TIME Drugs

Colorado Court to Decide Whether Smoking Pot is a Fireable Offense

Brandon Coats
Brandon Coats works on his computer at his home in Denver on Dec. 6, 2012 Ed Andrieski—AP

A quadriplegic man who uses medical marijuana says he was unfairly dismissed from his job for partaking in a legal activity outside of work hours

Colorado’s Supreme Court is set to rule whether an employer can fire a worker for using medical marijuana, which is now legal in the state.

The court was due to hear arguments Tuesday in a case that will test the boundaries of state laws to legalize the substance. Both medical and recreational marijuana have been made legal in Colorado.

Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic user of medical marijuana, sued his former employer, Dish Network, for firing him in 2010 after a drug test came back positive for marijuana, Colorado Public Radio reports.

Coats maintains that he needs the drug to alleviate debilitating muscle spasms, and that he has struggled to find a steady job ever since being fired. His attorney cites a state law prohibiting employers from firing employees for legal activities outside of work, while Dish Network argues that marijuana remains a federally prohibited substance.

Neither the state’s medical marijuana law nor the statute permitting recreational marijuana use require employers to tolerate marijuana use, and lower courts have sided with the employer in the Coats case.

“There’s a lot of people out there like me who would like to have a job but cannot,” Coats said, according to Colorado Public Radio, “because their impairment requires them to use marijuana, and because marijuana’s looked down on for employment, they’re not able to get jobs,”


TIME medicine

Soon You Can Send Your Expired Painkillers Through the Mail

painkiller pills
Getty Images

The DEA has a new way to get rid of extra meds

How to get rid of leftover medication is a tricky question—keep it around and it can get into the wrong hands, but dispose of it improperly and you risk contaminating the environment.

That’s why in the past, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has held National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. Last April, the DEA reported that it collected 780,000 pounds of prescription drugs, and during the event on Sept. 27, a single county in Virginia dropped off 1,200 pounds of drugs. But even though half a ton of drugs for one county is certainly a coup, it was the last event of its kind—because soon, through an innovative new program, Americans will be able to safely abandon their unused pills at any time.

The DEA first recognized the leftover pill problem because the Controlled Substances Act had no outlined provisions for how people could get rid of their unused or expired prescription drugs. According to the DEA, people would keep them in their medicine cabinets (which made it possible for them them to be abused), toss them in the trash or flush them down the toilet. The latter method was discovered to contaminate water supplies.

In 2010, the Drug Disposal Act gave the DEA the authority to create a framework for how the general public and facilities could dispose of prescription pills properly and safely. On Sept. 9 the regulations were approved, and the DEA says it will start implementing the plan in early October. The new regulations allow Americans to get rid of their excess drugs at pharmacies or police departments with drop-off receptacles. Patients will also be able to grab envelopes from places like hospitals that they can use to mail their pills to authorized collectors, who will make sure the pills are properly incinerated. “It will be more convenient because once these rules are implemented, then people can do it all the time,” a DEA spokesperson told TIME.

The number of Americans abusing prescription drugs has dropped in the last couple years, but the DEA says the 6.5 million people who reportedly abused prescription drugs in 2013 is double the number of people who use hard drugs like cocaine, heroin, LSD and Ecstasy combined.

TIME 2014 Election

The Marijuana Legalization Votes That Will Matter in 2014

First Legal Marijuana Sales in Colorado
Strains of marijuana at Denver Kush Club in Denver, Colorado on January 1, 2014. Seth McConnell—Denver Post/Getty Images

Referendums across the country set the stage for an even bigger fight in 2016

Election Day this year will be big on pot.

The battle over legalizing recreational marijuana in California—the big enchilada that may tilt legalization not only in the U.S. but other countries—is already being set for 2016. But while many reformers’ eyes are focused on the next presidential election, this year’s votes on marijuana initiatives have the power to shape that fight.

Here are the races to watch in November.

