Not long after the last presidential election, a meme started circulating among advocates of psychedelics. Someone had given Donald Trump a thick, white beard. Eyes atwinkle above his Santa Claus whiskers, the reality TV star turned president appears uncharacteristically thoughtful and kind, maybe even a little wise.
The punchline is a Fox News chyron: “BREAKING: ‘LSD SAVED MY LIFE.’”
The meme put a 2016 twist on a 1966 joke: Give a square enough acid, and three hours later, he’s barefoot in the grass, weeping over a daffodil. A few hours after that, he’s jumping around like George Bailey at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, renouncing a life driven by money and power for one centered around love and kindness. The psychedelic experience is so powerful, goes the cliché, that it dissolves and redeems any ego placed in its cosmic grace, even oversized and diseased ones like Donald Trump’s.
The Bearded Trump meme did more than riff on a vintage hippie trope. By taking the president as its subject, it touched on a theory of radical social change dating to the West’s first postwar encounters with hallucinogens. This is the idea that the widespread and structured use of psychedelics, including by presidents and prime ministers, could enlighten and transform a civilization hurtling toward thermonuclear holocaust and ecological collapse. It is rooted in a belief that the crisis of the modern world is a spiritual crisis and sees psychedelics, also known as entheogens (meaning “God-containing”), as potential accelerants in the construction of a more balanced, more soulful society built for survival. The ultimate molecular shortcut.
“I have no doubt psychedelics can have a positive effect on the world as a whole.”
From our vantage in 2018, the pathways to such a society can appear hopelessly remote. Tribalism is on the rise, as are atmospheric carbon and methane counts. Despair is a daily enemy, with talk of bright futures, never mind shortcuts, fizzling before our eyes. Amid this deepening gloom, psychedelics have made a colorful and triumphant return.
The quickening bloom of the so-called Psychedelic Spring has brought us within sight of a long-delayed revolution in psychiatry, promising breakthrough treatments for mortal anxiety, depression, PTSD, addiction, and more. Studies multiply at famous universities across the globe, their implications for psychiatry and our understanding of brain and mind explained to a curious public in books like Michael Pollan’s bestselling How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.
The psychedelics revival has generally avoided contrasting its rich colors to the dark clouds gathering outside the laboratory window. It has instead adopted the medical focus that defined the early stages of marijuana’s long march to legalization: Stick to the science, and prove the stuff can relieve human suffering. In large part, this has been a political strategy geared toward winning Food and Drug Administration green-lights and assuaging the fears of university establishments still haunted by episodes from the first psychedelic research era. But the old dream of social progress never died, and many of the movement’s lab coats cover faded tie-dyes and Indian paisleys underneath.
“A lot of us don’t say it out loud, but it’s impossible not to be inspired by psychedelics’ radical social potential when you see their impacts on people and how they view the world,” said one researcher who declined to be named. “We don’t want to anger the department heads or touch a cultural third rail. Politicizing the research would risk the incredible progress we’re making — that’s the fear.”
This fear is being challenged from both within and without the research community. After a decade of tight message discipline, some are eager to get beyond the utilitarian medical approach to psilocybin, LSD, and ayahuasca and get back to the big question: Can they help us wake up and change before it’s too late? Are they still our best chance to engineer “a self-willed, rapid mutation in human consciousness,” in the words of psychedelic writer Daniel Pinchbeck? Unlike 50 years ago, nobody today claims to know the answer. But the question is back, and not just among the usual suspects.
The idea of psychedelics as technologies of mass “moral enhancement” has lately jumped the fence, escaping the tiny worlds of psychedelic research and advocacy. The results of personality studies involving psilocybin has led Brian Earp, associate director of the Yale-Hastings Program in Ethics and Health Policy, to consider the potential social implications of more widespread psychedelics use. “Whether you call it spiritual enhancement or moral enhancement, the effects that people report tend to be the sorts of things where it would be good if more people were like that,” Earp noted on a podcast this July. “How we connect the dots between what’s going on medically to the larger cultural consequences of widespread psychedelic use — that’s something we’re going to have to start thinking about.”
Few figures have been thinking about this longer than Amanda Feilding, the UK-based researcher and benefactor whose advocacy group, the Beckley Foundation, funds psychedelic research at universities around the world. “Our research shows that psychedelics can make people more connected to nature and less authoritarian, and I have no doubt that they can have a positive effect on the world as a whole,” she says.