Editor’s Note: The following is an interview conducted by Richard Louis Miller with James Fadiman, who is widely acknowledged for his extensive work in the field of psychedelic drug research, including a major contribution with his most recent book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide.
Putting Dangers in Perspective
RLM: LSD. How dangerous is it? If you look at the sun while you’re on LSD do you go blind? Does hair grow on the palm of your hands? Do you end up in the emergency room? We have now had forty to fifty years of people using it on their own, illegally.
You’re citing figures going into the tens of millions—you know how many people are being admitted to the emergency rooms each year around the country. You know how many people have died, so please share that information with us.JF: I say to people that psychedelic drugs are very powerful substances, and used incorrectly you can get in trouble. Used correctly, the chances of anything going wrong are extraordinarily low. One of the reasons I like LSD is that you use literally a hundred millionths of a gram—there are almost no physiological changes.
Things go wrong if you take it in the wrong setting, with the wrong friends, at the wrong time, with the wrong other substances. Or if you take too much—which is true of most other substances.
Tobacco causes approximately 400,000 deaths a year. Alcohol causes approximately 125,000 deaths per year. Peanuts cause about 100 deaths. Psychedelic drugs aren’t even on the list. Although I am beginning to worry about peanuts. Have people gotten into serious trouble? Have some been hospitalized for years after taking psychedelics? The answer is yes, but probably as much from the bad situation and from the kind of well-meaning but ignorant health care they received immediately afterward.
Forbidden Fruit and the Folly of Prohibition
JF: If you go to Burning Man, where there’s a huge amount of drug use, they have a medical tent, and what they call Sanctuary, which is there to help people who are frightened, upset, and paranoid (also dehydrated), usually to simply recover without interrupting the flow, so the experience can complete itself. There are even ways to work with very difficult situations, which are especially common at major concerts or festivals, where people have not had the chance to get decent information for the last forty years. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to put out the basic safety information, to ensure that if people are going to use something illegally that they have the best information available—to get the safest and most beneficial psychedelic trip experience possible. We must not forget that the reason people want to use these substances is because they feel there’s some benefit.
RLM: Yes, so here we have a legal book about how to use an illegal substance, which is so attractive to people that they’re using it by the tens of millions—right in the face of government and media focus that says: “This is so dangerous that we’re making it illegal.”
JF: The last time the government tried to prevent people from doing what they wanted was called Prohibition. Before Prohibition, there were eight hundred drinking establishments around Times Square. During Prohibition there were twenty-five hundred drinking establishments in that same area. We should have learned that prohibition is not the best way to prevent people from using whatever it is that the government doesn’t like.
RLM: In fact, if anything, it makes it more interesting. It’s like when we were told as children that we should keep away from a certain thing the adults might be using, and we were thinking, “Gee, if that’s the thing to keep away from, I want to find out what it is.”
JF: We must never give a bean to a small child and say, “Don’t put it up your nose.”
Six Variables for a Safe and Beneficial Psychedelic Session
RLM: I’m asking you a question I shouldn’t ask, but I’m asking anyway—if you’re allowed to do this, tell us, what is the proper way to take LSD?
JF: There are six major variables that make a successful psychedelic trip and session. Successful means healthy, safe, and meaningful.
1. First, the mental set.
2. Second, the physical setting, which should be safe and comfortable.
3. Third, the sitter—I recommend, recommend, recommend a guide who can assist you if you get into places that are frightening or difficult.
4. Fourth, the substance—there are many kinds of psychedelic drugs and how much you take matters.
5. Fifth, the session itself—how the six to twelve hours run, what you do during that time.
6. Sixth, what kind of a life group you come back into—to people who support this kind of expanded awareness? Or to people who feel that you have just done something either evil or dangerous?
I want those basics available out there as widely as possible, because I’m a safety nut, and I’m also a guide nut. You don’t learn to drive by throwing someone the car keys and saying, “Good luck!”
1. Set: Mental Attitude and Intention
RLM: What is set?
JF: Set is mental attitude or intention. Are you taking this psychedelic drug because you would like to become closer to divinity, however you understand that? Or are you taking it because you are interested in working on your own personal issues? Or are you taking it just for self-discovery?