Alaska: Legalization with tax and regulation

A 1975 Alaska Supreme Court ruling found that the right to privacy in the state included the right to grow and possess a small amount of marijuana at home. Though opponents have still fought over whether possessing marijuana is legal—sometimes in court—reformers are hoping that a long history of quasi-legalization and a noted libertarian streak will lead Alaskans to vote yes on Ballot Measure 2: It would concretely legalize retail pot, giving the the state the power to tax and regulate like in Colorado and Washington state.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the pro-marijuana reform group NORML, called this measure a “wobbler,” with support long hovering around 50%. That sentiment is echoed by Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project, which spearheaded legalization in Colorado and has contributed heavily to the campaign in Alaska. “A lot of it will depend on the campaign getting its message out,” Tvert said. The message got a boost this month when a local on-anchor quit her job live on TV to support the legalization effort.

Oregon: Legalization with tax and regulation

Oregon almost went along with Colorado and Washington on their experimental journey in 2012, when residents narrowly rejected a pot legalization measure 56% to 44%. This year, more activists—and more organized ones at that—have been on the scene, working with groups like the deep-pocketed Drug Policy Alliance. Still, the prospects for Measure 91 are far from a lock; a recent poll found that while 44% of likely voters support legalization, 40% oppose it.

Like Alaska, the Beaver State has a long history when it comes to marijuana, having become the first state to decriminalize it in 1973. St. Pierre said Oregon’s proximity to Washington state, where creating a legal market has so far gone pretty smoothly, will help push people to vote “yes.” He said Oregon is the “most viable in terms of moving the national needle,” keeping up the momentum for drug-law reform that Washington and Colorado started. “Oregon will likely help lead the way for more states to follow,” said Anthony Johnson, who launched the campaign for Measure 91.

Washington, D.C.: “Soft legalization”

Those are the words of St. Pierre, describing a measure that falls short of creating a full-on regulated, taxable pot market. Initiative 71 would, however, allow people to possess up to 2 oz. of marijuana and cultivate up to six plants at home without fear of criminal or civil penalty—at least in theory. If the initiative does pass, there remains a hazy line between the reaches of the local and federal governments in the District, and Congress could choose to intervene, passing laws that supersede the actions of D.C. officials.

The initiative will very likely pass: Locals support it by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. The big question is whether Congress will continue to stand down, as it did while D.C. legalized medical marijuana and decriminalized marijuana. Allowing pot plants to flourish in backyard gardens down the road from the White House could force a more serious conversation about the conflict between federal drug laws that still view marijuana as an illegal substance and newer laws that do not.

Florida: Medical marijuana

At a time when states are legalizing pot for recreational purposes, it might not seem that significant whether Florida joins the growing list of about two-dozen states that allow medical marijuana. But St. Pierre said that nothing marijuana-related is taken lightly when it comes to political bellwether states like this one. So far, polling on support for Amendment 2 has been all over the place. And the political frenzy over the initiative has drawn huge spenders like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who shelled out at least $98 million in the 2012 elections.

Amendment 2 has a steep hill to climb, requiring a 60% supermajority to pass; neither Colorado nor Washington got past the 55% range. “Florida is a national battleground,” St. Pierre said, noting how uncommon it is for people to be dropping $2.5 million checks to oppose such measures or $3.7 million checks to support them. “We’ve never seen a green rush like we’re seeing in Florida.”

Looking ahead to 2016

There are also a handful of municipalities that are going to vote on “soft legalization” measures of sorts, including the Maine towns of Lewiston and South Portland. Portland, Maine’s biggest city, passed a similar measure in 2013, giving authorities the ability not to punish pot-possessors with civil or criminal penalties.

Maine is one of the states the Marijuana Policy Project will be working hard to push the way of Colorado and Washington come 2016, and even symbolic local wins could boost that effort. “Ultimately our plan is to bring a tax-and-regulate initiative statewide in 2016, so these campaigns are a way to get the message out,” said David Boyer, MPP’s Maine political director.

In addition to California, Tvert said his group is already hard at work in Nevada, collecting petition signatures. And he said campaigns will be ramping up in Arizona and Massachusetts soon. Generally, marijuana initiatives do better when there is larger voter turnout, and voter turnout is typically bigger in presidential election years.

“This is the penultimate year for marijuana law reform,” St. Pierre said of 2014. “California is totally on reformers’ menu. … No one else moves if they don’t move.”

