Torsten Passie is one of the very few scientists 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" drugs) and entactogens (substances 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 ban them and push them underground. Susan Blackmore met him earlier this year at an occasion that could hardly have been more appropriate: a conference in Basel celebrating the 100th birthday of Albert Hofmann, discoverer of LSD.
Why are you willing to put your reputation on the line to work with hallucinogenic drugs?
I have long worked on altered states of consciousness, 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.
Isn't it almost impossible to get grants and licences to use these drugs?
Licences aren't really the problem. I 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 problems with ethics committees, but now we've got permission for everything we want. If you know what you're doing, they'll give you permission. Grants, however, are nearly impossible to get.
Why are you 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 1990s. My intention is to rediscover the therapeutic potential and applications of these substances.
What kind of patients can these drugs help?
Nearly all kinds of patients with neurotic and psychosomatic diseases can be helped, as shown by the 300 to 400 studies from the 1950s and 1960s. Especially appropriate may be patients with anxiety neuroses, depressive neuroses and post-traumatic stress disorder.
How can these drugs help them?
It seems that MDMA (ecstasy) and the entactogens can detraumatise people from experiences that have left them in states of heavy tension and friction. To achieve this you first have to prepare a safe and stable therapeutic relationship with the patient so as to have a safe inner setting, and you need a safe external setting too. We found that these ways of experiencing oneself, others and the world are very productive and can promote what is essentially a self-healing process.
People can confront their memories in a state not limited by neurotic fear and inner defences - they can really open up. It seems they can mainly self-organise the processing of their experiences to promote their own healing. They can see that it's safe, and that it's nice to be open again. After that they may not go back into a closed state and you can work psychotherapeutically with them in a much more effective way.
You mean you provide the setting, the drug and the support and they do it themselves?
That's right. It activates their self-healing power. 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 some 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.
The earlier researchers found that you should do therapy in mixed groups, treating people with different kinds of neurosis together. In a scientific design you would use people who all have the same kind of neurosis, but that's counterproductive for therapy. We would like to give them MDMA first because it's easier to handle and then give them LSD a few times.
Are you also interested in how healthy people use drugs for recreation?
I am, because from these people we may learn how you can misuse the drugs or use them in an appropriate manner. When I worked with Hanscarl Leuner he was allowed to do therapy only on severe neurotics who were resistant to treatment, because of all the panic and phobia surrounding LSD 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, because healthy people have a greater capacity for self-healing.
But why, if these drugs have such great healing potential, aren't they available to use?
There are two reasons. Firstly, any patents on them ran out long ago. No pharmaceutical company will finance a study if it gets 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.
The second reason is that pharmaceutical companies are not interested in things that patients have to take only once. They're more interested in something like a hair-growing ingredient that people have to take every day and if they don't take it their hair will fall out again. That's what they're looking for. With a depressed patient, the physician may say, "Take this SSRI [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor] anti-depressant medication and you will be better." Sure, they will be a little better, but they have to take a pill twice a day.
You mean you could heal them once and for all?
As potential therapists, we would give them MDMA perhaps three times and LSD twice. Who could earn money out of it? From five doses? And after psychedelic therapy, the patient may be much better or completely healed, rather than showing slightly improved symptoms and having to take the medication for years. So in a way the pharmaceutical company is our enemy.
Are there many others working in this field?
I'm really on my own. This is the real problem, that there are so few people who are seriously scientifically interested. It's astonishing because a lot of people try to get information out of you, especially journalists, but they usually 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.
Torsten Passie is assistant professor for consciousness studies at Hanover Medical School, Germany. He has done extensive research on the use of hallucinogenic drugs, altered states of consciousness and shamanic practices in psychotherapy and healing.
Susan Blackmore will be talking about the dangers and benefits of LSD at Unhooked Thinking, an international conference on the nature of addiction at the Assembly Rooms in Bath, UK, 19-21 April (www.unhookedthinking.com).