Rediscovering psychedelics

Even the word “psychedelic” went to jail. During rare public appearances, the letters themselves are candy-colored and swirly, forced into orange jumpsuits like suspects in a mug shot. The word often appears alongside the usual suspects—pictures of daisies and toadstools and a cartoon hippie wearing love beads with bubbles popping over his head to indicate that he’s stoned and, therefore, a joke.

We recognize the symbolism and gloat on cue, proving once again that history is written by the winners. Richard Nixon, in this case.

After 50 years of living inside Nixon’s moral universe—that is, the “war on drugs”—most of us accept his story about LSD and other psychedelics. They’re an indulgence, a groovy escape for irresponsible people, a way-out path to destruction. Case closed.

But stop a second to consider these facts:

  • According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Most users of LSD voluntarily decrease or stop its use over time. LSD is not considered an addictive drug since it does not produce compulsive drug-seeking behavior.”
  • Studies at major research institutions including Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and NYU found positive results using psychedelics for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, addiction, and end-of-life anxiety in terminal cancer patients.
  • One study of the psychedelic MDMA found significant advantages over antidepressants for treating patients with PTSD. Two months after receiving MDMA, 80% of the subjects had improved to the point where they would no longer be diagnosed with the disease.

If this were any other drug, every grad student in the country would be lining up for the research grants pouring out of the pharmaceutical industry. Psychedelics, however, remain where Nixon put them fifty years ago. Possession is a federal crime that carries a one year prison sentence.

Perhaps this is one of those cases, like slavery and segregation, where the extreme awfulness of the situation presents an opportunity for change. If we pull back the curtain on the drug war just a bit, the whole mess comes tumbling out. We can understand the waste and injustice and our own role in creating them.

When the veil falls away, we see in a flash that we had it all backwards. Who would have thought that psychedelic drugs—universally condemned and ridiculed—could offer hope and great promise?

Oddly enough, this process of realization, this moment of dissolving illusions, mirrors the experience of the drugs themselves.

Posted in: Reason and Magic

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