October 18, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Greetings, Mindsite News Readers! In today’s Daily, we remember Roland Griffiths, whose groundbreaking and conscientious research on psilocybin opened the door for other studies on the drug that would eventually treat depression, alcohol and nicotine addiction, and anxiety in cancer patients.

Griffith’s reputation was “sterling” and his impact on the field continues to resonate, said Michael Pollan, author of How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence. “No one of his stature had stepped into [psychedelics] in such a long time that it gave a lot of other people confidence,” Pollan said. “When he presented this completely weird study, which was so out there for science, it could have been dumped on, but it wasn’t.”

Also in this edition: United Nations experts call for abolition of the death penalty, while U.S. courts struggle over the legality of killing mentally ill prisoners on death row. Plus: News of the Kaiser settlement over mental health care and the best states for mental health.

Pioneering psychedelics researcher Roland Griffiths is dead at 77

Roland Griffiths advanced the science of modern psychopharmacology for his entire career, right until he died at home late Monday night, the New York Times reports, two years after a stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis. 

For decades, Griffiths, the founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research studied the development of dependence on mood-altering drugs, including opiates, cocaine, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine. But he is most recognized for his pioneering research on psychedelics, namely psilocybin, the psychoactive compound found in so-called “magic mushrooms.” 

Griffith’s 2006 paper, Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance, is renowned as the first double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical examination of psychedelic trips in “healthy normals,” or mentally well people without mood disorders, substance use issues, or serious fears about illness and the end of life. It was groundbreaking for showing that 80 percent of participants described a spiritually-essential episode, akin to grieving the death of a parent or the birth of a child. Among deep feelings of joy, love, and sometimes fear, participants reported a deep awareness of the interconnectedness of everyone, and the sacredness of living this reality, feelings most of them viewed as a lasting revelation in their lives.

Earlier this spring, Griffiths spoke of his profound acceptance of reality with the New York Times in an interview that covered how his use and study of psychedelics helped prepare him for death. In effect, psychedelics helped him accept his inevitability of dying from cancer so that he could continue to investigate, explore, and live life before it ended, rather than agonizing over a treatment that was unlikely to cure his illness. “We’ve talked about my passing as being an opportunity, like my diagnosis, to wake up,” he said. “Because these are opportunities to use events that could be labeled and experienced as miserable but don’t need to be….I want everyone to appreciate the joy and wonder of every single moment of their lives.”

Amid the UN’s call to abolish the death penalty, mentally ill inmates and others still face execution

This October, United Nations experts called for the complete abolition of the death penalty, a position supported by the ACLU, the NAACP, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Southern Center for Human Rights, and other leading human rights groups and civil rights organization. The UN experts noted that some countries enforce the death penalty for actions such as blasphemy and adultery as well as drug-related offenses, while others execute people “exercising their right to peaceful political protest.” The United States ranks 7th in the world in terms of executing the most people. Of those executed between 2000 and 2015, 43% were mentally ill.

In the United States, the grounds by which a court can decide a death row inmate’s mental illness means their sentence should be converted to life in prison depends on the court overseeing the case. The subject remains murky, according to new reports from Slate and The Marshall Project. 

The Supreme Court has ruled that it’s unconstitutional to execute someone who is “insane,” but that it can be unconstitutional to execute someone with severe mental illness. The problem? Our nation’s justices have yet to clearly define “insanity” and  “serious mental illness” for the benefit of lower courts considering death as a punishment. 

In the case of Jedidiah Murphy, who was executed by the State of Texas last week, the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority vacated the state’s federal appellate panel ruling that found Murphy should have received life in prison. Though he was convicted of the carjacking and murder of an 80-year-old woman, he claimed the gun went off accidentally and the episode was the result of a dissociative blackout. Knowing his history of childhood abuse and evidence of severe mental illness, some investigators assert Murphy would have avoided execution if he had been sentenced today rather than in the early 2000s.

In other news…

Best states for mental health: Atlanta-based research company Soliant published a report to “better understand the disparities in mental health support in communities and schools nationwide, as the CDC reports 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year,” the company said. They also expressed hope that the report’s findings would draw more attention to conversations about mental health and the urgency of additional mental health services for citizens in every demographic across the country. Nebraska, Connecticut, and Massachusetts came in at one, two, and three, respectively, while Arkansas, Alabama, and West Virginia ranked last. 

Bill to decriminalize psilocybin in California vetoed by Gov. Newsom: More needs to be done before California can decriminalize psychedelics, including psilocybin, dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and mescaline, said Gov. Gavin Newsom. Over the weekend, he vetoed a bill that would have allowed people 21 and older to possess small amounts of psilocybin, the psychoactive component in so-called “magic mushrooms.” It would have also covered possession of DMT and mescaline, both of which trigger hallucinogenic responses similar to LSD, the Associated Press reports. His concerns were the lack of appropriate therapeutic usage guidelines, though proponents say the bill would have required the state’s division of Health and Human Services to study and recommend guidelines to lawmakers before 2025, when the law would have taken effect. 

“California should immediately begin work to set up regulated treatment guidelines – replete with dosing information, therapeutic guidelines, rules to prevent exploitation during guided treatments, and medical clearance of no underlying psychoses,” Newsom wrote in a statement. “Unfortunately, this bill would decriminalize possession prior to these guidelines going into place, and I cannot sign it.” Though psilocybin is decriminalized statewide in Oregon and Colorado and cities including Washington D.C. and Oakland, CA, the substance remains illegal at the federal level.

Mental health is seen as just as important as physical health in much of the world, according to U.S. News & World Report, but beliefs varied from country to country in ways that some (like me) may find surprising. Nearly 93% of respondents in the 36 countries surveyed agreed with the statement, “Mental health care is just as important as physical health care.” Residents of Indonesia reported the highest level of agreement, 96.9%, followed closely by Thailand, Kenya, Finland and Denmark. The U.S. was 94.1%. The lowest was Sweden, at 87%. The survey was part of U.S. News’s Best Countries rankings. Individual countries’ responses to the mental health question were not broken out. – Don Sapatkin

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...