Tripping to Kick Addiction, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Earlier I noted some research and first-hand experiences on how the use of psychedelics are often successful in getting people off hard drugs like heroin and cocaine. But nicotine too? The first I’ve heard of it. As Daniel Miller wrote in Newsweek just a few weeks ago:

I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for almost a decade. I had tried to quit, but nothing worked. The patch gave me a rash. Nicorette gave me incessant hiccups. And neither reduced my craving for cigarettes. Chantix, which my doctor prescribed, worked—at least until I went to hospital with a severe allergic reaction. Ultimately, the only thing that helped me quit for good was an illegal drug that I had been taught to fear as much as heroin. This drug was LSD.

And what’s truly remarkable is that my experience wasn’t a fluke. I’m not the exception. In a recent pilot study at Johns Hopkins, 80 percent of the participants were nicotine free six months after two or three psilocybin sessions.

As a BBC report on the study explains, the nicotine addicts were given cognitive behavioral therapy leading up to the day they get the psilocybin, “encouraging subjects to reflect on their established thinking patterns” before blasting them off on the mushroom trip:

A vital part of the Hopkins programme’s CBT approach is the writing and reciting of a personal mantra; a simple phrase that each volunteer creates that encapsulates why they want to quit. “This is really our mission statement. If you had one sentence that you could remind yourself down the road why you quit. We’ve had some people for whom it’s about family: ‘I want to be there for my granddaughter.’ For other people, it's more philosophical, ‘The air that I breathe. I want it to be free.’”

I love this parallel with a near death experience:

“[Research shows there’s a] 71% success rate for people who quit smoking just after they had a heart attack,” he explains. A heart attack would certainly qualify as a profound experience, but it’s not something you can go around triggering in people in order to stop them from smoking. Instead the aim is to use a powerful psychedelic trip to trigger a similar effect… an intense, abstract experience that changes the patient’s perspective. It’s this that the team refer to as a ‘mystical experience’.”