Forbidden Knowledge: The Comeback of Psychedelics (working title)


After a 40-year-ban, psychedelics are back. In December 2016, the FDA cleared the way for a Phase 3 trial testing Ecstasy as a treatment for PTSD. It’s the final step before an experimental drug can be approved for medical use. A similar large trial is likely to launch soon, testing psilocybin as a treatment for depression and anxiety. Mainstream media report that the psychedelics will become a legal medical treatment in the next few years. These developments herald not only a dramatic shift in the field of psychiatry, but a turning point in society’s tumultuous relationship with psychedelics.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for substances that have been not just banned but vilified as highly dangerous. The new interest follows more than a decade of government-approved trials on the usefulness of MDMA (Ecstasy) and psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”) in treating a range of disorders, including depression, anxiety and addiction. The studies, many conducted by elite institutions, such as Johns Hopkins Medical School, UCLA and New York University.

Results so far are highly promising. The hallucinogens appear more effective than any approved medication in treating PTSD victims – war veterans, 9/11 fire fighters and rape survivors — who had tried conventional treatments for years, without finding relief. After just 2-3 doses, most patients became symptom-free and remained so even two years later. “MDMA works as a catalyst that speeds the natural healing process,” says Dr. Michael Mithoefer, the leading researcher in the field and a central figure in the film. “Traditional psychotherapy can have these same remarkable results, but it can take years if it happens at all.”

We are the first filmmakers to overcome regulators’ objections and obtain approval to follow patients intimately throughout the entire process, before, during and after therapy sessions using MDMA. We will follow the trials as they unfold, documenting patient transformations and shedding light on a revolutionary approach to treatment. The first trial we are following treats not only the PTSD patients, but their partners as well. We aim to capture the process of recovery and healing, not only for the patients but for those closest to them. These couples have tried everything else. The MDMA experiment is their last hope.

At the heart of the film are patient stories – three couples participating in this trial, which is just beginning. The therapists’ video recordings of MDMA sessions will augment the documentary footage. Early on, the film will introduce us to participants as they struggle with the signature misery of PTSD: nightmares, jumpiness, outbursts of rage and depression, as well the collateral damage – broken relationships, lost jobs and even suicide attempts. By following them and their partners over the course of a year, the film will track any changes in their lives.

This new couples study combines MDMA with an approached developed by senior researchers at the National Center for PTSD. Veterans’ Administration therapists. If proven effective, it will have a broad impact on public policy. Over 800,000 U.S. veterans are on disability because of PTSD and their health care costs for the rest of their lives are estimated to top $1 trillion; the number of civilians afflicted is even greater.

 Forbidden Knowledge will follow both patients and psychotherapists, and place the recent studies in historical context. The film will explore our long and conflicted relationship with hallucinogens, from early history to their criminalization in 1970 and the underground era that ensued. The ban was driven by concerns over social unrest and public health, but was controversial even at the time. Hundreds of experiments had found psychedelics to be effective in treating alcohol and drug addiction, and promising in other areas. Johns Hopkins lead researcher Roland Griffiths, one of the scientists in the film, quips today: “Can you think of another area of science regarded as so dangerous and taboo that all research gets shut down for decades? It’s unprecedented.” The historical section will benefit from the recently-released files of patients in a leading LSD clinic, which were uncovered by one of the film’s advisers, historian Erika Dyck.

Against a backdrop of the failed War on Drugs, Forbidden Knowledge aims to generate a debate about current public policies. It will present a wide range of views on the psychedelics, including those who object to their decriminalization, or urge caution. Confirmed interviews include authors Andrew Weil and Michael Pollan, who is currently writing a book on the subject. New thinking is desperately needed to aid the half-a-million U.S. veterans whose PTSD symptoms don’t respond to approved medications, and untold millions who suffer from depression, anxiety or addiction. The film will also explore the unique qualities of psychedelics, and how this research poses novel questions about the nature of healing and our understanding of the mind itself.

The film is produced by Teddy Bear Films, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, and made with the support of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities and the San Francisco Film Society. It is co-directed by Caleb Hellerman and Micha X. Peled.

Caleb Hellerman spent 20 years as a writer and producer of science, medical and news content for World News Tonight With Peter Jennings, Good Morning America and more recently as Supervising Producer of the CNN Medical Unit, where he produced documentaries, breaking news content and the weekly program, “Sanjay Gupta MD.” He currently covers medical stories for the PBS Newshour.

Micha X. Peled, has had six long-form documentaries, including the Globalization Trilogy (Store Wars, China Blue, Bitter Seeds), broadcast by PBS. His work aired on 32 other television channels, won over 20 international awards and screened in theaters, festivals and community events on every continent. They are shown and discussed in classrooms and public libraries every day somewhere in the U.S.