I’ve had the privilege of speaking at length with Dr Friederike Meckel, a well-known figure in psychedelic science circles in Great Britain and in Europe. Her contribution to psychedelic medicine has had a great impact on progress in the field. Her wealth of knowledge is vast. All of the direct quotations in this newsletter are taken from our conversation.
Dr Meckel trained as a medical doctor in Germany, and started her career working as a specialist in industrial medicine. She spent many years as the on-site medical doctor in a factory dealing with workplace health and safety issues. She was married, and had three children. Then, between the work—she was working day and night shifts—and the children she fell into something she described as a “life crisis.”
“I didn’t know what a burnout was until I had one,” she said. “Then, on top of all this work, I fell in love with another man.” She got into trouble, she said, because the guy rejected her. She was undone emotionally.
At the time, she was working in a plant as a specialist in workers’ health. She had a woman client who had some emotional problems. Dr Meckel referred her to an old professor of hers. The woman came back transformed.
“I thought, if she can go there in a crisis, I can go there too,” said Dr Meckel.
Dr Meckel made an appointment. The doctor put her in a room, placed head phones over her ears, and instructed her in the basics of breath work. He wasn’t a psychotherapist, but he’d heard about Holotropic Breathwork, a technique developed by Dr Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof who had worked extensively with LSD-assisted psychotherapy during the 1960s and 1970s, and developed the Holotropic Breathwork technique when psychedelics were no longer available. Dr Meckel started breathing. Then she cried for hours. She returned every week for months. She was guided through interior journeys of “deserts, hot deserts, cold deserts, stony deserts,” she said. When Dr Grof came to Munich to do a workshop in the technique, she attended. There she came to understand for the first time the far-reaching possibilities of the altered mental state—evoked by controlled breathing at that time—as a means of accessing interior emotional and psychological spaces. Dr Meckel enrolled in a training course with Dr Grof in the US. During the training, Dr Grof began speaking about psychedelics. She had no idea what he was talking about.
Back at home, the same doctor who had introduced her breath work told her about a clandestine meeting place where people could go to take psychedelic drugs.
“Sixty people met in an old coal mine church in the middle of Germany, secretly. They lay on the floor with head phones all connected to each other,” said Dr Meckel. That was in 1989. The drug was MDMA.
“I immediately went into similar state like Holotropic Breathwork but much much deeper. It lasted eight hours, one dose of MDMA,” she said. She recognized immediately that MDMA could be used therapeutically.
After she’d been for several sessions at the church, someone betrayed the group, and it was disbanded.
Coincidently, in Switzerland there was a brief period between 1988 and 1993 when the draconian anti-psychedelic drug laws were briefly relaxed. Seven psychiatrists were given permission to use the substances in therapy. All seven were members of the Swiss Medical Society for Psycholytic Therapy. One of them offered training in which Dr Meckel was able to take part.
Psycholytic therapy, pioneered by the German psychiatrist Hanscarl Leuner, involves psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy with repeated low to moderate drug doses—as opposed to traditional ‘psychedelic’ psychotherapy, which involves a single or infrequent use of a very high dose of the drug followed by integrative sessions.
Still living in Germany, Dr Meckel decided then to complete training in psychotherapy. In the meantime she’d met the man who became her second husband, a Swiss lawyer. She realized if he didn’t understand the work she was becoming involved in, the relationship wouldn’t work. Together they undertook three years of training in Switzerland.
She studied the uses of MDMA and LSD, psilocybin and 2CB. She learned how to combine two to three different drugs as part of extended drug therapy sessions. Once she completed her training, she moved to Switzerland to be with her husband—where, it emerged, the medical bureaucracy would not acknowledge her German medical qualifications.
Dr Meckel set up a psychotherapeutic and Holotropic Breathwork practice in 1997 with another woman. She continued to work with private clients on the side, sometimes incorporating psychedelics as adjuncts to the therapy. Since she didn’t have a regular job, she had lots of time to educate herself. She travelled all over, taking courses in family systems therapy, family constellation therapy and inumerable other psychotherapeuric training modalities in order to enrich herself and her practice.
Dr Meckel’s clinical psychedelic work was entirely underground. At one point, after she’d supervised a Holotropic Breathwork workshop at a German monastery, the monastery’s head took her aside. He asked if she could spend some time with a few of the meditation students who had, he said, “gotten stuck.” She did a few psychedelic sessions with them, and they became unstuck. For her, though, the real therapeutic elixir wasn’t with individuals in therapy, but with groups.
“The group is something very special,” she said. In the context of a group psychedelic session, they were “communicating [as if ] the group was the world.” It was very effective. “People helped each other, we would have talks where they would give feedback, or they did constellation work, where someone would be the mother of someone else, they would have a real relationship so these issues could be dealt with during the session.”
She began having the group meetings regularly, all clandestine, all word of mouth. She’d work with groups of sixteen or more, using MDMA, LSD and 2CB. She avoided psilocybin.
“Psilocybin is a teacher plant. It wants to talk to you. I didn’t want to talk,” she said. Mushrooms, she said, as well as ayahuasca are teachers. Teacher plants are distinct from the purely chemical substances, LSD and MDMA. “You have a relationship with the substance you take. It’s not just you’re taking it. You truly have to enter a relationship. You’re not just taking a substance and having it work for you,” she said.
“With a normal psychoactive substance [the chemical compounds LSD or MDMA] you can say: ‘I ask myself’ so you are both subject and object. On a teacher plant, you don’t ask yourself, you ask the plant. Then you wait for the answer. The answer is so different from what one answers to oneself. Especially with ayahuasca. It gives you answers you would have never thought of.”
