The future is bright for a scientist working with microdosing psychedelics. THEO PANAYIDES meets a man into 60s counter culture who is an activist for drugs being the tool for a new approach to mental health
Joseph Rootman moves well on stage. This is not necessarily an asset for a clinical psychologist – but it comes in handy when you’re giving a TEDx talk, as he will be on the day after our interview. The title of his talk is ‘Microdosing psychedelics: small is big’, and we’ll get to that in a moment – but first there’s the question of how to refer to him. He goes by ‘Joey’ in conversation, which is also his byline on a blog called Concert Addicts featuring his music-festival photography (all pre-Covid, alas) – but ‘Joseph’ seems a more respectful handle for someone who may, after all, be advocating for a whole new approach to mental health. Or just illegal drug use, depending on how you look at it.
We sit at the Parklane Resort, the venue for this year’s TEDx Limassol. The theme unifying the various talks is ‘Living on the Edge’, and he’s actually part of a session called ‘Take the Step’ – all of which is appropriate, since his work is indeed cutting-edge and a step must be taken (a taboo breached, you might say) in order to engage with it. “We’re just at the tip of the iceberg here,” he admits. “I think the real bottom line of where we’re at right now is, there’s a lot to learn. And a really long way to go.”
He’s 29, bearded and occasionally wild-haired; he talks in a rush, the words flooding out, adding caveats and circumlocutions. “It’s very important to make clear that, as a training psychologist and not a psychiatrist” – i.e. not a medical doctor – “I would never recommend any of this to anyone,” he cautions at one point. “But I’ll give them the information, and they can make their own decisions.”
What is this explosive knowledge that he doesn’t dare recommend? Joseph Rootman is actually a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia in Canada, working at the Therapeutic, Recreational, and Problematic Substance use lab “with a research focus on the therapeutic potential of cannabis and psychedelics such as psilocybin, LSD and ketamine”. He’s been studying the effect of illicit drugs on issues like anxiety and depression, and… well, an article in the Vancouver Sun tells the story. “Small doses of psychedelic mushrooms are found to be associated with better mood and mental health, according to a University of BC study,” says the article, from July of this year.
“In what is believed to be the largest longitudinal study of its kind, researchers at UBC, Okanagan followed 953 people who used small, repeated doses of psilocybin – colloquially known as magic mushrooms – after about 30 days and found ‘small- to medium-sized’ improvements in their mood and mental health compared with their non-microdosing counterparts, said the study, which was published in science journal Nature last month.”
None of this is entirely new. Larger doses of psychedelics have already been shown to help with conditions like PTSD – though microdosing is admittedly a new wrinkle. Joseph’s TED talk actually cites an even more extensive study on which he’s a lead researcher, with thousands of participants (some 12,000 microdosers, with around the same number as a control group) and equally impressive results. He moves well on stage, as already mentioned, carrying himself with a certain studied elegance as he gives the talk, and his presentation is accompanied by slides like a New York Times clipping headlined ‘How LSD Saved One Woman’s Marriage’ – but let’s not fool ourselves, what he’s proposing is hugely unorthodox.
Psychedelics are outlawed in almost every country in the world, including Cyprus (where magic mushrooms are apparently on the same schedule as heroin) – and microdosing may be even more controversial, since it amounts to normalising their use. On the one hand, there’s no ‘trip’ involved since you’re only taking a very small dose, about one-tenth of a normal dose (it’s like eating “a small sliver of dried mushroom,” he says in his talk), on the other the idea is that a microdoser will do this on a daily or near-daily basis, then go about their normal day feeling sharper and more ‘mindful’. Quite a stretch from the usual doom-laden view of drugs as perhaps the greatest of all social ills.
Why does Joseph not share the usual hang-ups about substance use (and abuse)? Partly, the answer is politics. Those usual hang-ups, he says with feeling, emanate from the decades-old war on drugs – he’s talking of North America, but the official animus against drugs is everywhere – which was launched “as a way to essentially criminalise racial minorities within the US” and has since been “debunked” as useless and counter-productive. There’s a lot of the left-wing activist in him, standing up for the poor and oppressed. He’s been studying cannabis for about a decade now, from his time as “a little tiny undergraduate researcher”, seeing the drug go from being totally prohibited to becoming quite mainstream (it’s now recreationally legal in Canada) – and a large part of his passion has always stemmed from “giving a voice to some of the people that research hasn’t always shone a spotlight on”, meaning presumably the marginalised cannabis users he encountered in those early days.
It’s no accident that he’s giving TED talks instead of (or as well as) calculating p-values in some dusty lab. Advocacy – and perhaps a flair for drama – is part of his makeup. His interest, he says, lies “particularly around drugs that have been historically prohibited and stigmatised, things like cannabis and now psychedelics. Both of which have these really potent effects on people’s lives, who have taken them for medicinal purposes – and, for the longest time, have been restricted in their ability to take them, by the government and just by public perception. So yeah, these are the groups I’ve been working with, and that’s kind of a personal driver for me.”
