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I.

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.


An earlier generation of psychedelic pioneers considered this positive effect to be self-evident. As LSD and mescaline spread among scientists, artists, and writers, the molecules were embraced as gateways to that rarest and most elusive form of cognitive experience: the “cosmic consciousness” of ego-dissolving spiritual epiphany, previously known only by mad saints, wandering prophets, and mystic poets. The pre-psychedelic literature suggested that these experiences, while not guaranteed to produce sages, tended to increase compassion and decrease mortal anxiety, arguably a major wellspring of many social ills. The ability to democratize these life-changing thunderbolts in the form of a pill, it followed, meant compassion and wisdom could also be bottled and sold — or better, distributed for free. In The Doors of Perception, the erudite mescaline trip report that announced the psychedelic era in 1954, Aldous Huxley posited that mystical experiences produce contemplative people who “do not as a rule preach intolerance, or make war [or] find it necessary to rob, swindle or grind the faces of the poor.”

Nine years later, with psychedelics ascendant, Huxley fleshed out what a psychedelically influenced society might look like. In Island, published shortly before his death in 1963, Huxley described a fictional ecotopia organized around the ritual use of a hallucinogen called moksha. Unlike the drugged-up police state of his 1932 dystopian novel, Brave New World, the island community of Pala is happy and free, gentle with the earth and each other.

Even so, Huxley advocated a controlled revolution: Continue to investigate and research while turning on the intelligentsia and political class, eventually building out institutions to facilitate structured, widespread use. This strategy was overtaken, famously, by the Johnny Acidseeds of the 1960s and ideologically allied chemists, who were inspired by Huxley but less patient. Led by Timothy Leary and the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, they flooded the country with sugar cubes of Orange Sunshine and a depoliticized revolution of recreational acid liberation for everyone, captured in Leary’s motto, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.” This big-bang approach led to the train wreck feared by the psychedelic vanguardists: Mass unstructured experimentation, sensationalist reporting, public confusion and hostility, and a backlash that engulfed psychedelics research, ended serious public discussion of psychedelics’ incredible potential, and helped put Richard Nixon in the White House. With the sidelining of scientists, psychologists, and religious scholars, the figures most associated with psychedelics in 1970 were Charles Manson and Leary, who met each other as neighbors in Folsom State Prison.

In the 1970s, belief in psychedelic social progress dropped precipitously, along with the quality of the nation’s acid. The flame of “psychedelic values” flickered on in the Rainbow Gatherings and other self-contained communities, occasionally flaring in New Age displays like the Harmonic Convergence of 1987, an astrology-inspired mass meditation event that saw much of the rump psychedelic community gathering on mountainsides to usher in an era of peace.

For those who lamented psychedelic roads not taken, the deep freeze made for a long, depressing, and often embarrassing four decades. It’s perfectly understandable, then, why those tending the Psychedelic Spring have stuck to the language of science, medicine, and individual betterment. “It’s much easier to advocate for legal access to psychedelics if the claim is not that their mass use will make the world a better place,” says Noah Potter, author of the Psychedelic Law Blog and former chair of the New York City Bar Association Committee on Drugs and the Law.

And yet. Researchers who spurn grand claims and assumptions have turned to an old question with a new sobriety: Is there any basis for believing that the broad integration of psychedelics might yet instigate some measure of progressive social change?


II.

If psychedelics have an intrinsic politics, they’re found on the deeper end of the dosage pool. Microdosing won’t get you there. They emerge from the place where “you” cease to exist, in a full-blown mystical experience.

The relationships among mystical experiences, personality changes, and values have long fascinated psychologists and scholars of religion. The arrival of psychedelics allowed these experiences to be reliably and safely induced but didn’t crack the mystery of their well-documented power to transform. The advent of brain-imaging technologies has allowed us to connect a few more of the dots.

In the past few years, researchers at London’s Beckley/Imperial Psychedelic Research Programme have popped the hood on the human brain as mystical thunderbolts strike, mapping their impacts on the neural networks that sustain and deactivate the ego, and thus our sense of inhabiting a distinct consciousness and body separate from the rest of the world.

Can psychedelic experiences be designed to reliably leave people barefoot in the grass, so to speak?

We can now see in real time how psychedelics shut down our control centers, dissolve the self, and facilitate wild new patterns of cross-brain communication, increasing signal diversity and randomness to bring about what is technically a “higher” state of consciousness.

This leads to yet another mystery: Might these brain changes have long-term effects on personality, values, and behavior? Can psychedelic experiences be designed to reliably leave people barefoot in the grass, so to speak, in thrall to values that can be broadly described as spiritual and humanistic? And if so, can that experience be scaled up to become socially significant?

In 2011, a team at Johns Hopkins found that mystical experiences on psilocybin correlated to significant increases in what’s known as “openness.” This personality trait determines how we approach and process information and experiences, the raw material out of which we form political worldviews and value systems. More “open” personalities are associated with greater imagination, sensitivity to beauty, curiosity, and tolerance. Further, the Hopkins study demonstrated that psychedelics can “open” minds at later-life stages — say, around 65, the median age of cable news viewers — long after 30, around the age when core personality traits are believed to “harden.”

