Psychedelics and the greater good

Psychedelics aren’t like other drugs. They break the mold in many ways—their uniquely powerful psychoactive effects, their ability to inspire mystical experiences, their roots in tribal cultures.

They are also, like the experiences they produce, difficult to understand. Is LSD a tool for neuroscientists studying the brain? Is it for psychologists treating their patients? For spiritual seekers looking for enlightenment?

Unlike drugs with a clear-cut purpose (Tylenol for headaches, say), psychedelics have a dual identity. They’re both medical and spiritual. Patients with serious conditions like addiction and depression can use them for relief. Healthy people can use them for personal growth and development.

Most people who write about psychedelics—me included—come from the more-or-less healthy camp. We pump out books and articles on a subject that’s purely optional for us. That’s fine as long as we don’t distract anyone from the deeper need. As my friend Jackie Vanden Heuvel puts it:

“Enlightenment is a bonus for those who are already on a healthy path, but is a godsend for someone who suffers.”

It’s easy to get carried away by mystical or utopian visions and forget the practical effects of psychedelic drugs. Obviously, whenever a person loses the handicap of depression or PTSD, the world becomes a better place. The consequences could go way beyond individual lives.

Moving psychedelics out of Schedule 1 would be a major blow to the War on Drugs. The effects might include a reduction in the prison population and changes to unjust laws and police practices that incarcerate one in six African American males.

We could also see a transformation of our health care system. Conventional drug therapy for serious illness may mean years of daily meds with debilitating side effects. By contrast, the research on psychedelics shows that a few sessions can lead to profound and long-lasting benefits. This new model of therapy could require major changes in the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. The resulting economic and social consequences could be as big as the health benefits.

These goals are all possible. That doesn’t mean they’re inevitable, however. Psychedelic therapy was quite promising 50 years ago until the research was derailed by politics and fear. This time, it makes sense to focus on the science and the pressing needs of medical patients who could benefit from legalization.

That path may not be as sexy as our mystical visions. It is, however, the greater good. The rest will follow.

Posted in: Reason and Magic

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