Stating the case for the decriminalization of mind-altering substances
Terence McKenna, self-styled ‘psychonaut’, ethnobotanist, writer, lecturer, freedom fighter and culture-doubting intellectual, was arguably one of the greatest minds who ever lived. He believed passionately in a basic human right to explore one’s own consciousness, and he advocated the use of psilocybin (the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms) and other natural psychedelic drugs to do so. Controversial until his untimely death in 2000, McKenna was dubbed the ‘Tim O’Leary of the 90s’. Ground-breaking books such as The Archaic Revival, Food of The Gods and The Invisible Landscape inspired a generation to turn off the TV and reclaim their minds from the clutches of culture. This, McKenna told us, ”is not your friend.”
Contrary to what his critics might claim, McKenna never played down the dangers of taking psychedelic drugs. He warned: “Experimenters should be very careful…One must build up to the experience. These are bizarre dimensions of extraordinary power and beauty. There is no set rule to avoid being overwhelmed, but move carefully, reflect a great deal, and always try to map experiences back onto the history of the race and the philosophical and religious accomplishments of the species. All the compounds are potentially dangerous, and all compounds, at sufficient doses or repeated over time, involve risks. The library is the first place to go.”
For maximum personal growth, McKenna advised taking a ‘heroic dose’ (five grams of dried psilocybin mushrooms) alone and in darkness. The idea is to plumb the depths of one’s own psyche in order to discover something meaningful and life changing; not to simply abuse these sacred plants by ‘getting high’. McKenna warned of worlds with dark entities and the initial feelings of fear, panic and apprehension that accompany such an intense experience, but fundamentally he saw psychedelics as a human rite of passage, a gateway to the hidden wisdom of the collective consciousness, a profound spiritual experience for those who dared to lift back the veil of normal human perception and peer into the unknown.
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This is what they don’t want, Mckenna said. He believed that the idea of an enlightened human race terrifies the establishment because it threatens “to tear down the house of cards they built”. He often argued that, like psychedelic drugs, politicians “would make sex illegal if they could.” As a nod to the public hysteria that often accompanies any discourse on these compounds, McKenna once joked that “LSD is a psychedelic substance which occasionally causes psychotic behaviour in people who have not taken it.”
The failed War on Drugs embodies this statement. We’ve all heard urban myths about people jumping to their deaths after thinking they could fly during a bad acid trip, but the emotional and psychological benefits of psychedelics have long since been overlooked in favour of these terrifying anecdotes (most of which ignore crucial factors such as alcohol abuse and long-term mental illness as fatal catalysts).
Psychedelics have been used as a spiritual practice for at least 5700 years, pre-dating every organized religion we know of. Almost every known tribal society has a tradition of using naturally occurring plants and mushrooms to alter their state of consciousness for spiritual and medicinal purposes. Shamans in the Amazon have used Ayahuasca for religious ceremonies since time immemorial, and many ancient civilizations are thought to have used a variety of psychedelics too. The great body of research conducted by Graham Hancock is testament to this theory. In his book Supernatural, Hancock puts forth a fascinating and weighty argument that modern man began to evolve as a direct result of taking psychedelic drugs, and makes a strong case that European cave art (some of which is over 30,000 years old) is proof of this creativity unleashed.
The celebrated English writer Aldous Huxley was a huge fan of psychedelics and wrote about his experiences with mescaline in the fascinating book The Doors Of Perception. Huxley, an intellectual and aristocrat, found such comfort and delight in the psychedelic experience that his wife even administered LSD to him while he lay on his deathbed in 1963.
LSD was first synthesized in a laboratory by Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann in 1938. He ingested a small amount by accident, and began tripping while riding his bicycle home that evening. Hofmann described “a not-unpleasant, intoxicated- like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”
Steve Jobs credited LSD with his talent to think outside the box, and it has even been claimed by various reputable sources that Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who discovered DNA, did so during a vision after taking LSD.
Finally, Dr Rick Strassman’s acclaimed research on DMT, which is detailed in the book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, offers a fascinating insight into a highly illegal psychedelic compound which is present throughout the natural world (it is even produced in our brain’s pineal gland). Strassman gave study participants doses of DMT and recorded their experiences. He was surprised to learn that the psychedelic compound often triggered very similar experiences, visions, and meetings with other-worldy beings in study participants with very different backgrounds. Strassman’s scientific view of the world was turned upside down by his findings, which suggested there was some truth to the Jungian theory of archetypes, which dwell in a collective unconscious accessible to all humans across all periods of history and regardless of culture, nationality, age, class and religion.
Almost one in five (over 32 million) of the US adult population have experience with psychedelics, and in the past 50 years they have taken an estimated half billion doses of these mind-warping drugs. Fifteen years after McKenna died, we now know that these substances (LSD, magic mushrooms, DMT, Peyote, Ayahuasca and MDMA, to name a few) are not addictive and have no lasting toxic effects on the mind or the body.
In March this year, Ben Sessa wrote a piece in scientific journal The Lancet entitled ‘Turn on and tune into evidence-based psychedelic research.’ It reads: “For many people, words such as psychedelic and LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) refer only to dangerous drugs of abuse. Less well known is that tens of thousands of patients were treated effectively with psychedelic drugs in the 1950s and 1960s, and that these drugs had almost become part of mainstream medicine by the time they became demonised and research was halted for 40 years.”
