Nick C. Ige ’25 says he wouldn’t be at Harvard if it weren’t for psychedelic drugs.
Ige spent 10 years as a paratrooper and special operator in the United States Army before joining Harvard’s Class of 2025. Having been desensitized to extreme violence and stress, Ige, like many veterans, realized the transition back to civilian life would be difficult — he has had more friends commit suicide than die in combat. “We call it losing the battle at home,” he says.
Grappling with a “deficit of empathy” which left him prone to violence and struggling to maintain his relationships, Ige tried “everything” — meditation, yoga, therapy, journaling — but it wasn’t enough.
Then he tried psychedelics.
Ige has used ayahuasca, psilocybin, DMT, and ibogaine. He’s done them under medical supervision, at a retreat with a shaman, as a microdose, and just among friends. As he describes it, each of these experiences allowed him to work on a different aspect of his healing. Ige now goes out of his way to call up his Army friends to tell them he loves them, and he helps support them through their transition back to civilian life. “My psychedelic experiences and the therapy that came from that [are] changing me into a more open and loving person,” he says.
Ige explains all this while clutching a churro oat milk latte at the Capital One Cafe in Harvard Square, pop music blaring in the background. He speaks about psychedelics confidently, with an almost expert air, unafraid of someone at the next table overhearing.
His confidence is striking. Psychedelic drugs, a category that includes psilocybin, or magic mushrooms, LSD, DMT, MDMA, and other psychoactive substances, are classified as Schedule I drugs by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, which means that they have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” The substances gained this status in 1970, due to the public’s growing fears over “bad trips” and distrust of their counter-cultural associations, severely limiting any research into their effects and uses.
But Ige isn’t alone in his open-minded attitude towards psychedelics. Though change has yet to happen at the federal level, in 2020 the state of Oregon legalized psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in psychedelic mushrooms. Meanwhile, several cities across the country have decriminalized psilocybin. In February 2021, Cambridge decriminalized all entheogenic plants, a category that contains the psychedelics psilocybin, ayahuasca, and ibogaine, joining Somerville and two other Massachusetts cities.
Research efforts are also reemerging, including at the nearby, newly-founded Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics at Massachusetts General Hospital. The center is part of a newly-emerging movement looking to psychedelics as a safe treatment for issues ranging from PTSD to opioid addiction to depression. So far, the research results have been positive; a recent study showed MDMA reduced PTSD symptoms in 88 percent of patients, making it more effective than traditional SSRIs, which only work for around 60 percent of people.
The resurgence of psychedelics in Harvard’s backyard is notable in light of the University’s unique history with these drugs: back in the late 1950s and early 1960s the school was home to the controversial Harvard Psilocybin Project, led by psychologist Timothy F. Leary and his assistant, Richard Alpert. The researchers intended to study altered states of consciousness, but they soon came under fire for unscientific and unethical experiments, including allegations of administering psychedelic drugs to undergraduates. After intense campus debate, Leary and Alpert’s contracts were terminated in 1963.
Still, Leary and Alpert left behind a fierce debate over how psychedelic drugs can and should be studied and the role that altered states of consciousness should play in society. Sixty years after their departure, Harvard is again part of the conversation around the future of psychedelics. From research in the lab to conversations among the student body, psychedelics are making a tentative yet undeniable renaissance on campus — a renaissance conscious of Harvard’s checkered history with the substances, yet working to move beyond it.
‘The Most Dangerous Man in America’
In late May 1963, a small but passionate party of Harvard undergraduates gathered at a strange site for a protest: inside of Leverett House’s Old Library. The purpose of the protest was to sign a letter opposing Harvard’s recent decision to fire assistant professor of Clinical Psychology Richard Alpert on unusual grounds: for dispensing psychedelic drugs to undergraduates.
Alpert had played a key role in Leary’s Harvard Psilocybin Project, the subject of not only campus controversy but even investigation by the Massachusetts Food and Drugs Division.
