Dispute Over Famous Psychedelic Researcher Calls Ethics of Johns Hopkins Studies into Question

Dr. Roland Griffiths, a psychologist who died last year, was a prominent scientist and an outspoken proponent of the potential of psychedelic drugs to treat a variety of mental illnesses and to foster spiritual experiences. He was also the focus of an ethics complaint filed by a former colleague, Matthew Johnson, who accused Griffiths of allowing donors to interfere in research and of prioritizing the production of mystical experiences over the rigorous testing of drugs.

Griffiths' work has been influential in the field of psychedelics. His research has suggested that psilocybin, found in magic mushrooms, can induce mystical experiences that can help treat anxiety, depression, addiction, and the fear of death. His work has helped to pull the psychedelic field from the deep backwater of the 1960s hippie movement and has garnered recognition among scientists and the popular press.

However, critics have denounced the financial and philosophical influence of psychedelic advocates on the research field, and some researchers have quietly questioned whether Griffiths, in his focus on the mystical realm, made some of the same mistakes that doomed the previous era of psychedelic science.

An investigation by the New York Times found that the complaint filed against Griffiths alleged that he acted like a "spiritual leader," infusing the research with religious symbolism and steering volunteers toward the outcome he wanted. It also alleged that he allowed donors to interfere in studies, which raises ethical questions.

Johns Hopkins told Dr. Johnson that it was investigating his allegations, but the university did not comment on detailed questions for this article.

Natasha Mason, a psychopharmacologist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, said that while she understood the Hopkins researchers' goals, the experimental design had put a thumb on the spiritual scale. Psychedelic drugs are a promising treatment option for mental illness, but they also come with unpredictable risks, such as psychotic episodes, increased suicidality, or extended emotional difficulties, which are most likely underreported.

More research is needed to determine the drugs' risks and benefits, especially for vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and adolescents. Overall, the investigation highlights the importance of ensuring the ethical conduct of psychedelic research and prioritizing the well-being of study participants.

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