Dr. Roland Griffiths, Whose Pioneering Research at Johns Hopkins Explored the Potential of Psychedelics in Alleviating Psychological Distress in Cancer Patients, Dies of Colon Cancer at 77 Years

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Oprah and Dr. Roland Griffiths Talk PsychedelicsOprah Daily / Philip Friedman

When one of the foremost pioneers of psychedelics research in the treatment of terminally ill cancer patients was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, the irony wasn’t lost on him. Because what some might see as Shakespearean tragedy, Roland Griffiths, PhD, a soft-spoken man of science with a seemingly irrepressible smile, sees only as the greatest of life affirmations.

Griffiths has spent decades studying how the human brain responds to mood-altering drugs. He founded the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. After he personally experienced the life-changing impact of meditation, he wanted to further study how altered brain states could affect worldview and spirituality.

“It became of interest to me to know whether psychedelics would have anything informative to tell me about the nature of this mystery—for lack of a better word—the spirituality, the humbling sense that we truly don’t know what’s going on here,” Griffiths explained to Oprah during a recent conversation. “What we found from the very first study is that at high probability, people would take a psychedelic under our setting conditions (being very carefully screened and prepared), and they would have experiences that really shifted their entire sense and worldview.”

Of course, that all came before Griffiths received a stage four colon cancer diagnosis following a routine colonoscopy. Then, the doctor became the patient. “I had contemplated my own death, but I had no real sense of how I might respond to a diagnosis of this sort,” Griffiths said. But he discovered firsthand something his patients facing death had described all along. “I can’t quite explain it. What occurred was this incredible opening, awakening, if you will, to the preciousness of life. And it immediately became something to celebrate.”

Griffiths developed a deep sense of gratitude—even in the face of mortality—and a strong feeling of human interconnectedness. Now, as he accepts the inevitability of his death, he is passionate about spreading the message that it is possible to live joyfully while knowing our eventual fate. He is also working hard to raise money for the Roland R. Griffiths, PhD, Professorship Fund, an endowment to establish a world-class, rigorous program of research of psychedelic substances to advance understanding of well-being and spirituality in the service of human flourishing for generations to come.

Below, watch as Oprah talks to Griffiths about the mystery of life—and the wonder and beauty of death.

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