On Thursday, Dr. James Fadiman visited Branford for a Master’s Dessert, where he was interviewed by his cousin Anne Fadiman, the Francis Writer-in-Residence. Dr. Fadiman has been an author, professor and consultant, and he co-founded Sofia University. But the trajectory of his multifaceted career started in a Paris café in 1961, when his favorite Harvard professor offered him two pills of the chemical that puts the magic in magic mushrooms, turning his world around. Several years later, Fadiman conducted research on LSD at Harvard in one of the last legal studies of the drug before its use in research was made illegal. I called Dr. Fadiman at his California home Monday night to talk.
Q. You’re very well-known for your research in the 60s on LSD. Even now, we see a significant public backlash against controversial research in areas like stem cells and evolution. Was there any negative reaction from the public on your LSD research?
A. When we were doing the original research, there weren’t negative reactions from the public, because that was at the same time that the public was finding LSD and scarfing it as fast as they could. What we did have criticism from is the scientific establishment that said, “The results of your research do not fit our notion of reality.” Let me give you just one wonderful example. There was a person who was head of alcohol research for the National Institute of Mental Health. Results were coming out of Canada that said if you take long-term treatment-resistant alcoholics — I mean people who are really pretty wasted, have liver disease and so forth — and you give them one session with LSD, there’s a 50 percent abstinence rate. This person was shown the data, and he said, “I don’t believe it.” The person who showed it to him said, “So which data would you believe?” His answer was: “None.”
Q. In your writing and lectures, you talk about LSD a great deal more than other psychedelic drugs. Why LSD?
A. I think it’s a little bit like your first boyfriend. I got all my training on LSD, and therefore I understand all the advantages of it. It’s most easily focused to do various things. You can use LSD for spiritual experiences, you can use it for therapeutic reasons, you can use it at Burning Man to just not know where you are for a week, you can use it on scientific hard-nose problems. I’m now doing research on something called micro-dosing, which is using so little LSD that it’s below the perceptual threshold. Someone said to me, “The rocks don’t glisten even a little.” When people are doing that, they go on with their normal day, they go to classes, they are lawyers, they are bus drivers — but they have a better day. They just feel a little better.
Q. You place a lot of emphasis on being in harmony with nature and other people. But you’ve done consulting work for companies like Dow Chemical. What was that like?
A. I loved being a consultant because people tell you your problems and you get to help them and you get to charge them a lot. I worked for Dow Chemical during the end of the war when it was [seen as] an evil company because it made a substance called napalm. I was interviewing people at the company that were looking for jobs at a fairly high level. I told Dow I was not only going to see if the [candidates] would do a good job, but also how they felt about working for Dow Chemical. One of the things I did was advise some candidates — the company’s going to make you an offer, and you’re going to hate it. I recommended to the candidates that they consider what they were doing with their own morality.
Q. How big of a role do you feel psychedelic drugs played in the social movements of the 60s?
A. Look at a group like the Beatles, who had a huge effect, and it was clear that one of the things they did was take a lot of psychedelics. But you also had philosophers and artists. You really had people who were questioning the whole nature of a society based on competition, based on separation. Really, the [environmental] movement was based on being somehow separate from nature. They were saying being separate from nature is inherently unhealthy, because when we have experienced being closer to nature, it feels more natural, it feels more correct. People were saying, “These Native Americans who keep talking about my brother, the mountain and my sister, the tree — they’re not being metaphorical. They’re talking about experience that makes sense.” Reality just looks a lot more flexible after you use psychedelics.
Q. I was raised Catholic. How do organized religions compare to the type of spirituality experienced on psychedelic drugs?
A. Through the Catholic Church, you have to go to an intermediary who talks to God for you. When you confess to a priest, he says, “I’m working for God. And God says that if you do 100 Hail Marys you will be better.” That’s indirect. But 80 percent of the Buddhist teachers in the United States — American ones, not our Tibetan immigrants — started [practicing] by having psychedelic experiences early on. Meditation and psychedelics approach the same experience. Meditation does it slowly, carefully and deliberately, and psychedelics kind of shove you to the front of the line before you’re ready. But they also let you know there’s something there that’s worth sitting in meditation for 15 years to get.
Q. Can you tell me more about the medical uses of psychedelics?
A. There’s a bunch of research now using psychedelics for specific medical purposes. There’s a study at Harvard at the moment on something called cluster headaches. Cluster headaches make migraines look like a pleasure. It turns out that somebody noticed his next series of cluster headaches didn’t happen, and then he recalled that he’d taken LSD a week or two earlier. Now they’re kind of proving what we already know to be true, which is that [psychedelics] seem to be remarkable in preventing cluster headaches, at least for months.
Q. What about side effects?
A. It depends on the substance. Usually the side effects are temporary, meaning they’re just while you’re on [the drug]. I have an older friend who’s on a tranquilizer [therapeutically]. He’s still depressed, and he has a side effect where his mouth kind of keeps moving and it’s very embarrassing. He’s taking it every day. When you use a psychedelic either therapeutically or spiritually, it’s only once. And then if it’s done right, as well as possible, there’s no desire to do it again for a long time. LSD has almost no physical effect at all. Literally, if you look at scientific literature, your pupils dilate a little and your blood pressure goes up one or two points. That’s it. You probably get a lot more body load from a chocolate bar.
Q. If psychedelic drugs were to be legalized for therapeutic uses, how would you see them being regulated?
A. If LSD were available by prescription, a lot of people who would have never touched it otherwise would only use it in the most legal, safe way. And that seems to me, you know, sensible. The argument for legalizing marijuana is, until you make something legal, you can’t regulate it. So I think regulation would be very healthy.
Q. What effect do you think regulation would have on society?
A. What happens when people use psychedelic drugs is they don’t use them too much. It looks like if things were legal, not much would change, in terms of problems. What would change, of course, is that the U.S. would lose its honor of being the nation that imprisons the most people of any [country] in the world.
Q. Where do you think those negative feelings toward these drugs come from?
A. Culture likes to be stable. Any culture. There’s this fear I think we all have of not being in control of ourselves. Fear is a very powerful motivator, and psychedelics, for many people, really make a difference in their lives — it isn’t like getting drunk. But there’s a lot less fear out there than you think. When you release a book about psychedelics, you walk around and you say to people, “Hello, would you be interested in this book?” I’ve done that to the strangest looking people, and at first they look at me like they want to squash me like a bug. And then there’s this little glazed thing that happens, their eyes go a little out of focus, and they say something like, “You know, I was in college once.”