But the criminalization of such hallucinogens as LSD and mushrooms didn’t just affect the Haight-Ashbury crowd. Eventually, authorities targeted other hallucinogens and made them illegal as well. Mescaline, the psychedelic compound found in the peyote cactus, was also listed as a Schedule 1 drug (meaning it was understood to have no accepted medical use, a high potential for dependence or harm, and no parameters for safe administration). Nevertheless, Native Americans had long used this plant as an important part of their religious rituals. Halpern, who spent years working with Native Americans for his research, witnessed firsthand how dear peyote is to them and their culture. “This is their heart,” says Halpern. “The leaders say, ‘You have taken our land, tried to take our way of life, our language, now all we have left is this peyote.’ ” Eventually, in 1996, under very strict regulations, members of the Native American Church (NAC) were given permission to use peyote in their ceremonies, but this did little to change the national anxiety over psychedelic drugs.
Halpern’s research revealed that members of the NAC suffer no ill effects from the ingestion of peyote, and in fact have lower rates of alcoholism and drug addiction than the general population. I was curious whether Halpern participated in any of the ceremonies and, if so, if he had lost any objectivity as a scientist. “I had been invited by the leadership of NAC to ‘pray with them,’ which means to take peyote,” says Halpern. “I would not be able to do the work if I had not.” As a scientist, his job was to report harms if he found them. But he didn’t find any.
THE NEW GURUS: Rick Doblin (left) and Dr. John Halpern could bring psychedelics back to respectable research.
‘It’s about legitimate science’
When it comes to drug research, even professionals tend to be skeptical. Halpern says that some of his peers accused him of not doing legitimate work, but he defends it by noting that he wasn’t doing it alone in a bong-filled vacuum: “What about all my collaborators? What about the senior professors who are supervising my work, or the biostatisticians who evaluate the entire data set, or the research assistants independent of me, who are entering in the data? Are all those people biased too? It almost takes on a level of paranoia that something wrong is happening.”
So how did researching peyote lead Halpern to study MDMA and LSD, which have no accepted sacramental use? Halpern explains that the question of their status as psychedelic drugs with a controversial history is secondary to the possibility that they have real medical use, and immediately points to the example of Thalidomide, which caused terrible birth defects in children born in the late ’50s/early ’60s. Nevertheless, he notes, the drug did prove to have tremendous usefulness for alleviating pain in certain forms of cancer and very painful skin inflammation, and, under very controlled situations, is still prescribed.
“When Schedule 1 drugs are shown that they are effective, they become Schedule 2,” says Halpern. “And if they are abused, they can be prosecuted as Schedule 1. Some [similar] arrangement could be made for some of these [hallucinogenic] compounds, as well.”