Smokers struggle their entire lives with quitting, but some researchers at Johns Hopkins believe there's a much easier way to do it. The new study involves a combination of talk therapy and the use of psilocybin, a chemical found in magic mushrooms.
Kathy Conneally, one of the study’s participants, first heard about it from a friend who saw a posting on a bulletin board advertising a new way to help people quit smoking.
“He told me about it as a joke, ‘Oh, you can take mushrooms and quit smoking,’ and so I called Albert and found out you really could,” Conneally said.
Conneally has a long history of smoking. She started when she was 12, quit before she had her first child at 25, but then picked it up again.
“I held it together for 13 years and I thought I was over the hump,” Conneally said.
But when she turned 40 she started back up. She tried quitting using the gum, the patch, and going cold turkey, but none of them worked, so she decided to participate in the study at Johns Hopkins.
“I had quit smoking in 2013 and I know I'll never smoke again. I can hang out with people who smoke and I don't have any kind of feeling like ‘oh, I want that,’” said Conneally.
And all it took was three sessions. Each time she would go in, take a pill, put on an eye mask, and essentially get high.
“It's more feelings. I didn't see a lot of things, I mean there was like a vine and a flower and that kind of image I remember, but mostly it was feelings and thoughts,” she said.
The pill she was taking contained psilocybin.
“Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychedelic compound that's found in over a hundred different kinds of mushrooms that grow all over the world,” said Albert Garcia-Romeu, a research associate with the Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Garcia said the drug helps the user view their life from a different perspective.
“I just had this feeling like why would you smoke? This tiny little cigarette is so insignificant compared to everything that matters in the world and it didn't even seem to make sense. It was kind of funny that I would even use it, it just seemed absurd,” Conneally said.
Conneally was part of their first study that included 15 people.
“At the six month follow-up, we had a success rate of 80 percent or 12 of 15 people were abstinent,” said Matthew Johnson, an associate professor of psychiatry with the Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
That’s a success rate that smokes other cessation methods.
“So even with for example the best medications, varenicline, Chantix, the FDA approved method for smoking cessation with the highest general success rate, that is in the range of 30-35 percent,” Johnson said.
While the results appear to be more promising than what is on the market today, psilocyclin is illegal. It’s a schedule I drug, the highest rank by the Drug Enforcement Agency. Research using the drug dropped off in the 1960s and 70s when the Nixon Administration outlawed it.
“I mean if it's schedule I it's usually considered to have no medical value and to have a high abuse potential,” Garcia-Romeu.
However, Kathy said she didn't experience any cravings.
“Oh no, no. It's so exhausting, it's like a whole emotional upheaval. You cannot crave it, it's like thank god [it’s over], it's just a thing you do and you work through it and you're done and that's it,” Conneally said.
And she said the effects have gone beyond just helping her to quit smoking, it's also improved her outlook on life.
“Life just in general got better, happier, looser, it was just really a mind-adjustment to a better time,” said Conneally.
“People with psychedelics will say it's like they've gone through years of therapy,” Johnson said.
It could be ten or more years before this kind of treatment is widely available through medical professionals, and before that ever happens, they would need the federal government's seal of approval.
Researchers are also looking at brain imaging to study the neurological effects of the drug and are screening for new program participants at Johns Hopkins.