TIME Drugs

I Don’t Want to Smell Your Pot Smoke and I Don’t Think it Should Be Legalized

Bruce Bennett—Getty Images

One person’s “right” to smoke pot shouldn’t trump other people’s right to breathe clean air


This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

This isn’t going to make me any friends but here goes: My experience of pot is that it makes people very self-centered. And the last thing this world needs is more self-centered people walking around. I’m sick of the onslaught of articles and infographics justifying legalizing a substance that will harm the people who smoke it and annoy the hell out of non-smokers in their vicinity.

My first run-ins with pot were in high school. Alex, one of my best friends, would get stoned at parties and then take off in his car. (Alex’s name has been changed.) My other friends and I would go after him, driving around town all high school afterschool-special-style, like, “Oh my God, we have to find Alex! He’s going to hurt himself! What if something happens?!?” Drama aside, we were legitimately really worried, and always more relieved than we were angry at him when we finally tracked him down.

In college, my freshman year roommate smoked pot. She and her stoner friend from down the hall would get high and come back to our dorm room late at night when I was already sleeping. Then they’d jump on my bed, cackling with laughter. Seriously annoying.

The summer after my sophomore year, I lived in Cape Cod with five other girls. Two of them were allegedly lifeguards, although they never seemed to leave the basement, where they smoked pot in their room every day. Since I lived on the second floor I barely ever saw them and their pot smoke didn’t drift up to my room, so this generally didn’t bother me. But occasionally, all my roommates would get stoned together except for me. And everyone knows how fun it is to be the one not-stoned person in a room.

On one such night, one of my roommates became paranoid that our next door neighbors were spying on us, and possibly had our home bugged. She squatted in the shrubs in front of their house so that she could, in turn, spy on them. My other roommates raced back and forth from our place to the spy outpost in our neighbors’ shrubs, laughing hysterically. Without actually having smoked with them, I skipped straight to the munchies, drowning my irritation in a carton of cookies ‘n cream ice cream.

Lest you think I’m a total goody-goody (I am one, but only partially), I have tried smoking pot. Three times. Although it’s unclear if I’ve actually inhaled.

The first time was my junior year in college as an experiment to find an alternative to drinking beer, which gave me terrible hangovers and made me puke violently the following day. The morning after my first foray into pot-smoking, I happily wasn’t hungover or hugging the toilet bowl. But it wasn’t good enough to convince me to adopt the stoner lifestyle.

The next time I tried it was when I was in acting school in my early 20s. Huddling with some of my classmates in a doorway next to the now defunct restaurant America, by Union Square, as a joint was passed around, I mostly participated so that my teacher, who had initiated the passing, would like me. So even in my public pot-smoking rebellion, there was an undercurrent of Type A-ness.

The third and final time I smoked pot was on the last night of acting school. Before meeting the rest of my class at a bar in midtown for our end-of-year celebration, I was pre-partying at the apartment of a guy I had a crush on. It was just the two of us, and when he offered me a hit off his pipe I took it as an opportunity to bond with him, which could possibly lead to hooking up.

It didn’t. What did happen was that the pot rendered me totally mute and unquenchably thirsty. So, although I’m usually super-chatty, I sat in the corner of the bar at my acting school party, unable to do anything but silently nod and take huge gulps of water.

This sucks, I thought, because even though spoken words were eluding me, I could thankfully still think. I’m never doing this again.

Through the rest of my 20s and 30s, I was able to mostly avoid the pot-smoking scene and had very little contact with the controlled substance.

Until earlier this year.

I smelled smoke in my apartment the first week my new downstairs neighbor moved in, and my heart sank. But I protected myself by immediately going into denial.

Maybe it’s just contractors working on the place, taking a smoke break, I reasoned.

But when the smell continued, I had to accept that my new neighbor was a smoker. Although it smelled pot-y, I wasn’t ready to accept that my neighbor was a pot smoker yet.

At first it was just a couple of times a week that the smell would drift up and infiltrate my apartment. It was February, and I cracked the windows and shivered convulsively under my covers while binge-watching “Girls,” trying to convince myself that it wasn’t that bad.

It will be spring in a few months, I repeated in my head like a mantra, thinking that when April rolled around I’d be able to throw my windows open wide and would no longer smell anything.

A month later, when I returned to my apartment from a long weekend away, I was met with the stale, smoky smell.

I had to admit that it actually was that bad. So I called my landlord to complain.

“Is it cigarette or pot smoke?” he asked.

“Um…” I said. “Cigarette?”

