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Johns Hopkins University Announces Nation’s First-Ever Psychedelics Research Center

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A major U.S. university announced on Wednesday that it will be launching the nation’s first center devoted exclusively to researching psychedelic drugs.

Johns Hopkins University said that it received $17 million in private funding to make the facility possible. A team of six researchers and five postdoctoral scientists will conduct studies on a wide range of potential therapeutic uses of psychedelics like psilocybin, including in treatment of opioid addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The university has already produced cutting-edge research into psychedelics. In 2000, Johns Hopkins researchers were the first in the U.S. to gain federal approval to reinitiate research into the substances in individuals who didn’t have prior experience with psychedelics. The institution has since published 60 peer-reviewed studies on the subject.

“The group’s findings on both the promise and the risks of psilocybin helped create a path forward for its potential medical approval and reclassification from a Schedule I drug, the most restrictive federal government category, to a more appropriate level,” the university said in a press release. “Psilocybin was classified as Schedule I during the Nixon administration, but research over the last decade has shown psilocybin to have low toxicity and abuse potential.”

Roland Griffiths, the center’s director said the its establishment “reflects a new era of research in therapeutics and the mind through studying this unique and remarkable class of pharmacological compounds.”

“In addition to studies on new therapeutics, we plan to investigate creativity and well-being in healthy volunteers that we hope will open up new ways to support human thriving,” he said.

He also said in response to a question from Marijuana Moment that the center is “both completely new and more of the same,” referring to the university’s existing research into psychedelics.

James Potash, director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, said he is “thrilled about this magnificent opportunity that has been provided by enlightened private funders.”

“This center will allow our enormously talented faculty to focus extensively on psychedelic research, where their passions lie and where promising new horizons beckon,” he said.

Tim Ferriss, a tech investor who said his more than $2 million contribution to the psychedelics center was the largest investment he’s ever made in a single project, appeared at a press event and discussed how his personal experience witnessing people suffer from mental illnesses motivated him to donate.

“This represents the largest investment to date in psychedelic research, as well as in training the next generation of psychedelic researchers,” Ferriss said. “I sincerely hope this ambitious Johns Hopkins center will inspire others to think big and establish more psychedelic research centers in the U.S. and overseas, as there’s never been a better time to support such important work.”

Ferriss also took a question via Twitter from Marijuana Moment and said that he hopes that “by facilitating this” center, it “paves the way for federal funding [of psychedelics research] within the next five years.”

He added that the center’s innovations could spark further investments in psychedelics research from “brand name foundations” and that the facility will demonstrate to investors that there’s “more reputational opportunity than risk involved.”

Federal reclassification of the substances “is something that I hope for, but it’s not something I can aim for very accurately for myself,” he said, adding that the center “could mark the beginning of an important, exciting and new chapter in psychedelics research.”

WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg and TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie also made investments in the center.

“This very substantial level of funding should enable a quantum leap in psychedelic-focused research,” Potash said. “It will accelerate the process of sorting out what works and what doesn’t.”

“Ultimately [the Food and Drug Administration] needs to sift through that data,” the center’s director added, referring to the results of psychedelics research. “I would guess five plus years before approval for a depression indication, but it might become available sooner if some provisions are opened up for compassionate care.”

The announcement is especially timely given the rapid expansion of psychedelics reform efforts in recent months. Denver became the first city in the U.S. to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in May, and Oakland’s City Council approved a psilocybin decriminalization measure in June.

Organizers with the groups Decriminalize Nature and the Society for Psychedelic Outreach, Reform and Education say that they are coordinating with activists all across the country to get decriminalization passed, including one effort to enact the policy statewide in California.

In Oregon, an advocacy group will be collecting signatures to legalize psilocybin for medical use, but that measure has faced criticism from reform groups because after a revision, it no longer includes broad decriminalization provisions.

Interest in lifting barriers to research into psychedelics is widespread and reached the congressional level earlier this year when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) introduced an amendment to encourage such research. That measure was defeated on the House floor, however.

This story has been updated to add context about psychedelics policy reform efforts.

Oregon Psychedelics Activists Clash Over Changes To Psilocybin Mushroom Ballot Measure

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Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Science & Health

Areas With More Marijuana Dispensaries Have Fewer Opioid Deaths, New Study Finds

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Increasing access to marijuana dispensaries is associated with a significant reduction in opioid-related deaths, according to a new study.

“Higher medical and recreational storefront dispensary counts are associated with reduced opioid related death rates, particularly deaths associated with synthetic opioids such as fentanyl,” the paper, published on Wednesday in the British Medical Association journal’s BMJ, concluded.

It’s a finding that “holds for both medical and recreational dispensaries,” the study says.

Researchers looked at opioid mortality and cannabis dispensary prevalence in 23 U.S.states from 2014 to 2018 and found that, overall, counties where the number of legal marijuana shops increased from one to two experienced a 17 percent reduction in opioid-related fatalities.

Increasing the dispensary count from two to three was linked to an additional 8.5 percent decrease in opioid deaths.

