TOWSON, Maryland—Kathleen Conneally had smoked since she was 12, but one day in the spring of 2013, that changed in an instant. Conneally arrived at a lab in Baltimore that looked more like a cozy living room, with a cream-colored couch and paintings of mountains on the walls. She took a pill from a golden goblet and popped it in her mouth. Under the watch of a pair of trained guides, she began to see wild colors, shapes, and ideas. She began, for lack of a better term, to trip.
Conneally was a participant in an addiction study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, who wanted to determine whether the relentless pull of nicotine could be weakened by another drug: psilocybin—the active compound in magic mushrooms.
Conneally’s trip, the second in a series of three such “sessions,” was probably the best outcome the researchers could have hoped for. She saw herself as purple flower rising high above her earthly problems, which looked small and stupid by comparison. Even more measly and insignificant was an image of herself, huddled and puffing on a cigarette.
“Just breathe, and there’s no smoke, and no chemicals, and no problems,” she recalled herself thinking.
Leaving the lab five hours later, she was sure she would never smoke again. Before, the stresses of her life would stir an overwhelming desire for cigarettes. But now, she said, “I can just cross that off my list. I don’t have to do it.”
She hasn’t had a cigarette in more than three years.
There were 15 people in Conneally’s study, and 12 of them quit smoking—a much higher success rate than the 35 percent or so who quit through other methods. A much larger study is now underway to verify the results.
Matthew Johnson, an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and the lead author of the study, was interested in psilocybin because of the success researchers had in using LSD to treat alcoholics in the 1960s. He liked that psilocybin was shorter-acting than LSD and had less societal stigma. It also has few side effects or addictive properties of its own.
Studies have already shown that hallucinogens might relieve everything from clinical depression to anxiety among cancer patients. Smoking, meanwhile, is relatively easy to study—not as deadly as, say, heroin and readily detectable with a urine test.
According to Johnson, depression and addiction both involve a narrowing of vision—a tunnel that it takes a profound experience to suck someone out of. Psilocybin, he says, can foster something called cross-talk between regions of the brain that don’t normally communicate. Cross-talk, in turn, is associated with novel ways of looking at problems. The hallucinators see the contents of their minds spread out before them, like dusty old knick-knacks brought up from the basement and strewn out in the front yard.
They’re “dealing with stuff they haven’t dealt with in years or decades,” Johnson said. While tripping, “people reflect on their childhood, their parents, their siblings, all their relationships, their love life, their current relationships.” Meanwhile, their minds become a kaleidoscope: “Colors are brighter. The walls might be waving. There might be a halo around things,” he said.
Addiction—to cigarettes, and possibly an array of other substances—consists of much more than physical cravings. It’s social; it’s fun. At best, it’s a ritual, and at worst, a crutch. Psychedelics appear to help people go beyond physical cigarette cravings and examine what’s really making them smoke. “People will recognize this profound self-worth that they’ve dismissed,” he said. “They look at their life and see themselves as a miracle.”
One study participant, for example, saw herself as 1,000 Technicolor Andy Warhol paintings, all puffing on Marlboros, and asked herself, “do I really want to be a smoker?”
Though she began smoking during her troubled childhood, Conneally quit cold-turkey when she was 27. But she picked it up again in 2008, when her life was “pretty much falling apart,” as she describes it.
That year, she turned 40, and the economy crashed. Conneally’s partner, Whitney, was laid off. Finances grew tight and difficult to manage, which felt cruelly ironic to Conneally, a certified public accountant.
Meanwhile, her oldest son was failing out of college and clashing with Conneally, making her doubt her own parenting skills.
In the middle of it all, Whitney began the process of transitioning to live as a man.
Conneally was happy for him—he had been deeply depressed and living a false life. But for Conneally, it meant yet another loss of identity. Long before they became a couple, Conneally and Whitney were just friends, and Conneally dated men. Gradually, Conneally fell in love with Whitney, and she constructed her lesbian identity around their relationship.
And Conneally got really into being a lesbian. She came out to all her friends. She sat on the Maryland Equality Board.
“It was this big, life-affirming thing,” she said. “It was an interesting way to be. I enjoyed it, I embraced it.”
When Whit—as he is now known—transitioned, it meant Conneally was no longer a lesbian. She was no longer “interesting,” in her words. She already felt she was failing at parenting and finance—and now she was failing at being gay?
“Happy 40th birthday,” she thought. She reached, as she always had in pressure-cooker moments, for her cigarettes.
This time, she figured she was never going to quit. She had tried everything from gum to hypnosis. She white-knuckled through a few cold-turkey attempts and scared herself with how it made her scream at the kids.
But when she heard about Johnson’s study, she thought, “why the hell not?” A Grateful Dead-head back in the day, she was no stranger to trippy experiences. At least it would be fun, she figured.
The first session was assuredly not. The music the researchers selected—a cacophony of drumming and nature sounds—was disturbing and annoying, she said.
“I started to panic and have anxiety thinking that I wasn’t doing it right,” she said. She worried the trip wouldn't work, and as a study participant, she wouldn't be allowed to smoke when it was over.
Johnson said some people don’t seem to enjoy their time on the drug. “Many times people say, ‘People do this for fun?! I don’t get that at all.’” The guides tell them to “just go with it.”
Conneally sunk into a depression after the first trip. A few weeks later, she cried on her way to the second session.
But this time, something was different. The music was better; she felt freer. “My spirit soared,” she said. “I had this great vision of rising above and being a goddess.” She saw her worries like ants in the distance: Her abusive father; the air-conditioning unit where she would hide from her family and smoke. The participants in Johnson’s study had weeks of talk therapy before they tripped. Now everything she had talked about with her counselors was coming together.
“I just am,” she thought, “and I just need to let go of this stuff that’s unnecessary.”
A sense of mysticism seems central to the trip treatment. Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, had used LSD and believed it might be a way for “cynical alcoholics” to find the elusive “higher power” that’s key to his 12-step program. Eleven of Johnson’s 12 study subjects rated the psilocybin trip among the five most spiritually significant experiences in their lives. Some considered it a crash-course in mindfulness, or years of therapy crammed into a single day.
Still, mushrooms are not quite poised to become the new Nicorette. They’re still a Schedule I substance, in the same category as heroin, and considered by the American government to have no therapeutic use. There’s no link between psychedelics and mental-health problems, but some people experience adverse effects from the drug, such as psychosis.
Johnson cautions that his study doesn’t mean people should take mushrooms on their own to cure various ailments, or at all. His intervention was tightly controlled and guided. Mushrooms and other hallucinogens carry the risk of “behavioral toxicity”—the scientific term for trying dangerous feats while high.
Besides, he says, people don’t necessarily need to take hallucinogens to break free of their destructive brain patterns. It can happen with any mystical life experience—the kind that changes everything that comes afterward. Living in a foreign country, giving birth to a child, and even falling in love can all approach the brain-rearranging power of psychedelics, at least for some people.
Of course, the most extreme mystical experiences might be harder to come by than illegal drugs.
“Astronauts in space for the first time describe this mystical experience we’re talking about,” Johnson said. “So if you can catch a flight …”
Jeremy Raff contributed reporting to this article.