As Psychedelics Experience a Renaissance, Emory’s New Center for Psychedelics and Spirituality Seeks a Novel Approach

Magic mushroom. Image: Toby Bannon/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

For years, in addition to writing about it numerous times for RD, I’ve included a section on psychedelics and religious experience in my Introduction to Religion course. When I first began to teach on the topic, my students, for the most part, approached the suggestion that certain drugs may occasion experiences that resemble experiences we deem ‘religious’ with skepticism. 

Most, having come from religious backgrounds, been taught that drugs and religion simply don’t mix, a suspicion that not only tracked with broader sociocultural and political assumptions about psychedelics, but one that consigned the use of these substances to the underground. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 banished the most well-known psychedelicsincluding LSD, DMT, and psilocybinto Schedule 1, which classifies them as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” In light of such classification, suggesting that psychedelics might have a religious use seems anathema. 

The past few times I’ve taught the course, however, I’ve noticed that students seem more receptive to the idea. I know that it’s an anecdotal observation, but it tracks with a growing interest in the potential medicinal and spiritual benefits that psychedelics may provide to users. Indeed, psychedelics seem to be having their moment, something of a “renaissance,” as many people have called it. 

While psychedelics still remain scheduled at the federal level, a burgeoning body of research suggests that psychedelics may have psychotherapeutic benefits in the treatment of a host of ailments, including but not limited to anxiety, depression, PTSD, and substance abuse disorders—as well as in palliative care. 

A number of prominent institutions in the United States currently host centers devoted to studying the mechanisms, effects, and efficacy of psychedelics, including NYU’s Center for Psychedelic Medicine, Johns Hopkins’s Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, and UC Berkeley’s Center for the Science of Psychedelics

In addition, and anticipating the legal and sociocultural acceptance of the therapeutic value of psychedelics, a number of institutions have started to offer certificate programs for clinicians and chaplains in psychedelic-assisted therapies, including the California Institute of Integral Studies and Naropa University

Now, Emory University has entered the fray, with the establishment of the Emory Center for Psychedelics and Spirituality (ECPS). A partnership between Emory Spiritual Health, which focuses on religious, spiritual, and cultural care to foster “whole person health,” and its Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, the ECPS draws together researchers and clinicians with diverse academic backgrounds and practical areas of expertise “to push the frontier of psychological and spiritual health through the research, practice, and training of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.” The ECPS dubs itself the “world’s first center to fully integrate clinical and research-based expertise in psychiatry and spiritual health to better understand the therapeutic promise of psychedelic medicines.”

While most of the existing centers in the United States take narrower approaches, either choosing to focus on the scientific study of psychedelics or training clinicians and chaplains in psychedelic-assisted therapies, the ECPS promises to take a more holistic approach, combining scientific research with clinical experience and application. 

As the ECPS’s website puts it, the center seeks to: 

“leverage an active and wide-ranging program of clinical and translational psychedelic research underway at Emory University to develop and test models of psychedelic assisted therapy that are co-led by mental health and spiritual health clinicians (board certified healthcare chaplains) and that best support the occurrence and therapeutic benefits of psychedelic-induced spiritual experiences.” 

In addition, the ECPS also promises to address ethical issues related to the study of psychedelics and their use in therapeutic environments. Specifically, the ECPS hopes to address issues related to “equitable and inclusive access to treatment” and “cultural appropriation.” Both of these issues are important to the future of psychedelic medicine and don’t necessarily play a substantial overt role in existing centers. Numerous concerns have been raised regarding access to psychedelic therapy, particularly among economically and socially marginalized groups. 

Such concerns, of course, accompany the development of any novel treatment and, at least in the United States, healthcare in general. But it’s currently not clear whether individuals and communities with the most need will have easy access to psychedelic-assisted therapy once it becomes more widely available. Assuring that such individuals and communities do have access is vital for the future of psychedelic medicine, especially if the latter lives up to its hype. 

Concerns have also been raised regarding cultural appropriation when it comes to psychedelics. Many of the synthetic psychedelics currently in use have been derived from plants traditionally used for religious and medicinal purposes by Indigenous communities. As Caroline Gregoire has put it

“It’s a tale as old as colonialism itself: European settlers and explorers come into Indigenous lands, pillage their natural resources, and patent new medicinal compounds based on those resources, furthering modern medicine while bringing destruction to Indigenous habitats and ways of life.” 

Although it remains to be seen how the ECPS addresses the issue, the very fact that it’s mentioned is a step in the right direction, a step that other centers should consider as well. 

One other feature of the ECPS that sets it apart is its inclusion of religious studies scholars and philosophers among its leadership. Given the more holistic emphasis of the ECPS, this isn’t necessarily surprising, but it’s something lacking at many of the existing centers devoted to the study of psychedelics. Because many of the existing centers often employ only scientific researchers or clinical professionals, a critical perspective is often lacking among them. Specifically, a lot of terms and ideas, such as “spirituality,” “religion,” and “mysticism,” get smuggled into research designs and clinical practice, without analyzing their history or their various sociopolitical valences. 

Religious studies scholars and philosophers could provide much needed perspective, here, which can only strengthen our understanding of psychedelics and their various uses. 

While the end-result of this so-called psychedelic renaissance still remains to be seen, the ECPS seems poised to make a significant contribution to it, especially in areas that have often been overlooked or simply ignored. Because of this, the ECPS is a welcome addition to the current psychedelic landscape.