The project was conceived in the summer of 1960, when Leary, a lecturer in Harvard’s psychology department and a rising star in the field, was vacationing on the Pacific coast of Mexico. There, Leary reluctantly gave magic mushrooms a try, and the psychedelic trip that followed fundamentally changed his understanding of reality. He would later say that he had “learned more about ... [his] brain and its possibilities ... [and] more about psychology in the five hours after taking these mushrooms than ... in the preceding 15 years of studying and doing research in psychology.”
Convinced that psychedelics would change the world and he himself could lead the revolution, Leary returned to Harvard, where he co-founded the Harvard Psilocybin Project alongside Alpert, writer Aldous Huxley (of “Brave New World” fame), and other researchers. Their goal was to experimentally determine the effects of psychedelics on perception and behavior.
Leary and Alpert would administer psychedelics to subjects, then ask them to fill out questionnaires about their experiences. Through these accounts and their own personal experience using the drugs, Leary and Alpert pioneered the concept of “set and setting,” the idea that the context in which psychedelics are taken affects the subject’s experience while high.
Leary’s experimental methods soon raised eyebrows. Leary and Alpert sometimes imbibed drugs alongside their subjects. In one of their most infamous projects, the Concord Prison Experiment, Leary and his team administered psilocybin to soon-to-be-paroled incarcerated individuals to observe the substance’s effects on rates of re-incarceration. At Leary’s behest, one graduate student would take the drugs alongside the inmates.
In fall of 1962, in response to criticisms of their research methods, the pair formed a private organization to administer and study psychedelic drugs outside the confines of Harvard regulations: the International Foundation for Internal Freedom.
Soon after the IFIF was formed, then-Dean of Harvard College John U. Monro ’34 and Dana L. Farnsworth, then-director of Harvard University Health Services, released a joint statement expressing concern about alleged “direct evidence” of a growing black market for drugs in Harvard Square, leading to an increase in use of “LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and other mind-distorting drugs” among Harvard undergraduates. Their statement warned that such drugs “may result in serious hazard to the mental health and stability even of apparently normal persons.”
Leary viewed this statement as an attack on psychedelics, with grave “philosophical-political implications.” In a 1962 response published in The Crimson, Leary argued that the investigators could not understand the substances they criticized since they hadn’t tried them. Scientists who had taken psychedelics, he wrote, “end up with the awesome conclusion that they are dealing with an indescribably powerful tool.” He added a question to readers: “Who decides on the range and limits of your awareness? If you want to research your own nervous system, expand your consciousness, who is to decide that you can’t and why?”
In the spring of 1963, Leary stopped fulfilling his teaching obligations, often skipping his classes to travel. The University did not renew his contract and stopped paying him, effectively firing him.
Around the same time, concerns emerged that Alpert was administering drugs to undergraduates, in violation of university policy that only allowed graduate students to experiment with psychedelics. In May of 1963, The Crimson broke the news that because of these allegations, Alpert had been fired, too.
After leaving campus, Leary and Alpert continued to use psychedelics, becoming more involved in the counterculture movement. Leary spoke at a gathering of hippies in San Francisco in 1967, where he popularized the counterculture phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Leary’s reputation and association with psychedelics grew. Then-president Richard Nixon termed Leary “the most dangerous man in America”; many called him the “High Priest of LSD.” Meanwhile, in 1967, Alpert traveled to India, where he underwent a spiritual awakening and changed his name to Ram Dass.
By 1967, after the “summer of love,” public opinion had largely turned against psychedelics. Newspapers printed sensational headlines stoking fears over “bad trips,” psychedelic experiences gone wrong in which subjects could suffer psychotic breaks or worse. “Sampled LSD, Youth Plunges from Viaduct,” one headline read. “Six Students Blinded on LSD ‘Trip’ in Sun,” read another. Fears about harmful effects combined with counter-cultural associations put pressure on officials to crack down. In 1968, LSD was made illegal in the United States; the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 officially categorized psychedelics as Schedule I drugs.
Andrew T. Weil ’63, a Crimson reporter who was fascinated with psychedelics, played a key role in reporting on the Psilocybin Project scandal. Weil had unsuccessfully attempted to access the drugs through Leary prior to reporting on the scandal, and today, he remembers just how much of an impact the controversy surrounding the Harvard Psilocybin Project had on the wider world.
