[THS] Positive Possibilities for Psychedelics
psalience at fastmail.fm
Sat Apr 3 22:22:27 CEST 2010
Why havent we seen a picture of the whole mind yet?:
Positive Possibilities for Psychedelics
by James Fadiman
If the recent hit movie Its Complicated and the spate of legalization initiatives
queuing up in California are any indication, pot has finally achieved mainstream
respectability. More remarkably, despite the unrelentingly repressive atmosphere that
smothered the first decade of our brave new century, psychedelic research in
America has entered its Golden Age. James Fadiman, perhaps Americas wisest and
most respected authority on psychedelics and their use, gives us a valuable update.
The chemicals of transformation of revelation that open the circuits of light, vision,
and communication, called by us mind-manifesting, were known to the American
Indians as medicines: the means given to men to know and to heal, to see and to say
-- Henry Munn
For those of us involved with psychedelics, this is a time of unexpected changes, a
time to celebrate but only tentatively. After decades of winter, the ice is thinning. The
warming trends toward legalization, increased religious, medical and
psychotherapeutic use, scientific exploration and cultural acceptance are
After so many years, why now? Perhaps, because the generation that suppressed
research, criminalized personal use and jailed users is passing from power. This next
generation is better able to admit to the ineffectiveness of the legal clampdown and
to temper it. It is much easier for those who never voted for the current laws to
recognize that some, passed in haste and ignorance, are unworkable and counter-
While the agenda of the research community has focused on a restoration of
therapeutic use , the most striking changes have been in the legal status of private
personal use. The community of nations seems to be shaking off the fear induced by
the excesses of the sixties, the phobic response of the American government and the
pressure from the United States on other nations to follow its lead. Like wild flowers
coming up through cracks in concrete, more countries are starting to set their own
The Netherlands has long allowed some psychedelics to be quite easily available but has stopped short of formal legalization. Portugal legalized all drugs in 2001 and made it explicit that that treatment would be available for any drug user needing it. The
naysayers fretted that this would have terrible consequences, but results have been
entirely beneficial: less addiction, less social disruption, less crime, less actual use,
more treatment facilities and huge savings in law enforcement. Mexico legalized
small amounts of all previously illegal drugs in 2009. This was done, in part, to free
up resources to try to eliminate criminal drug cartels. Since illegal addictive drugs,
including cocaine, heroin and their derivatives, are grown primarily for the United
States market; the focus is now to minimize cross-border activities. The Czech
Republic relaxed its laws to the point that many psychedelic plants may be owned or
grown legally. It has also relaxed its penalties for possession of small amounts of
manufactured substances like MDMA.
The basis for these reforms is the recognition of the following realities:
1. Psychedelics are not addictive; they never were.
2. Marijuana unlike, tobacco and alcohol, does not cause systemic medical
syndromes. In the Unites State alone, tobaccolegal, addictive and regulated-
directly contributes to the deaths of 400, 000 people a year while marijuanaillegal,
non-addictive and unregulated(and perhaps used by more Americans than still
smoke cigarettes) does not kill any.
3. Illegal drugs are crime and violence magnets. It was true when the United
States prohibited alcohol; it is equally true of any other desired and prohibited
substance. If you remove criminal penalties for benign or at least non-addictive
drugs, personal use actually declinesat least in Holland and Portugal, the only two
countries for which we have data. The other equivalent statistics we have is that
those states with medical marijuana laws have not seen a rise in total marijuana
smoked, despite forecasts that we would made by those trying to stop those laws
from going into effect.
A second group of countries have not changed their laws, but their courts have ruled
that their constitutions affirm the right to private, consciousness-changing activities.
Courts in Brazil and Argentina have concluded that it is not legal to deny people the
right to personal use of whatever substances, as long as it does not lead to socially
unacceptable or criminal behavior.
The third group of countries, still uncertain what direction to take, includes the
United States. In the United States, policies that lumped marijuana, psychedelics and
addictive drugs together led to a bulging jail population, the proliferation of highly
profitable international criminal activities, distortion of the national economy in
countries producing illegal drugs for American consumption and a growing disdain
for governments failure to cope with the situation. The added ill is that these policies
cost billions of dollars annually.
In spite of the Washingtons reluctance to change, state after state has used their
prerogative to allow people to use marijuana as a medication. Until the Obama
Administration, the federal government did its best to subvert these laws and keep all
marijuana users criminalized. An indication of the pent-up demand for legal medical
use is that within a few weeks of the Administrations decision to allow such use,
compliant with state laws, eight hundred marijuana dispensaries opened up in Los
Angeles alone, outnumbering the number of banks or public schools in the city. The
trend toward legalization is accelerating as it becomes more and more self-evident
that marijuana use does not lead to violence or to criminal behavior. That the last
three presidents have smoked marijuana at one point in their careers has not been
lost on reformers or the general public. Marijuana is not a psychedelic, but it is a
consciousness altering substance used traditionally for spiritual and therapeutic
purposes. As its status changes, it will make stronger consciousness altering plants
and substances less likely to remain demonized.
Several states, notably California, but Nevada, Washington and Florida as well, are
trying to put initiatives on their ballots to decriminalize or legalize marijuana. In
California, the main argument is that marijuana production, though one of the states
largest industries, is totally untaxed and that its interdiction is expensive and
unsuccessful. The idea is to turn a sinkhole of wasted money into a source of
revenue. The California proposition that already has enough signatures to qualify for
the ballot makes possession of up to one ounce legal; it allows individual cultivation in
a garden of no more than 25 square feet, forbids sales to minors and forbids smoking
in public. The specifics of regulation and taxation are left to local jurisdictions.