Are you taking it just for recreation? Someone in New York recently asked me at a conference, “Is there anything wrong with using things just to have fun?” I had to admit there is a good argument for that.
Other ways of using it are for scientific problem solving—for very hard-nosed, rational problems—and just for discovering what happens inside your own mind when you give it a nudge in a different direction.
RLM: What is an example of using LSD for problem solving?
JF: We did some research just as the government was shutting us down, and we’d had senior scientists taking what we call low doses of LSD. That would be 100 micrograms, a hundred millionth of a gram, and we basically gave them a safe, supportive setting. We gave them a couple of hours of free ranging inside their mind, and we then asked them at the peak of the experience to work on their own chosen problem—an important technical problem—and I mean very technical: theory of the photon, chip design, engineering problems, architecture problems, and so forth. Things that they had hitherto worked on and not been successful. That was our criteria during the psychedelic trip, because we wanted them to care a lot about problem solving.
There’s been a lot of stuff on every level about Steve Jobs, and my favorite headline is “Steve Jobs Had LSD. We Have the iPhone.”* From what he reported, it was one of the most important experiences of his life. And to me that meant that he did it well—did it carefully. He was looking at the material world as well as his inner world.
RLM: We don’t know whether he continued to use it, we just know that he did use it early on. There are so many people—as you well know, Jim, myself included at various times in my career—who were willing to talk about using it many years ago. If there are those who would prosecute me I would say, “That was thirty years ago.”
JF: But I think we can say with Steve Jobs that we have zero indication that he used it later in his life. He did use it early in his life. It was part of what oriented him toward elegance, and beauty, and making things easy for people, but he did not use it and come up with the iPad.
RLM: But we also know, for example, that Carl Sagan’s widow revealed he had used LSD but was afraid to tell the world. Even a man of his great magnitude was afraid to tell the world that he used it in some of those discoveries, which I think speaks volumes about the fear level that has been perpetrated in our country about psychedelic drugs.
JF: Fear and social stigma. When I walk around carrying this book—as authors do—almost everyone I meet suddenly begins telling me about their psychedelic trip experiences after I talk to them for a while.
2. Setting: Landscapes and Soundscapes
RLM: So we have some idea of what set means: your mental set, that is, what’s going on in your mind—your intention. The next thing one wants to be aware of when experimenting with psychedelic medicine is setting. What is setting?
JF: Setting is literally the physical situation in which you find yourself. Albert Hofmann, who was still giving two-hour lectures to professional groups at 101 years old, was asked—as he said, “only ten thousand times”—how should you take LSD? His answer was, “Always take it in nature.”
My answer is a little different. Take it in as safe and comfortable a setting as possible, which often is the living room, where you are able also to lie down to listen to music through headphones or earbuds; and to even put on an eye mask so that you can investigate the universe from the inside. Then perhaps later in the day it is good to be outside in nature to investigate the universe from the outside. Setting is the physical environment and the people who are in that environment during the psychedelic trip—which we’ll get to when we talk about sitter, because taking it around people you feel safe with turns out to be very important.
RLM: What about the place of ambient noise? Is that a factor that people should be cautious about? A machine noise, lawn mowers—the things that are going to intrude on consciousness?
JF: One of the wonderful things we have technologically are headphones, which block out ambient noise. Almost everyone, including indigenous people, find music or singing to be a very important part of the psychedelic experience. What we’ve found is, the reason people prefer music, and music without words, is that it allows them to stop thinking about daily trivia and to simply appreciate the enormous expansion of awareness that comes with almost any psychedelic trip. The most common comment we hear is, “I never knew music could be so beautiful and so intricate.”
You know, when you hear a symphony orchestra, and you kind of hear a blur of sound with the melody rising and falling? If you’re a professional musician you hear more, but on psychedelics, people report hearing each individual section, working with and against the others, and even report hearing individual players. So you’re hearing with a much higher level of awareness. Headphones seemed to be the best way to handle the lawn mower, the ambulance, and the jackhammers.
RLM: So the setting is the physical environment: nature, or some very safe-feeling and quiet place, using headphones to block out ambient sound.