BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — For years, Dr. Peter Hendricks has been surrounded by transcendent experiences.
The UAB professor grew up with a theologian mother and the many religious experiences he found to be transformative.
“I was really given this gift of being raised in that house with devotion,” said Hendricks, professor of public health at UAB.
Later on, he became interested in the concept of people using hallucinogenic drugs to achieve the same transcendent experiences religious people had.
“In many ways, it was like Paul on the road to Damascus and, for many people, the idea that you could change suddenly and permanently,” he said.
It was this fascination as well as his own research into substance abuse and addiction that led Hendricks to begin studying how psilocybin, the active ingredient found in “magic mushrooms,” could be used to help treat those with cocaine addiction. Hendricks and his team first began the project in 2016.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cocaine was involved in one out of five overdose deaths in 2017 and there are reportedly 5 million nationwide who actively use the drug.
“I want to have a better treatment for addiction than we do,” he said.
Over the last several years, other scientists have studied how hallucinogenic drugs like psilocybin can treat addiction. Recent trial studies involving the drug’s effect on treating alcoholism and smoking have produced preliminary findings pointing to reduced dependence.
“We have a lot that works and maybe this could be something that could work,” he said.
During a session, participants are only given the drug once. For the next four to six hours, they experience the effects of psilocybin as they lie on a bed with eye shades and headphones on as they listen to a playlist curated by Johns Hopkins University psychologist Dr. Bill Richards to guide people as they experience the effects of psilocybin.
Listen to the full playlist here.
After the side effects have concluded, Hendricks and his team ask participants about how they felt and what their experience with the drug was like. Three to six months later, they follow up with them to check in.
So far, Hendricks said neither he or his team have had to intervene in any of the sessions. Nonetheless, they work to ensure that every medical precaution is taken.
“You can’t overstate that these experiences can be really intense,” he said. “If we want to use the term medicine, it’s very powerful medicine and it deserves our respect. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to take it lightly.”
In 2018, Hendricks presented preliminary results from the first 10 people to take part in the study. Among his findings so far, Hendricks found that after the three to six-month period, those who took the drug experienced higher life satisfaction, less depression and more abstinent days from cocaine than those who had taken the placebo.
Hendricks said one aspect of drug addiction as a mental disorder is that it gives the addict tunnel vision in terms of their priorities. He said that oftentimes, cocaine addicts are thinking about when they will be able to get their next high.
“When someone has a psych experience, their horizons are suddenly broadened and they can see,” he said. “You’re suddenly in the presence of something so big, you forget about that tunnel vision.”
Over the last few years, cities like Denver and Washington D.C. have decriminalized psilocybin and Oregon recently legalized the drug for therapeutic uses. Hendricks said that while he is not advocating for psilocybin to be legalized, he is in favor of trying to understand if it can be used to help people.
Hendricks hopes to conclude his trial by May.
Hendrick said he is still recruiting subjects for the study. Those who suffer from cocaine addiction and are interested in taking part can do so by calling 205-975-7721.
This story has been updated to clarify Hendricks’ upbringing.