The Psychedelic Evangelist

Before he died last year, Roland Griffiths was arguably the world’s most famous psychedelics researcher. Since 2006, his work has suggested that psilocybin, found in magic mushrooms, can induce mystical experiences, and that those experiences, in turn, can help treat anxiety, depression, addiction and the terror of death.

Dr. Griffiths and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University received widespread recognition among scientists and the popular press, helping to pull the psychedelic field from the deep backwater of the 1960s hippie movement. This second wave of research on the hallucinogenic compounds bolstered political campaigns to decriminalize them and spurred biotech investment.

Dr. Griffiths was known to friends and colleagues as an analytical thinker and a religious agnostic, and he warned fellow researchers against hype. But he also saw psychedelics as more than mere medicines: Understanding them could be “critical to the survival of the human species,” he said in one talk. Late in life, he admitted to taking psychedelics himself, and said he wanted science to help unlock their transformative power for humanity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he held a vaunted, even prophetic role among psychonauts, the growing community of psychedelic believers who want to bring the drugs into mainstream society. For years, critics have denounced the outsize financial and philosophical influence of these advocates on the insular research field. And some researchers have quietly questioned whether Dr. Griffiths, in his focus on the mystical realm, made some of the same mistakes that doomed the previous era of psychedelic science.

Now, one of his longtime collaborators is airing a more forceful critique. “Dr. Griffiths has run his psychedelic studies more like a ‘new-age’ retreat center, for lack of a better term, than a clinical research laboratory,” reads an ethics complaint filed to Johns Hopkins last fall by Matthew Johnson, who worked with Dr. Griffiths for nearly 20 years but resigned after a charged dispute with colleagues.

Roland Griffiths, director of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins, in 2021.Credit…Matt Roth for The New York Times
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