Former President and Co-Founder of the Heffter Research Insitute
We sat down with Dr. George Greer, former President and Co-Founder of the Heffter Research Institute. Founded in 1993, the Institute is a non-profit dedicated to advancing research on psychedelic medicine for addiction and other mental disorders. You can check them out here
How and why did you get involved in the psychedelics industry?
I was a psychiatrist and I was aware of all the research that was done with LSD in the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, and how dramatically impressive that was for things like addiction, people with terminal illness facing death, and how helpful it was, and how it all got shut down for social and political reasons in the mid-70s. Dane Nichols, our founder, did research for decades on LSD analogues and asked me to join about 27 years ago because I had been involved with MDMA for about 5 years in the early 1980s, I had been prescribing that, legally.
What are you currently working on and what do you hope to achieve?
The biggest topic of our current projects is addiction. LSD was helpful for addiction with opioids and alcohol so we’re going down that road with psilocybin because it’s fast acting and easier to manage. We funded two pilot studies, alcohol and smoking addiction, and now they’re in placebo control studies at Hopkins and NYU. We helped fund a cocaine addiction study at University of Alabama at Birmingham and are supporting two studies at University of Wisconsin for opioid addiction and one in review in Canada. Addiction is our main focus now, but also we have studies about obsessive compulsive disorder and depression at Yale, a bulimia study and an Alzheimers study at Johns Hopkins, and a depression study in Zurich. I think in the future addiction is really going to be the main way that psilocybin at least helps public health, because addiction is such a difficult to treat problem and the studies so far have shown dramatic benefit, far greater than the treatments available right now.
What’s lacking in the public discourse surrounding psychedelics?
I don’t read every article in the public discourse, but one of the main concerns I see that could use more attention is the need for clinics and therapists to deliver the treatments with MDMA and psilocybin once they are approved. Both require special training and the therapists generally will need to spend some of their own time volunteering and paying for it. Word needs to be spread to therapists that this is a dramatic benefit and will be available in the next three years or so and they’ll need to be trained. There’s also a need for businesses to start clinics, to fund clinics, to help organize clinics. People who know that business of healthcare, that expertise is going to be needed for this new paradigm of treatment. With FDA restrictions, a lot of red tape, it’s very labor intensive, a lot of hours. I don’t see that emphasized much in the stories I read, but it’s like a big wave that’s coming.
What clinical applications of psychedelics haven’t been heavily researched that you think may be promising?
Well, the sky’s the limit here, really. There are hundreds of research questions that are interesting to academic people and healthcare providers. But research is very expensive — ten to twenty thousand dollars per participant. The federal government provided no direct funding for research so it’s all down to private donors. So the funding is very limited in that way. So we’ve focused on the high profile things, like we’ve focused on addiction to show that it works. Micro-dosing comes up as something that is interesting to research. There have been a lot of practical problems with it as an accepted treatment because of the possibility that people could just save up their dosage and take it all at once or sell it. Unlike the treatment that’s done with higher doses, the patient never receives a dose to take home, it’s all done at the clinic. But that’s an interesting field. In Zurich, they do a lot of research in linking brain effects of psychedelics to subjective effects of consciousness. And the question of consciousness really gets down to what is a human being. How is a human being different from an animal or an object? It’s a great mystery. How do we tell our hands to close and they seem to move like that. That’s a very important field and I think more can be done in that area. Another interesting question is how much therapy is needed in addition to the drug session in order to have a good outcome. The smoking research has done this, they did three sessions in their pilot and now they’re just doing one session and that’s looking good. Do psychedelics work when given with antidepressants? Because some don’t. With SSRIs there is a decrease.
What over the past year have you accomplished that you are most proud of/shows the most promise regarding the future of the psychedelic industry?
The main thing I’ve done with research is at the end of last year — the Battery Powered Foundation out in San Francisco gave us a grant for opioid research with psychedelics. So we spent the year reviewing and getting approved for three studies. One is going to be the first LSD study in about 50 years. And that one will be for people with chronic back pain who overuse opioids, which is a real problem and people can overdose and die from it. That’s at Hopkins. At Wisconsin there’s a study for opioid addicts and in Canada it will be for people addicted to opioids and other drugs, like alcohol and cocaine. That’s the main research accomplishment. Other than that, it’s just that all these studies go on for years. The current alcohol study is like a five or six year study, there’s not a lot of events that we can purport because research takes a long time.
What is one thing you wish everyone knew about the work you’re doing?
Well, I wish everyone knew that Heffter has funded all this work. Traditionally the media interviews the researchers and the research institutions to get publicity and they mention Heffter. But it is far less common that Heffter as the funder and the person that vets and does the scientific reviews is interviewed. And I understand that it’s just the nature of that, but it would be helpful to be more acknowledged that we have been doing this 27 years and are pretty much the exclusive psilocybin research funder. I wish that people at the NIH and Congress would appreciate the importance of psychedelics and start funding this research. We are kind of like a “micro-NIH,” funding several billion dollars in 27 years, but that’s nothing compared to what the NIH can do. So I’m hoping that as people see improvements in the research subjects and when they get released, the nation will start to heal because I think they have tremendous application for public health, for everybody, and I’d like to see more of that.
What is something small that people outside of psychedelic medicine can do to help out with awareness and learn more themselves?
Well, a simple thing they can do is go to our website, click donate, and give us money. So that’s easy to do. But also, a lot of it is education. The thing that comes to mind is reading Michael Pollan’s book, “How to Change Your Mind.” It is so well written and such a good description of what is going on in the field in a way that is accessible. Also telling your friends, telling anyone that you know that is in an influential position in health, research, or society, about this.