Pioneer of Psychedelics


Roland Griffiths, an internationally revered researcher of psychedelic and mood-altering drugs, whose research helped kick-start a new era of psychedelic study and led to the creation of the nation’s first psychedelic research center at Johns Hopkins, died on Oct. 16, 2023, from colon cancer. He was 77.

Griffiths’ work generated immense scientific and philanthropic interest, including $17 million in gifts that led to the creation of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research in 2019, where he served as the founding director. An endowed professorship he championed shortly before his death became the largest ever at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, at $24 million.

Groundbreaking studies published by Griffiths and his colleagues found that psilocybin — the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms — produced experiences that resulted in substantial and sustained personal meaning, could help treat depression, and had therapeutic effects in people who suffer from substance use disorder (smoking, alcohol and misuse of other drugs) and existential distress caused by life-threatening disease. He also worked to characterize the risks associated with psychedelics.

Jimmy Potash, director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, says Griffiths’ earlier pioneering work in psychopharmacology and his reputation as a superb researcher made him the ideal person to take on the controversial study of psychedelic drugs. “He was about 50 years old when he plunged into this area, and he had already established himself as a careful, methodical, meticulous investigator, the kind of researcher whose work was unimpeachable,” Potash says. “This is what the field needed, as skeptics would be unlikely to trust the work of anyone less rigorous and objective.”

Griffiths earned this reputation through his seminal research into the psychoactive and dependence-potential properties of caffeine. He also studied nicotine, sedatives and alcohol self-administration.