“Psilocybin occasions mystical experiences that predict long-term changes in behaviors, attitudes, and values,” the authors wrote. “Consistent with hallucinogen-occasioned increases in aesthetic appreciation, imagination, and creativity, we found significant increases in Openness following a high-dose psilocybin session [that] remained significantly higher than baseline more than one year after the session.”

Higher degrees of openness are associated with progressive political views. The Beckley/Imperial Psychedelic Research Programme published a study last summer in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs that examined psychedelics’ impact on nature-relatedness and placement on a libertarian–authoritarian spectrum. For a full year following two psilocybin sessions, subjects scored higher on tests for nature-relatedness and lower on tests measuring authoritarian political tendencies. The results suggest structured psilocybin sessions can produce what the authors describe as “lasting changes in attitudes and beliefs” in the direction of greener, more tolerant politics.

The data supports a general view among many environmentalists who came of age in the 1960s that LSD played a large role in the rise and spread of environmental activism. “There’s no question that psychedelics were a factor in boosting biophilic tendencies among a lot of urban young people who realized how cut off they were from nature,” says J.P. Harpignies, an author and activist who straddled the 1960s acid culture and New Left circles in New York and Paris.

Researchers have begun to push the study of psychedelics and behavior into new demographics. A team at the University of British Columbia recently found that use of psychedelics predicted significantly reduced rates of domestic violence and reincarceration among adult male prisoners with substance abuse problems. This increase in emotional regulation and reduction in aggression resulted from unmonitored recreational use. The numbers would likely be higher if prison systems integrated psychedelics into a structured rehabilitation program, with trained staff overseeing preparation, high-dose sessions, and integration therapy.

The preliminary data on openness, violence, connection to nature, and recidivism is promising. But the real test of psychedelics’ social potential is whether they can help us build a society that would neither create nor tolerate a prison-industrial complex in the first place. And this is where things get tricky.


III.

If psychedelics can reassemble us with a finer appreciation for nature and the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind, it’s tempting and easy to fantasize about the implications: Would a psychedelically grounded society be so enamored with celebrity and consumerism? Burn coal when the sun is so readily available? Tear babies from their parents’ arms because they came from another country? See taxes and social programs as criminal impositions on individual freedom? Spend limited resources on endless and pointless arms buildups?

Probably not. But building this society doesn’t depend on, and can’t wait for, the president growing a beard. Even if a massive chemically assisted value shift came to pass, it would merely complement and shape the work of traditional movement-building and organization, not render it obsolete. The question is how they fit together.

A high-dose psychedelic experience is powerful precisely because it occurs beyond language and logic. The ineffable isn’t an obvious complement to building and maintaining a coherent political movement, or even having a coherent conversation the next day. (As Arthur Koestler once put it, “I solved the secret of the universe last night, but this morning I forgot what it was.”) More fundamentally, the psychedelic model of social change — healthy people, healthy societies — inverts the left’s traditional focus on dismantling oppressive social and economic systems as preconditions for individual liberation and happiness. This stress on the individual — so far, mostly privileged ones — evokes the debate that surrounded the birth of psychoanalysis: revolutionary tool or distracting bourgeois pastime?

A high-dose psychedelic experience is powerful precisely because it occurs beyond language and logic.

This question arose this past July at a psychedelics conference in Los Angeles where podcaster Zach Leary (son of Tim) hosted a panel discussion entitled “Transcending the Medical Frontiers.” Each of the four panelists challenged the medical tone of the current psychedelics discourse as insufficient and inherently conservative. If psychedelics become more widely available only to those with gold-plated health insurance, used as pleasure enhancers and megaton antidepressants, what’s the point? This is psychedelics not as the moksha of Island, but as the soma of Brave New World. Panelist Daniel Pinchbeck worried that the medical model mirrored the rise of psychedelics as “just an adjunct of New Age culture, just another thing focused on the self and self-healing.”

American society “has assimilated the psychedelic culture [as a] hedonistic joyride with an overlay of spirituality,” Pinchbeck said. “What would be interesting is if healthy people [employed psychedelics] in a larger a project of building solutions to the ecological catastrophe and social injustice.”

The best test case for the aggregate impact of psychedelics in the context of a larger radical movement is the messy fusion of political and cultural rebellion in the 1960s. Did psychedelics inspire broader and deeper social critiques? Did they fuel new and important forms of protest? Or did they derail and depoliticize, as the straight New Left often alleged, by turning people inward, toward India, or down any number of political and spiritual rabbit holes?

However muddy the results and painful the lessons of psychedelics’ social history, the grandees of psychedelic advocacy remain optimistic that good and important changes are afoot. They are just more likely to take the long view, urge patience, and defend the political strategy inspired by medical marijuana, which seeded the movement for decriminalization and legalization.

“The big switch from the ’60s to the 2000s is that we’re working within the law and the culture, rather than trying to subvert them from outside,” says Thomas Roberts, emeritus professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University and a founding member of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. This doesn’t mean giving up on social transformation; it just means being more stealthy about it.

