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Colorado is on the brink of offering legal psychedelic-assisted therapy treatments. Naropa University wants to be ready.

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As research on psychedelic drugs grows, campus leaders at Naropa University hope to carve out a niche for their small Buddhist-influenced university in Colorado. The university is training health clinicians in psychedelic-assisted therapy, which they predict will become a burgeoning mental health practice in the state.

Naropa is one of a growing number of higher ed institutions investing new resources into the field. The university recently announced a postgraduate training program in mental health therapy treatments using psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms, starting in June. The university also launched an online postgraduate psychedelic-assisted therapies certificate two years ago, including an experiential component. Participants can go on an in-person retreat to try guided holotropic breathwork, which is supposed to simulate a psychedelic experience, or ketamine, a legal dissociative anesthetic with some hallucinogenic effects.

Charles Lief, president of Naropa University, believes federal legalization of psychedelic-assisted therapies for conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder is an inevitability—and when it happens, Naropa will be ready.

“We’re training clinicians, for the most part: therapists, doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains, people in the healing professions,” he said. Lief believes demand for these therapies is going to exceed the number of clinicians who know how to administer them if programs like Naropa’s don’t exist.

He emphasized that the study of these treatments is perfectly legal, even if most psychedelics aren’t.

“We’re bound by the drug-free workplace law, just like every other university that accepts federal financial aid is, and that’s not going to change,” he said. “We’re just talking about an academic training in a field which has a ton of science behind it.”

Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin use for adults last January. Colorado voters also approved a ballot measure legalizing psilocybin therapies in November 2022. The state is now hashing out how to regulate them, and legal treatments are expected to be available in 2025. A bill was also recently introduced in California that would legalize psychedelic-assisted therapies after Governor Gavin Newsom indicated he would sign this type of legislation. He vetoed a similar bill last year because it lacked appropriate “therapeutic guidelines” but urged state lawmakers to try again. Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering approval of MDMA, a synthetic drug with hallucinogenic properties, as part of treatments for PTSD.

“We don’t know what those regulations are going to look like,” Joe Harrison, the executive director of Naropa’s Center for Psychedelic Studies, said of psilocybin-legalization efforts in Colorado. “So we’re trying to kind of create programming that we think will be in line with the regulations when they’re announced.”

Harrison, former executive adviser to the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, has been surprised by the level of demand for the postgraduate programs “given that the field is so uncertain right now.” He noted the university plans to enroll 140 students to the psychedelic-assisted therapy program cohort starting in May but received upwards of 300 applications.

Past Legacies and Future Plans

Harrison noted that the university’s history is intertwined with that of some famous psychedelics advocates, including the late beat poet Allen Ginsberg, one of the founders of the university’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and the late spiritual figure and author Richard Alpert, known as Ram Dass, who taught at Naropa in 1974, its inaugural year. (Alpert and his colleague Timothy Leary, perhaps the most well-known and vocal advocate for psychedelics, started the Harvard Psilocybin Project as psychology professors at the university in the early 1960s before they were both fired and the research project ended.)

Naropa’s legacy and its commitment to contemplative pedagogy, embedding practices such as yoga and meditation into day-to-day studies, attract a certain type of student. The university enrolled about 1,120 students last fall, two-thirds of whom were graduate students and 40 percent were online students, Lief said. Meanwhile, the average undergraduate is 28 years old, and 70 percent of undergrads are transfer students.

“We become a place where a lot of students who had one or two experiences elsewhere that weren’t working for them, for whatever reasons, we become a destination for them,” Lief said. Students are coming to college with increasing mental health challenges, which he believes may give an institution like Naropa extra appeal.

Ben Mati, a physician in Southern California who completed the psychedelic-assisted therapy program last year, said Naropa’s unique bent was part of what drew him to the program. He works in a clinic where therapists use ketamine to treat clients with treatment-resistant depression.

“The program seemed to be very explicit about their focus on contemplative practices, the spiritual components of psychedelic-assisted therapy and equality, equity, trust, diversity and focusing on those aspects,” he said.