A large part of the reason for this was the nature of the research being carried out in the post-war years. Cruel psychological experiments by the CIA for example, in which participants on LSD were tortured with electro-shocks, tainted the government’s view of psychedelics and dampened their enthusiasm to fund genuine research in the future.
Sessa believes this is a mistake, and advocates decriminalization: “The classical psychedelic drugs, LSD and psilocybin, are physiologically safe, have a low dependency risk, and might be effective and safe adjunts to psychotherapy for patients with a range of psychiatric disorders when used in therapeutic doses in controlled conditions.”
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Following Sessa’s correspondence, the Lancet published a supportive letter from Teri Krebs, a research fellow at the Department of Neuroscience, Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Along with husband PålØrjan Johansen, Krebs has launched a non-profit organization called EmmaSofia, which is working to expand access to quality-controlled MDMA (the active compound in ecstasy) and psychedelics, and to promote human rights for psychedelic users. Lacking any government funding, they have instead set up an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to raise $30,000 to kick off their plans. Johansen and Krebs have conducted various scientific studies, among them one showing there is no link between psilocybin and psychosis. On the contrary, the compound has been scientifically proven to help people with various mental and emotional traumas.
Johansen is a clinical psychologist with experience in providing treatments for anxiety disorders, suicide prevention and drug and alcohol abuse. The use of psychedelic drugs as a purging, restorative therapy is a topic close to his heart: Johansen’s parents were alcoholics, and he suffered with a drink problem as a result. He has since used MDMA and magic mushrooms to treat his own alcohol addiction, and believes it is vital that these drugs are made available to others who could benefit from them. Johansen calls for a “move away from alcohol and over to MDMA and psychedelics” in our quest for a healthier society, and points out how there is absolutely no logical or valid scientific reason for us to persist in our out-dated beliefs about the dangers of psychedelic drugs. Johansen claims they are “as safe as riding a bike or playing soccer.”
Prof.David Nutt of Imperial College London shares Johansen’s radical perspective. He was sacked as the UK government’s drug policy advisor a few years ago for daring to advocate decriminalization for medical research, and for publicly stating his professional view that tobacco and alcohol were far more dangerous than cannabis and psychedelic drugs. Nutt’s own research has proven that psilocybin can treat depression. The active ingredient of magic mushrooms has been proven to work on the same areas of the brain as Prozac, but unlike the pharmaceutical drug, it can offer a long-lasting impact on wellbeing and positivity, even after a single dose.
Nutt is affiliated with the Beckley Foundation, who have also launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for research on how LSD works in the brain. Other progressive scientists are doing great work at the Heffter Research Institute and MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), a non-profit organization founded in 1986.
The fascinating findings of these organizations cannot be summarized in one article, but here are a few of the life-changing benefits scientists have discovered from a wide range of psychedelic drugs, following initial research conducted during the fifties and sixties. LSD, Ayahuasca and psilocybin have been proven to cure alcoholism and other substance abuse, while a sacred African plant called Ibogaine has the power to end heroin addiction in one single dose. Peyote (a South American cactus), Ayahuasca, psilocybin, LSD and MDMA are known to aid depression, OCD, PTSD, and other anxiety disorders, and MDMA and LSD are also useful in treating cluster headaches. As we have previously reported, magic mushrooms help smokers quit, and they also go a long way to cure the emotional trauma of terminal cancer sufferers.
But it’s stories like this one that people need to hear. One Reddit user who participated in a MAPS-led study to take MDMA had a profoundly positive, life-changing experience. She had witnessed her young husband’s death in a violent accident, and was so traumatized she was unable to even grieve. She lived in constant fear and just getting through each day with her PTSD was a struggle. She says “MDMA saved my life,” and listed some of the astounding benefits of this highly illegal drug. Among them:
“I’m no longer suicidal. I no longer have violent, sometimes murderous thoughts. I sleep well with much less frequent nightmares. I no longer despise happy people. I’m connecting with my family again. I was engaging in reckless behavior in order to feel something, anything at all. I no longer have to do that. I’m able to enjoy normal things I’ve always enjoyed. I don’t have sudden rage outbursts anymore. I no longer feel my death is necessarily going to happen very soon. I want things for myself now, I can see a possible future now. My flashbacks are almost non existent and rarely throw me into a panic anymore. My appetite is completely back. I’m no longer TERRIFIED to step out of my door. I can hug people again. I’m actually happy.”
With such an overwhelming body of evidence to suggest that psychedelic drugs could be used in a safe, regulated way to treat a wide range of anxiety disorders, addictions and diseases, it seems archaic and absurd that scientists cannot find the money they desperately need for crucial research. With medical marijuana finally becoming an acceptable part of our culture, could psychedelic drugs be next?
The War on Drugs is still destroying lives, failing in its objectives, and in most cases (such as that of Roderick Walker, who died in prison while serving a life sentence with no chance of parole for being in possession of LSD) it continues to treat those who choose to experiment with their own personal consciousness on a par with rapists or murderers.
In 2016, the world has a unique opportunity to call for change. The UN will hold a special meeting in New York to set the future for international drug policy, and it is expected that the human rights of individuals who choose to take psychedelics as a spiritual aid, for personal development, or as a cultural activity will be taken into account.
EmmaSofia’s legal advisor Ketil Lund, who is a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Norway and member of the International Commission of Jurists stated: “The ban on psychedelics, which first and foremost seems based on ignorance and prejudice, could very well be a disproportionate intrusion into the right of individuals to freely exercise their religion, beliefs and private lives, all of which are protected by human rights conventions.”
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