Becoming a Psychedelic Researcher: Alan Kooi Davis

By Russell Hausfeld|April 25, 2018

Why researchers like Alan Kooi Davis — the newest addition to the Johns Hopkins psychedelic research team — decide to devote their careers to studying psychedelics.

Alan Kooi Davis

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In the summer of 2017, Alan Kooi Davis was at a crossroads in his career.

He had recently graduated with a Ph.D from Bowling Green State University, where he researched drug cravings, drug abuse and harm reduction with professor Harold Rosenberg.

After graduating, Davis went on to work at the University of Michigan, where he says that his colleagues were “cautiously interested” in his pursuit of psychedelic research. They could all respect that the research should be done, but believed it was a risky career move.

After several months of conversations about his career trajectory with co-workers in Michigan, he got a phone call from the psychedelic research team at Johns Hopkins University. They said they were interested in interviewing him for a fellowship. The team at Hopkins — led by Roland Griffiths — is doing groundbreaking research on substances like psilocybin.

“I don’t think the universe could have given a better sign than that,” Davis said.

After securing the job and completing several projects at UM, Davis and his little ewok-of-a-dog, Morty, made the move from Ann Arbor to Baltimore.

He represents a swath of new researchers making the decision, albeit risky, to study the potential uses for psychedelic substances. This kind of research, Davis believes, is the next frontier for psychology, psychiatry, and the broader culture at large. A tool with the potential for true healing for conditions like addiction, PTSD and depression, as opposed to mere symptom alleviation.

This is perhaps especially important for several sub-groups in the US population.

“After working with Veterans in the VA system for much of the past three years, my heart is especially connected to bringing healing to those suffering with trauma, depression and addiction,” Davis said. “I believe one of the keys is re-connection to self and others. If we can do that, then healing is possible.”

Psychedelic research could play a vital role in the lives of future psychologists and psychiatrists. But, results from this kind of work also impact disciplines like religion, environmental conservation, criminal justice and more. They have the potential to impact our culture, Davis says, by increasing our abilities to connect. Not only do psychedelics appear to harness a deeper human connection, but they also seem to catalyze a deeper connection with nature, and with the sacred and spiritual.

For example, just before beginning his new job at Hopkins, Davis and his colleague Joseph Barsuglia — a Clinical Research Director at Crossroads Treatment Center — wrapped up a survey1 they conducted on the psychedelic substance 5-MeO-DMT. This is a fast-acting psychedelic, which produces profound experiences. Renowned psychedelic chemist Sasha Shulgin recounted his experience with the substance in his book “TiKHAL.”

(With 15 mg, smoked) ‘At about 60 seconds after I smoked this free base, I beheld every thought that was going on everywhere in the universe and all possible realities while I was wracked out with this horrible ruthless love. It scared the hell out of me. When I could see again (15 minutes later) it was almost as if there was an echo of a thought in my head saying that I was given an extremely rare look at the true consciousness of it all. I’ve never been hit this hard since then.’”

Amidst results from the survey about users’ safety precautions and experiences, Davis was equally curious to find out where people were obtaining the substance from. Because, 5-MeO-DMT is typically obtained either synthetically or from the Bufo alvarius toad, whose population has dropped in places like New Mexico and California as people remove the toads from their natural environment.

“The more people start hearing about this drug, the more they go searching for it,” Davis said. “We must be mindful that as more research is done, more articles are written. And that preservation of indigenous cultures and the ecology of psychedelics are protected from psychedelic tourism and misinformed attempts to harvest psychedelics from living species.”

Concerned citizens have already begun conservation efforts for the Bufo toad. Gerardo Sandoval, in particular, is working on creating a sanctuary for nearly 2,500 toads with the end goal of repopulating their native environment in the Sonoran Desert. Research like Davis’ and Barsuglia’s could help efforts like this prove their legitimacy and assess the true scope of the problems they hope to tackle.

Luckily, there seems to be excitement within the research community around 5-MeO-DMT, according to Davis. So, alongside his research on psilocybin, he hopes to be able to continue his 5-MeO-DMT work in the future.

Davis’ pursuit of psychedelic research began in earnest, he said, after he presented research on MDMA cravings at Psychedelic Science 2013. It was there that he first realized that there was a community of people out there who were working diligently to legitimize research into psychedelics — research he was equipped to provide.

And now, he is. At one of the most respected psychedelic research facilities around, today.

Davis is working to create a new non-profit research and education organization to help other potential psychedelic researchers. His pending non-profit — the Source Research Foundation —  aims to “connect, inspire, and support students who study the epidemiology, phenomenology, and the environmental, cultural and clinical contexts of psychedelic use, and to develop a virtual collaboratory of students, scientists, and community members who are passionate about psychedelic science.

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Russell Hausfeld

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Russell Hausfeld is an investigative journalist and illustrator living in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Religious Studies from the University of Cincinnati. His work with Psymposia has been cited in Vice, The Nation, Frontiers in Psychology, New York Magazine’s “Cover Story: Power Trip” podcast, the Daily Beast, the Outlaw Report, Harm Reduction Journal, and more.