The story that has gripped me lately is the quiet resurgence of psychedelic compounds as instruments of both spiritual and scientific exploration. This trend is unfolding worldwide. I just attended a conference in Switzerland at which scholars presented findings on the physiological and psychological effects of drugs such as psilocybin, LSD and MDMA (Ecstacy). At the meeting, I met an American chemist who had synthesized a new compound that seems to induce transcendent experiences as reliably as LSD does but with a greatly reduced risk of bad trips; a Russian psychiatrist who for more than 15 years has successfully treated alcoholics with the hallucinogen ketamine; and a German anthropologist who touts the spiritual benefits of a potent Amazonian brew called ayahuasca. Long a staple of Indian shamans, ayahuasca now serves as a sacrament for two fast-growing churches in Brazil. Offshoots of these churches are springing up in the U.S. and Europe.
Several non-profit groups in the U.S. are attempting to rehabilitate the image of psychedelic drugs through public education and by supporting research on the drugs' clinical and therapeutic potential. They include the Heffter Institute, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. MAPS, based in Florida. The question is, will this new psychedelic movement founder, as its predecessor did in the 1960's? Or will it bring about the profound spiritual and social changes that advocates envision?