Psychedelics and Normality

07/25/2017 11:01 pm ET
Washi Arcs
author
Washi Arcs

The official U.S. response to classic psychedelics has been primarily a defense of existing normality. The response was aroused, for example, by the “drop out” kicker in Tim Leary’s famous motto (“turn on, tune in, drop out”). It was shaped by perceived links to social disarray caused by claims of equality from blacks, women, people dismissed as shiftless, and foreigners who resented intervention (such as in Vietnam).

My own introduction to the “drug” issue came from a college student when I was a teaching assistant at Stanford in a course on personality theory. It was back in the late 1960s. “I was told this pill is really great,” this student reported being assured at a frat party. “Swallow it and get ready for a really good time.” He didn't even ask what the pill was said to be, much less seek data on what it actually contained. He just swallowed. LSD was soon made illegal. (As we will see below, this was far from an ideal set and setting.)

When U.S. research on psychedelics was allowed to resume, decades later, it was largely for projects that explored medicinal uses, which aim to restore a person to—you guessed it—normality. Has most of society been afraid not only of party drugs, but also of the experience of awe? Awe is regarded as okay for the occasional mystic, who may even be elevated to sainthood (for example, Francis of Assisi, after whom the current Pope chose to be named), but it arouses suspicion when people talk to birds. That’s weird.

Nobody wants vast criminal syndicates, users do not want the risk of impure drugs (with dangerous molecules sometimes being sold as “Ecstasy”), nobody wants their children thrown in prison for smoking pot while good burghers drive their cars to a bar to get plastered, nobody wants to pay higher taxes to keep non-violent young people locked up, and researchers do not want prohibitions on research about amazing substances, even if they were not widely used. But anything in defense of normality.

The big question is whether we’re ever going to find a way to integrate awe into lives that are otherwise normal, to tolerate a regime under which people can, if they want, suspend ordinary reality in a safe and beneficial way. At least since 1954, when Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception gave us that brilliant writer’s account of his trip on a classic psychedelic, explorers have tried to bridge the gap between their direct experience and the views of the majority who weren’t burdened by personal encounters with awe but who, with the help of the media, knew what they believed.

Huxley’s spirit was put in a religious context by Huston Smith, who spoke of “cleansing” those Blakeian doors.

More recently, people who feel that a therapeutic “trip” has been one of the most important experiences of their lifetime or have found “mega” benefits in micro-dosing have adopted various rhetorical strategies to try to communicate their discovery. I’m reminded of this attempt, which has now continued for a half century or so, by two recent books, The Psychedelic Renaissance (2012) by Ben Sessa, and A Really Good Day (2017) by Ayelet Waldman.

An English physician and researcher, Sessa adopts the strategy of identifying with his profession and searching for ways that classic psychedelics (and MDMA) can help psychiatrists reduce unnecessary suffering. At the same time, he wonders aloud why, after scorning hippies, he has adopted many of their values and insights. Then he returns to the sobriety of his status in society, his “caseload,” and research based on double-blind evidence.

Waldman adopts a different strategy. Professionally, she is a writer. She is also a mother of four. She suffers from depression and anxiety. She had heard that taking a tenth of a normal dose of LSD might help. She followed a protocol described by Jim Fadiman, who began researching psychedelics as a graduate student when LSD-25 was still legal. This accounts for Waldman’s subtitle: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life.

Assured of a supply for a month of three-day cycles, Waldman supposedly wonders whether even a micro-dose will kill her or, if not, drive her crazy, with ghastly “flashbacks.” Despite having been a volunteer for the Drug Policy Alliance, which works against the “war on drugs,” and in spite of teaching a law school course in the area, Waldman says she started her personal experiment with fear-based stories widely held in our society, inculcated by the misinformation our government has propagated for decades. She then educates her readers with the quite different facts.

So these are the first two rhetorical strategies: identify with your audience (“I thought so, too, but boy, was I mistaken”) or identify with a valued profession (“I’m a doctor, I just want to find medicines that work”).

One way to make “drugs” almost acceptable is to present them as potential medicines, under the control of a highly regarded corps of professionals. Can they treat PTSD, as in the studies of MDMA as an adjunct to therapy, studies conducted by the Mithoefers? Can they ease end-of-life fear, as in the project run by Charles Grob? Can they deal with addiction to alcohol and other legal drugs open to abuse?

Another strategy is to argue that, under the Constitution, liberty includes the right to alter, at least temporarily, one’s own consciousness: you may not have the freedom to encourage or guide others, but an individual in our society does retain the power to decide what to put in his or her own body, especially if it’s been shown to be safer than substances sold and imbibed freely.

We have Jim Fadiman to thank not only for Ayelet Waldman’s experiment but also for other effects of his own book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic and Sacred Journeys (2011). In contrast to my student reporting on unknown drugs handed around at a frat party, Fadiman describes how to do it right. Experienced people advise: (a) ingest a psychedelic only if you are mentally balanced, (b) get pure substances, (c) take a correct dose, (d) form a positive intention for the trip (and then be willing to let go of it), (e) find and stay in a welcoming non-clinical setting, (f) have an experienced and non-intrusive guide, (g) lie down or find a comfortable chair, (h) listen to music instead of operating machinery or communicating with people outside the room. Of course, prohibition makes it difficult to get pure substances, and current law would make any guide an accessory.