I wanted to give my neighbor the benefit of the doubt and didn’t want to accuse him of smoking pot if I could avoid it, plus I wasn’t totally out of denial yet.

Anyway, it worked, and the smell stopped for six weeks. And then it came back in April with a vengeance, undeniably weed.

I live in an old building with cracks and crevices so there were a lot of places for the smoke to seep through. It smelled like it was coming up through the radiator, through the crack between the floorboards and the wall at the head of my bed, by the kitchen, and in the closet. Also, I live on the top floor, so the smoke would float up to my apartment and get trapped there with nowhere further to go.

It’s impossible to describe how suffocatingly strong the smell was, even with both windows wide open.

My neighbor was now smoking pot every night. He’d light up at around 9:30 p.m. and it would keep going for hours. Each time that initial whiff of weed wafted up into my apartment, my heart sank all over again. Also, he appeared to never leave his apartment. Every day as I walked home I’d glance up at his window hoping he’d be out and I’d get a little respite, but I’d see the light on and steel myself for another night of choking on his fumes.

I’d wake up in the middle of the night unable to breathe, and get out of bed every morning feeling like I’d smoked a pack of Marlboro Reds in my sleep. I had a persistent cough and shortness of breath that lasted throughout the day.

I complained to my landlord again, now acknowledging — to myself and to him — that it was pot, not cigarette smoke. Luckily my building took my complaints very seriously, but this time the pot smoker didn’t stop smoking.

Apparently, my neighbor was annoyed, and felt like his privacy — and his right to smoke pot in his apartment — was being violated.

Things continued to get worse and worse. Being in my apartment at all was becoming intolerable. I tried to spend as little time there as possible, holing up in coffee shops and making phone calls to friends about my living situation from my perch on a park bench.

I worried that my neighbor’s daily pot smoking was going to start affecting my performance at my job. I’d go to work exhausted from not being able to sleep through the night and feeling sick from constantly breathing in pot smoke. I’d have headaches during the day and jokingly think that outside of my pot-saturated apartment, I was going through withdrawal. I was distracted, in a constant state of rage about how violated I felt in my own home, trying to figure out how long I’d have to reasonably wait until I could call my landlord to complain again, and mentally rehearsing what I would say.

One night I woke up at 1 a.m. gasping for breath. Throwing the windows open, I still couldn’t breathe. Around 3 a.m., I left a voicemail for my super in a panic. I tossed and turned until 4, when I was finally able to fall asleep.

Wrecked the next day, I vowed to never spend another night like that, and I stopped staying in my own apartment. Instead, I went to my mom’s place in the suburbs for the weekend and during the week I stayed at friends’ apartments nearby. I’d sleep over at their places, wake up at 6 a.m. to come home only long enough to get ready, and then go to work.

One morning I went home and as soon as the elevator opened I was assaulted with the smell of pot. When I got to my door, I realized that the stench seemed to be emanating from my apartment — the smoke had travelled through the cracks and crevices, filled up my apartment, and was now spilling out into the hallway. The smell was so strong I couldn’t even stay in my place long enough to shower and change — I just dropped off my bag, grabbed a couple of things, and took off for a coffee shop.

My neighbor was now smoking pot all night and day, making my apartment completely uninhabitable. Several days later I went out of town on a well-timed vacation, but I dreaded coming back to my apartment and the cooped-up pot smoke that was going to greet me upon my return. I continued to lodge complaints about my neighbor but it didn’t seem like things were going to change any time soon, so before I left for my trip I’d gone to a couple of realtors and started looking into moving. I’d found out that a comparable apartment in my neighborhood was going to cost me significantly more money, and on my budget I’d probably have to leave my neighborhood altogether. I loved my apartment and my neighborhood and was furious that this pot smoker was driving me out of my home of nine years, while he got to stay and get high all the live-long day.

A few days into my vacation I got a call from my super that my neighbor had moved out.

It was a miracle.

Before this experience living above an out-of-control pot smoker, my stance about pot was that it was annoying, and I didn’t want to be around people who were smoking it. Since this nightmare happened, I’m revolted by the slightest whiff of it and have become staunchly anti-pot.