We don’t talk much about his life – the work is all, though he does have a girlfriend and strives for a certain work-life balance – but something of his personality comes through: a romantic-idealist side (very close to the activist side), and a subtle streak of creative anarchy. He recalls himself as “a little hippy kid” in Toronto, “I used to watch the Woodstock tape, and my big brother went to India for a bit, to learn how to play the tabla. Had Sgt. Pepper’s on record, all these types of things”. I assume his parents must’ve been 60s hippies, but in fact Joseph’s dad was a doctor, born to Holocaust survivors who emigrated to Canada after the war. His son’s attraction to the whole 60s counter-culture – and of course “cannabis and psychedelics are a big part of that” – seems to have been a combination of the brother’s influence (Joseph is the youngest of four) and the boy’s own romantic affinity with a time of freedom and experimentation.
He’s not naturally fearful, as a person. That’s important, given how much the taboo against drugs is based around fear. I ask if he’d describe himself as a thrill-seeker, and he concedes it’s a fair description (though it doesn’t define who he is). The craving for adrenaline is sated partly through a love of snowboarding – and of course there was also the photography, plunging headlong into the bedlam of music festivals (mostly electronic music, like house and dubstep) to snap photos that can only be described as psychedelic. Even the inevitable question about the future – a sore point for 20-somethings, who’ve had a rough young adulthood in general – doesn’t elicit the usual glum response. “I think we’re doing all right,” he opines of his generation. “I’m an optimist, so hopefully the future is bright for us.”
It makes sense that this particular science – looking beyond prohibition, being open to new ways of seeing, re-imagining drugs as useful medicines against an increasingly ubiquitous mental-health crisis – should’ve come from this particular scientist. But of course the science stands or falls on its own merits, irrespective of the scientist. “Yeah, maybe I’m a risk-taker here and there,” concedes Joseph carefully, “but I’m certainly thorough when it comes to my approach to scientific evidence – and I’m extremely considerate of potential harms that may come to people… So, if you’re wondering why you should consider me as a respectable opinion, it’s because I care that people don’t get harmed. I’m not in this to make psychedelics seem like the best thing ever!” That said, “I’m a scientist, and I care about empirical evidence – and I keep on seeing the evidence point to these medicines being really impactful”.
There are caveats, which he freely acknowledges; as he says, we have much to learn. Both of his studies have shown a boost to mental health from microdosing mushrooms, especially when combined with niacin and another, non-psychedelic kind of mushroom (the difference, evinced through a so-called ‘tap test’, was most pronounced in participants over the age of 55) – but it’s also true that the studies were self-reported, especially due to being carried out during Covid. Not that participants were allowed to ramble incoherently; the team used a diagnostic tool called the Dass21, which asks structured questions and correlates closely with clinical interviews. But both scientists and subjects were spread out all over the world, working remotely as everyone does nowadays (what time does he usually get home? I ask with respect to work-life balance – but in fact the question these days is “What time do I leave home?”), and results ultimately hinged on people’s descriptions being accurate. Still, “I guess the process of scientific progress is that you start with a big picture, and you dig and dig till you get to the fine details”. Microdosing psychedelics is still at the big-picture stage – but clinical trials will hopefully bolster these findings, as they have for large-dose psychedelics which are now being approved in the US.
There are other caveats. The placebo effect is a danger, namely “Are people getting better because they think they’re going to get better?”. A related point is that, so far, microdosing is mostly being practised by clued-in types looking for creative solutions (it’s a bit like intermittent fasting, a trendy way to improve one’s quality of life). Could it work for everyone – especially since “set and setting” are so important, viz. the environment in which one takes a psychedelic drug? (Then again microdosing may be different, since the user isn’t actually tripping.) I note another possible danger, that microdosers will gradually grow numb to the effect and move on to bigger doses – but Joseph isn’t convinced and besides, he claims rather startlingly, “the safety profile of large-dose psychedelics, particularly LSD and psilocybin, is extremely safe”, so it wouldn’t be too significant anyway.
In the end, the question goes deeper – because it’s a question of mentality, and how we view drugs in general. Most people view them as a mortal danger – which is partly fear and partly conditioning but also, deep down, a case of being wary of the power of the mind. We shirk at the thought of what we’re capable of, and doubt our ability to harness our consciousness if it ever decides to go haywire; better to ‘just say no’ than try to control what happens. Joseph Rootman, on the other hand, has always been fascinated by the mind – as a young child, he recalls, “I used to sit at my computer and Google things like ‘subliminal messaging’ and ‘mind reading’” – and views his work as a way of fixing mental malfunctions like PTSD and depression, with drugs as the tools.
Some drugs, it’s true, merely numb the mind (see the fallacy of ‘coping’ with alcohol) – but here again microdosing mushrooms seems to be different, tying in to that still-undefined new virtue called mindfulness. A sharpness, an awareness, a sense of being present; the opposite of the oblivion offered by booze.
“Sometimes,” says Joey, offering a surprising analogy, “when I want to be ready for my day of work, I make sure to tie up my shoes a little extra tighter. And then, when I walk, I know that I tied my shoes a little tighter because today is important to me… These people taking these substances aren’t taking psychedelics because they want to escape – they’re taking them because they want to be more mindful. They’re tying their shoes up tighter for the day. They’re saying ‘Today I want to be a little more in tune’.” Are we really heading for a world where people start each day with a quick bite of a mind-expanding substance, just as easily as tying their shoes? Small is big, to put it mildly.