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The Perilous Grounds of the "Psychedelic Renaissance"
It's time to add nuance to the conversation
Psychedelics are all the rage these days. In the span of a few years, they went from cultural obscurity to being heralded as a miracle cure for all of humanity’s ills. This transformation is largely due to the clinical research of the past two decades, which has shown enormous promise in a number of areas. But context is everything when it comes to psychedelics. The fast-tracking of their approval, both by regulatory agencies and the wider culture, leaves many critical questions unanswered about how they will be integrated into society in a safe, effective, and accessible way. Like so many discussions in our culture today, the conversation around these compounds is seriously lacking nuance. This is to our peril.
A Trojan Horse
No matter where you live, what part of the political spectrum you fall under, and no matter how much drug experience you have, you’ve no doubt heard about the surge of interest in the West around psychedelics. You’ve probably read many headlines touting their magical properties from establishment institutions like The Economist, The New York Times, and oddly enough, the National Review.
In 1964, a few buttoned up middle class kids raised on John Wayne and Audie Murphy dropped acid and joined Ken Kesey on his magic bus trip across America. Later, many heeded Timothy Leary’s call to reject the ethics of their whiskey-drinking parents and usher in a new age of peace, love, and understanding. That whole groovy wave crashed pretty quickly, and left in its wake Charles Manson, Altamont, and yuppies.
Today, a similar trend seems to be under way, although it’s of a completely different flavor and exists in a totally different political landscape. More and more ordinary people are drinking the kool aid: “microdosing moms,” A-list celebrities, NFL stars, and (former) English royalty. It’s the answer, they say, to everything plaguing our over-civilized modern life: PTSD, depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, and marital troubles.
This transformation is nothing short of stunning. In less than a decade, psychedelics went from cultural obscurity and strict criminalization to being heralded as the savior of humanity. It’s the result of slow, methodical work by some very intelligent and dedicated folks, whom I’ve come to know and admire. The analogy of the Trojan Horse has been used to describe this psychedelic infiltration into the very core of the American establishment: the corporate media, the FDA, and pop culture. It's a marvelous achievement.
But after the glory of victory fades away, the invading army is left with a problem: they need to figure out how to rule. And it’s usually much harder than anybody anticipates. Like the Americans in Iraq after they toppled Saddam Hussein or the French Revolutionaries after they abolished the monarchy or Fidel Castro’s rebels after Batista was ousted, that’s when the real problems begin.
Oftentimes, revolutionary movements break into factions. Once they are no longer at war with the original enemy, they break off into tribes and begin fighting each other. Like the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks of the Russian Revolution, each feels that they alone carry the true heart and soul of the movement. Usually, the more radical group wins in the chaos. It brings about the worst aspects of our nature, and becomes a breeding ground for manipulative, selfish, and power-hungry actors.
Today, we’re at the dawn of a psychedelic revolution unlike anything ever seen. And it couldn’t come at a stranger time. So much of our lives have been (and are going to further be) upended by polarization, misinformation, and artificial intelligence. Will sudden, mass availability of psychedelic experience be the force that saves us from our own destruction? If so, who’s going to be the shepherd of this live-saving sacrament? The church? Your shrink? Big Tech? Big Pharma? At-home ketamine kits advertised on Instagram?
If psychedelics are as powerful as they appear to be in re-shaping our minds and the essence of our human experience, does this not introduce a new power structure for somebody to take advantage of? And do you really think that power will be left to nonprofits and underground healers with the best of intentions?
We’re witnessing a mass experiment in real time. And I can’t help but feel deep concern for what’s on the horizon.
I. The Early Research Days
I began documenting one of the early clinical trials with psilocybin way back in 2011 (long before it was cool). The trial was being conducted by the NYU School of Medicine at the time and was exploring the use of high dose psilocybin among people diagnosed with cancer and struggling with the anxiety of facing death. I was able to interview several of the participants in that study who shared how the medicine re-shaped their view of life and death. Their testimony was profound and moving.
My interest in psychedelics came about when I was a teenager fascinated with the counterculture of the 1960s. I read about Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception while I was in high school. In college I experimented with LSD and was struck by those early experiences. It seemed to reveal some authentic self within me, which was continually changing and growing, completely free from bullshit, unable to lie or accept others' lies, and guided by some profound sense of humor. The fact that a compound can re-shape your entire perception of objective reality was (and still is) utterly fascinating to me.
But I was also deeply unaware of the dangers as well. One day I took too much (or maybe it was just bad acid). I had a severely bad trip. It looked like something out of a health class anti-drug propaganda film. That whole experience needs its own article to do it justice, but it left me shaken, confused, and traumatized for some time. When I heard about the clinical trial at NYU I was immediately intrigued because it provided such a contrast to my reckless teenage experimentation.
