Could psychedelics be the key to solving our biggest problems?

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

by Dana Osborn

A note for those who are delving into the realm of psychedelics for the first time: the subject is vast and, subsequently, impossible to fully encompass in the breadth of this piece. Any public information on psychedelics usually focuses on their illegality or narcotic categorisation. After having a psychedelic experience, the question I’ve heard the most is, “how can this be illegal?” Perhaps this story can provide insight, a peek into the objective reality and value of psychedelics, unaltered by specific political or religious motives.

Psychedelics or Hallucinogens are a class of psychoactive substances which produce an altered state of consciousness. Naturally occurring psychedelic compounds such as psilocybin, mescaline, DMT etc. are just that: natural and have been around longer than we have. One can quite literally eat a plant containing these compounds straight out of the ground and, without any additional interference, be transported to the ‘psychedelic realm.’ The real shocker- humans have been doing this for thousands of years.

[Shaman Pablo Flores in 2018, as he begins an Ayahuasca Session in Nuevo Egipto, Peru. This traditional usage of psychedelics is a thousand-year-old tradition. Photo: Martin Mejia via AP Photo]

A quick run-down of the history of psychedelics is essential. Psychoactive substances have been used in shamanic rituals for ages. Professor Elisa Guerra-Doce has compiled evidence from around the world that Neolithic people were taking cacti-derived psychedelic substances around 8,600BC (which would include mescaline and DMT). Terrence Mckenna is an ethnobotanist, mystic, psychonaut, lecturer, author, and advocate for the responsible use of naturally occurring psychedelic plants. He explains how the psychedelic experience essentially exposes one to the tremendum of existence and that early usage laid the basis for the genesis of religion.

Mckenna explains that ancient ‘cattle religions’, notable because of their connection to nature (and named as such because of the adoration of animals due to the psychedelic mushrooms consumed from of their dung), were almost completely wiped out by the early Judaeo-Christian mentality which saw nature as something to be exploited. This led to the Western, corporate-driven, war-mongering culture, many know and loathe today and completely removed psychedelic exposure from the average colonial and colonized individual.

[A ‘San Pedro’ Cactus or ‘Echinopsis Pachanoi’ containing the psychedelic protoalkaloid, mescaline. Photo: Dana Osborn]
[A ‘Peyote’ cactus or ‘Lophophora Williamsii’ containing the psychedelic protoalkaloid, mescaline. Photo: Arno Cornelissen]

Until 1966, psychedelics were legal yet largely unexplored. Timothy Leary, a celebrated clinical psychologist, travelled to Mexico and had his first psychedelic experience when he was 40 years old. He wrote that from this experience he “learnt more about the mind than [he] had in 15 years as a diligent psychologist.” Leary left Harvard after his study involving psychedelics and graduate students sparked controversy. Leary was running The International Federation of Internal Freedom and coined the 60’s phrase “turn on, tune in and drop out.”

During this time, the 60’s counterculture movement began to gain momentum. Driven by psychedelic usage, the message of this movement was a rejection of societal norms and the problematic mentality of western culture. It involved a collective re-evaluation of our place in the world, our relationship with nature and each other, and the reliance on institutions which have removed us from our humanity. Leary’s message was that these people will not join your corporations and they will not fight your wars.

This message obviously didn't sit well with the ‘big guys at the top’. After being tracked, searched and caught with approximately 3.5grams of marijuana, Leary was sentenced to 30 years in prison and the Controlled Substances Act was passed prohibiting psychedelic usage. Leary’s arrest was done with much fanfare (as Nixon - in crisis from Vietnam and facing impeachment - needed a scapegoat). Leary was labeled as the most dangerous man in America as the result of a political vendetta which was accompanied by copious amounts of anti-psychedelic propaganda, such as the ‘acid makes people jump out of windows’ sentiment.

[Archive photos of Leary taking Psilocybin mushrooms in Mexico. Photo: Alex Welsh via Wired]

After this, all studies using psychedelics were shut down, including some with very promising results in treating depression, anxiety, PTSD, fear of mortality (in patients with terminal illness’)

and drug addiction. The whole world followed suit in criminalising psychedelic usage until the present day, where studies are slowly starting up again and psychedelic usage is returning to mainstream media.

Now that history is out of the way, we can focus on the potential of psychedelics in solving some of the largest problems that the human collective faces. To tackle this, one must understand the psychedelic experience or at least have a glimpse into what it entails. The psychedelic experience essentially breaks down ego formations, allowing one to objectively observe the world and the self without the interference of the ego trying to preserve self-image. Psychedelics do this, whilst heightening the tether which binds each individual to another and to nature itself. Michael Pollan - journalist and author of “How to Change Your Mind” - after taking psilocybin mushrooms in his garden said, “in one way I knew this scene well, the garden coming briefly to life, after the heat of a summer day had relented but never had [he] felt so integral to it, no longer a human observer from a distance but part and parcel of nature itself.”

After this experience, Pollan realised his own egotistical inclinations. This is where the very essence of psychedelics is found. From testimonies far and wide, the overwhelming effect of psychedelics is the dissolution of the ego. Mckenna likens the experience to sex in that both are “completing, illuminating and transcendental experiences which one must have in order to fully claim the dimension of humanness,” they both depart from the ego and encourage the recognition of ‘the other’.

A quick note - all substances can be abused, psychedelics are no different. Psychedelics can be fun, produce bright and animated visuals (not full-blown hallucinations rather distortions of reality) and bring out giggling, child-like amazement at life but if approached with the wrong mindset, psychedelics can not be so kind. We have all heard stories of people taking psychedelics and freaking out, these are not lies. Psychedelics have an immense potential to show us the things we like the least about ourselves and of course this can be down-right terrifying but if one is using psychedelics as a tool to identify and fix problematic behaviour, it can lead to one of the most personal and insightful experiences available. I am a big believer that if you take psychedelics looking to get “f*cked up,” it’s going to work. Trust me, if you don’t respect psychedelics, they will put you in your place.

[ A session which utilizes psilocybin for a study at John Hopkins. Photo: Wikimedia]

So how can this fix our largest problems? I always liked Pollan’s explanation of this. All the biggest problems facing the human race can be boiled down to two core crises: tribalism and the environmental crisis, which are similar in that they are caused by “the ego’s intent to objectify the other.” An example which demonstrates this idea is when colonial forces were told a lie about cannibalistic Amazonian people, which allowed them to deny the Amazonian’s humanity, avoiding emotive connection, encouraging othering and justifying atrocities.

When we cannot separate ourselves from the other, we cannot objectify the other. We are at a point in our existence similar to adolescence in that we are ruled by our ego, and that a paradigmatic shift is required in the collective consciousness of humans. We have been taught that life is about ‘survival of the fittest’ and we are wrong, it is about who can cooperate best with that-and-those around them. In psychedelics, we have a possible tool, one given to us by nature, proved to aid in dissolving the egotistic formations which rule our world and have caused our biggest problems.

The real question is why is something natural, so easily accessible, and potentially revolutionary being repressed? Not just for children and other vulnerable individuals but for research psychologists, physiologists and pharmacologists. Perhaps it’s because psychedelics - truly respected and fully appreciated - would explode the corporate-driven, war-mongering culture which rules our world, giving each an awareness of themselves and the other which has been objectified for so long. All the politicised, institutionalised, and militarized motives will be demystified and rejected, and what could be worse than that for the ‘big guys at the top’?

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