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A terminally ill doctor reflects on his discoveries around psychedelics and cancer

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Over the past two decades, the view of psychedelic drugs in the U.S. has transformed dramatically. Substances that were deemed to have no medical use have now been shown to provide real and lasting benefit to patients with depression, addiction issues and PTSD. Johns Hopkins professor Roland Griffiths has been at the center of that transformation, and he spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin about the legacy of his work.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Do you use the expression, trips?

ROLAND GRIFFITHS: Trip? No. Uh-uh.

MARTIN: Oh, you don't? OK.

GRIFFITHS: No, no, because it just has all of that association - the baggage from the 1960s.

MARTIN: That was not your scene.

GRIFFITHS: That was absolutely not my scene. Yeah.

MARTIN: Roland Griffiths is as surprised as anyone about the direction his career has taken. He made a name for himself studying the addictive qualities of certain medications, like sleeping pills. But over time, he started dabbling with meditation, and that made him deeply curious about consciousness. So when he had the opportunity to study the psychedelic drug psilocybin, sometimes called magic mushrooms, Griffiths was intrigued. The first clinical trials he ran involved giving psilocybin to terminal cancer patients.

GRIFFITHS: As it turns out, the effects were nothing short of astonishing.

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GRIFFITHS: In this cohort of people who met criteria for clinically significant depression or anxiety, with a single dose of psilocybin under these kinds of supported conditions, anxiety and depression dropped immediately and markedly and enduringly. That was the most important feature. So in that study, we followed people up at six months, and they remained with very low symptom profiles.

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MARTIN: Can you articulate what they said to you about - how did that alleviate their anxiety?

GRIFFITHS: I do recall one man who had the psilocybin experience. I'm now hesitant to give this example, but I will. He came to believe in the reality of God. And it wasn't that he was filled with spiritual language - you know, God's going to save me. No, it was an acceptance for his condition and a reassurance to the people he loved most that everything was as it should be. Everything was OK.

MARTIN: If I may ask, why were you reticent to share that example?

GRIFFITHS: It's (laughter) the God language.

MARTIN: Well, we're all sort of limited by our language, right? Maybe some people use the word God because we don't know what other words to ascribe to these certain kind of ideas or experiences.

GRIFFITHS: Well, I think that's precisely it. I mean, for me, personally, we live in the midst of this astonishing mystery, and we don't have a coherent scientific explanation of what's going on. The thing that we understand best about our experience of sentience is that we are aware that we're aware.

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MARTIN: You have found yourself on the other side of this whole thing...

GRIFFITHS: (Laughter) Yeah.

MARTIN: ...As someone who is contemplating these very existential questions with new urgency.

GRIFFITHS: Yeah. I went in for a screening colonoscopy, thinking myself to be completely healthy, taking very good care of myself, and coming out with, as it turns out, a stage IV cancer colon diagnosis. For me, the diagnosis, as unlikely as it seems, has been a call to celebration, and my wife and I have been in that mode in spite of, you know, multiple surgeries and stuff like that.

MARTIN: Do you plan to take psilocybin at any point?

GRIFFITHS: No. I - initially, I actually didn't want to touch a psychedelic because I was concerned it would somehow alter the state of...

MARTIN: Sabotage this...

GRIFFITHS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...This very healthy...

GRIFFITHS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Appreciative...

GRIFFITHS: Yeah, right.

MARTIN: ...Mental clarity you had.

GRIFFITHS: Yeah, right.

MARTIN: Huh.

GRIFFITHS: And so there actually came a point where I thought, I wonder if I'm defending against something here. I wonder if my reason for refusing to take a psychedelic is that I'm masking something over - that there's a skeleton in my closet here, and I'm saying I'm joyful. And I have all this equipoise, and everything is beautiful, you know? So I just decided, OK, so I'll take a dose of psychedelic and do that very inquiry.

MARTIN: Yeah.

GRIFFITHS: It was LSD. And...

MARTIN: How'd it go?

GRIFFITHS: Fantastic.

MARTIN: Did it?

GRIFFITHS: Yeah. I addressed the cancer itself and said, you know, I've considered you a blessing. I actually really respect everything that's occurred to me since this diagnosis. I truly am grateful for the diagnosis. I said, but do you have to kill me (laughter)?

MARTIN: Whoa.

GRIFFITHS: The answer was, yeah, you're going to die. But this is as it should be. There's a (crying) - there's a deeper - there's a deeper meaning. There's a deeper purpose to this, and you should continue to do exactly what you're doing.

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GRIFFITHS: And I felt implied, by that, that I should speak out more broadly about what I was going through. And I said - you know, I'm talking to cancer - I said, but, OK, so I have something to say here. How about giving me some more time (laughter)?

MARTIN: I like that you went for the follow-up. I like that you pressed (laughter).

GRIFFITHS: I went to the follow-up.

MARTIN: I mean, how many times do you get the opportunity (laughter)?

GRIFFITHS: Yeah. But I got radio silence (laughter). It didn't answer.

MARTIN: No.

GRIFFITHS: But that was it. And, you know, who knows? Was I dialoguing with the cancer? No. And that doesn't fit within my worldview. Some people would say I was. But it was deeply affirming to what I was doing. And actually, after that was...

MARTIN: It validated how you felt you were walking through the process.

GRIFFITHS: Not only did it validate it, it felt like an empowerment to speak up about it in a way that I had to get this message out.

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GRIFFITHS: My parting invitation is...

MARTIN: Please.

GRIFFITHS: ...Yeah - is to celebrate. I mean, I'm inviting you to celebrate what I'm celebrating, and that is this experience of the miracle of where we find ourselves. And you needn't have a terminal diagnosis to lean much more fully into that than you possibly could believe. And I promise you, it's worth it.

CHANG: That was Roland Griffiths speaking with NPR's Rachel Martin as part of the Enlighten Me series. Griffiths has established a professorship fund at Johns Hopkins University to ensure the study of psychedelics continues for generations to come. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.