Can Psychedelics Help You Quit Smoking?
People come to the Synthesis retreat in Amsterdam for many reasons. Some people are interested in experiencing psychedelics for the first time. Others are looking for the answer to a deep personal question, or searching for purpose in life. And some have heard about the anti-addictive properties of psilocybin - the psychoactive compound in psychedelic truffles - and hope to break free of their dependence on smoking.
While our retreats are informed by groundbreaking research on psychedelics, Synthesis does not offer any smoking or nicotine cessation therapy. Rather than therapy or treatment, Synthesis offers a welcoming space for people to explore the anti-addictive effects that a psychedelic experience can create.
Psilocybin and nicotine addiction
Promising research on the capacity of psilocybin to end nicotine addiction comes from a study at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, led by Professor Roland Griffiths.
Griffiths and his team decided to investigate the potential of psilocybin to improve the effectiveness of typical smoking cessation treatments. In this pilot study, they recruited 15 smokers who had on average been smoking for 31 years, around 19 cigarettes per day, and had attempted to quit a mean of six times in their lives. The participants were given a 15-week smoking cessation course, which involved at least two doses of psilocybin alongside weekly therapy sessions.
Participants were analyzed for their biological markers of smoking (urine levels and exhaled carbon monoxide) both during the treatment and six-months afterwards. They also self-reported on their smoking, as well as being measured on the Fagerström test for cigarette dependence, and undertook a series of questionnaires designed to measure the psychological effects of the psilocybin experience.
At the six-month follow-up after the treatment, 12/15 participants were abstinent from smoking. Of the three participants who were still smoking at the six-month follow-up, two had significantly reduced their smoking levels. Only one participant in the entire study did not feel that psilocybin had positively influenced their smoking cessation.
This 80% success rate compares very favorably to typical measures of smoking cessation, such as therapy alone, that usually only reach 35% success at most. A standard twelve-week smoking cessation therapy program has a roughly 17% abstinence rate after six months, whereas therapy programs that also utilize pharmacological interventions such as bupropion and varenicline still only reach success rates of around 24-35% after six months.
The researchers in this study also carried out an even longer-term follow-up of the effectiveness of the treatment of tobacco addiction using psilocybin. In this study, two follow-ups to the initial treatment were carried out: one at 12-months, and one longer-term follow-up at least 16-months (but average of 30 months) after the initial treatment. Participants were measured for the same biomarkers as before, to confirm their reported smoking abstinence. 10/15 participants were still abstinent at the 12-month mark, and 9/12 participants were still abstinent at the longer-term follow-up. Again, these results are impressive compared to typical smoking treatments, that at best show around 30% success at 12-month follow-ups.
Griffiths and his colleagues suggest that the success of their treatment very much depended on the curation of an ideal psilocybin experience, with considerable support from experts in psychedelic therapy. So what were the researchers attempting to achieve in their crafting of the psilocybin experience?
Crafting the ideal smoking cessation environment
Alongside the weekly therapy sessions provided during the Griffiths study, the psilocybin experiences themselves were carefully curated. A trained guide was present during the entire session, and participants were welcomed into a comfortable space with the option to lie down, wear an eye mask, and listen to a pre-set musical playlist designed to complement the psilocybin experience.
The guide would offer support to the participant whenever required, but was careful not to direct the participant in any obtrusive ways – ideally, the participant would go on their own journey, with the guide acting as a gentle encouraging presence if the tripper felt lost or concerned at any point.
Additionally, before their first psilocybin experience, participants underwent preparatory discussions during their smoking cessation therapy, helping them know what to expect, and allowing them to set their intentions for the psilocybin sessions.
Although Synthesis does not employ clinical psychotherapists or addiction specialists – as was done in the Griffith's studies – we make considerable effort to create a guided and mindful environment to maximize the benefits of the psychedelic experience.
Following the methodology of the Griffiths group, we provide a very comfortable and welcoming environment for our guests. Participants are given one-on-one sessions with our experienced facilitators, before and after the psychedelic journey. During the experience, Synthesis guests are given all the comforts and freedoms to make the session relaxed and effective. A specially curated musical soundtrack is played to amplify the benefits of the journey. Guides are present throughout the experience to offer support and reassurance wherever required.
In parallel with the Griffiths recommendations, we also offer preparation and integration for our guests. Group and individual workshop sessions allow us to help participants fully prepare for the experience, and integrate the lessons learned following the retreat.
The Power of the Mystical Experience
The same Johns Hopkins group have linked the effectiveness of psilocybin to the intensity of the mystical experience it can induce. In this study, the researchers looked at the quality of the psilocybin experiences participants had during the smoking cessation treatment, and looked to see if there was a correlation with the chance of abstinence. Although all participants reported similar intensity in their experiences, the participants who reported more mystical experiences were more likely to have remained abstinent at the six-month follow-up.
For the purposes of analysis, a mystical experience is considered to contain a number of qualities that distinguish it from a simply intense experience, including: a loss of the concept of time and space, a loss of the concept of self, a difficulty in adequately describing its quality, an experience of universal unity, and a feeling of sacredness or revelation.
Mystical experiences are often profound, and have a significant impact on the lives of those who have them. For example, in this smoking cessation trial, 11/15 of the participants rated the psilocybin experience as “among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives.”
Although we don’t have a clear understanding of the best ways to induce a mystical experience, there are certainly techniques that can be used to increase the chances. These include practices such as meditation, exercise, and fostering a connection with nature.
Griffiths’ group has also confirmed the idea that spiritual practices can improve the chances of having a mystical experience – with their 2017 study showing that people who had been consistently practicing spiritual techniques (such as meditation, journalling, and artwork) were more likely to have a mystical experience during a psilocybin session.
At Synthesis, we pay special attention to the fostering of spiritual practices. Our preparatory guidance helps guests develop a meditative or contemplative practice prior to the retreat, and we aim to foster elements of spirituality during the weekend that will maximize the chances of a transformative mystical experience.
Is Synthesis right for you?
If you come with the hope to cease smoking as one of your intentions, you must know that there is no guarantee.
Our facilitators can help you map out how your addiction takes shape in your 1:1 meeting. No person is the same and although addiction tends have some core characteristics, we believe our support program should help you identify your particular behavior, your triggers, and enhance your motivation to stop.
Our facilitators also help you expose your self-sabotaging behaviors and deceptive beliefs about smoking or vaping that keep you trapped in the loop of ‘just one more inhalation.’
You already have a first hand experience of what nicotine addiction feels like, and it’s likely that you’ve already tried everything to quit smoking or stop vaping. What you might not know is why people so often relapse into smoking. Our facilitators are keen to educate you on the latest findings on how nicotine addiction works in the brain and help you understand the different dimensions that are at play; the behavioral, social, neurochemical, and spiritual.
If you’re interested in coming to Synthesis in order to address a smoking dependence, it’s important for you to consider all the information above. Synthesis offers a finely-crafted environment in which you can experience the benefits of a psychedelic trip with professional guidance. However the research shows that your potential smoking cessation will be most likely if you combine Synthesis with therapy, or spiritual practices, that can solidify your goals and amplify the chance of a powerful mystical experience having a positive impact on your life.
We recommend taking part in a tobacco addiction therapy or treatment course before coming to Synthesis. This should give you the time you need to set an intention for the Synthesis retreat, and consider parts of your behavior that you would like to change. Having support from therapists or addiction experts before you come to Synthesis will increase the likelihood of the psilocybin experience being the final catalyst you need to kick the habit.