Psychedelic Medicine


Avoiding the Pitfalls of Psychedelic Medicine with Matthew Johnson, PhD


In this episode of the Plant Medicine Podcast, Matt Johnson, PhD returns for the final installment to discuss his recent paper “Consciousness, Religion, and Gurus: Pitfalls of Psychedelic Medicine.” Dr. Johnson is the associate director at the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University, where he also works as a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. He has published widely in the field of psychedelic science and has guided over one hundred psychedelic experiences. In 2019 Dr. Johnson was the president of the psychopharmacology division of the American Psychological Association, and he currently serves as the president of the International Society for the Research on Psychedelics.

In his paper, Dr. Johnson explores some concerns around certain norms which have developed in psychedelic therapy, and how these could have potential negative effects. Dr. Johnson raises two main concerns in this conversation. The first is how therapists, guides, and scientific researchers could advance various spiritual or religious beliefs within the therapeutic context or offer metaphysical interpretations of psychedelic experiences beyond what the client suggests.

The second concern involves how psychedelic medicine is presented, both on a cultural level and even materially within therapeutic settings. For example, Dr. Johnson suggests that it is inappropriate to have statues of the Buddha displayed in clinical settings, unless this is something requested by the client. He suggests that if psychedelic therapy embraces a certain “New Age” aesthetic wholesale, it could dissuade people who don’t identify with the subculture from taking advantage of these therapies, especially as these medicines become more widely accessible.

Additionally, Dr. Johnson points out that not all patients would have the same associations with the Buddha statue in the example, and that the inclusion of any particular religious iconography should be something chosen proactively by the client, rather than assumed by the therapist. Dr. Johnson concludes this conversation by again stressing a client-centered approach to psychedelic therapy, suggesting that this approach is best suited to circumvent these concerning pitfalls.

In This Episode

• The issue with psychedelic therapists or guides bringing their own metaphysical beliefs into the psychedelic experience or its interpretation
• How the current culture around psychedelic medicine subtly presents these therapies as being for specific kinds of people
• How a client-centered approach from humanistic psychology can present an effective framework for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy


“I think it’s critical that therapists—and scientists at this research phase we’re at now—be client-centered in terms of the therapeutic approach. In other words, not making any assumptions for the participants, for the patients, about what the interpretation of these experiences should be.” [4:36]

“You’re there to support them, you’re there to let them lead. If there’s any metaphysical meaning to be made, they are in the driver’s seat. You’re there to create a safe container, to care for their wellbeing, and to allow them to have their experience.” [11:08]

“It’s not that you’re denying any of this stuff—it very well may be that any of these people’s framework is ground truth—it’s just not your role to say and we don’t need to.” [15:06]


* The Psychedelic Medicine Podcast has allowed the Psychedelic Medicine Association to post episodes as an educational resource, and in return the PMA is hosting the podcast show notes.