“When that story broke, it was really the first time that most Americans had ever heard of psychedelics,” Weil says today. “It really put it out into the mainstream culture, and I think that was a very necessary part of the story.”
Weil became more interested in psychedelics and alternative medicine later in life, and reconnected with Dass to learn more about his spiritual beliefs. Upon meeting him, according to Weil, Dass said Weil “had done him a blessing.” Weil says that Dass told him that if he’d stayed in his role at Harvard, “it would have killed him.”
Weil agrees. “He didn’t belong in an academic setting,” he says.
New Tracks in the Snow
Now, after a decades-long pause, psychedelics research is reemerging at some of the country’s most well-respected academic institutions — including at Harvard.
Jerry F. Rosenbaum, a professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who has served as chair of the MGH Psychiatry department for 20 years, leads the new Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics at MGH, founded in April 2021. The center is one of several psychedelic research centers — including at Johns Hopkins, UC Berkeley, and NYU — that have opened in recent years.
Rosenbaum became interested in the subject after attending a conference on psychedelics at the Broad Institute, where he heard a talk on how psychedelics affect the same pathway of the brain implicated in rumination, a phenomenon associated with depression and anxiety. Hoping that psychedelics could be the key to helping his depressed and anxious patients, Rosenbaum decided to launch the center to conduct further research.
“I don’t remember that it occurred to me that anybody would object to it,” Rosenbaum says about the Center’s founding. “So I didn't really ask for permission. We just did it.”
Promising early evidence about the drugs’ efficacy has largely eroded lingering fears from the ’60s about addiction and overdose potential. In addition to treating PTSD, psychedelics have been shown to aid treatment of other disorders, including depression, where they reduced symptoms in 71 percent of patients. Similarly, psychedelics have also been shown to help with anxiety, opioid and nicotine addiction, alcohol abuse, and OCD.
“Given what seemed the inevitability of psychedelics, it was clearly our responsibility and mission to get involved and understand them better,” Rosenbaum says.
Data on the drugs’ safety has also been promising. Psychedelic overdoses essentially never happen, since such a dose would have to be 1000 times greater than the dose that causes an effect. For comparison, a heroin dose only needs to be 5 times stronger. Bad trips, once a major public concern around psychedelics, may not be as big of a risk as previously thought. In a survey of people who had a bad trip while using psilocybin, 39 percent of the respondents said that the trip was one of their top five most challenging experiences. However, 84 percent of those surveyed also said they benefited from the experience, and 46 percent said they would repeat the session again.
The Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics aims to understand the mechanisms underlying psychedelics’ effects on the brain with a variety of methods; one lab in the group studies the neurochemistry underlying their function, and another branch focuses on functional MRI studies.
The center’s approach contrasts with that of Leary, who all but abandoned the scientific method in the ’60s, saying that “these materials are too powerful and too controversial to be researched in a university setting.”
“To anchor what we’re doing going forward, without this backlash, is going to be this profound focus on methodology,” says Rick E. Doblin, the executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a non-profit involved in psychedelic policy and funding research. Psychedelics research, Doblin says, offers particular challenges because many strategies that scientists normally use, like administering placebos, are hard to replicate with psychedelics.
Researching psychedelics is also difficult because it’s hard to define the psychedelic experience. Psychedelic circles still talk about Leary’s idea of “set and setting” — that the location in which you do the drugs, your emotional state, and what effects you expect all have a significant influence on what you end up experiencing while on psychedelics. This makes replicating psychedelic experiments difficult — how can such a unique combination of factors, including intangible feelings, be recreated to test the validity of results?
Scientists do know that psychedelics decrease activity in a part of the brain called the default mode network, which is responsible for creating mental constructs that form the most basic parts of your reality. These constructs include your ego, as well as the assumptions your brain makes about the way things ought to look. When psychedelics suppress this network, the loss of these constructs results in a distorted sense of perception, sometimes in the form of hallucinations. Users sometimes also lose their sense of individuality, something termed “ego death.” The DMN also inhibits parts of the brain involved in emotion and memory, which is why using psychedelics can trigger intense emotions.