Further, the study found that this trend “appeared particularly strong for deaths associated with synthetic opioids other than methadone, with an estimated 21 percent reduction in mortality rates associated with an increase from one to two dispensaries.”

“If consumers use cannabis and opioids for pain management, increasing the supply of legal cannabis might have implications for fentanyl demand and opioid related mortality rates overall.”

“While the associations documented cannot be assumed to be causal, they suggest a potential association between increased prevalence of medical and recreational cannabis dispensaries and reduced opioid related mortality rates,” the researchers wrote. “This study highlights the importance of considering the complex supply side of related drug markets and how this shapes opioid use and misuse.”

This is far from the first piece of research to draw a connection between legal cannabis access and reduced harms from opioids. Multiple studies have found that marijuana effectively treats conditions like chronic pain for which opioids are regularly prescribed, and surveys show that many patients have substituted addictive painkillers with cannabis.

“Cannabis is generally thought to be a less addictive substance than opioids,” the new study says. “Cannabis can potentially be used medically for pain management and has considerable public support.”

“Given the alarming rise in the fentanyl based market in the US, and the increase in deaths involving fentanyl and its analogs in recent years, the question of how legal cannabis availability relates to opioid related deaths is particularly pressing.”

“Our findings suggest that increasing availability of legal cannabis (modeled through the presence of medical and recreational dispensary operations) is associated with a decrease in deaths associated with the T40.4 class of opioids, which include the highly potent synthetic opioid fentanyl,” it continues. “This finding is especially important because fentanyl related deaths have become the most common opioid related cause of death.”

Earlier this month, a separate study determined that medical cannabis use is associated with significant reductions in dependence on opioids and other prescription drugs, as well as an increase in quality of life.

These studies could also provide valuable context to a federal health agency in the U.S. that is conducting a review of studies to learn if marijuana and kratom could potentially treat chronic pain with fewer side effects than opioids.

Hawaii Could Legalize Psychedelic Mushroom Therapy Under New Senate Bill

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Feds To Send Marijuana And Hemp Samples To Labs As Part Of Large-Scale Testing Accuracy Study

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A federal science agency is inviting labs to participate in a large-scale study to assess their ability to accurately analyze marijuana and hemp samples for their cannabinoid profile and possible contaminants.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) said in a notice on Thursday that it will provide samples of cannabis that it’s already analyzed to labs and then ask them to run their own tests. Once that’s complete, NIST will reveal the actual data and compare the numbers to identify any disparities.

The point of the study isn’t to expose labs that fail to provide accurate analyses; rather, it’s intended to help forensic analysts and the cannabis industry develop best practices. NIST, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, said it’s especially important given that hemp was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, while its higher THC cannabis cousin marijuana remains federally illegal.

“If you’re going to confiscate a farmer’s crop, or subject a person to prosecution, you want to be sure that measurement is accurate,” NIST research chemist Brent Wilson said in a press release.

The agency has previously led research on analyzing hemp oil, but this one involving both hemp and marijuana will target flower, which is more challenging for labs. To get the samples for this new study, NIST ground down various cannabis buds and sorted them—”like a baker sifting flour”—to separate the material by particle size.

Wilson then “blended the powders into batches and carefully measured how much of each compound and contaminant was present in each batch.”

“NIST will send samples from those batches to participating labs,” the agency said. “All labs will receive legal hemp samples. Labs that are licensed to handle controlled substances can also request marijuana samples.”

Labs interested in participating in the study have until February 5 to enroll. Samples will be distributed in April.

While determining THC content is a central concern, the research will also look at CBD and other cannabinoids so that cannabis companies are able to ensure that their products meet legal standards and are properly labeled for consumers.

After a lab has analyzed the samples, it will report back to NIST with the results as well as information about the testing method it used. The results will be published, but they will be anonymized. The public will “be able to see the amount of variation across labs but not how any specific lab performed.”

“Our goal is to provide a learning opportunity for labs, not to publicize their performance,” NIST research chemist Melissa Phillips said.

Following the study’s completion, the agency will investigate which testing methods produce the most accurate results to inform the industry. Then it will re-run the test, which is expected to show “less variability in the lab measurements, as labs overall improve their methods.”

A description of the study exercise states that participating labs “may also elect to report only selected analytes (e.g., only reporting total THC, but not all cannabinoids).”

“Participants will be asked to report triplicate results for each sample provided using measurement procedures and calculations normally performed in their laboratories,” it says. “In addition, participants will also be asked to identify the type of sample preparation and analytical methods employed in their testing to facilitate conclusions about potential method bias.”

There are currently 46 labs that are listed as participants in NIST’s cannabis research program. That includes multiple private labs as well as one police department and a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There are also facilities from Canada and the Netherlands enrolled.

In December, the Department of Justice announced that it was awarding NIST a grant to help to develop a method of differentiating hemp and marijuana.

The previous year, the Drug Enforcement Administration similarly announced that it was seeking a device to “provide specificity to distinguish between hemp and marijuana” since the former crop was legalized.