I don’t want to smoke pot. I choose not to breathe this toxic substance into my body, and I don’t want to be subjected to someone else’s pot smoke either. One person’s “right” to smoke pot shouldn’t trump other people’s right to breathe clean air, or comfortably inhabit the apartment they pay rent for. And I can only imagine that legalizing pot will make it that much more prevalent, and leave those who are affected by the secondhand smoke with that much less recourse to protect themselves.

Jennifer Garam is a coffee-shop-loving, bookstore-browsing Brooklyn-based writer. She’s a blogger for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today, and has been a regular contributor to The Frisky. Her writing has also appeared on Health.com, TheFix.com, YourTango, and elephant journal.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME medicine

Look Up Your Meds On This Massive New Drug Database


The Yelp of medicine is here

Iodine, a new health start-up from a former Wired editor and Google engineer offers an easy-to-use database of drug information.

The database, which launched on Wednesday, uses Google surveys to get consumer information on a wide variety of both over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Users can search a specific drug from Aleve to Xanax and see how people generally feel about its efficacy, about the side effects from actual users, tradeoffs, comments from users, warnings, costs, and a readable versions of the drug’s package insert.

And the database will continue to grow. According to the New York Times, Iodine uses Google Consumer Surveys, of which they have 100,000 ones completed, and they add to their website every day. Iodine also uses data from clinical research, pharmacist surveys, adverse event reports made to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Average Drug Acquisition Cost (NADAC)–which reports the average wholesale price pharmacies pay for over 20,000 drugs.

Thomas Goetz, the former Wired editor and co-founder of Iodine told the Times that Iodine is developing the largest survey of American’s drug use and experiences which could not just help consumers but help impact policy.

The folks behind Iodine may have actually succeeded in making Big Data useable—and helpful.

TIME Drugs

Chicago Mayor Pushes Illinois To Decriminalize Pot

Cites law enforcement time and money spent on low-level drug arrests

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked the Illinois state legislature Tuesday to decriminalize marijuana possession and to make all arrests for those caught with one gram or less of any drug a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

“It’s time, in my view, to free up our criminal justice system to address our real public safety challenges and build on the progress that has been made,” Emmanuel told lawmakers, the Chicago Tribune reports. Emanuel is looking to expand upon a Chicago law passed in 2012 that made possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana a ticketable offense.

Emanuel, who’s up for reelection next year, said the plan will save taxpayer money. Emanuel’s office estimates that Chicago police officers spent almost 275,000 hours on low-level narcotics arrests, even though less than 10% resulted in guilty verdicts. Emanuel’s office says about 7,000 people are arrested every year in Chicago for possession of one gram or less of drugs.

[Chicago Tribune]

TIME Drugs

Pro-Pot Group Giving Free Weed to Colorado Vets

A worker cultivates a special strain of medical marijuana known as Charlotte's Web inside a greenhouse, in a remote spot in the mountains west of Colorado Springs, Colo. on Feb. 7, 2014.
A worker cultivates a special strain of medical marijuana known as Charlotte's Web inside a greenhouse, in a remote spot in the mountains west of Colorado Springs, Colo. on Feb. 7, 2014. Brennan Linsley—AP

The organization Grow4Vets is giving free marijuana to veterans Saturday

Marijuana-smoking veterans may find themselves flocking to Denver, Colorado Saturday, when a pro-pot organization will host a weed giveaway to get grass in the hands of military veterans who seek it.

From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Quality Inn in Central Denver, the group Grow4Vets will give out cannabis products worth more than $200 to veterans who RSVP for the event by noon Friday. Others will be asked for a $20 donation at the door and get more than $100 in pot products in exchange, organizers told ABC7 News Denver.

Grow4Vets exists to “reduce the staggering number of Veterans who die each day from suicide and prescription drug overdose” by providing vets “with the knowledge and resources necessary to obtain or grow their own marijuana for treatment of their medical conditions,” the group’s website says.

A repeat of the event will be held September 27 in Colorado Springs.

TIME medicine

China Fines GlaxoSmithKline $485 Million for Bribery

The pharma company admits it's at fault and will not appeal

After a one-day secret trial, a Chinese court has fined pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) $489 million for bribing hospitals and doctors to use their products.

