Roland Griffiths, a Johns Hopkins researcher credited with reigniting scientific interest in psychedelics and demonstrating that a compound derived from “magic” mushrooms can help people struggling with depression, among other conditions, died Monday at his Baltimore home, his daughter said. He was 77.
“He brought the scientific method to psychedelic research,” said Anthony Bossis, an assistant professor at New York University’s School of Medicine. “He was the ultimate scientist. It was an honor to work with him.”
Griffiths’ buoyant curiosity carried him into his final illness, stage 4 colon cancer, which he publicly spoke about often this year, including with Oprah Winfrey. Griffiths said he did not fear death.
“What I experience is wonder,” he said. “Being a scientist, I am very skeptical to take on belief systems that are unverifiable. What I do know is that we live in the middle of this inexplicable mystery for which we need to be deeply grateful.”
“I don’t know what will happen when I die,” he said. “I cannot just endorse the variety of stories that people tell about consciousness surviving death, but I don’t know that that’s not true. I find myself in a deep state of curiosity and intense interest. It’s exciting.”
Griffiths was the Oliver Lee McCabe, III Professor in the Neuropsychopharmacology of Consciousness and the founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research. He led studies that showed using psilocybin, an ingredient found in psychedelic mushrooms, helped people quit smoking, recover from depression and make peace with terminal cancer diagnoses.
Before embarking on psychedelic research, Griffiths spent nearly three decades studying the effects of caffeine and nicotine. His office at Hopkins was decorated with vintage ads for Coca-Cola and coffee, as well as art created by his three children.
In the early 1990s, Griffiths developed an interest in the science of spirituality through his own work in meditation. He told the Baltimore City Paper in 2008 that meditation “opened up a spiritual window.”
“It really prompted an interest in questions that had simply not been meaningful previously — questions about the nature of mystical experience, the nature of spiritual transformation,” he said.
So Griffiths was intrigued when colleagues suggested he begin studying the effects of psychedelics.
Although there had been great scientific interest in the 1950s and ‘60s in studying LSD, mescaline and psilocybin, the compound that gives certain mushrooms their magic, the credibility of the research waned as the ‘60s drew to a close and psychedelics became associated with the anti-war movement and youth counterculture. In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed a law that effectively curbed psychedelic research for the next 20 years.
Yet working with psychedelics was, Griffiths said, “like the third rail. You don’t touch that without damaging your career.” His colleagues were discouraging, but with a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and funding from the Council on Spiritual Practices, Griffiths pushed ahead.
In 2000, after approval from the FDA and Hopkins, the study began, and the first subjects were enrolled in 2001. The results were published in the 2006 journal Psychopharmacology, generating extensive global press coverage.
The study showed that people who took psilocybin reported long-lasting positive changes, and that two-thirds ranked taking the drug as one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. It was the first major scientific study of psychedelics to be published in more than three decades.
“That first paper really kicked open the door to this new chapter of research because it showed that psilocybin could be used safely in a clinical setting and that it induced a mystical experience, ineffability, a sense of the sacred,” said Bossis.
Griffiths’ rigorous scholarship and his stature at Hopkins brought credibility to psychedelic research, said Nichols. “He was an outstanding scientist. He really set the standard for a lot of work in this field,” he said.
David Nichols founded the Heffter Research Institute in 1993 to advocate for and fund psychedelic research and was an early collaborator with Griffiths. “In 1993, if you talked about doing research in psychedelics, people thought you were really weird,” Nichols said. “That has really changed and a lot of that was Johns Hopkins and Roland’s studies.”
The creation of the psychedelic research center at Hopkins paved the way for other major research institutions to do the same, Nichols said.
Daughter Jennie Otis said that despite Griffiths’ professional responsibilities, he was a loving and engaged father to her and her siblings.
“He was an incredibly wonderful father, completely devoted and present with us as children,” said Otis, a public defender in Oakland, California. “As an adult, it’s been really incredible to see the professional recognition he has received, what a giant he is in the scientific world. But he was always just Dad for us. Really loving. He was our rock.”
Survivors also include his wife, Marla Weiner, two other children, Sylvie Grahan and Morgan Griffiths, and five grandchildren. Previous marriages to Kristin Ann Johnson and Diana Hansen ended in divorce.
Born on July 19, 1946, in Glen Cove, New York, Roland Redmond Griffiths was raised in California after his father, William Griffiths, a psychologist by training, took a job as a public health professor at the University of California, Berkeley and moved the family there around 1951, according to an obituary in The New York Times. His mother Sylvie also studied psychology.
Roland Griffiths received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Occidental College in Southern California and a doctorate in psychopharmacology from the University of Minnesota, according to his Johns Hopkins biography.
Griffiths took the insights gleaned from psychedelics, as well as meditation, as an indication that the human mind is primed for mystical experiences.
“Why are we wired to have these salient, felt to be sacred experiences of encountering ultimate reality, the interconnectedness of all people and all things, experiences that arguably provide the very basis of our ethical and moral codes common to all the world’s religions?” Griffiths said in a 2016 TEDMED Talk. “I think there’s something about the mystical experience that relates intimately to the very nature of consciousness.”
“Just reflect on the mysterious truth that if you direct your attention inward, you become aware that you’re aware,” he said. “I think this inner knowing is at the core of our humanity. We recognize at some deep level that we are all in this together.”
The story has been updated to clarify the origin of Roland Griffiths' interest in psychedelic research.
Baltimore Banner reporter Lillian Reed contributed to this article.