Another rhetorical strategy was inherent in the 1960s project on psychedelics and creativity led by Professor Willis Harman. This project gave a classic psychedelic to professionals who were working with resistant challenges in their fields. It discovered benefits before the project was cut off when the government decided to make LSD illegal. That was in 1968 (the same year Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot, Bobby Kennedy won the California primary and was then assassinated, and Richard Nixon nabbed the Presidency).

If creativity is not enough to win approval, how about a hypothesis about evolution of the species, that it was psilocybin that helped convert primates into archaic humans? Along with many other speculations in the course of his career, Terence McKenna explored this possibility around 1992. What was his motive? “If we could import into straight society, almost as a Trojan horse, the idea that these psychedelic compounds and plants … are the catalyst that called forth humanness out of animal nature, if we could entertain this as a possibility,” he said, it would alter “society’s efforts to control and eradicate these substances.”

In contrast to proposing bold but unprovable theories, recent researchers looked at neurological data, gathered in large part by methods not yet available when classic psychedelics became widespread in the U.S. For example, Robin Carhart-Harris at Imperial College in London used magnetic resonance imagining to map effects in the brain.

Data about spiritual experience was reported in research led by Professor Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins, as expressed in the classic paper, “Psilocybin occasioned mystical-type experiences…” The investigators focused not on an illness that was to be alleviated but rather on an enhancement of ordinary life.

To summarize the rhetorical strategies cited here:

  • Identifying psychedelics with the honored profession of medicine;
  • Professing to share the false ideas so common in our society and then drawing attention to the contradictory facts;
  • Claiming that liberty includes the right to alter one’s own consciousness;
  • Specifying how to have a beneficial “trip”;
  • Showing the relation between use of psychedelics and creativity (in such fields as design, architecture, and engineering);
  • Asserting that a psychedelic played a key evolutionary role;
  • Showing the neural correlates of psychedelic experience;
  • Reporting that proper “trips” can occasion mystic experiences that are among the most significant in a person’s lifetime.

There are other rhetorical strategies, but these are enough to illustrate the persistence and ingenuity of people who are still seeking, after a half century of prohibition, to bridge the gap between firm beliefs of the general public and data developed, against official resistance, by research both here and abroad.

When fear is aroused, as in the “war on terror,” good public policy is swept aside and we tend not to look at facts.

In the case of psychedelics, what will work? We are encouraged to be patient, as was Martin Luther King, Jr., by white colleagues at the time of the Montgomery demonstrations. In response, King asked whether the time since the Civil War was long enough to wait.

The prohibition against psychedelics has lasted about half a century. Critics of the fear-response decry the losses: the healing that has been lost, the abuse of liberty, the loss of research, of creativity, of experiences of awe.

One of the U.S. organizations that has worked persistently and ingeniously during most of this period of prohibition has been the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), founded by Rick Doblin, a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School. MAPS has held conferences on “psychedelic science,” sponsored research here and abroad, published a newsletter, and tried to educate the political establishment.

Other leading organizations include the Heffter Research Institute, which gathered key academics in this field, Amanda Feilding’s Beckley Foundation in the U.K., Bob Jesse’s Council for Spiritual Practices, the archives at Purdue University (Psychoactive Substances Research Collection), and the Vaults of Erowid.

On the model of cannabis, perhaps it would be helpful to establish medical uses, then move on to what is called “recreational” use, a term that refers to all uses not controlled solely by physicians but freely available to the public. The term “recreational” is prejudicial like the term “drugs,” which fails to distinguish between classic psychedelics and addictive or otherwise harmful drugs, such as heroin.

For example, there is nothing “recreational” about the experience of awe or of wonder. The term trivializes what can happen. Drugs are taken not only to “get high” or cure a health condition, but also to take a holiday from the confines of ordinary reality, as in studying a textbook, buying a house, raising children, serving as a professional, and so forth. What if, instead of an ill-conceived and unworkable prohibition, we focused our ingenuity on making the opportunity for good trips part of a normal life?

One pioneer who sketched this possibility was Gordon Wasson, a U.S. banker who made a famous trip to a tribal area of Mexico and experienced a psilocybin mushroom ceremony with a local shaman, and wrote about it in Life magazine (in1957, a few years after Huxley’s book). What was his first reaction after the mushroom took effect? “I felt awestruck.”

Later he co-authored a book, The Road to Eleusis (1978), working with Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who synthesized and then, in 1943, discovered the mental effects of LSD, and with a professor of classics named Carl Ruck. They proposed that the ancient ceremony at Eleusis included a psychedelic. (No one knows for sure because the participants were sworn to secrecy.) The point is, the ritual was not counter-cultural but part of the culture, not for everybody, but not considered a challenge to the dominant way of life.

Perhaps our culture will accept the value of psychedelics through demonstrations of their usefulness in alleviating suffering, through medical applications. But it was observers such as Wasson who understood that their most extraordinary value was experiencing awe and that this opportunity could become part of a normal life.

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
CONVERSATIONS