The hype around psychedelics has led to a growing interest in psilocybin, but with no path to accessing it just yet (at least in North America), medical exemptions and clinical trials remain among the only ways for people to experience it legally. Unfortunately, this leaves space for only a few participants to share their experiences through clinical research.
In the interest of offering people an opportunity to provide information about their psilocybin experiences for scientific purposes, a non-profit organization has teamed up with a leading psychedelic research center to conduct a real-world study on the effects of magic mushrooms.
From CBD To Psychedelics
Unlimited Sciences is a Denver-based non-profit dedicated to collecting data on psychedelic use. According to co-founder and director Del Jolly, the organization is modelled after another non-profit in the cannabis space with a similar mission: to empower people with research-based education and information.
“We formed Unlimited Sciences in 2018 and started our conversations with Johns Hopkins to create a prospective observational research registry,” he says. “We thought, ‘who is really collecting that data, and how can we inform the best way to use psilocybin?’ Because whether it’s illegal, legal or decriminalized, people are using this.”
Jolly’s co-founder Heather Jackson is also a co-founder of Realm of Caring, an organization she and Paige Figi (the mother of Charlotte Figi) started in 2012 after discovering that CBD provided their epileptic children with relief. Realm of Caring began as a way of providing parents and families with support, and has grown into a community-focused platform for medical cannabis education and research.
“Over the years, we’ve spent more than 2 million minutes on the phone with families who are out of options,” says Jackson, who also serves as Unlimited Sciences’ board president.
Today, Realm of Caring has collected more than 5 million data points since it opened its call center in 2015, and has granted nearly $3 million to families in need. The organization has also worked with Johns Hopkins to launch what has become the largest medical cannabis research registry in the world, according to Jackson.
But when the number of families the organization was working with grew from four to more than 100,000 in a short period of time, Jackson found herself working long hours and was soon struggling to manage her own health. In her quest to get better, a profound and life-changing experience with psilocybin led to the idea of collecting data about its real-world use.
“With cannabis, I’ve never had an agenda, I was just trying to save my kid,” she says. “With psychedelics, I was just trying to save myself, and so this evolved. We feel like it’s important to listen to people, to collect their experiences in a scientific way, as scientific as you can, but also in the natural setting—because a very small number of people are able to take psilocybin in a clinical setting at Johns Hopkins.”
The Goal: Win People Over With Data
Jolly admits he wasn’t always a champion of psychedelics, or even of cannabis, but after working at Charlotte’s Web and witnessing firsthand how it could provide people with real relief, he had a change of heart.
“I’m the guy who was against marijuana, who couldn’t pronounce psilocybin, who didn’t understand its potential and didn’t take any of it seriously,” he recalls. Jolly says there are two ways to help people understand: “You either create incredible storytelling, like Charlotte Figi… or you hit them with statistical data.”
The ongoing study, which entails a series of questionnaires and focuses on the outcomes of psilocybin use in naturalistic settings, was first opened in August 2020 and is being conducted by Johns Hopkins scientists. It will cover a range of different variables including demographics, lifestyle, mindset, and personality traits, as well as characteristics of the experience such as dosage, ingestion method, intention, and setting.
“Anybody who is already intending on using psilocybin can enroll,” says Jolly. Participants are required to fill out five different questionnaires: two to be completed prior to their psilocybin experience, one to be filled out three days after the experience, another after two weeks, and a final one three months after the initial experience.
“We have a really wonderful set of validated measures that we’ll be able to point to in order to say whether the outcomes were good or bad,” he says.
Without specific requirements around how people take the psilocybin, the potential for a variety of feedback is what excites Jolly most.
“Maybe they’re camping with their friends, maybe they’re going to do it at a concert, maybe they’re going to do it with a therapist or in ceremonial setting,” he says. “All those different experiences, that’s what we are trying to understand.”
Even with the expectation that the data will be skewed towards experienced users, Jackson notes that so far, as many as 12 percent of participants have declared they are first-time psilocybin users.
“These aren’t just long-term psychedelic users,” she says. “These are people who are coming to this to try and improve their health, and perhaps gain more meaning from life.”
Having been a part of the colossal shift in mindset in towards medical cannabis, like Jolly, Jackson recognizes the importance of utilizing storytelling and statistical data. By collecting data, she hopes they’ll be able to point to outcomes and provide information that will help people make safer choices and mitigate risk.
“If we’re going to shift how we think about psychedelics, we need to do this through story and through data,” she says. “The intention is, let’s just collect as much data as we can, so that we know what kind of outcomes people are having. That’s how I think we will reimagine how we think about people who use psychedelics and their outcomes.”