The complications resulting from hemp legalization is especially apparent in Texas, where marijuana possession arrests fell almost 30 percent from 2018 to 2019 following the state-level legalization of the non-intoxicating cannabis crop.

Prosecutors in the state have dismissed hundreds of low-level cannabis cases since hemp was legalized. And officials announced last year that labs wouldn’t be performing testing in misdemeanor cases, with the Department of Public Safety saying it “will not have the capacity to accept those.”

USDA Announces Grant To Collect ‘Superior Performing’ Hemp Seeds

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Best Music Playlists For Psychedelic Therapy Are Explored In New Johns Hopkins Study

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Psychedelic therapy sessions often incorporate music—and typically that music is of the classical genre. But new research out of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine suggests there may in fact be no special value in playing a Mozart concerto or Chopin étude for tripping patients.

Gongs could work just as well, if not better, the study found.

“Western classical music has long been assumed to be the standard in psychedelic therapy,” researchers wrote in the study, published Tuesday in the American Chemical Society (ACS) journal Pharmacology and Translational Science. “The present data challenge this notion that Western classical music, or for that matter any specific genre of music, is an intrinsically superior form of music to support psychedelic therapy, at least for all people at all times.”

Analyzing a 10-person trial involving the use of psilocybin therapy to help people quit smoking tobacco, the Johns Hopkins team compared sessions featuring classical music with those involving overtone-based music, featuring instruments such as gongs, Tibetan singing bowls or the didgeridoo, among others.

“Although we found no significant differences between the two musical genres studied here,” the team wrote, “several trends suggested that the overtone-based playlist resulted in somewhat better outcomes and was preferred by a larger portion of this small sample of participants.”

In other words, while the results don’t prove that overtone-based music yields better outcomes than classical, the findings nevertheless “call into question whether Western classical music typically played in psychedelic sessions holds unique benefit.”

As one of the study’s authors, Johns Hopkins researcher Matthew Johnson, put it in a recent tweet: “Apparently classical music is not such a sacred cow for psychedelic therapy.”

The researchers said the study “provides the first contemporary and within-subject experimental manipulation of session set and setting factors in psychedelic research” and is the “first fully randomized test of different musical genres supporting psychedelic therapy.”

Participants each had three therapy sessions, one featuring classical music, another featuring overtone music and a third session for which they could choose between the two genres. Psilocybin doses were between 20 milligrams and 30 milligrams per 70 kilograms of body weight.

Among the data researchers analyzed were participants’ evaluations of their own experiences, including “mystical experiences”—such as feelings of unity and transcendence of time and space—as well as “challenging experiences,” such as feelings of panic or losing sanity.

“Visual inspection of individual and average data indicated higher overall scores for overtone-based sessions compared to Western classical sessions,” the authors wrote. “This difference was of a medium effect size but was not statistically significant.”

Researchers also analyzed smoking abstinence outcomes based on the music genre participants selected for their third psychedelic therapy session, after sampling both genres. Participants who chose to listen to overtone music during the third session were more successful at quitting smoking—both immediately after treatment (83.3 percent) and over a period of about 30 months afterward (66 percent). By comparison, half of participants who chose Western classical music quit smoking immediately, and all of those people were still not smoking after 30 months.

Experts have long stressed the role of set and setting in a psychedelic experience, noting how both a person’s psychological state as well as their environment can affect the behavioral and clinical effects of entheogenic drugs. “Traditional laboratory contexts that contain overtly ‘sterile’ stimuli (e.g. white walls and medical equipment,” the authors note as one example, “have been suggested to increase the likelihood of negative reactions.”

While music is a standard feature of clinical psychedelic therapy, the new study says, the default by therapists to predominantly Western classical playlists is “likely due to recommendations present in early guidelines,” which specifically mentioned classical music.

But it may not be music at all, but instead a collection of sounds, that complements the psychedelic experience.

“The lack of superiority of the Western classical playlist is even more interesting considering that some of the overtone-based playlist tracts consisted of sounds without traditionally identifiable melody and/or rhythm and therefore might not be classified as songs or music by some,” the study says. “This suggests that the sounds capable of supporting psychedelic therapy sessions may go beyond the bounds of traditionally defined musical genres.”

The researchers concluded that the study lends support to the idea that “developing a process for generating patient-specific musical selections rather than providing standardized music may improve therapeutic outcomes.”

“For example, future work could evaluate how patient-selected music impacts therapeutic effects or identify individual factors predictive of response to varying musical genres or musical features other than genre to individualize session selections,” the wrote. “More broadly, these findings emphasize the need for the parametric study of psychedelic session components to either provide improved standardized conditions, or to individualize conditions to improve the therapeutic effects of psychedelic therapy across diverse and varied populations.”

Johns Hopkins University, where the study analysis was done, is widely regarded as a leading institution on psychedelic research. In 2000, it became the first U.S. institution to gain federal approval to reinstitute research into psychedelic drugs using subjects who didn’t already have a history of using the drug, and last year it launched the country’s first-ever psychedelic research center.

Canada Will Let Health Care Professionals Legally Use Psychedelic Mushrooms, Health Minister Says

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman

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