According to the New York Times, the court also sentenced GSK’s former country manager Mark Reilly as well as four additional managers to prison time of up to four years. However, the sentences were suspended, and the managers will avoid prison with good behavior–though Reilly must leave the country. The is the largest ever corporate fine in China, reports the Wall Street Journal, though some analysts had expected the fine to be even higher.

GSK issued a statement of apology, writing:

GSK fully accepts the facts and evidence of the investigation, and the verdict of the Chinese judicial authorities. Furthermore, GSK sincerely apologizes to the Chinese patients, doctors and hospitals, and to the Chinese Government and the Chinese people. GSK deeply regrets the damage caused. GSK plc also apologizes for the harm caused to individuals who were illegally investigated by GSKCI [GSK China Investment Co. Ltd].

You can read GSK’s full apology here.

GSK says they fully cooperated with the authorities and are reducing and changing the nature of their activities with health professionals, as well as growing the process the company uses to monitor payments and invoices. “We will also continue to invest directly in the country to support the government’s health care reform agenda and long-term plans for economic growth,” said GSK CEO, Sir Andrew Witty in a statement. The fine will come from existing cash resources, the company says.

According to IBISWorld Global Pharmaceuticals analyst Sarah Turk, GSK’s 3% market share in the global pharmaceuticals and medicine manufacturing industry will likely drop over the next five years, and the fine will significantly hinder the company’s research and development funding, thus increasing its competition with global companies like Pfizer and Novartis.

“As [GSK] seeks new investment opportunities in the coming years, the $489 million fine will limit the company’s leverage to acquire other companies and remain competitive in an industry that is increasingly looking for methods to harness new drug development pipelines,” writes Turk in an emailed statement. “Additionally, other pharmaceutical companies will likely tread carefully in the Chinese market, due to GSK’s fine possibly indicating that Chinese regulators are increasingly cracking down on corporate malpractice.”

This is not the first time GSK has been fined significantly for wrongdoing. In July 2012, the U.S. State Department fined the company $3 billion for marketing drugs for unapproved uses.

TIME Drugs

1 in 10 Americans Has Gone to Work High on Cannabis, Poll Says

Are your co-workers high on life — or something else?

One in 10 Americans has turned up for work high on marijuana, according to new statistics.

A joint Mashable.com and SurveyMonkey poll of 534 Americans found that about 9.7% of U.S. workers have gone to work after smoking weed.

Some 81% of those people bought the drug illegally, the poll found — that is, did not purchase it in Colorado or Washington, where the drug is legal for recreational purposes, or were not taking it for medical reasons in one of the 23 states where doing so is legal.

The poll also found that 28% of poll respondents have gone to work under the influence of a prescription drug, and 7% of those people took it for recreational, not medical, purposes. About 95% of people who have been at work while on a prescription drug got the medicine from their doctor.

Last month, a poll from Blowfish (the company sells a tablet to treat hangovers) said that half of all Americans have gone to work hungover.

TIME health & science

Want to Quit Smoking? Eat a Magic Mushroom, New Study Says

Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy and the Power to Heal
Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy and the Power to Heal Courtesy Blue Rider Press

Tom Shroder is the author of ACID TEST: LSD, Ecstasy and the Power to Heal, out this month.

A new study shows smokers may be able to kick the habit with a little help from psilocybin and three controlled trips

Earlier this month, Johns Hopkins researchers published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology a stunning success rate in a pilot study using psilocybin, the psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, to help heavy smokers quit. The 12 of 15 recidivist smokers who managed to stop smoking for six months after three psychedelic sessions represented an 80% success rate—unheard of in the notoriously difficult treatment of tobacco addiction. The most successful current treatment—the drug varenicline, which reduces nicotine cravings—only has a 35% success rate.

This is big news as attention increasingly shifts to the use of psychedelic drugs for improving mental health. In the past decade—after thirty years during which research into possible benefits of psychedelics was virtually forbidden—clinical studies of drugs, including psilocybin, Ketamine, MDMA and LSD, have accelerated. (Never mind the now widespread medical applications of marijuana.) Food and Drug Administration-approved pilot studies and trials have shown such oft-maligned drugs could be used safely under controlled conditions, delivering promising, even extraordinary results, and not just in the treatment of tobacco addiction, but also for disorders such as autism, anxiety, depression and opiate addiction.