I began making a documentary about the clinical trial and the history of psychedelics in a research context. Looking back, the process was a way for me to make sense of what had happened to me during that bad trip, and to learn more about how these compounds are used properly. I then distributed that film independently, and along the way encountered many people who were transformed by these experiences.
I can attest to what’s now been said ad nauseum in the headlines: psychedelics, when used in the right context, have incredible potential to heal. It’s particularly helpful for those who have nowhere else to turn to in our current medical system; like military veterans and those with severe depression, anxiety, and addiction. Our society is failing to address the mental health crisis, and psychedelics are filling that need.
The modern iteration of this research began at Johns Hopkins in 2006 and was proceeding along quietly and carefully for several years. In many ways, I miss those early years. Researchers would hide behind dry PowerPoint presentations at conferences and never even allude to their own personal experiences. There was press coverage here and there, but it was much quieter than today. After what had happened in the sixties, it felt as though it was moving along at an appropriate pace. It seemed like it was all in good hands.
That all changed when author Michael Pollan turned his attention away from his lettuce garden to psychedelic plants and fungi in 2018. The floodgates opened and the landscape has been changing at an ever-more rapid and dizzying pace. Almost everybody I meet now had no knowledge or experience with psychedelics prior to circa 2018. I hear the same story over and over. I wait politely for the words, “...and then I read Michael Pollan’s book…”
In a matter of a few years, they went from believing their 7th grade health teacher on how LSD makes you insane, to thinking that it will save our world. I don’t question the intentions of these people, but I believe their viewpoint is deeply rooted in naivety. The truth is much more complex and messy. And naivety can be dangerous, because it obscures the perilous grounds underneath.
II. Lost Sacraments
From the erasure of soma in the Hindu tradition, to the Catholic Church’s crackdown of the Eleusinian Mysteries in the 4th Century, to Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act of 1971, psychedelics have a long history of repression. When you understand this tumultuous history, there is simply no reason to believe that the current enthusiasm and regulatory progress couldn’t come crashing down. And quickly.
In 1991, Terrence McKenna, the “Irish Bard” of psychedelia, gave a talk at Claremont College and offered a theory on a strange phenomenon that occurred throughout human history. He noted several instances where a psychedelic sacrament like soma, praised in the ancient Vedic texts, gets “lost” over the ages.
There are also places where psychedelics exist in the natural world but there is no known evidence of their use among the native peoples. How could this be? Native people knew everything about the natural world around them, which plants were poisonous, medicinal, psychoactive. How could they just leave morning glory seeds or psilocybin mushrooms be, as if there was nothing to see here folks.
McKenna’s theory was that a spiritual tradition formed around the sacrament and over time a priesthood or elite became the overseers of that tradition, heralding their power over the lower classes. Eventually, the common folk overthrew the priestly class, and the sacrament was banished from the culture. Lost to history. According to his theory, the sacrament then got discarded as a reminder of these obnoxious, misguided folks.
To me, this is the perfect analogy for what could bring down the psychedelic movement. This could happen as a result of a new power structure introduced by big business. Or it could simply be the result of the insufferable and misguided nature of many of the proselytizers of psychedelics today.
III. The Problem With Proselytizers
My first experience with the followers of this movement started around 2019. By “followers,” I am making a clear distinction from the researchers and study participants I had come to know. At this point, I was finally finishing the edit of my film and I wanted to connect with what I thought would be its core audience. So, I began traveling to psychedelic conferences and spending time in these circles of the internet.
I attended a drug policy conference and was taken aback by what I witnessed. I was suddenly made aware of various rifts within a community that I had otherwise assumed was peaceful and united in their cause. Accusations were made of “psychedelic exceptionalism” and “cultural appropriation” and “colonialism.” There was a seriousness in the air that I found unfitting and strange. I couldn’t help but feel like I was looked upon by certain people with deep suspicion.
At first this just seemed silly to me, but over time I realize how incredibly ironic it is. One of the central frameworks of the psychedelic experience (at least in a western context) is mystical experience. There’s a transcendence of the ordinary experience of ourselves and the world around us. There’s a sense of unity and connection with all things in the universe. That’s a powerful experience to have and is helping a lot of people get over their depression, their addiction, or their fear of death.
But something must be seriously wrong when you have a group of people gathering around a compound that supposedly brings about unity and connection, and the decorum in the room is the recent 2022 Wonderland Miami event. Not all psychedelic conferences are like this. And you could say that this splintering is an inevitable result of psychedelics going mainstream. But from my observation, the tribal nature seems more pronounced in this particular group of people compared to the average. This is a huge concern.
Psychedelics are supposed to break down your sense of ego and identity. Yet the supposed carriers of this torch have bigger egos than normal and are deeply entrenched in identity traps of us vs them? This casts serious doubts on one of the central tenets of the movement: that psychedelics make better people, and are going to heal and unite humanity. We hear this over and over again and it’s simply incorrect.
