The Saga of Rick Strassman

After many years of effort, psychopharmacologist Rick Strassman finally got permission to administer DMT to human volunteers in a hospital setting. Out of this research came a steady stream of scientific articles and, eventually, a popular book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule. But the study ended in what can only be described as chaos and confusion, and it may be worth thinking about why that happened.

Strassman was himself a practicing Zen Buddhist, and he had hoped that his research would shed light on the relationship between hallucinogenic experience and spirituality. But Strassman came to believe that any such benefits of the DMT experience were transient, even for volunteers who had incredibly intense and remarkable experiences during high-dose DMT sessions. Follow-up interviews with the first group of volunteers, one to two years after their DMT experiences, found little of what Strassman considered to be positive carryover into their daily lives. Even those who believed they had benefited inwardly from their high-dose DMT experience showed little outward evidence of making significant changes in their lives — for example, taking up a spiritual or psychotherapeutic practice, changing jobs, or increasing community service.

“To my surprise and sadness,” Strassman said in a later interview, “people's initial high-dose breakthrough sessions were beginning to sound a little hollow. I think this was because, by following our early volunteers, I saw that the drug experience itself had little substantial impact on most people’s lives.” The relocations, marriages, or divorces that did occur in volunteers were all under way before their involvement in the studies.

Strassman came to believe that this lack of long-term positive effect was the result of the experimental setting itself. The biomedical model, he concluded, was intrusive and dehumanizing, as was a neutral and nondirective supervising style. There needed to be more emphasis on treatment, he thought, and less on descriptive mechanistic brain-chemistry studies. DMT by itself had no beneficial effect, Strassman concluded; in fact, he became concerned that he was harming rather than helping his volunteers.

Other factors as well led to the cessation of the New Mexico research. Strassman had hoped to begin therapeutic work -- as opposed to mechanistic studies in the hospital -- with the longer-acting psilocybin, but the ethics committee refused to allow him to take his research out of the hospital setting. Off-site therapeutic work became even less likely when a volunteer on psilocybin had a paranoid reaction and fled the hospital. A graduate student began taking drugs with volunteers after hours; hoped-for colleagues did not arrive, and in fact began setting up their own foundations competing for scarce resources and colleagues. Long-term benefits were meager, and adverse effects were adding up. The frequency with which volunteers reported contact with other-dimensional beings was unexpected and personally disorienting to Strassman. His wife developed a serious illness, and they moved to Canada so she could be closer to family.

In addition, Strassman had begun a relationship with an American Zen Buddhist monastery in the early 1970s, which provided ongoing spiritual training and support. Many monks shared with him the importance of their earlier psychedelic experiences in choosing a spiritual lifestyle, which supported his emerging theories regarding psychedelics and mysticism. Buddhism also stimulated many of the ideas guiding the studies, providing the model for developing a new rating scale for DMT effects, and informing Strassman’s method of supervising drug sessions.

However, a disastrous conversation with a monk who knew little about psychotropics coincided with the terminal illness of the monastery’s leader and the consequent lobbying for succession. The monk condemned Strassman’s work, which caused formerly supportive monks to either turn silent or reverse long-standing support. The issue came to a head when Strassman published an article linking psychedelics and Buddhism in Tricycle, The Buddhist Review. In this article, he said, among other things, that “dedicated Buddhist practitioners with little success in their meditation, but well along in moral and intellectual development, might benefit from a carefully timed, prepared, supervised, and followed-up psychedelic session to accelerate their practice.” The head temple called on Strassman to stop his work, which further wore down his remaining desire to continue the research. Several months after moving to Canada, he ended his work and returned all drugs and the last year of grant support to the Federal government.

This is an intriguing story, on many levels. Strassman largely attributes the outcome as a result of the experimental set and setting. To the extent that the scientific protocol -- and, importantly, its funding -- depended on a hospital environment and biomedical approach, he says, the setting may in fact have been subversive of long-term personal change.

But is long-term personal change what DMT is even about? With his own preexisting biases, both Buddhist and countercultural, Strassman thought that spiritual transformation was the endpoint of the hallucinogenic experience; he was personally surprised and disoriented by the frequently reported contact with other-dimensional beings. Perhaps the hospital setting was less important than Strassman’s own unmet expectations. Perhaps DMT -- like ayahuasca itself -- is not a psychotherapist but a teacher, leading where it intends -- not to some sort of enlightenment, not to self-improvement, not to community volunteer work; but into the dark and luminous realm of the spirits.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your comments. I am myself interested in the link between spirituality (especially buddhism) and the use of hallucinogens (especially ayahuasca). I happen to have a buddhist background but have lately turned to attending Santo Daime ceremonies. I have found that the buddhist background helps me a lot in making sense of the ayahuasca-experience and vice-versa that the daime-ritual also throws new light on buddhist teachings (such as for instance the bardo teachings). But I am very careful in discussing this with buddhist companions. There is usually a lot of prejudgement and suspicion among so-called spiritual people concerning the use of psychedelic substances. Since I am also a psychotherapist I have to be extremely careful with my collegues as well. Since the ideas about set and setting are widely recognized it is amazing that Strassman has clearly underestimated these factors in his research. In my view this story also illustrates the ill effects of religious authority in open inquiry in these matters.