Roland Griffiths, Pioneer of Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Studies Dead at 77

A nationally renowned name in psychedelic research who helped pave the way for what many have dubbed a new renaissance in psychedelic-based treatments has regrettably passed away at his home in Baltimore.
Courtesy TEDMED

A Johns Hopkins professor who championed groundbreaking new research into psychedelic substances passed away Monday from colon cancer at the age of 77.

Dr. Roland Redmond Griffiths, according to a New York Times obituary, helped usher in a new era of psychedelic research during his time at Johns Hopkins by leading several studies regarding the ways in which psychedelic substances may help combat a myriad of mental health disorders. 

Dr. Griffiths’ 2006 paper “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance” was a first-of-its-kind study in which otherwise healthy adults were administered psilocybin in a controlled environment. 80 percent of the participants described their experience as “mystical,” that is holding the same weight or significance as the birth of a child or the death of a parent or an otherwise monumental life event. These effects lasted as long as years in some of the study participants, many of whom were interviewed by well-known author and advocate of psychedelics, Michael Pollan, for his book How to Change Your Mind, which was later adopted into a Netflix series.

“Roland had such a sterling reputation as being a rigorous and conscientious scientist,” Pollan said in a phone interview with the New York Times. “No one of his stature had stepped into this area in such a long time that it gave a lot of other people confidence,” he added. “When he presented this completely weird study, which was so out there for science, it could have been dumped on, but it wasn’t.”

The double-blind placebo-controlled study served as a baseline for dozens of subsequent studies on psychedelic substances, all of which have pretty poignantly indicated that psychedelics can potentially have massive, overwhelmingly positive effects on human beings. A cursory search of the phrase “psilocybin study” on High Times online will display dozens of studies showing promising results in psychedelic treatment for everything from depression to alcoholism, cigarette smoking, PTSD and more, almost none of which would have been possible without Dr. Griffiths’ initial work with psilocybin at Johns Hopkins. As one of the leading universities in the nation on medical research, it was easier to get approval there than it may have been elsewhere. 

Dr. Griffiths’ work with psychedelic medicines continued from there with a study in which cancer patients receiving end-of-life care who were suffering from the anxiety of facing their own deaths were administered psilocybin. He received his own cancer diagnosis in 2021 and told the New York Times Magazine he opted to take a large dose of LSD for the purpose of exploring his cancer diagnosis and asking the cancer, point blank, if it was going to kill him.

“The answer was, ‘Yes, you will die, but everything is absolutely perfect; there’s meaning and purpose to this that goes beyond your understanding, but how you’re managing that is exactly how you should manage it,’” Dr. Griffiths said to the New York Times Magazine. “Western materialism says the switch gets turned off and that’s it, but there are so many other descriptions. It could be a beginning! Wouldn’t that be amazing.”

According to the New York Times obituary, Dr. Griffiths was born July 19, 1946 in Glen Cove, New York to parents William and Sylvie Griffiths. He received his education at Occidental College in Los Angeles where he majored in psychology and at the University of Minnesota where he studied psychopharmacology. He received his doctorate degree in 1972, after which he was hired by Johns Hopkins University where his research focused on drug use and addiction.

Dr. Griffiths authored and contributed to several other studies related to drug use during his time at Johns Hopkins, including a widely-circulated study on caffeine addiction in the early 90’s which was the first to describe chronic caffeine use as similar to if not the same as classical forms of addiction. Dr. Griffiths’ research on caffeine was among the first to show that it could be considered an addictive substance with uncomfortable and unpleasant withdrawals and that caffeine addiction was a “clinically meaningful disorder.” Dr. Griffiths also contributed work to studies on opiate use, cocaine, nicotine and more. 

Dr. Griffiths is survived by his wife, Marla Weiner, as well as his three children, five grandchildren and two siblings. At the time of his death, the New York Times said he was working on a paper based on another study where priests and other members of religious orders were given high doses of psilocybin to see if the experience could affect the deeply religious in similar ways as it had the subjects in his previous studies.

“A hallmark feature of these experiences is that we’re all in this together,” Dr. Griffiths said in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year. “It opens people up to this sense that we have a commonality and that we need to take care of each other.”

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