“You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish.”
— Richard Nixon, 1971
Today, four decades after Nixon inaugurated the War on Drugs, 85% of Americans support the use of marijuana for medical purposes. 54% support outright legalization. There’s still a long way to go, but there’s hope for a happy ending to a sad story.
The situation with psychedelics isn’t as clear-cut. Although the medical and scientific potential of psychedelic drugs was apparent back in the 1950s, politics won out. The substances were banned, the research halted, and the whole topic buried in a very deep hole.
The story of the psychedelic renaissance is, well, a long, strange, trip. It’s all on display in Neurons to Nirvana: Understanding Psychedelic Medicines, a new documentary on the politics, culture, and science of psychedelic drugs.
Directors Oliver Hackenbull and Mikki Willis collected film clips dating back to the days when LSD was a laboratory curiosity. We see footage of the Good Friday Experiment in 1962 when psychologists administered psilocybin to a group of divinity students, establishing the mystical nature of the psychedelic experience. We learn that Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was an enthusiastic proponent of LSD for treating addiction.
The hippies are there, of course, with the long hair and loud music that scared the Silent Majority into line with the drug war. One revealing clip from this period shows a clean-cut young woman reading a pamphlet titled “LSD: How Can We Fight Back?” The story could have easily ended there.
They say that “Only Nixon can go to China.” Likewise, the public faces of the new psychedelic renaissance bear little resemblance to Timothy Leary. They’re mainstream MDs and scientists with impeccable credentials. Neurons to Nirvana features a number of them.
There’s Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins and Charles Grob of UCLA, both of whom have studied the use of psilocybin for treating end-of-life anxiety in cancer patients. Ingrid Pacey, M.D., studies the use of MDMA/Ecstasy for treating PTSD. The who’s who includes Stan Grof, David Nichols, Stephen Ross, David Metzner, and many others.
Most important, we hear from patients, people suffering from serious medical conditions who found relief through drugs that were feared and condemned for half a century. These are the people who will bring the psychedelic renaissance to the mainstream public. Regardless of your politics, everybody has a grandparent with cancer, a spouse with a drinking problem, or a friend who came back from the Iraq war with PTSD. The village comes together when there’s a little girl trapped in the well.
Neurons to Nirvana provides an excellent introduction to a vast and messy topic. There are other films that cover specific aspects of the psychedelic story in greater detail, but none that give a better overview. It’s the one to have if you’re just having one.