a photo in Abbotsford, B.C. in August 2019. (Photo by Amanda Siebert/Inside the Jar)

On the past, present, and future of psychedlic research

“The artist’s task is to save the soul of mankind; and anything less is a dithering while Rome burns. Because of the artists, who are self-selected, for being able to journey into the Other, if the artists cannot find the way, then the way cannot be found.”
- TM

Like so much in our world, psychedelics gained immense popularity in the counterculture and eventually the mainstream in large part due to the way they were referenced in art. Before the rock musicians of the 1960s popularized hallucinogens through their trippy, acid-inspired tunes, author Aldous Huxley wrote of his experiences on mescaline in the book Doors of Perception and the essay Heaven and Hell. The trip in question took place in 1953 under the guidance of Dr. Humphry Osmond in Saskatchewan. The same year, Sydney Katz of Maclean’s wrote an article titled, “My Twelve Hours as a Madman” after an LSD trip with the British doctor, who is known for coining the term ‘psychedelic’ (from the Greek words for ‘mind-manifesting’).

Then, in 1957, mushrooms got their moment in the spotlight when Robert Gordon Wasson documented his experience with them in a photo essay for Life Magazine. Titled, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom”, the story detailed his trip to Mexico two years earlier, where he and his wife consumed psilocybes in a Mazatec ritual called the velada. This was the article that would inspire Timothy Leary, the clinical psychologist who would eventually conduct experiments as part of the Harvard Psilocybin Project, to visit Mexico and try mushrooms for the first time in 1960.

Three years later, Leary’s would be among the first clinical studies of psychedelics to gain mainstream attention. Unfortunately, this attention only came after he and fellow professor Richard Alpert—who would later travel to India and return to the United States as Ram Dass—were fired from Harvard after other faculty questioned the legitimacy of their experiments. They had learned Leary and Alpert had been taking psychedelics with their subjects, and their students.

I ask Dennis about this era of research: What has changed for the better? Is there something we’re still missing?

“We’ve had 40 years to learn how to use these things. I think society has matured enough; there’s not this reaction that psychedelics are terrible and that they can drive you crazy and make you jump off buildings and destroy your chromosomes.”

More than just our attitudes, the science, he says, has absolutely improved.

Dennis agrees the clinical protocols of the ‘60s were “pretty loose”, and that we’ve come a long way in our ability to better design and evaluate the effects of these drugs on the mind, but he’s not sure that we’re capitalizing on the complete spectrum of psychedelic therapy. Limiting these substances to being researched in a biomedical context—imagine test subjects being confined to a room with a therapist, wearing an eye mask and perhaps listening to music—shouldn’t be the only way they are studied or used.

In this moment I ask whether his brother’s favourite way to trip—sitting in a dark closet and taking a heroic five-gram dose of dried mushrooms in complete solitude—could carry any therapeutic benefit. While Dennis says its “still a good model,” he believes there’s something to be said for the ceremonial group settings within which ayahuasca and other plant medicines are traditionally administered.

“Sure, you can have rigorous medically structured experiences, but you also have to listen to the Indigenous people who have used these things for thousands of years. They’ve learned a thing or two about set and setting, about the importance of ritual,” he says.

Dennis is so committed to learning from and upholding these rituals that he hosts quarterly trips to Peru, where participants (albeit with deep pockets) are invited to spend 10 days with him experiencing Peruvian culture and, of course, tripping in the jungle. On these trips, a group of 15 strangers first meet in Cuzco to play tourist before travelling to the Sacred Valley, where they stay in a retreat centre for six days.

While he says the initial reaction among some participants is, “I paid all this money to throw up with these people?”, Dennis says travelling together in Peru “creates a beautiful psychodynamic. People become friends. They bond… It’s like group therapy.”

To round out the final days of the trip, ayahuasca is consumed on three separate occasions in ceremony with Indigenous ayahuasqueros.

“Sure, you can have rigorous medically structured experiences, but you also have to listen to the Indigenous people who have used these things for thousands of years. They’ve learned a thing or two about set and setting, about the importance of ritual,”

The seasonal trips are part of a larger learning platform Dennis has been working on, called the McKenna Academy of Natural Philosophy.

“It sounds egotistical, but people told me to step up and own it. I never aspired to be a brand though,” he says.

Dennis hopes that the non-profit organization, which is registered in Canada, can be used to help facilitate not only spiritual retreats to Peru, but also conferences, plant medicine research, clinical studies, media, and more. He says the ultimate goal is to purchase the guesthouse he’s been using for retreats and make it the academy’s first campus.

“The idea of doing an academy and sort of cloaking ourselves in this academic stance is that, for one thing, it looks and sounds respectable—but it’s also consistent with the idea that we have to educate people’s attitudes. I call it, ‘a catalytic nexus for the transformation of global consciousness’.” Another McKenna-ism I won’t soon be forgetting.

“The rationale is, bring people to this place, whether they are experienced or not; give them the experiences with ayahuasca or whatever the psychedelic du jour is, and hopefully they get the message.”

Obviously not everyone can afford to travel to Peru with a renowned ethnopharmacologist to consume ayahuasca. So how can these medicines, especially offered in this ceremonial context, be made more accessible?

“In almost every community there are fringe groups, and I think the way you make it accessible is you bring them out of the closet,” he says.

“That’s the new model. Community centres where people could go to get the therapy they need. We all need opportunities for spiritual renewal. Why shouldn’t people have the option of going to a local psychedelic spa for the weekend?”

Our plates are cleared and the bill is paid. My mind is spinning. In the last moments of our discussion, the interview is turned on me:

“Have you ever been to Peru?” Dennis asks. I tell him I’ve travelled to South America, but never to Peru.

“I think it’s in your future,” he says.

I’m stunned. “I’ll manifest it.”

“You might want to.”