A friend of mine told me a story that demonstrates this point. During the pandemic, he was attending and hosting virtual psychedelic integration circles. At the time, the ugly culture wars over masks and vaccines were in full force, and these arguments carried over into these discussions. He was mystified to witness a group of people gathered around mystical experience descending into accusations, conspiracy theories, and whatever other craziness was in the discourse at the time.
If the psychedelic renaissance is going to bring about a transformation of human beings away from our tribal past and into a more highly evolved new spiritual understanding, as they claim, then the people leading that movement need to be above petty tribalism. Otherwise, we would be led to the opposite conclusion: that psychedelics entrench us further in our identities and belief systems and tribal nature. If this is the case, given the current state of the world, we are in for serious trouble.
IV. Take Your Eyes off the Microscope
Alan Watts, who brought eastern philosophy to Westerners in the mid-20th century, has one of the greatest quotes on psychedelics:
If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelics drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen.
Although this quote is often repeated in psychedelic circles, the point seems lost on most people. Albert Hofmann, the chemist who accidentally synthesized LSD back in the 1930s, delivered a similar sentiment later in his life:
I must do what [Aldous] Huxley wrote to me in a letter. What you take in through visionary experience you must give out in daily life. And that is now the task which I try… the feeling to be a part of the universe, which I got from LSD experiences. This feeling is always present in my life.
Psychedelics can give you profound insights, but the whole point is that you learn from that experience and you come back and you apply it to your life. You become a better chemist, artist, architect, parent, therapist, or whatever it is you do. You don’t continue to live in the visionary experience. You have to integrate the experience through things like meditation, self-reflection, and therapy. And it can be a long road.
There’s another predictable line I wait for when I meet people in these circles. And it comes almost every time: “so… how did you get into this?” There’s always something unsettling about the question. I can’t help but notice some wide-eyed, cult-like look in their eyes. Like I’m visiting a commune being asked about my “previous life” on the “outside.” I always sense some great expectation in their question, and never feel like my answer is satisfactory.
It turns out I would’ve thrived in Ancient Greece. Evidence strongly suggests that the kykeon, the ceremonial drink at the center of the Eleusinian Mysteries, contained ergot, which is the fungus that Albert Hofmann synthesized into LSD in the 1930s. Those who participated in this mystery ceremony did so only once, and were forbidden to speak about what they saw under punishment of death.
I’ve often wondered about the reasoning behind this strict secrecy. My theory is that they understood the true ineffability of visionary experience. I think they felt that speaking about one’s experience (i.e. putting that which is beyond words into words) both diminished the power of that experience and corrupted the uninitiated by creating an expectation in their minds prior to experiencing it themselves. Not only did they not want you to talk about what happened, but they felt that doing so was one of the worst things a person could do.
They wanted you to take what you learned and apply it to the real world, through mathematics, architecture, philosophy, or leadership. I wonder what wisdom we’ve missed through our desire to constantly share our visionary experiences with others and create a whole industry around “healing.” Was this the same warning that Moses received from God about the perils of worshiping false idols? Perhaps this is how the original insights of the mystics get watered down and lost through organized religion.
If you look at these communities online, you see that a lot of people adopt the psychedelic experience as their new identity. It’s written all over their social media handles and profiles – psilocybin-guy and DMT-Tripper. They adopt new clothing and hairstyles, and they talk about psychedelics nonstop. I believe this misses a critical point. You haven’t transcended your ego and identity. All you’ve done is exchanged it for a new one. And in many cases, the ego and identity become supercharged.
This lack of historical understanding is even more pronounced when you examine the use of psychedelics in Central and South America. It’s very popular today to go down to Peru to partake in an ayahuasca ceremony to get over your “childhood trauma,” but this is a western cultural framework. Traditionally, psychedelics were used by shamans to enter spiritual realms and have encounters with saints and spirits. It was more about using psychedelics to access certain information or powers not normally available. This could be used to heal the sick, but it could also be used to search for lost members of the tribe, find game for hunting, or even warfare.
Maria Sabina, the Mazatec curandera who introduced Gordon Wasson to magic mushrooms in the 1950s, remarked upon these conflicting frameworks. Wasson publicized his experience in a famous Life Magazine article in 1957, which brought hoards of westerners to Sabina’s village interested in eating the mushrooms themselves so they could “find God.” This had tragic consequences for her and her village, and she remarked on how this western search took away the original healing powers of the mushrooms.
Psychedelics are merely tools. They can be used for personal growth, but they can also be used to prepare for battle or brainwash people. Just as a hammer can be used to build a house or destroy somebody’s skull, the psychedelic experience is completely dependent on the context in which it is taken.
