by Daniel Miller: Ultimately, the only thing that helped me quit cigarettes for good was an illegal drug that I had been taught to fear as much as heroin, the author writes. This drug was LSD…
I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for almost a decade. I had tried to quit, but nothing worked. The patch gave me a rash. Nicorette gave me incessant hiccups. And neither reduced my craving for cigarettes.
Chantix, which my doctor prescribed, worked—at least until I went to hospital with a severe allergic reaction. Ultimately, the only thing that helped me quit for good was an illegal drug that I had been taught to fear as much as heroin. This drug was LSD.
And what’s truly remarkable is that my experience wasn’t a fluke. I’m not the exception. In a recent pilot study at Johns Hopkins, 80 percent of the participants were nicotine free six months after two or three psilocybin sessions. And other promising research shows the efficacy of psychedelics to treat alcoholism and even cocaine addiction.
This seems like a miracle. But, of course, it’s not. As an atheist, and somebody who spent four years studying physics at Princeton, I believe in science. Psychedelics aren’t magic; they’re a medicine under the right setting. And medicines obey the laws of nature—of cause and effect.
So what exactly is going on here psychologically?
After my experience, I engrossed myself in the psychedelic literature. I read dozens of books about these powerful drugs, searching for the answer to what happened to me. The problem was that I was searching in the wrong place. I was learning a lot about psychedelics, neuroscience and even religion, but not nearly enough about addiction.
And then I read Johann Hari’s new book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, and it made sense to me for the first time. Hari makes the point that addiction isn’t a function of the chemical, it’s a function of your cage. And maybe what my experience had done was so improve the conditions of my cage that I no longer wanted to escape from it with nicotine.
Some background on Hari’s book (and a recently released video summarizing his thesis) would be instructive here. In the rat cage experiment made famous by the “Just Say No” campaigns of the 1980s, rats were given a choice between regular water and heroin-laced water, and almost every time they would drink the drug water, become addicted and eventually overdose.
The problem with this study and the addiction model it supported was that it ignored the fact that these rats were in an empty cage. A follow-up study replaced the empty cage with something resembling a rat park (or rat heaven) filled with other rats to have sex with, balls to play with and colorful objects to look at. This time, the rats rarely drank the drug water and never became addicted.
And this “cage” theory of addiction seemingly translates to human beings. During Vietnam, close to 20 percent of returning veterans had a dependency on opium. But a year after their return, 95 percent were drug free. If you replaced constant fear of dying in a jungle war with a peaceful life filled with friends and family, the addiction went away.
What’s interesting and different about my example is that psychedelics didn’t change the physical parameters of my cage. Unlike the Vietnam veteran, nothing materially changed about my life, either in terms of what people I spent time with, or what I did every day. So then what gives?
Human beings strive to feel connected. And Hari notes that in the absence of meaningful human connections, we resort to less productive attachments, from our iPhone and Twitter to cigarettes and even heroin.
And personally, I had always struggled to create and maintain fulfilling human connections; I was simply too defensive and judgmental. Even among my close friends, there was always something to criticize. In other words, when I looked inside my “cage,” I saw something broken, a series of things that had gone wrong. No wonder I wanted to smoke a cigarette every 30 minutes!
But after taking LSD, my worldview shifted. Whereas before I saw life as some sort of competition between me and the world, I now feel like I’m one part of a larger whole. I’ve always had the capacity to empathize, but I had reserved these feelings for a select few that “deserved” it. My psychedelic experience forced me to consider that we all might deserve it. And in return, my relationships with others have flourished.
I quit smoking “cold turkey” before I took LSD. But the insights from my “trip” have sustained that initial decision and kept me off nicotine ever since. Before my experience, there was a struggle every day between my will to quit and a desire for my old friend “the cigarette.” This was both unpleasant and, I believe, untenable.
But afterward, it was just easy. There was no struggle because I no longer desired cigarettes. One of the participants in the Johns Hopkins smoking cessation study was quoted in a New Yorkerarticle as saying: “Smoking seemed irrelevant so I stopped.”
Put another way, given her new perspective, she had better things to do in her rat cage than smoke cigarettes. Or at least, this is how I felt. Psychedelics had provided me with a set of spiritual and emotional options and an ability to relate to others that was far preferable to the nicotine high.
The science behind my experience is becoming clearer every day. Scientists from Johns Hopkins, NYU, UCLA and Imperial College London believe that psychedelics can induce profound spiritual insights by temporarily turning off or turning down the Default Mode Network, the part of the brain responsible for our ego and sense of self.
This certainly comports with my personal experience, and to the results from the scientific studies. But in some ways, the science is irrelevant. After taking LSD, I’m far more compassionate and empathetic, and less self-conscious than I used to be. And just as important, I’m smoke free. Cigarettes still seem “irrelevant” to me.
We have strong evidence that taking a psychedelic only once or twice can effectively treat if not cure addiction. We shouldn’t be afraid to embrace this knowledge in order to combat one of the most intractable diseases afflicting our society today.
And perhaps this is even bigger than that. Couldn’t we all use our own little rat heaven? After all, aren’t we all addicted to something?
Daniel Miller is a lawyer and a founder of The Psychedelic Society of Brooklyn.