Editor's note: This piece has been updated to reflect the passing of Roland Griffiths. He spoke to WebMD, as well as to Dr. Manish Agrawal, just a few weeks before his death.
Oct. 18, 2023 -- Scientist Roland Griffiths, PhD, who helped return scientific rigor to the study of psychedelic substances like psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA, died Monday Oct. 16, at age 77 from colon cancer.
Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist, was previously professor of psychiatry, neuroscience, and neuropsychopharmacology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine as well as director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, the first of its kind, which he helped establish.
Griffiths was a well-regarded researcher of mind-altering substances like opioids, alcohol, and amphetamines before taking on the tricky subject of psychedelics research starting in the mid-'90s.
Though skeptical at first, Griffiths soon came to believe in the incredible power of these substances to change lives and to help people manage a wide range of mental health problems like depression, anxiety, addiction, and PTSD.
"We've never had a tool of this sort that fundamentally changes that narrative structure of self and world view in the way this does," Griffiths told WebMD in the 2022 series Magic Mushrooms, MDMA, and the Promise of Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy.
Before Griffiths, psychedelics research was plagued with legal barriers, shoddy research, and a serious image problem, said oncologist Manish Agrawal, MD, a friend, a colleague, and a psychedelics researcher at Sunstone Therapies.
"Roland was the perfect person to reignite the psychedelic renaissance, balancing skepticism and scientific rigor with profound curiosity for what psychedelic medicines can do," Agrawal said.
The unusual effects of psychedelic experience for so many people was something that dovetailed with Griffiths' own interest in spiritual and philosophical issues and his long meditation practice.
"He saw psychedelics not only as tools for treatment, but also as potential tools to explore the expansion of consciousness. It was revolutionary to hold these within the same hands: He never saw a conflict between science and spirituality -- he saw them both exploring the fundamental questions about the world we inhabit."
Just a few weeks ago, at a time when he knew he was likely facing the end, Griffiths took the time to sit down and chat with WebMD. It had been almost 2 years since doctors diagnosed Stage IV colon cancer and his doctors had run through all of his treatment options.
Griffiths knew of the possibly devastating psychological toll of such a diagnosis through his previous research on psychedelic therapies for those with depression linked to end-stage cancer.
And yet, after the initial shock and denial that often come with such a diagnosis, he found something else: Joy.
“I'm just overwhelmed with gratitude and joy and love for how I'm experiencing the world despite everything,” Griffiths said.
The response was as much a surprise and a mystery to him as it was to anyone else. And yet his feeling about his diagnosis was clear and unalloyed. “What a tragedy it would have been,” he said, “if I had been run over by a bus on the way to that cancer screening.”
“I would have missed so many amazing things.”
The diagnosis shifted his priorities in important ways, Griffiths said, bringing him closer to those he loves and making him more open about his own experiences with psychedelics – something he had been careful to avoid previously.
“There are going to be some people who are going to think that I've not been an objective scientist. I don't think that's true, because I went into work for psychedelics as a skeptic. … Now I have some personal experience that I can also speak to,” he said.
Since the diagnosis, Griffiths also established an endowed professorship at Johns Hopkins University to support world-class research on psychedelic substances “to advance understanding of well-being and spirituality in the service of promoting human flourishing for generations to come.” (Hopkins has approved the inaugural recipient David B. Yaden, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology who studies altered states of consciousness.)
In the video above, Griffiths and wife, Marla Weiner, sit down with Agrawal to discuss Griffiths' diagnosis, his meditation practice, the psychedelic experience, and more.