TCF Presents | Jon Kostakopoulos
Clubhouse Speaker Series
Jon was the first study participant for NYU’s clinical trial studying the affects of psilocybin on alcoholism. Prior to enrolling, Jon tried every treatment available, but sadly to no avail. Remarkably, since his first session, Jon has completely lost any urge to return to his drinking habits of old and has remained abstinent since 2015. Jon has since formed a nonprofit, Apollo Pact, to fund psilocybin research and advocate for this treatment full-time. Anderson Cooper interviewed Jon on “60 Minutes”, which garnered national media attention and has been instrumental in breaking down the stigma surrounding psychedelic medicine.
How did you come to find out about the psilocybin trials at NYU?
I found out about the trial through luck. My mom’s new doctor had stumbled upon an article in a medical journal saying that they were getting ready to do this clinical trial at NYU. I tracked down Dr. Steven Ross who would run the trial, and saw him for private practice and asked him about the trials. About a half year later they started screening patients and I was lucky enough to get in, and even luckier that the treatment worked for me the very first time.
There were three total sessions, half the study participants received a placebo, the other half received the psilocybin; the results hopefully will be published in a few months. I did three sessions total and the study itself is about a year long for each individual patient. The first two psilocybin sessions were a double blind, but if you got a placebo the first time you’re going to get a placebo the second time. I’m entirely convinced I received the psilocybin both times and then the third and final time is psilocybin for everyone, because they wanted everyone to get a chance to experience this treatment.
Did you get to meet any of the other patients who were part of the trial?
I’ve met a few of them and it worked for them too. Some of them, they just decrease their drinking.
Do you think that you think your results were a reflection of the dose that you were given? Or the therapy? In the 60 Minutes interview, you talk about how you haven’t had a desire to have an interaction with alcohol again. What do you think created that sobriety for you?
So great question, I had tried everything. And what I learned is a lot of this treatment that we have for mental health care, inpatient, outpatient rehab, or antidepressants are just covering up and alleviating the symptoms, and numbing us. Whereas the psilocybin, you really confront whatever is going on; what’s the root of my drinking? The doctors and I couldn’t place a reason for my drinking, we just thought it was because I started drinking at a young age. There’s no known alcoholism in my family. I had a great childhood, no traumatic experiences growing up that I needed to self medicate for. It was just I loved to drink, I drank a lot, and I continued to drink, and alcoholism is a progressive disease. So I kept drinking more and more, until my body couldn’t handle it anymore. I tell people psilocybin is like one of those self vacuum cleaners where you just put it in the living room and it’ll vacuum all the corners. And that’s basically what this treatment did for me is I took the pill and then the psilocybin did the work for me, which was fascinating.
What were your expectations, what were you thinking as you went into this?
At first I was pretty scared, I’d never experimented with psychedelics just out of pure fear. The doctors at NYU assured me this is a safe treatment to do when properly done. They make sure all the study participants are mentally fit and physically fit to go through this which reassured me a little bit. Plus, going into it, this was my last hope; so I had nothing to lose. I said, “I hope this works, and if it does, I’m going to do everything I can to help the doctors out to get this FDA approved.”
That brings us to your current work with the Apollo Pact. Could you touch on that for our viewers that might not be familiar?
So after the trials I would give closed door speeches to help raise money for this research. And then the 60 minutes episode.. Which I did not want to do; just thinking about trying to get another job and interviewing. Someone Google searches me and says, “You’re a raging alcoholic, and you’ve taken psychedelics.” I would also say though that the stigma around psychedelics was more concerning than the stigma around alcoholism
Regarding the Apollo Pact; we saw that there was a need.
The goal was to get people treatment as fast as we could. And the way we looked at it was through FDA approval. You see states like Oregon, California etc.. which is one route it will go as well, but FDA approval is really what’s going to get the majority of people who need this treatment access to it. Currently we’re raising money to fund different universities, and discussing partnerships with various universities across the states. The other prong is the education part — this is safe to do when properly done, we’re not advocating for people to do this unattended and, or a doctor to write a prescription.
The doctors reassured me that this is not addictive, and has a very low potential for abuse. So after I finished my psilocybin sessions, I had no cravings. I wasn’t chasing “magic mushrooms” on the black market. I’m happy I did it, and I don’t need to do it again.
And was it literally the next day, you just thought, “I don’t want to drink again”?
Yeah, so after the first session, it was almost like shell shock, because I had never experienced anything like that. I was still trying to piece together this puzzle of what just happened. So I went back the next day to talk to the doctors and I told them, “If I walked out the store and ended this clinical trial early and never saw you guys again, I really would not be surprised if I didn’t drink again”. And I had stopped drinking 10 days after that, when that had happened. Putting that into perspective, the longest I went without drinking for a period of time was maybe a month or two.
That’s why this is so fascinating and has the potential of something bigger than just treating addiction; it totally changed my perspective on it. Before the trials I was doing AA a lot, and when you first go in there, you count days. It’s almost like you’re in solitary confinement, counting days like marking it on the wall. It was tough work, when I wasn’t drinking, I was still thinking about it. And with this psilocybin therapy, it’s just not even on my radar anymore, which is amazing.
What does a psychedelic future look like for you if you had to paint the picture? A few years from now, where would you like to see this sector be?
In a perfect world, it would be FDA approved and accessible to everyone covered by insurance. This would be good for the insurance companies too because of its cost effectiveness. Compared to the $30 to $100,000 rehab per month.
Additional questions from Clubhouse listeners:
Do you still feel a need to go to AA meetings, or have the structure you were using before you got into a psychedelic treatment?
I relate doing this treatment to an antibiotic, where I was sick with alcoholism, I went in, I did the psilocybin a few times, and I’m done. So the last time I did psilocybin was five years ago and I haven’t done anything since. I haven’t substituted alcohol for another drug or any other vice, I don’t go to check ins or follow up appointments or any meetings. That’s how easy this treatment was, I haven’t even thought of drinking or going back to the doctors for more therapy or anything.
What percentage if at all, would you say the transformation came from the therapy and the medicine. For example, if you had taken psychedelics on your own, do you think that you would have had that same powerful experience?
That’s a very hard question and I think about that a lot. Personally I think it has to do with the intention; I went in with the approach of this being a medical treatment. At the same time I’ve heard stories of people taking this in a recreational setting and they had a realization where they never wanted to drink again, so that’s possible too. I would have to give all the credit to the doctors at NYU, I was very lucky to have that team of doctors. Also of course the level of psilocybin I was given has a lot to do with it as well. Of course I’m also not advocating going out and getting mushrooms, but I would have to give all the credit to the doctors.
From my experience these psychedelics serve as a catalyst to allow people to learn and start to heal themselves. For you personally, was there anything that came up during your sessions that you had to work through or was it truly like a light switch that flipped?
So when I say that this treatment was easy, I’m comparing it to 90 AA meetings, or a 30 day rehab. It’s not a magic pill that the doctors give you and you’re fixed, you still have to put in the work. After my first session there were still lingering cravings but nothing enough to act on and that might not be the case for everyone.