On occasion, said Dr Meckel, she would give psilocybin mushrooms to patients, but only if they were having individual experiences. She couldn’t allow them to talk to one another, unless they were on the descent stage—in other words, returning to the shared, consensual reality. “Mushrooms can be very funny. Then a group starts laughing. It’s like contagious and you cannot stop them.” Ayahuasca, by contrast, she said, is not that funny.
“Ayahuasca can get angry,” she said. “I once asked the ayahuasca a question twice. She took me and threw me on the floor—whap—like a wet cloth. ‘You asked me that question yesterday.’ So these sessions I did for myself in Brazil. For me, ayahuasca is the deepest substance there is for the very difficult questions,” she said.
Using their large house in Zurich, Dr Meckel and her husband developed an ongoing underground practice, in the basement—a huge bright room with lots of sunlight. The groups met on weekends. She’d spend days cooking, baking and preparing everything. Group members arrived on Friday evening. They’d spend Friday, Saturday and Sunday together. Friday was to prepare participants for their journey, Saturdays they’d journey; and Sundays was a day-long integration session.
Then, she said, “the big thing happened.”
I quote here from a paper Dr Meckel co-authored with psychiatrist Ben Sessa: “Underground MDMA-, LSD- and 2-CB-assisted individual and group psychotherapy in Zurich: Outcomes, implications and commentary”:1
In 2009, Friederike and Konrad were arrested when an ex-client informed the police. The ex-client, together with her husband had initially been successfully engaged in non-drug and psycholytic therapy. The couple had initially praised Friederike for their positive experiences using MDMA and LSD. But during the course of their therapy, the couple later separated as a result of personal insights gained by the husband. On moving out of the marital home, then husband briefly lodged with Friederike and Konrad for want of a place to stay. Subsequently, the wife blamed Friederike for her hus- band’s decision to end the marriage and decided to inform the police about the underground therapy. She told the police that Friederike and Konrad had used MDMA and LSD to ‘brainwash’ her husband and turned him against her. She denied any positive aspects of the sessions she had had. The police then put Friederike and Konrad’s house under surveillance and tapped their telephone and emails, looking for evidence of drug dealing.
In October 2009, the police raided the home and found four tablets and two capsules of MDMA, four tabs of blotter LSD and seized written documentation and the couple’s computers. Friederike and Konrad were arrested and put into custody in separate prisons for almost two weeks, during which time they were interrogated. The police found no evidence to suggest the couple were dealing drugs and they were allowed home.
Dr Meckel was in prison for thirteen days. For five days she was alone. Then she was moved to another facility where she had a roommate. “I enjoyed prison life,” she said. She added: “In prison you are sort of protected.”
On 11 November that year, she was called in front of the prosecutor who told her she could go “home and wait to for your trial.” Then, she said “the hard times started.”
In January of 2010, when all the journals were in their customary post-holiday news vaccuum, they began running scathing articles. The reporting was inaccurate and abusive, trying to wreck her reputation. They ruined her self-esteem, she said. One journal published a caricature of her as a witch mixing poisons together.
Again, from her published paper:
The trial took place in July 2010. The prosecution case charged that Friederike and Konrad were dealing drugs, making a large profit and were endangering society at large because LSD was an intrinsically dangerous drug. (Of note, the prosecution case never stated that their use of MDMA was also endangering society. Interestingly, there is no concept of MDMA-associated neurotoxicity under Swiss law.)
In Friederike and Konrad’s defence, a number of influential psycholytic therapists and neuroscientists (Ede Frecska, Peter Gasser, Stanislav Grof, David Nichols, Rick Strassman and Michael Winkelman) testified that LSD is not a dangerous drug and that it has no significant physical or psychological adverse effects when given in a controlled clinical setting. On the basis of this evidence, the charge that the couple were endangering society with their use of LSD was completely rejected.
Friederike submitted further literature from Albert Hofmann, Torsten Passie and others as evidence that they had paid careful attention to Set and Setting throughout their practice of psycholytic therapy and that their project was non-profitable and not about dealing or recreational/hedonistic drug use. Rather the substances were being used with great care and attention in the context of a therapeutic setting.
Friederike told the judge directly:
For me psychedelics like MDMA and LSD are not drugs. They are psycho-integrative substances that have been used for thousands of years. (It) is not like getting drunk. The clients are in a clear state of elevated consciousness in which they can carry out psychotherapeutic work.
Ultimately, the sentences were relatively lenient.
Konrad was fined 10,000 Swiss Francs and received a 2-year probation sentence. Friederike was fined 2000 Swiss Francs and given a 16 months suspended sentence with a following probation period of two years.
Before the sentencing, Dr Meckel voluntarily gave up her permit as a psychotherapist. Since then, she has written one book “Therapy with Substance: Psycholytic Psychotherapy in the Twenty First Century” and is working on another.
Nowadays, she sees about 10 clients a week for psychotherapy. She can’t do breath work anymore because of Covid. She reflected about what might happen “if we decriminalise so that all the underground people can come out.” In her opinion, it would be better for everyone if the underground was allowed to emerge. That way, both good and bad underground players could reveal themselves so that we know who is doing what. “People need have a choice,” she said “so it becomes more normal. Exclusivity is dangerous.”
Fischer, Friederike Meckel and Sessa, Ben. (2015). Underground MDMA-, LSD- and 2-CB-assisted individual and group psychotherapy in Zurich: Outcomes, implications and commentary. Drug Science, Policy and Law, 2(0),1-8. DOI: 10.1177/2050324515578080