“Most serious psychedelic scholars expect social-political improvements to result from making people mentally healthy, less greedy, less after fame, less addicted to power,” Roberts says.

This is also the view of transpersonal psychologist Bill Richards, who began his career in psychedelics research in the early 1960s working alongside pioneering LSD therapist Walter Pahnke. Today, Richards runs the Psilocybin Research Project at Johns Hopkins, the site of multiple groundbreaking studies. “You can’t have a mystical experience and not sense the incredible power for social transformation within us,” Richards says. “If structured psychedelics use became widespread, I’d expect more people to see every human being as their brother or sister, more willingness to work for peace, more respect for the intelligence in nature and less exploitation of it for short-term gain. Cultural change does happen. In my more idealistic moments, I like to think an evolution of consciousness is gradually occurring. Psychedelics are part of it. So is growing interest in other spiritual traditions and meditation. At this point in history, a little more enlightenment might come in handy.”

It would come in very handy indeed. The more and the sooner, the better. But what if widespread psychedelics use failed to produce this enlightenment, or enough of it to make a difference? What if society subsumed psychedelics without missing a beat? What if it integrated them into a system even more degenerate than our own?


IV.

In 1958, Huxley published an essay collection, Brave New World Revisited, that included what could be read as a prophetic warning about the fate of psychedelics. In the modern world, he wrote, “Science becomes industrial practice, knowledge becomes power, formulas and experiments undergo a metamorphosis, and emerge as the H-Bomb.”

He didn’t know it, but this process had already touched psychedelics. In April 1953, weeks before Huxley’s first mescaline trip in a West Hollywood bungalow, the CIA commenced MK-ULTRA, a top-secret program to explore psychedelics’ potential for deployment in Cold War psy-ops. The program was a spectacular failure, but it serves as a monument to Huxley’s point about culture and context determining the value and uses of any technology. The agency’s inspiration for MK-ULTRA was a cache of papers discovered in the Auschwitz laboratory of Dr. Josef Mengele, who conducted mescaline experiments on Jewish and Roma prisoners. Centuries earlier, in Mesoamerica, Aztec and Maya mushroom cults reinforced feudal societies built on human sacrifice, conquest, subjugation, and slavery. Amazonian shamans have always used ayahuasca for punishment and black magic as well as healing.

“Psychedelics have a context-dependent, trickster nature that the social change narrative doesn’t account for,” says activist J.P. Harpignies, who also serves as an in-house critic of what he considers unhelpful utopian tendencies in the psychedelics advocacy movement. “Spiritual depth and clarity can go in any number of directions.”

Even in those cultural contexts designed to maximize positive outcomes, there are no guarantees. Any veteran of ayahuasca circles can tell you that such communities don’t always live up to their professed values. Mary Porter, founder of the Looking Glass Peyote Church of Oregon and respected voice in the psychedelic community, notes the persistence of hucksterism by fake shamans and cash-or-credit gurus in the growing ayahuasca and peyote economy. “Until we replace the charlatans and snake-oil salesmen with qualified people who have the right intentions, there’s really no point in making psychedelics more accessible,” she says.

Other leaders in this space have concerns about the community of psychonauts. Nick Powers, an academic and rare African-American voice on psychedelics, has addressed what he calls “whitewashing” within the research and advocacy worlds. A growing number of women, meanwhile, are also critical of the scene.

“My great optimism about psychedelics as agents of social change is sometimes undermined by witnessing persistent sexism, racism, and classism within the community,” says Dee Dee Goldpaugh, a psychotherapist specializing in sexual abuse and trauma who practices psychedelic integration therapy, helping patients work through and make sense of their trips. Goldpaugh is skeptical that the drugs alone will usher in a massive cultural shift.

“If the substances alone could ‘wake up’ society, the psychedelic community wouldn’t be mimicking the very structures and pathologies of the society we’re trying to change,” Goldpaugh says.

In his book How Soon Is Now?, Pinchbeck writes with honesty about how he and other high-profile psychedelics advocates have been co-opted into a world of “fabulous Gatsby-like extravagance,” where the super-rich welcome anyone who can provide a spiritual and visionary sheen to their party retreats in Black Rock and Tulum, never too far from the airstrips where private planes sit fueled and ready to whisk them and their friends to luxe prepper redoubts in New Zealand, should everything go south in a hurry.

These private planes serve as a good reminder of our system’s ability to absorb just about anything thrown at it and suggest we’d do well to temper any fledgling hopes of an oppositional psychedelics establishment, never mind civilizational rescue.

If psychedelics had been allowed to run their course a half-century ago, the world might have become a different place. With some luck, the next 50 years will show us what could have been, what Huxley’s generation never got to see. Perhaps by 2066, wise and bearded presidents won’t be the stuff of internet jokes, but symbols of a kinder, saner, psychedelically informed polity.

It’s also possible that psychedelics will remain on the margins of a ruined world, helping a self-selecting few find meaning and peace in life and death. Maybe that’s gift enough. Maybe it always was.