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FIU Professor On Medical Renaissance Of Psychedelics And 'Magic Mushrooms'

Some experts say psychedelics, like "magic mushrooms," are going through a renaissance.
Some experts say psychedelics, like "magic mushrooms," are going through a renaissance.

A new course at Florida International explores the history of psychedelics and a new frontier for how these substances might have a positive effect on mental illness.

Psychedelics and hallucinogens, like “magic mushrooms” or LSD, may have gotten a bad rap over the years.

Some experts say these substances are going through a renaissance, as medical research points to the positive effects these drugs can have on mental health in specific circumstances.

“I started reading all of the research from the '50s and '60s, there had been over a 1,000 peer-reviewed papers with research showing promise of psychedelics in over 40,000 human subjects, which all got washed away in the 1970 passage of the Controlled Substance Act,” said Dr. Jerry B. Brown, a founding professor of anthropology at Florida International University.

The federal government classified LSD, ecstasy, and magic mushrooms as a Schedule I drug, which means they have a high potential for abuse and no medical value. This brought research on psychedelics to a halt.

In more recent years, scientists and state regulators have worked together to pick up where some of this past research left off.

Brown, who has 42 years of experience studying psychedelics, recently came out of seven years in retirement to teach a new course on psychedelics and culture at FIU. He spoke with WLRN.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

WLRN: You had a personal experience in the ‘70s that really sparked your interest in psychedelics. What happened?

BROWN: I went to something called a Rainbow Family gathering with some friends from Miami, which was kind of an early Burning Man, high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. And I had my first LSD experience not knowing anything about dosage, not knowing anything about integration, not having guides or anything like that. And I didn't have an enlightening experience or a vision of God. I was spun into a very paranoid world. And I realized after studying this further that this was a very bad time in my life to experiment with LSD because I was at a very unstable point in my life.

I'm a scientist and I think all good science comes out of questions. And I want to understand how could it be this powerful? I wanted to learn a lot more. And as they say, if you want to learn something, teach it. So being a professor of anthropology, I designed a course on psychedelics and culture, which I put into the catalog at FIU and started teaching annually since 1975.

But there are dangers with these substances. They're still illegal. How do you know what you're getting and if it's safe?

That is a huge risk. And I remember when I was teaching in Miami, there was a center where people could drop off their drugs anonymously in Coconut Grove, have them tested, and 60% of the drugs that were brought in were not what people thought they were.

Some of them were adulterated with, PCP or speed. And so this is a huge problem for anyone thinking about trying drugs and not knowing whether it’s a pure source, as there is in clinical studies, where they have a pharmaceutically manufactured synthetic substance of LSD or psilocybin or ecstasy.

You authored a book with your wife, titled "The Psychedelic Gospels: The Secret History of Hallucinogens in Christianity." I don't remember anything being taught in the Bible about hallucinogens, or did I miss something?

Teaching this course for 30 years, I had accepted the predominant opinion that there was no evidence of psychedelics in the Bible. On an anniversary trip to Scotland, we visited Rosslyn Chapel, attracted there by its mention in Dan Brown's bestseller, "The Da Vinci Code." And I saw there sculpted into this Catholic Church an Amanita muscaria mushroom — that that's the red and white mushroom that you see in fairy tales, you see it around Santa Claus, in Scandinavian folk tales with little elves dancing around it. It's a very powerful psychoactive mushroom that's been used since time immemorial by the reindeer herders of Siberia and was brought into India by the ancient Aryans.

And when Julie [my wife] and I discovered this, we said, "what's going on here? Was there a psychoactive ritual here? Was there something that was used further in medieval Christianity? Oh, my goodness. Could this even go back to the early Eucharist in the time of the disciples and before we got carried away by this kind of rambunctious overthrow of reason?" I remember the words of Carl Sagan, the astrophysicist who said “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

And so after wrestling with this for several years, we came to a point where we realized that given what we knew, we would regret it the rest of our lives if we don't go out and research this. And in 2012, we traveled throughout Europe and the Middle East to churches and cathedrals and we found multiple evidence of psychoactive mushrooms, both Amanita muscaria and psilocybin varieties in Christian art, in illuminated manuscripts, prayer books, mosaics, frescoes and the like.

We publish this in our book, “The Psychedelic Gospels,” and that's one of two books that we use in the course, along with best-selling author Michael Pollan's “How to Change Your Mind.” He’s done a great deal to bring this psychedelic renaissance into the forefront.

You say psychedelics are experiencing a second act. What does it look like?

Starting in 2006, Johns Hopkins did a series of double-blind controlled studies, the kind that you have to go through for FDA approval. And their first paper proved that psilocybin [mushrooms] could be safely administered to healthy people in a clinical setting with supportive guides and that the majority of the people had a very positive, mood-improving experience that lasted over a year.

As with cannabis, legalization and decriminalization follow medicalization. So as people become aware through programs like this, through Michael Pollan's book, through research published in the New York Times, that psychedelics can help people overcome depression, anxiety, for advanced cancer patients fear of death, for first responders and war veterans to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder.

The attitudes are shifting. And therefore you've seen decriminalization in Denver, Oakland, Ann Arbor, Washington, D.C., and Oregon — in the last election presidential election by 56%of the vote passed the Psilocybin initiative that makes it legal for medical use approved by a psychologist or psychiatrist.

There is a Florida lawmaker who is hoping to follow Oregon and has proposed a piece of legislation to legalize medical mushrooms for psychotherapy processes.

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Leslie Ovalle produces the morning newscasts that air during Morning Edition. As a multimedia producer, she also works on visual and digital storytelling. Her interests include immigration, technology and the environment.