The use of MDMA (better known as Ecstasy) to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has had an 80% success rate in early trials. With as many as half a million service men and women returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with debilitating, life-threatening PTSD, better treatments for the disorder are urgently needed. Yet legal prescription of psychedelic therapy is almost certainly more than a decade away.

But for a quirk of history, it might not have been that way.

Before popular abuse of psychedelics exploded in the 1960s, prompting authorities to impose harsh criminal penalties for possession and halt all scientific investigation of medical use, psychedelics were considered the most promising psychiatric drug in history. In fact, in the Johns Hopkins findings on smoking cessation, there is an unmistakable echo of research done in Canada a half century ago.

Consider this from the lead author of the Johns Hopkins study, Matthew W. Johnson: “Quitting smoking isn’t a simple biological reaction to psilocybin, as with other medications that directly affect nicotine receptors.” Instead, Johnson said, it was the subjective experience the smokers had when taking the psilocybin that changed them— more like a religious conversion than getting a shot of penicillin to cure an infection.

This was exactly the conclusion psychiatrists at a Canadian psychiatric hospital, Humphrey Osmond and Abram Hoffer, reached back in the 1950s when they had great success using LSD therapy to help alcoholics stop drinking. LSD is a synthetic drug, not a natural psychedelic like psilocybin, but the user’s experience of the two is similar, if not identical. Hoffer and Osmond’s LSD treatments proved successful enough that the Canadian government would eventually issue a report saying the method was no longer an experimental treatment for alcoholism, but one that had proven effective.

The new Johns Hopkins smoking study prepped its 15 subjects with four weeks of pretty standard cognitive behavior therapy – things like visualization, keeping journals, focusing on intent to quit and reasons for quitting, etc. But it was the psilocybin that did the heavy lifting. Each participant had three psilocybin sessions, the first a moderate dose, and the final two a high dose. The subjects were encouraged to focus on their anti-smoking intent before taking the psilocybin in each session, otherwise they were simply encouraged to wear eyeshades and earphones (piping in music) and “go inside.” Therapists were there for safety and reassurance if necessary, but there was otherwise little direction—and no negative physiological outcomes. Five of the participants expressed moderate fear during the session (of losing control, losing grip on sanity) and one expressed extreme fear. The researchers reported that all of the anxiety reactions were successfully resolved before the end of the session, and did not preclude a successful outcome.

The 13 participants (80%) who managed to quit and remain smoke free for six months were asked to identify the reasons for their success. The most frequently chosen answer was, “by changing the way you orient yourself toward the future, such that you now act in your long-term holistic benefit, rather than acting in response to immediate desire.”

The answer chosen as the most important was, “by changing the way you prioritize values in life, so that reasons to smoke no longer outweighed reasons to quit.”

These rather basic changes in personality orientation are usually extremely difficult to achieve, in daily life, and in traditional therapy. The fact that such a high proportion of participants managed these perspective shifts is most likely attributable to life-changing mystical-type experiences catalyzed by the psilocybin. Astonishingly, all but two participants (87%) rated at least one psilocybin session among the ten most meaningful experiences of their lives. This tracks with the results of earlier work by the Johns Hopkins team, published in 2006, in which 70% of three dozen healthy people who were given psilocybin with no therapeutic goal described it as “one of the five most significant experiences of their lives.”

Johns Hopkins researchers concluded — just as had their Canadian predecessors half a century earlier — that this was more than incidental to the outcome of the therapy: Those who had a transcendent experience tended to have more success.

Inevitably, the success of studies using psychedelics to treat dangerous conditions like alcoholism, tobacco addiction and PTSD will raise fears that positive news coverage will promote illicit and uncontrolled use. Researchers on these studies are always quick to point out that uncontrolled, self-administration of psychedelics— still a criminal act— not only present the danger of psychological damage, but are unlikely to be effective in treatment without medical supervision.

Still, the dramatically positive experience that so many people in these closely monitored and supervised experiments have had, even healthy people with no psychiatric issues, do raise some interesting questions about the future potential of psychedelics in our culture.


Tom Shroder is an award-winning journalist, editor, and author of Old Souls, a classic study of the intersection between mysticism and science. As editor of The Washington Post Magazine, he conceived and edited two Pulitzer Prize-winning feature stories. His book, ACID TEST: LSD, Ecstasy and the Power to Heal, is out this month.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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