01/28/2014 11:24 am ET Updated Mar 13, 2014

Book Review: Mindful Molecules

In contrast to the war on drugs, MAPS wants psychedelics and substances such as marijuana and MDMA adopted as prescription medicines. The acronym stands for Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. This non-profit group has just made available Manifesting Mind, a book that describes some of the positive uses of what a friend of mine calls "mindful molecules."

A physician would prescribe them and you could then buy them at a pharmacy. This would be one middle way between free-for-all legalization and the prohibition that started under Nixon and has led, MAPS argues, to false official information, criminal enterprises, and impure street drugs.

The new book is co-edited by Rick Doblin, a Kennedy School graduate who started MAPS in 1986, and by a colleague named Brad Burge. They drew material from the MAPS Bulletin, a magazine that is sent to members and has included a dazzling array of articles, some gathered by guest editors such as David Jay Brown.

During the decades when society has generally been barred from the careful and legal use of pure psychedelics, MAPS has supported research in he U.S. and elsewhere on the use of mindful molecules in the treatment, for example, of post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety about dying from a disease such as cancer.

Like almost any other collection, the book is uneven (the Huxley interview, for example, is less than his very best), but the general level is high and the book contains many gems. It addresses the core question, "why use this stuff and in what ways?"

For example, one early section discusses "coming of age." It's no secret that millions of high school and college students have not found it difficult to "experiment," but this book offers heart-warming stories of parents who have initiated their own offspring, teaching patterns of what they consider wise use, in some cases sharing the carefully arranged experiences. Other sections focus on the arts, medicine, psychotherapy, sexuality, spirituality, ecology, and technology.

Near the end of his life, Terence McKenna co-initiated the All-Chemical Arts Conference in 1999 on the Big Island of Hawaii. Like Manifesting Mind, the conference described positive uses of mindful molecules, and was addressed by some of the same people who also appear in the MAPS book, such as the novelist Tom Robbins, the "sex worker" Annie Sprinkles, and Mark Pesce, the co-inventor of VRML, virtual reality markup language.

At the risk of appearing less omniscient than reviewers often pretend to be, I confess to learning much even from early sections of the MAPS book. Perhaps if I were an "extreme athlete," I would have known, before being instructed by James Oroc, that low levels of psychedelics are routinely used by many mountain climbers, paraglider pilots, skiers, and surfers, to improve, they believe, balance, endurance, and reflexes. I was dazzled as a child by Fantasia, but perhaps if I had followed independent films more closely, I would have seen many of the psychedelic movies discussed in this book by Evan Mantri. And if I had been an ayahuasca tourist in Latin America, I would not be learning so much from Jack Lieberman's chapter about taking that shamanic preparation with his daughter in the Amazon. All this and more is told in just two sections of Manifesting Mind.

I suppose the heart of the book, for most skeptical readers, would be the sections on medicine and psychotherapy. MAPS is basing one of its primary arguments on the ability of mindful molecules to help in healing. As early as the 1950s the world learned that some psychedelics could help free addicts from their dependency (for example, in Humphry Osmond's work in Canada), and more recently that MDMA could be useful as an adjunct to psychotherapy, in treating PTSD; but so far, in the U.S., these modalities are available only in limited research studies.

However, the most far-reaching part of the MAPS book is on how psychedelics can enhance the lives of the healthy, in breaking set, in appreciating "nature," in love-making, in social bonding, in the process of dying, in relating to the technological world that soon will surround us, and, as a research paper out of Johns Hopkins says, in occasioning "mystical-type experiences." More than a few writers make the point that the real reason for prohibition is not that taking mindful molecules (like many other activities) involves some risks for some people, but rather that they are effective in leading many people outside consensus reality.

In the section of the book on "spirituality," we are bombarded with more than we perhaps wish to know about the exact drugs, prescribed and not, taken by Tim Leary in his last days. But we also find Myron Stolaroff's chapter on "learning how to learn," a set of instructions mainly about exploring through surrender or, less ambiguously, through letting go. "It is fresh, unmediated experience that we are seeking," he writes.

The book ends with an interview with Mark Pesce. I don't know whether the computer industry, like western Buddhism, would have been as vigorous without its psychonauts, but apart from Nobel-prize winners such as Kary Mullis and some other notably creative people, we are unlikely to know the full story as long as mindful molecules are "scheduled" as being dangerous and without medical (or other) uses. McKenna's conference in Kona was an effort to assert some of the positive uses of psychedelics, and perhaps to tempt more creative people to emerge from the ordinary reality closet. The MAPS book continues and broadens this effort, including and then venturing far beyond the arts.

It is unclear whether a medical model offers the optimal alternative to the present protocol of illegality and very limited research, but apart from the legalization of marijuana in a couple of states (Colorado, Washington), a system based on prescriptions may be the most probable next step. To the credit of the editors, the book contains material that goes beyond the medical model.
For example, John Allen writes of attaining a deep ecological understanding: "Could this be achieved without peyote or equivalent real-time sacrament to raise the human organism to its capacity to make a workable synergy of reason, feeling, sensation, and will that coordinates its life with bioregion and cosmos? Frankly, I don't think so." Allen is writing about the peyote dance ceremony held by the Huichole in Mexico. His account raises the question of whether the careful and legal use of mindful molecules in the U.S. should be restricted to so-called indigenous groups such as the Native American Church and a small offshoot of a Brazilian church or become available, in ritual settings, to others.