Kick Your Smoking Habit With...Magic Mushrooms?

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A small group of longtime smokers were able to kick their nicotine habit after taking psilocybin—the same hallucinogenic present in magic mushrooms—in a cognitive behavioral therapy treatment program at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, according to a report published in today’s Journal of Psychopharmacology. All 15 participants had tried to quit smoking cigarettes before, with nicotine replacement and drugs alike, and all had failed.

Five women and 10 men, roughly around 51 years old, participated in the study. On average, the lifelong smokers had smoked 19 cigarettes a day for 31 years. Five participants had never tried the mind-altering drug, while 10 participants said they had used it (recreationally) in the past. After briefing them on psilocybin’s effects, researchers gave participants the drug in three separate doses, the first of which was given to them the day they planned to go cold turkey on cigarettes. Participants were given the second dose two weeks after the initial dose and the third eight weeks later.

With each dose, researchers increased the amount of psilocybin administered. In each of the individualized, six-to-seven-hour sessions, participants were told to relax and reflect on their experiences. Two researchers kept an eye on the subjects, many of whom listened to music throughout.

Matthew W. Johnson, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins and study co-author, said in a press release that the rate of nicotine abstinence for the study’s participants stood at 80 percent after six months, a markedly higher rate than typical success rates in smoking cessation trials. Varenicline, typically considered the drug most effective in curbing a smoking habit, has demonstrated only a 35 percent success rate after six months. Nicotine replacement and behavioral therapy alone, by contrast, usually have a success rate of less than 30 percent. Researchers note that the benefits last even after participants came down from the mind-altering drug.

The research initiative is part of a federally funded cognitive-behavior smoking-cessation program. Yet the study’s authors caution people against “do-it-yourself” drug use, stating that the results were the result of controlled doses in a treatment program. If administered responsibly in a cognitive behavioral therapy program, however, the researchers suggest that psilocybin can be an effective tool for smoking cessation, as it may help to deconstruct patterns of behavior and thoughts after years of being addicted to cigarettes.

In a Washingtonian profile published earlier this year, Johnson said that he was inspired by previous studies that linked hallucinogens to the effective treatment of serious heroin and alcohol addictions. The mind-altering drug reportedly causes users to go into reflective states of sublimity, in which they accept new perspectives. Citing anecdotal evidence, Johnson told the paper that people would sometimes stop smoking after using psilocybin recreationally, perhaps after experiencing a kind of spiritual awakening. “They’ll say, ‘Lo and behold, I had a cigarette in my hand and thought: What in the world have I been doing?’ Psilocybin opens a window of opportunity with a very altered experience of oneself and of oneself in the world,” he said.

The study touches upon the same ethos of traditional treatment programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, encouraging spirituality as part of the rehabilitation process. Johnson’s method combines the spiritual connection with cognitive behavioral therapy.

"Quitting smoking isn't a simple biological reaction to psilocybin, as with other medications that directly affect nicotine receptors," Johnson said in a press release. "When administered after careful preparation and in a therapeutic context, psilocybin can lead to deep reflection about one's life and spark motivation to change."

Johnson plans to use the drug for his next study, which will cross-reference MRI scans of people who used nicotine patches to successfully stop smoking as compared to those who took psilocybin and successfully quit.