Roland Griffiths, renowed psychopharmacologist, research pioneer, and professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, passed away at 77 from colon cancer at his home in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Griffiths was a research pioneer across multiple fields, but his best-known contributions involved the use of psilocybin and the study of addiction and dependence on mood-altering drugs.
These include opiates, cocaine, sedatives, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine, for which he was widely known for his groundbreaking work in confirming its addictive nature. While these mood-altering drugs caught his attention, the field of psychedelics and the world of mushrooms is indebted to his most impactful research.
In 2006, Dr. Griffiths published a pivotal paper, “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance,” on psilocybin, the psychoactive component found in certain mushrooms. The study showed that psilocybin could bring mystical experiences with lasting personal and spiritual significance. This is the research that launched us in the current psychedelic wave and is responsible for revitalizing the field of psychedelic study that had been stigmatized since the 1960s.
Dr. Griffiths described the first therapeutic trial he ran at Johns Hopkins with psychedelics to Rachel Martin for NPR.
This cohort of people, who met criteria for clinical depression or anxiety, after a single dose of psilocybin under our supported conditions, the anxiety and depression dropped markedly – immediately – and markedly and enduringly. That was the most important feature: We followed people up for six months and they remained with very low symptom profiles.
Remarkably, years later, Michael Pollan interviewed many of the same participants for his book, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence.” Pollan found that the positive effects of psilocybin on their moods lasted for months and in some cases, years.
Dr. Griffiths was born on July 19, 1946, in Glen Cove, New York. While he was always interested in psychology, he had a transformative experience with meditation in 1994 that piqued his interest in spiritual experiences. He shifted his professional focus to explore psychedelics at a time when few fellow scientists engaged with the topic. His multiple studies paved the way for the use of these substances in treating a range of conditions including anxiety in cancer patients, depression, and addiction.
He received his terminal Stage 4 cancer diagnosis in 2022 and took a psychedelic for the first time. He took LSD, and described his experience as fantastic and felt it was a call to action to share his celebration of life and message with the world. Griffiths was usually reserved and kept his private life out of the public eye.
However, it was the message he received on his journey that changed his mind. “The answer was, ‘Yeah, you’re going to die but this is as it should be. There’s a deeper meaning. There’s a deeper purpose. And you should continue to do what you’re doing,’” he said in his interview with NPR.
“We all know that we’re terminal,” Dr. Griffiths told The New York Times after his diagnosis. “So I believe that in principle we shouldn’t need this Stage 4 cancer diagnosis to awaken. I’m excited to communicate, to shake the bars and tell people, ‘Come on, let’s wake up!’”
Dr. Griffiths is survived by his wife, Marla Weiner; his three children, Sylvie Grahan, Jennie Otis and Morgan Griffiths; five grandchildren; and his siblings, Kathy Farley and Mark Griffiths.
He was the Founding Director of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research and recently published, with his team, the largest “real world” mushroom study ever. In 2020, he was the face of the campaign asking adults like you and me to sign up for the study that ended up following over 2,800 participants.
The results were recently published and are, again, astonishing. Of the participants, 94 percent found the experience beneficial and 50 percent improved their relationship with others following the experience. He told The New York Times that he felt more invigorated at 76 than he did at 35, and was excited to continue his research.
“As a scientist, it’s like a kid in the candy store with respect to what research, what questions need to be answered about psychedelics and the theme of the endowment and human flourishing.” When asked about his experience with his diagnosis, he exclaimed, “My life has never been better! If I had a regret, it’s that I didn’t wake up as much as I have without a cancer diagnosis.”
Before he signed off on NPR in April, he shared a message to us, one that reverberated in most of his interviews in 2023.
“My parting invitation is to celebrate. I’m inviting you to celebrate what I’m celebrating and that is this experience of the miracle of where we find ourselves. You need not have a terminal diagnosis to lean in more fully, and I promise you it’s worth it.”