Michael K. Pollan, a professor in the Harvard English Department and author of the 2018 book “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence,” draws on an analogy with snow to explain psychedelics’ effect on the DMN. Pollan’s book quotes Mendel Kaelen, a Dutch researcher, who explains that the DMN forges pathways akin to those we create while sledding down a hill. Over time, as more sledders go down the hill, ruts form, drawing sledders in like gravity. They make getting down the hill easier and quicker, but restrict motion in other directions. Suppressing DMN activity by taking psychedelics is like taking the first tracks through unforged snow, allowing individuals to buck habitual patterns of thought and create new pathways.
Doblin focuses on psychedelics’ effect on psychotherapy, which can make it more effective. “Really you're doing psychotherapy, and the psychedelic helps within that,” he says.
Still, more studies need to be done to fully understand these substances — a process hindered by the classification of psychedelics as Schedule I drugs, since researchers need to go through extensive vetting by the DEA. Since 1966, the National Institutes of Health has only funded psychedelic research in very limited capacities, making organizations like MAPS, which solicits donations for research, even more important. Rosenbaum is optimistic that the NIH may begin funding more studies, since it funded one study in 2021, the first time since 2006. For now, though, Rosenbaum’s center is partially reliant on philanthropy for funding. “You have so much more flexibility with philanthropy than you do with granting, so it’s important to the launch effort to have a substantial philanthropic base,” Rosenbaum says.
The center at MGH is still in the early stages of launching and has not yet conducted any human trials, but has already received positive attention. “The fact that we’re in the game, have lots going on, or a fair amount going on, adds some scientific credibility to the area, at least for those who aren’t already in the bubble,” says Rosenbaum. “It has, in some ways, already been our biggest contribution.”
‘The Golden Age of Psychedelics’
It’s 7 p.m. on a Thursday, and volunteers affiliated with Bay Staters for Natural Medicine, a grassroots movement to decriminalize psychedelics in Massachusetts, trickle into a Google Meet room.
Some are frequent attendees and greet each other; others are new. The group’s co-founder, James P. Davis, welcomes them as they join the weekly call. One by one, people share their experiences with psychedelics.
A young man, who is new to the group and joined under his band name “Pretty Rotten,” opens up about the ADHD, anxiety, and depression he experienced as a child, and how psychedelics helped him when he tried them in college. A young woman recounts her experience doing mushrooms for the first time during Coachella; she thinks they “are the future.” An older woman talks about her experiences as a therapist amid a current mental health crisis. “Massachusetts talks a lot of talk, does not walk the walk,” she says.
After a brief group discussion, the next part of the meeting begins. The room quiets and people follow a sheet that instructs them to call and email politicians right then and there, advancing the Bay Staters’ mission to “end the war on drugs and expand affordable, equitable access to natural entheogenic plants and fungi like magic mushrooms in the State of Massachusetts.”
Though they’ve only existed since early 2021, the Bay Staters’ efforts have been successful so far. The Bay Staters, as a part of the Massachusetts Coalition for Decriminalization, helped draft legislation in Cambridge, Somerville, Northampton, and Easthampton decriminalizing entheogens, psychedelics that occur naturally in plants. They expect several more cities to decriminalize in the coming months.
Under the Cambridge legislation, passed in February 2021, policing psychedelics use is now “amongst the lowest law enforcement priority,” and no criminal penalties will be imposed for possession. The movement towards decriminalization is also happening in a few other places in the country; Oregon recently legalized the supervised use of psilocybin.
The Bay Staters still have more work to do. That Thursday’s action item was to make calls to Massachusetts politicians, advocating for drug policies that don’t impose any penalties for drug possession. Davis explains that even small fines continue to stigmatize psychedelics use and are a major cost for the economically disadvantaged, who are most likely to get arrested for drug possession. “At the end of the day, I don’t want us to have to compromise on state legislation that is done in a cruddy way or an inaccessible way, because the stakes are too high,” Davis says.
Larger scale legalization can only be done at the state and federal levels. Currently, the federal punishment for psychedelic drug possession is a minimum $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail.
