September 12, 2017

“At the very least, we must enlarge the discussion about psychedelics.”

Dr. Willis Harman, one of the pioneers of research into the effects of psychedelics on creativity, made this declaration to me while I was in the early stages of performing my DMT studies. We were walking along the central California coast during a break in an invitational conference on psychedelics at Esalen Institute. I was nervously prattling on about God knows what, and he cut right through the fog with his characteristic precision. It was great advice, and has been one of the touchstones of my work ever since.

Now that the resurgence in human studies with psychedelic drugs has taken firm root in the academic research world, I see some developments that point to a diminution of that discussion, a premature closing of inquiry into the mechanisms, meanings, messages, and utility of the psychedelic drug state. These are the result of an attempt to prevent some of the mistakes made during the first wave of human studies with these drugs, as well as reflecting the influence of political correctness. Both have the potential to derail the fullest possible explication of the psychedelic drug effect.

Today, I will address the first set of issues: What happened during the first wave of human research to shut down one of the most promising developments in modern psychiatry and psychology.

A significant contributor was academic scientists “getting religion.” This was most striking in the case of Harvard-based psychologists Tim Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner. Their own self experimentation, and administration of psychedelics to colleagues, friends, and students convinced them of the religious and spiritual boons possible with psychedelic drugs taken in a particular setting. Leary and Alpert turned to the East, and immersed themselves in Buddhist and Hindu philosophy and practices. Metzner briefly turned East, and later promoted a more nature-based approach.

Leary took the “religious imperative” as reason to offer a social critique of the contemporary West, a “prophetic” role that combined with his charismatic flair and penchant for the media, was seen by authorities as socially destabilizing. Alpert became a Hindu acolyte, channeling his “prophetic” impulses into a more ascetic, inwardly directed path. This conflation of Eastern religion and psychedelics represented by the Leary-Alpert model led to the birth of the “transpersonal” stream of psychology, one that continues until this day. However, the more conservative psychiatric establishment, as well as federal medical regulators, found these developments as indicating that researchers had lost their perspective and good sense in studying these drugs; in fact, turning them into dangerous drugs of abuse with serious public health consequences. Clinical research laboratory-based projects with specific hypotheses, aims, methods, safeguards—all of the infrastructure and strictures necessary for legitimate scientific experiments—were one thing; advocating uncontrolled use of psychedelics by youth on a vast scale was another.

A different approach with similar results took place on the West Coast, under the direction of Ken Kesey. His Acid Test parties introduced thousands to LSD and similar drugs, while his Hell’s Angels associates managed event security and provided an effective drug distribution network. Both movements’ encouragement to freely experiment with psychedelic drugs led to their widespread use, most of which resulted in no harm. On the contrary, much of this large-scale uncontrolled use most likely contributed to the many creative intellectual and aesthetic developments for which the 1960s are known, and which continue to exert influence throughout society. At the same time, there were widespread and frightening adverse effects in those who ought not to have taken these drugs, at least not in the settings in which they did.

It was a perfect storm. Researchers exiting the academic fold and assuming socially disruptive roles in a highly public manner, a highly visible and fascinatingly entertaining grass-roots movement—both making naïve (and self-serving) claims regarding the panacea-like properties of psychedelics. The inevitable and dramatic public health effects of widespread uncontrolled use, combined with their association with anti-war and anti-segregation movements were major factors leading to the restrictive legal scheduling of these drugs with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Human research went into hibernation for the next two decades.

In my next post, I’ll write about how contemporary psychedelic drug researchers have adapted their approach in order to prevent a repeat of the first wave of researchers’ mistakes. An approach, that while highly successful, also runs the risk of developing into a type of fundamentalism.

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