Mati also believes it’s important that clinicians study “where these ideas for healing come from, and honoring … that there’s a really robust corpus of knowledge that’s been used throughout the world in different cultures by different people.”

Harrison has big dreams for the university’s psychedelics programming. The university started offering an Introduction to Psychedelics course for graduate students last year. It plans to offer an undergraduate minor in psychedelic studies next academic year, albeit with no experiential component, and a future concentration option for the master’s of divinity program, as well.

Another goal of the center is to one day have an affiliated psychedelic-assisted therapy clinic of its own. Harrison said the university plans to fundraise for a “brick-and-mortar clinic space” as part of a research study it hopes to conduct, in partnership with an organization called Memoru: Center for Visionary Healing Arts, when the study clears the appropriate regulatory hurdles. The study would have therapists interested in guiding patients through these therapies take or administer MDMA to each other in pairs under supervision. These kinds of studies are allowed via an Investigational New Drug application, a request to the FDA to administer a not-yet-legal drug.

“We believe, at least in theory, that one of the keys to being able to deliver these therapies effectively is to have experienced them yourself,” Harrison said.

A Growing Academic and Professional Field

Naropa isn’t the only university dabbling in psychedelic studies.

Programs focused on psychedelics have recently started to proliferate in academia. Johns Hopkins University launched its Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research in 2019. The University of California, Berkeley, opened its Center for the Science of Psychedelics a year later. The University of Texas at Austin announced the launch of its Center for Psychedelic Research and Therapy in 2021, and New York University started its Center for Psychedelic Medicine that same year.

“Psychiatric approaches and solutions have been fairly stagnant over the last three decades at least,” said Brandon Weiss, research associate at the Johns Hopkins center. These treatments have “shown some compelling preliminary data suggesting some kind of superior treatment efficacy … You just see a lot of people who are devoted to trying to innovate in mental health care gravitate to this new modality.”

But university-based training programs that teach these therapies remain “very uncommon,” noted Moana Meadow, program staff director of the psychedelic facilitation certificate program at Berkeley’s Center for the Science of Psychedelics. Hers is one of a handful of programs that offers this kind of training, in addition to Naropa and the California Institute for Integral Studies, the first university-affiliated certificate program for psychedelic-assisted therapies and research.

Demand, however, is growing. When Berkley’s certificate program launched in 2022, it admitted 24 students to keep the fledgling in-person program small, but it had four times as many applicants, Meadow said. This academic year, the program enrolled 27 students, which was only an eighth of those who applied.

Meadow believes universities are where these programs should be taking place because she wants them to be interdisciplinary, rigorous and held to high standards. She noted that her program, which is funded by philanthropy through the Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics, is also housed at the UC Berkeley School of Education, and students submit detailed evaluations of each class.

“The word ‘training’ for us really does not capture the seriousness of this particular specialization, and we would like to see the psychedelic care field looked at as a professional field where people really need to come in with a strong and deep skill set,” she said.

She worries that training programs for these therapies vary in what skills they teach, and she believes it’s “increasingly important” that programs communicate with each other and create a set of norms and best practices as the field grows.

Weiss is a little leery about universities starting to train therapists in these treatments, as best practices continue to be developed through clinical trials.

“The standards of practice for this are still very much evolving,” he said. “So, at the point that an educational institution starts to formalize their curriculum, they’re in some sense making decisions that may very well deviate from standards at other institutions, because there is no real standard.”

Researchers working with these drugs “should all be kind of collaboratively coming to some consensus,” he added.

Mati hopes the availability of training programs like Naropa’s helps to ensure that clients have doctors who are explicitly taught to administer these drugs safely as legalization efforts take off.

“This is something that can cause a lot of harm, too,” he said. “And I think it’s important to have programs like Naropa to at least create some sort of baseline level of respectful use and knowledge of potential dangers and complications and harms.”

Harrison envisions a future where Naropa could export its education model on these therapies and possibly train clinicians around the country, including in Baltimore, where he now lives.

“When people ask me … what’s at stake in it for me, it’s not just to build a successful program,” he said, “but how do I help my community and the suffering that’s happening in my community? And I think that these therapies have a shot at doing that. I really do.”

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