Psychedelics Scientist Roland Griffiths Faces the End and Finds … Joy

When last we spoke with Roland Griffiths, PhD, in the fall of 2021, psychedelic-assisted therapies were just starting to enter mainstream public consciousness – as WebMD explored with Griffiths’s help in an in-depth series Magic Mushrooms, MDMA, and the Promise of Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy

For Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist and an elder statesman of psychedelic research, it was a very gratifying time in both his professional and personal life. The psychedelic substances he had been studying in the lab for 2 decades were finally being taken seriously as medications that could help people with specific mental health issues like depression, anxiety, addiction, and PTSD. His personal relationships with those closest to him were good, and his primary relationship with his life partner, Marla, was a source of great meaning and sustenance. 

Then, just a few months after our conversation, doctors diagnosed Griffiths with end-stage colon cancer. He had every reason to be resentful and angry, as he’d been careful about his health and followed doctors’ orders regarding screenings.

Griffiths knew of the possibly devastating psychological toll of such a diagnosis through his previous research – the first of its kind – on psychedelic therapies for those with end-stage cancer.

And yet, after the initial shock and denial that often come with such a diagnosis, he found something else: Joy. 

“I’m just overwhelmed with gratitude and joy and love for how I’m experiencing the world despite everything,” says Griffiths. 

The response is as much a surprise and a mystery to him as it is to anyone else. And yet his feeling about his diagnosis has been clear and unalloyed. “What a tragedy it would have been,” he says, “if I had been run over by a bus on the way to that cancer screening.”

“I would have missed so many amazing things.”

The diagnosis has shifted his priorities in profound ways, says Griffiths, bringing him closer to those he loves and making him more open about his own experiences with psychedelics – something he had been careful to avoid previously. 

“There are going to be some people who are going to think that I’ve not been an objective scientist. I don’t think that’s true, because I went into work for psychedelics as a skeptic. … Now I have some personal experience that I can also speak to.” 

Since the diagnosis, Griffiths also established an endowed professorship at Johns Hopkins University to support world-class research on psychedelic substances “to advance understanding of well-being and spirituality in the service of promoting human flourishing for generations to come.”

Here, Griffiths and his wife, Marla Weiner, sit down with Manish Agrawal, MD, an oncologist and psychedelics researcher at Sunstone Therapies, to discuss Griffiths’s diagnosis, his meditation practice, the psychedelic experience, and more. 

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