Mason M. Marks, Assistant Professor at University of New Hampshire School of Law, doubts that even rescheduling, which can only be done by Congress or the Attorney General, will happen any time soon, pointing to the difficulties cannabis organizers have faced trying to reschedule marijuana. “I think psychedelics law at the federal level is going to be pretty stagnant,” Marks says.
The lack of scholarship on this issue inspired Marks to form the Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation at Harvard Law School's Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics — the first academic initiative to study psychedelics law and policy. The center does research and hosts events on the legal, ethical, and social aspects of psychedelics, with the goal of “promoting safety, innovation, and equity in psychedelics research, commerce, and therapeutics.”
Among other topics, the center examines the federal government’s classification of psychedelics as Schedule I substances, which persists despite evidence that psychedelics are not that dangerous.
At the local level, however, decriminalization is more feasible, Marks explains, citing evidence about psychedelics’ efficacy as a potential solution to rises in opioid overdoses and mental health crises. “These cities and states are watching their people die,” Marks says. “And meanwhile, they know that FDA-approved psychedelics are two or three years off in the future, and they’re like, ‘We need to do something now to protect people.’”
For some advocacy groups, framing the discussion around psychedelics as a medical priority is part of a conscious effort to distance the substances from their hippie, countercultural connotations. Doblin calls LSD the “big boogeyman of psychedelics” because it is so tightly tied to that history. “We purposely wanted to avoid the backlash to the systems that we saw to psychedelics because it was identified with counterculture, with the Vietnam War projects, with Timothy Leary saying ‘question authority, think for yourself,’” he says. By following the medicalization path, Dobin hopes psychedelics might follow in the footsteps of marijuana, using medical approval to gain more widespread acceptance.
If private investment is any indication, the medicalization strategy is working. Millions of dollars are flowing into psychedelics start ups, with the psychedelics market estimated to be worth over $10 billionby 2027. One of these, Emotional Intelligence Ventures, has raised over $20 million so far, advertising Psilly, a psilocybin derived medicine. “The Golden Age of Psychedelics” is blazoned across the homepage of its investor website, which also features a historical timeline of psychedelics use and statistics emphasizing the severity of the mental health crisis.
Doblin predicts a brisk timeline for approvals — MDMA, a psychoactive drug that has been effective at combating PTSD in clinical trials, is expected to be FDA-approved by 2023. Doblin predicts that psilocybin as a treatment for depression will follow a few years later.
But exactly what psychedelics use will look like in the future is still uncertain. While early-stage startups try to cash in on an anticipated booming market, others worry that attempts to profit from these substances will reduce accessibility. “The more medicalized you make this, the more expensive you make it,” Davis says, citing concerns over the cost of the drugs and of potentially having to hire a trained facilitator.
Davis has an even more fundamental objection to the medicalization of psychedelic drugs: he believes psychedelics can have tremendous impacts outside of the doctor’s office, and that drawing a line between medical use and recreational use is unhelpful.
“We’re all going to experience rejection and failure and setbacks in our lives, and there's no DSM manual that can classify all of these spiritual challenges we encounter in life,” Davis says, referring to the diagnostic manual used by the American Psychiatric Association to classify mental disorders. “We don’t believe that there should be a strong distinction between quote, unquote ‘recreational’ and ‘medicinal’ use because that’s not really what the medicines are about.”
Out of the Underground
It’s a chilly night in November, and people enter Adams House’s Claverly Hall, enticed by the sounds of live music and the promise of psychedelics-inspired art. They mill about, examining a variety of canvas paintings, posters, and digital art, and eventually have the opportunity to bid on their favorites during an informal auction.
The event is hosted by a new undergraduate organization that has made a splash on campus: the Harvard Psychedelics Club, led by co-presidents Yana Y. Lazarova-Weng ’23 and Max G. Ingersoll ’24. The arts show, one of the club’s first events, was emblematic of the club’s mission: to “create a space where people who have different degrees of interest in psychedelics can come and talk with each other,” according to Lazarova-Weng.
Both Lazarova-Weng and Ingersoll share an interest in psychedelics. For Lazarova-Weng, a school project on Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who synthesized LSD, caused her to reconsider her assumptions about the substances. She later read “Be Here Now,” Ram Dass’s book on spirituality, which deepened her spiritual interest in the drugs. Now, she wants to work at a psychedelics startup or company after graduating.