The way they are being used in the 21st Century is unlike anything we’ve seen before in human history. In the past, that context was overseen by the church and it existed within a strict cultural framework. Today’s landscape is a wild west free-for-all. It’s very unclear who will play that role and what values will it be built upon. This lack of a cultural foundation puts the whole experiment on shaky grounds.
V. Big Business & Perverse Incentives
Back when I began filming with the NYU clinical trial in the early 2010s, there was little conception of who would administer psilocybin therapy if and when the drug was rescheduled. Fast forward just several years later, and a strange new development started taking place: psychedelic capitalism.
Once Michael Pollan created widespread interest in psychedelics and the FDA designated psilocybin breakthrough therapy status for treatment-resistant depression, the floodgates opened to big business who saw opportunity. Seemingly overnight, for-profit companies started popping up all over the place and going public soon after.
I’m not anti-capitalist, but I struggle to see how big pharma and biotech companies are going to merge with the models established by the current clinical trials and underground healers. I don’t see how you can truly foster mental health transformation while satisfying the shareholders of a publicly traded company. I’m also mighty skeptical of the recent behavior of the industry at large; between the opioid epidemic, the massive prescription of SSRIs, and giving speed-like ADD medication to children.
Psychedelic therapy, when done properly, is enormously effective for certain outcomes. The participants I came to know from the NYU trial carried the lessons and insights from their single dose psilocybin session for years. There is not much need to repeat the experience. But isn’t this a terrible business model?
Furthermore, the therapy component is absolutely critical. These compounds are not therapeutic in and of themselves. The cost of therapy is high and would be one of the first places these companies would be looking to cut. This is an enormous problem. I’m not an expert on the pharma industry, but it seems the incentives are to cut costs and get repeat customers. And neither of these are compatible with successful psychedelic therapy. It’s not scalable.
When you look at the scalable options, it all starts to sound like a sci-fi novel. Because compounds like psilocybin and LSD were discovered many decades ago, they have long been in the public domain. Drug companies make their money by developing novel compounds so they can then patent those drugs. Therefore, all of these companies are racing to come up with slight variations on good ole fashioned LSD and psilocybin. Perhaps it will last 2 hours instead of 6. Or perhaps it’ll come on in 15 minutes instead of an hour. On the surface, this feels a bit slimy and cheap, but there’s a layer far more complex and sinister.
Psychedelics reveal a lot about the mind. In certain contexts, they can re-shape how we view ourselves and the world around us. In therapy, this is the point. It can get us unstuck from negative and abusive thought patterns that keep us trapped in cycles of anxiety, depression, or substance abuse. This is the positive side of the trendy term “neuroplasticity.”
But could this re-shaping of our thoughts and perceptions be used for sinister purposes? What if the full force of VC-backed biotech firms, combined with exponentially growing AI technology, begins to hack the human brain and is able to manipulate it through newly discovered compounds? Who will control this new technology? And will they use it for mass mental health or will they use it as a new superpower to control the masses in the vein of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World?
This might sound crazy, but I do not think it’s out of the realm of possibility. Psychedelics are enormously powerful. And it’s simple human nature that once that power becomes available, somebody out there will take advantage of it. The world is not ruled by angels. And without a collective cultural framework, who will be there to stop it?
The Beginning of the End
I spent ten years of my life making a documentary on the potential of psychedelics to heal people’s suffering and by extension, humanity as a whole. I still believe that when used properly, they do hold this potential. But I’m increasingly disturbed by what’s happening in the larger scene as psychedelics go mainstream, and I don’t think enough people are talking about the nuance of all this.
Ten years ago, the problem was misinformation from the War on Drugs and the cultural stigma around these compounds. This is no longer the concern. It’s the opposite. They are being overhyped, overprescribed, and their dangers are being brushed over. It’s all happening without a cultural foundation. And it’s happening in a modern capitalist environment, which has never been tried. A lot of the loudest people are amateurs, egomaniacs, and idiots.
The culture also celebrates drug experiences in ways that I find immature and misguided. Our ultimate goal as a society should be sobriety. Various drugs can help get our lives back on track for a variety of reasons. But the goal should be to get to a place where you don’t need drugs anymore. Aspects of the movement stray away from that goal. And the newly introduced economic incentives are in direct opposition.
In 1971, as the last wave of the groovy sixties receded, Hunter S. Thompson wrote the following in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:
This was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling ‘consciousness expansion’ without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously… All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours, too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create… a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody-or at least some force-is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.
Today, we are living in strange times. Psychedelics have the potential to ground us in some deeper, universal truth. But without a cultural framework to guide and harness that power, it seems unlikely. My expectation is that we are living in the beginning of the end of a new cycle of psychedelic repression. A new one for the history books. It should be interesting.