Talking Point

New Scientist 15 April 2006, p 50

Torsten Passie is one of very few researchers in the world who dare to work on the positive effects of hallucinogenic drugs. His research centres on the life-enhancing and therapeutic effects of the most powerful mind-altering drugs known to science, including hallucinogens, psychedelics (literally “mind Revealing” drigs) and entactigens (subtances that induce a deep change in feelings). These are drugs that can turn your mind inside out throwing everything into question. An LSD trip can be a terrifying whirlwind of horrific hallucinations, a delightful journey of discovery, or even a mystical experience.

But while the dangers of hallucinogens are well known, the stigma of their illegality makes it nearly impossible to discuss, let alone research, their positive potential. Could they help the dying, the depressed or the mentally ill? If so, argues Passie, perhaps we should treat them more like dangerous sports – acceptable if treated with caution – rather than banning them and pushing them underground.

Sue Blackmore met him in Basel at a conference celebrating the one hundredth birthday of Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD.

 This is the original version. It may have been slightly edited for publication

Tell me why you are working in this unusual and difficult area.

I work in the field of altered states of consciousness in general, looking at their philosophical implications, but I’m also interested in temporarily inducing severely altered states. I want to explore these states, and make scientific experiments on them, including those induced by using hallucinogens.

But it’s practically impossible to get grants and licenses to use these drugs isn’t it?

This isn’t really the main problem. I personally have permission to work with cannabis, ketamine and psilocybin and it was no big problem to get it, but then I’ve been in the field more than 20 years and I know all the literature. My Head of Department has done a lot of work with cannabis before. He did have all those problems with ethics committees, but now we’ve got permission for everything we want. If you really know what you’re doing they’ll give you permission.

Are there more people joining you? Do you have lots of students?

I’m really on my own. This is the real problem, that there are only a very few people who are seriously scientifically interested. It’s astonishing because a lot of people try to get information out of you, especially journalists and press people, but they only want to have an impression of a special facet of the topic. They don’t want to take on the therapeutic applications, or the religious and spiritual potential of these drugs. So normally I don’t give interviews and I don’t have that many students.

What is your own motivation for doing this work?

My personal interest is because I worked for many years with Hanscarl Leuner, who did pioneering work with LSD in the 1960s and continued research on hallucinogen-assisted psychotherapy until the end of the 1980s. My intention now is to rediscover the therapeutic applications and potential of these substances.

What’s your guess about the therapeutic potential? What is the best that could come out of these drugs?

The earlier researchers found that you should do therapy in mixed groups. In a scientific design you would use people who all have the same kind of neurosis, but that’s counterproductive for doing therapy. The healing process happens better if you have a mix. You may give MDMA first to these patients because it’s easier to handle, and then give LSD a few times. We found that this can be very productive and is essentially a self-healing process. If you use an appropriate setting – kind of permissive – and an appropriate therapeutic strategy – having a hold of the whole setting and the relationship with the people – then you don’t actually have to do much during these altered states. It seems that people can self-organise the processing of their experiences to promote their own healing.

You mean you provide the setting, you provide the drug, you provide the support and then they do it themselves?

That’s right, and this may be problematic for therapists because they are kind of useless then. This is something that people don’t realise; that normally therapists are trying to influence somebody in a way. Here you don’t have to. You only have to furnish a room nicely, do some background work, and then the process happens without danger and with great potential for a lot of people.

It seems that MDMA and the entactogens are able to detraumatise people from experiences that have left them in states of heavy tension and friction. With these substances you can really let them open up. They can see that it’s safe and that it’s really nice to be open again. After that they may not go back into the closed state they were in before.

There’s a difference between using drugs for therapy when there’s something wrong and using them for healthy people to go beyond. Are you also interested in their potential to take people further?  

I would be interested in that too, of course. When I worked with Professor Leuner he was allowed to do therapy only on treatment resistant severe neurotics, because of all the LSD panic and phobia in those days. We found that these people can profit from hallucinogens, no question, but the more healthy the people are the more they can profit.

That’s what I would expect from the people I’ve talked to here, and from my own experiences. But why, if these drugs have such great healing potential, aren’t they available to use?

There are two reasons that are not often mentioned but are quite important.

First there are no patents any more. No pharmaceutical company would finance any study for getting nothing out of it. This is a major reason why we can’t get money for our studies and especially for clinical studies which are quite expensive

You mean you don’t get money for saving the world and helping people but only for making money for pharmaceutical companies! 

And the other thing is that if you are a pharmaceutical company you would look for something like a hair growing ingredient; one which people have to take a pill every day and if they don’t take it their hair will fall out again. So that’s what they’re looking for. Say you have a depressed patient, the physician may say “take this SSRI, anti-depressant medication and you will be better”. Sure he will be better, 10 or 20 %, but he has to take a pill twice a day.

But we, as potential future therapists, would give him maybe three times MDMA and two times LSD. Who could get money out of it? From five doses? And after psychedelic therapy the patient may be completely healed – not just slightly improved symptoms and having to take the medication for years. So the pharmaceutical company is our enemy.

You’re making me depressed here.

Yes but these are the facts. It’s obvious to everybody who really knows what the therapeutic implications of hallucinogens can be.