I recently lost a bit of my innocence sitting in the back of a lecture about the future of psychedelic medicine. It was the type of innocence I’ve lost countless times before but has continued to stubbornly reincarnate in new forms. Namely, it’s the naive belief that there might be something akin to a panacea for human suffering, something brimming with so much light and love that it couldn’t possibly have a shadow side. My support for psychedelic medicine had begun to border on this brand of naivete, that is until I attended a lecture that glimpsed a discomforting future.
The sobering impact of the talk, however, was most certainly not what the speaker had in mind. Instead, the speaker (who I’ll call Paul) was there to trumpet an exciting new psychedelic era of which he was a self-appointed pioneer. He informed us that the psychedelics that we, as an audience, generally support — psilocybin, MDMA, LSD and DMT/ayahuasca — were quickly going the way of the dinosaurs. They were old news, primitive substances fit perhaps for deadheads and shamans but not the shiny new psychonauts of the future. No! Plant medicine be damned. Soon we would all be taking “poly-drugs”.
“What’s a poly-drug?” you might ask. According to Paul, it’s a designer drug that combines various molecular components of the dusty old psychedelics we know and love. And apparently we don’t have to wait long for this promising future of psychedelia to arrive because, as Paul informed us, two such poly-drugs have already been born: Polly and Wally.
Polly, according to Paul, is a mash-up of MDMA, LSD, and Ritalin (I believe). Apparently, 1300 people have tried this drug, which, according to the testimonials that Paul shared, can cause users to commune with God and frolic through heavenly mindscapes. Sounds cool right?
Yes, indeed it did, that is until one audience member asked the question seemingly on top of everyone’s mind: “Who makes this stuff?” to which Paul proudly replied: “I do, it’s my design.” Another hand immediately shot up to ask the new question plaguing our collective consciousness: “So what is your background, academic or otherwise, in chemistry?” Paul answered somewhat sheepishly that he didn’t actually have any formal training or experience in chemistry. Instead, he was simply a man who was interested in drugs and had taken a lot of them.
I’m not sure whether I was projecting, but at this point I swear I heard people shift in their seats in a way that reflected my own mounting discomfort with this whole thing. What qualified this person to design these drugs and administer them to other humans? As a teacher and student of bioethics, I couldn’t help but wonder how much these guinea pigs were told about the nature and origin of this substance. Unfortunately, neither I nor anyone else could muster the courage to press Paul further. Perhaps we found his last response so disconcerting that we couldn’t bear to go further down this rabbit hole.
But then, ready or not, further down we went as Paul introduced his second brain-child, Wali. Wali, he said, is like ayahuasca on steroids mixed with ketamine. The trip apparently lasts 8–12 hours and is so dissociative that Paul had to engineer in “sparkles” to the experience just to remind users they were on drugs. Again, he provided some remarkable testimonials regarding Wali’s ability to bring about massive, positive and long-lasting shifts in users’ perspectives. However, he then ominously disclosed that not everyone has such a good time on Wali. When asked to elaborate, Paul noted that some people end up tripping for days after taking ketamine without specifically enlightening us as to the nature of the ‘not so good experiences’ some people had apparently had on Wali. Once again, we hesitated to press further. I imagine none of us actually wanted Paul to confirm what we feared might have happened to Wali’s unfortunate victims.
Of course, I found Paul’s cavalier approach to making and administering drugs troubling from a bioethics perspective. However, I’m also concerned that this type of behavior could thwart legitimate efforts to integrate psychedelics into mainstream medicine. As I wrote here previously, we are so close to having MDMA- and psilocybin-assisted therapies approved by the FDA and should mindfully abstain from any actions that could disrupt this progress. Instead, we must learn from the 60s that adverse events related to irresponsible psychedelic use can precipitate a backlash that jeopardizes the whole psychedelic medicine movement. I therefore worry that Paul’s mavericking might not only harm individuals but the legitimate psychedelic research currently underway.
But wait, there’s more! Paul then shared his ambitions for the future, which included making bespoke drugs specifically designed to elicit an experience or mind-state pre-selected by the user. For example, if someone wants to commune with a deceased relative, Paul apparently hopes to design a drug that could deliver that experience upon request. Again, I was left feeling deeply uncomfortable, like I had stepped into a psychedelic Black Mirror episode. Is this really the future I was advocating for with my support for psychedelic medicine?
What I find promising about psychedelics is their ability to attune us to the connectivity of all things as well as the inestimable power of love and compassion. My hope is that, if properly cultivated, these insights can cause positive shifts at both the individual and societal level as people engage with themselves and the world in a more enlightened way. I do not, however, advocate psychedelic use for the sake of escaping reality or achieving certain moods or brain-states on demand (i.e., seemingly the future Paul previewed for us).
While I need more time to fully digest my thoughts and feelings about the talk, it left me with at least one important take away: we must always be careful what we support and how we support it as even seemingly benign things can morph into more sinister manifestations of themselves. Thus, as with any other technology, psychedelics shouldn’t be touted as a panacea beyond reproach. Instead we must acknowledge that whether psychedelics ultimately have a net positive impact on both individuals and society will depend on how we, as psychedelic supporters, steer their use. And to do so responsibly, we must proactively consider the ways in which the whole endeavor might go awry so we can plan for and avert potential pitfalls. Paul’s talk therefore served the important purpose of enlightening me to a possible future that I’d like to help avoid. For this, the talk was well worth the price of admission.