It’s undeniable that drugs are becoming part of the mainstream. Our latest content series set about uncovering the most progressive and exciting emerging voices on the topic, sitting down with them to understand their perceptions and opinions of drug culture in Ireland, and the world today.
This is Truth on Drugs. Future thinking on drugs and society.
Ireland has an ancient and turbulent relationship with some fungus. Humans on this island have experimented with psilocybin for thousands of years, but in the past half century mushrooms have been the focus of much debate.
Perhaps the most significant moment of the past 20 years when it comes to mushrooms happened in 2005. A 33-year-old man tragically died after jumping from a third story apartment roof. A friend witnessed him eat a significant number of mushrooms and a toxicology report revealed he had also consumed a small amount of alcohol and a trace of cannabis that night. on the night he died. According to the Irish Times, a jury returned a verdict of “death by misadventure” and recommended that “a study be undertaken into the potentially damaging effects of mind-altering substances”.
This led to a swift ban on the sale and possession of magic mushrooms containing psilocybin in Ireland, as well as a widespread stigmatisation around its uses outside of recreational purposes.
However, some persevered and fast forward over 15 years and new conversations are well under way.
The Psychedelic Society of Ireland was founded in 2015 and is a non-profit forming a community of people who are interested in and appreciative of psychedelics in Ireland. They aim to encourage a wider public understanding of the benefits and safe use of psychedelic substances.
Dr Roberta Murphy is a psychiatrist with the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London, where research scientists have been pioneering clinical trials of psychedelics. We invited author of the book ‘The Spirit of the Liberty Cap’ Ciara Sherlock to sit down with Roberta for a conversation around clinical and medical worlds looking to psychedelics, UK and US progress versus Ireland, trials happening on our shores and the culture shift around the often misunderstood mushroom.
Ciara: Can you talk about your most recent work in the psychedelic world and what that has looked like?
Roberta: I got involved with psychedelic work in a more official capacity at Imperial College London. I was involved in a few different trials there. Some for healthy volunteers. I worked full time in a trial looking at people with moderate to severe depression, which is comparing Psilocybin to Escitalopram, a conventional antidepressant. I have also been involved recently around an eating disorder trial. My research interest is around the therapeutic side of things. So, my most recent paper was about the role of the therapeutic relationship, how that impacts the acute experience and vice versa, and how it affects outcomes in the end.
So interesting. What would you say the key elements are from your experience with a successful psilocybin trial or for an individual? What are the key elements to it being a success? In particular, around people with anxiety and depression.
Some people argue that there is not really a way that the medicine or the psychedelic can do a lot of the healing, and the role of guided therapists is not as important. I guess I come from a trained therapist background, so that’s of my particular lineage, but also bias, perhaps. But my experience is that, especially for people with mental health difficulties, they’ve often had a lot of relational trauma in their life, in early needs and early attachment needs that have not been met, maybe in a way that has impacted them in the long term. In my own experiences, of either therapy or working non-ordinary states of consciousness, that relationships with people in the room have been really important. There’s something about how we are relational creatures and heal in relationships. I think there’s something about building that trust with the kind of person and helping them feel safe, accepted, supported, and loved. So, for me, it’s quite powerful, separate from the whole psychedelic experience.
I would relate to that in what I’ve seen with the group retreats. Obviously, people have profound experiences, but a lot of the time people say before the psychedelic session happened that they’ve had such an amazing experience already. It’s actually so much more than a psychedelic retreat. It’s that relational aspect like you said.
I think it’s really interesting that you’ve worked in groups, which, for the most part, psychedelic research hasn’t been exploring. Have you done much guiding with individuals? I’ve had experiences in groups, but never guided in a group. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
I have worked with individuals one to one or also with another facilitator and one other person. I think they’re just really different experiences. What I think is so important in the group is that everyone resonates with everyone’s story. And everyone sees themselves within the other people in a big way. There’s a lot more mutual sharing than when you’re in a therapeutic environment, the therapist or the placeholder isn’t sharing their story with the participants.
Yeah, I think there is something really powerful about not feeling alone.
Totally. I am curious to ask you what you think about the “healthy” volunteer studies that make them also pretty successful, even without the Psilocybin? Because some of them have heard quite positive results. Right?
I would say our healthy volunteer studies were a bit unusual because it’s quite like an EEG-based study. It was a very scientific and interrupted experience. So they have EEG hats on and off multiple times during the session. But I think everybody also has the stuff to work through. Very few of us have lived this completely perfect life. There’s also the idea that psychedelics aren’t just therapeutic; they’re also transformative, creative, spiritual, and offer so much more. All of these things that a lot of people would benefit from being able to experience and get in touch with. Not just those with severe mental health issues.
I’d love to hear a bit more about your experience over the years of witnessing the clinical and medical worlds, then turning on to psychedelics?
It was interesting to watch it go from something that was a bit controversial. The trials were already happening when I came in to work in the area, but it has been really interesting to watch how big it has become, and how mainstream it’s become. And also the politics that has come out of it, the controversies around medicalisation, commercialisation and psychedelics being for profits. And in a sense it’s amazing to imagine that they would be mainstreamed and available, but also see what that really means.
A woman I work with always asks the question, what would the mushrooms want themselves? When we really ask the plant – what are they trying to achieve? And how would they want to be used?
I think you’re right, you know. I guess if you think about Mother Ayahuasca or DMT entities, or whatever it is, for me it’s that very loving compassion, a sort of higher presence almost. You can kind of look at us little humans with empathy. I can almost imagine the mushroom, in a way, having that thought process. It is a nice way to think about it.
You’ve obviously had some great experiences in the UK, which is amazing. Do you have any idea of where Ireland stands in the trajectory of medicalisation, legalisation and decriminalisation, and what do you think needs to happen to get there?
I actually don’t. I have quite a lot of friends in Ireland, the same as you, I’m sure, who are very interested and they’ve set up an Irish kind of doctors for psychedelic group, and I’ve got friends working in the research, but there isn’t much happening really. I wonder, would it be more controversial in Ireland? Would the Catholic Church start to come into it? It feels like it’s quite a liberal country, and there is certainly an appetite for it, although I am obviously in a bubble. But yeah, I don’t have the answer either…
There’s a psilocybin trial happening in Tallaght, and there’s a ketamine trial happening as well. With the Psychedelic Centre in London, it’s out there, people really know about it, there were articles about it. There’s just this kind of more openness and it’s more publicised [in the UK]. We can hope things progress alongside it, rather than people needing to leave the country to gain access.
But it’s great that some trials are happening. I mean, that’s pretty promising already.
What are your thoughts and experiences on what you’ve seen on the best way to create a culture shift around psychedelics? What are the key things that help that shift?
A lot of it will be around people’s fears around if they’re really dangerous, right? That people will ‘lose their minds’. They jump off cliffs, they become psychotic, and they never return. So I guess there’s something about demonstrating that these are actually safe treatments or ways of healing.
I can understand the worry. Are they going to miss the risks? Are they going to miss the ways that it doesn’t work? The early people who had to push the research to ramp it up and push for it… They did an amazing job. But we’re not there anymore. Now we need to be slightly more nuanced and open to the ideas of that maybe it can be dangerous in certain circumstances. Maybe they don’t work for everybody. I think it’s about having those conversations with people. The minute they hear you’re open to hearing their concerns and other ideas, the conversation feels a bit easier.
Follow Ciara at @ciarashurlook
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