Psychedelic Renaissance


As they aged, the first generation of psychonauts wondered at times whether their culture would die out, or at least whether that was the expectation of those supporting the “war on drugs.” Apart from protecting the Republic against the reputed “dangers” of psychedelics, the war on drugs had several other benefits to its sponsors: (a) jobs for all the necessary narcotics officers, prosecutors, prison guards, and other drug warriors, (b) another danger to frighten voters with, such as the later “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, (c) control of the people, especially young people, especially minorities, who are likely to vote for the wrong party unless convicted of a felony, (d) something else to feel righteous about, (e) a source of evidence-free scare articles for the mass media. With all this against them, would the underground psychedelic culture gradually die out?

It hasn’t.

In part, this is because some illegal substances, such as cannabis, provided an alternative to alcohol and other drugs of the older generation, in part because classic psychedelics reportedly felt enlightening. Meanwhile, there was no officially accepted medical use, mainly because of crack-downs, thus difficulty in conducting the research deemed necessary.

Of the only two recognized categories of “drugs,” medical and “recreational,” both have been possible to legalize, at least for cannabis, at least for residents of several states, starting with Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. Meanwhile, MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies)has been doing well-informed, persistent and far-sighted work in supporting the research necessary to allow cannabis, MDMA and the classic psychedelics to be prescribed for various medical conditions. This leaves uses that are neither recreational nor therapeutic, such as the visionary. Even since the discovery of LSD (not to mention such traditional drugs as ayahuasca), visionary use has been accomplished for more than seven decades, most of it while the substances were illegal.

The meme of a psychedelic renaissance is encouraged, for example, by young faces last April at the sold-out MAPS conference on “psychedelic science” . Despite caution from such level-headed elders as Bob Jesse, the meme is buoyed by the legal research projects described at that conference and in subsequent MAPS publications.

Since he was in college, Rick Doblin, who founded MAPS in 1986, has dreamed of becoming a licensed psychedelic psychotherapist. (At the 2017 conference he even showed a mock-up of the card he someday hopes to carry.) If anyone can claim to be the poster-guy for a renaissance it is Doblin. He lived through the crackdown on “drugs.” With colleagues, he founded the premier U.S. organization in the struggle (as Amanda Feilding did in the U.K.). He earned a Harvard graduate degree while focusing on psycho-actives. MAPS has kept applying for permission to do research, raised money for the research, gone abroad to find places where research could be done, convened conferences that have grown in size and scope, and employed people, including young people.

With regard to the renaissance, today’s college students are the age of the grandkids of the psychedelic pioneers. Despite the perils of illegality, they know that official propaganda about “dangers” is nonsense if you focus on people who are not pre-psychotic, and who are taking pure substances under good conditions, preferably with experienced sitters. They choose not to heed people who, on the basis of no serious evidence or even personal experience, are sure about the dangers of psychedelics and who meanwhile may drive home plastered from a bar or party, or who become alcoholics, or both.

The deeper issue about psychedelics is not whether they are dangerous or have medical uses , but whether they take users beyond ordinary reality in useful ways. One nuanced consideration of this, from a Buddhist point of view, is found in Badiner’s Zig-Zag Zen, Of course any activity can be perilous, as highway deaths show, or prescription drug damage, but have we outlawed cars or physicians?

MAPS has adopted the strategy of seeking to add classic psychedelics, plus such mindful molecules as cannabis and MDMA, to the pharmacopeia of prescription medicines, to be given by trained psychotherapists in certified clinics. It sponsors and helps obtain funding for high-quality research on uses of these substances to reduce human suffering and, in some cases, help heal people.

And many observers understand that these substances have uses that go far beyond medicine, which, apart from reducing suffering, seeks to restore people to normality. These are noble goals. But eventually the society will have to ask whether normality should be the outer limit of exploration, or whether people should have the right to live in, or at least glimpse, what lies beyond what is currently normal in each society.

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