For Ingersoll, his interest came out of a meditation retreat he took during a gap year. He met Lazarova-Weng in a freshman seminar on mindfulness and Buddhism and the two connected.
Now, Lazarova-Weng and Ingersoll are attempting to spread their passion to other undergraduates. This year, in addition to their art show, the club has hosted speaker events, movie nights, and a formal, all aimed at fostering discussion around psychedelics.
Their vision for the club is a small but significant departure from that of the club’s previous leadership. When it was founded in 2019, the club was called the Harvard Science of Psychedelics Club, and it focused mostly on the scientific research being done. When Ingersoll and Lazarova-Weng took over the club this year, they decided to rebrand it as just the “Harvard Psychedelics Club.” “We wanted to cater to students of many different interests and disciplines and draw in people who aren't just interested about the science of psychedelics, but also about the history of them, the roles that they played in different cultures and religions and art as well,” Lazarova-Weng says.
Though they’ve rebranded to be more inclusive, Lazarova-Weng and Ingersoll have been very careful to portray their club as professional, and above all, sober. The art on their Instagram page is mostly black and white, minimalist, and features lots of straight lines, a departure from the wavy, colorful art usually associated with psychedelics — and ’60s counterculture. Lazarova-Weng says she is very careful about how she explains what the club is when booking spaces and applying for Undergraduate Council funding. Ingersoll says that this caution comes, in part, from trying to learn from Leary and Alpert’s mistakes. “Part of our policy of why we’re so adamant about no usage at our club, at any of our events, is because people can get really distracted and lose focus of what we’re trying to do,” he says. The club’s goal is to provide a space for unbiased, balanced discussion about psychedelic drugs, he says, not to encourage drug use.
Last semester the club had trouble finding an advisor, which Lazarova-Weng thinks is due to the stigma that still surrounds psychedelics. “One of them told us that because they do research at Harvard they can’t really be associated with psychedelics, because that might lead to misconceptions about their research,” she says.
Eventually John Wakeley, professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, agreed to be their advisor, though he was also concerned about the sensitive nature of the topic. “It was one of the first things I brought up with Lazarova-Weng and Ingersoll, but they convinced me I need not worry,” Wakeley wrote in an email. “They impressed me as being very responsible and committed to avoiding any wrong impressions of what the club is about.”
Though Harvard’s Psychedelics Club has stepped into the public eye with its art show, Lazarova-Weng feels that the controversial nature of psychedelics means some people don’t take them seriously. “I think with a club like this, there’s always an aspect of it that’s going to feel underground,” she says. However, thinking back on the art show, she feels that change is coming. “It’s slowly starting to feel a bit more mainstream,” she says.
Ige, the veteran and current freshman, is not affiliated with the Harvard Psychedelics Club, but he is also enthusiastic about introducing new people to the power of psychedelics — though by more underground means. Last semester, Ige helped organize a DMT ceremony off-campus. The group gathered in a house, where each person went one by one into a room to take DMT, a strong hallucinogen whose effects usually last 15-20 minutes, with the help of a practitioner. For Ige, it was meaningful to see the effect the psychedelics had on others. “After each one of them came out of it, you could see immediate differences,” he says.
He is also happy to be playing a role in spreading the healing benefits of psychedelics. “Through psychedelics I’ve regained control of my life,” Ige says. “I feel like I’m a better person, and I would like to bring that out to the greater world and give validity to psychedelics.”
Ige is just one among an emerging movement of psychedelic advocates, enthusiasts, and researchers at Harvard working to shed these substances’ historical baggage and re-envision their future. They’ve changed their minds — and they're asking us to follow suit.
Corrections: February 20, 2022
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the group Bay Staters for Natural Medicine was founded in early 2020. In fact, the group began in early 2021.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated an attendee at a virtual meeting held by Bay Staters for Natural Medicine who joined the call under his band name, “Pretty Rotten,” started using psychedelics in high school. In fact, he began using the drugs in college.
— Magazine writer Io Y. Gilman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Magazine writer Kendall I. Shields can be reached at email@example.com