In addition, and directly pertaining to psychedelics and religious freedom, several
court cases have established that religious groups using ayahuasca as their central
sacrament may practice their faith without fear of imprisonment. These cases are a
first step toward the restoration of religious liberty regarding other psychedelics in
Even the nonsense of forbidding cultivation of hemp, as though it were marijuana,
(comparable to putting root beer in the same class as Coors) has been getting a fresh
look. Imported hemp products, including those for human consumption, are again
available, and one state, Washington, following the example of Canada and a dozen
other countries, allows hemp to be grown, harvested and sold. There seems to be, if
not an end the lack of common sense in the regulatory establishment, at least some
cracks in it.
Making marijuana legal and taxable will greatly reduce the budgets and staff of the
drug enforcement establishmentand its clout. The push back will come from the
drug prohibition-law enforcement- private-prison-prison-guard complex, institutions
whose profits or very existence depends on strict enforcement and long sentences.
Many police departments, for example, who depend on the seizure of property and
money from drug arrests as a major revenue source will fight a loss to their incomes.
Only now, in the preliminary phase of liberalization, are we starting to have available
evidence-based science about psychedelics. It would be unduly optimistic to expect
evidence-based legislation to become widespread any time soon, but more countries
can be expected to relax some of their restrictions as the benefits for doing so
become more widely apparent.
While legal restrictions put an end to conventional research, it did little to prevent the
continued proliferation of psychedelics throughout the culture. It is difficult to say
which of many cultural areas have been most affected by psychedelics. For example,
Jack Kornfield, a noted Buddhist teacher says, It is true for the majority of American
Buddhist teachers that they have had experience with psychedelics either right after
they started their spiritual practice or prior to it. This use, in fact, is not contrary to
Buddhist vows. My own experience is that teachers in many other spiritual and
psychophysical disciplines also began their spiritual journeys after important
A group at John Hopkins University is engaged in a series of studies to determine if
psychedelics taken in a safe and sacred situation leads most subjects to spiritual
experiences. Hardly surprising, the answer was yes. More important than the
research itself was that it crossed a major barrier: the government allowed, for the
first time, a research study that asked spiritual questions, not only medical ones. Also
striking was the amount of media attention given to the findings. More than three
hundred publications took note of the results after its publication in a peer-reviewed
academic journal. Surprisingly, a positive account appeared in the Wall Street
Journal. More instructive, in looking at trends, was a short article in the Scottish
Sporting News. The headline read, Shrooms get you high. The editors assumed
that their readers knew the slang term for psychedelic mushrooms and that it would
not require a lengthy article to tell its readers that science had discovered what they
Equally important, a host of web sites now meet the need to have easy access to
basic information for safe sane psychedelic use. The foremost site is Erowid, which
has reports and information, technical articles, interactive molecular dictionaries,
visionary art, descriptions of dangers and contra-indications as well as thousands of
personal reports on dozens of substances. The site averages 50,000 visits a day, a
figure that has grown every year since its inception. Browsing through the site makes
it clear that while forty years of inadequate information may have worked against
wise use, a widespread underground is thriving unimpeded.
Another phenomenon is the growing popularity of ayahuasca. While other
psychedelics are often used recreationally, ayahuasca is almost always taken under
the direction of experienced guides or shamans. In the sixties, a rite of passage was
to visit India, study with a guru and practice austerities in an ashram. Todays
psycho-explorers head for the rainforest to work with traditional healers and
traditional plant medicines, of which ayahuasca is the best known. While the trips to
India were and are mostly about personal self-realization, the intention of those
seeking these South American immersions almost always include both personal
healing and a strong interest in repairing the rift between humanity and the other
Two debates continue, holdovers from the wide-eyed sixties. One is about the validity
of experiences induced by plants or chemicals as compared with experiences
achieved by meditation, prayer, movement, fasting, etc. The argument smolders and
flares up now and then but will never be settled. The other debatebetween those
who scorn synthetic psychedelics and those who dontgoes on as well with no hope
of either side convincing the other. Gordon Wasson, who discovered psychedelic
mushroom use in the New World, was asked the difference between the mushrooms
and psilocybin, the latter manufactured by Sandoz Pharmaceuticals. He said, I did
not discover any difference. I think the people who discover a difference are looking
for a difference and imagine they see a difference. What is important is the effect
taking the substance has on ones life and well-being, not the subtleties of this or that
Medical and psychotherapeutic psychedelic research is back! Though one researcher
calls this time a golden age in psychedelic research, it would be more realistic to say
that a tiny tip of the camels nose has been allowed under the tent. Outside the tent,
a large community of researchers is eager to begin work delayed for decades.
Scientific conferences honoring the work of Albert Hoffman in synthesizing LSD and
other psychedelics brought more than two thousand people from thirty-seven
countries to Basel, Switzerland in 2006 and 2008. Two hundred journalists from all
over the world covered the presentationsa remarkable turnout for a substance that
has been illegal for so long.
While some current research being done now is a repeat of work done before
everything closed down, new areas of research reveal how psychedelics help alleviate
medical conditions that have not been amenable to conventional treatment. Its
notable that this time around there has as yet been no outcry to stop the work. The
reactions might be different if an appropriate dose of a psychedelic given every six
weeks was found to be an effective antidepressant. If that occurred, there could be
stiff opposition from the established suppliers of antidepressant drugs. By taking on
more difficult syndromes, the researchers have skirted such opposition. In fact, they
have been well supported by their medical colleagues. One example is the work
being done with cluster headaches. First claimed by illegal users whose
communications with one another became public, the healing effects are now being
evaluated in a Harvard-run study. It remains to be seen if what is already fairly well
proved can make it through the double-blind pharmaceutical hurdle to peer-reviewed
publication and, more importantly, finally become available in normal clinical practice.
Another promising study is giving psilocybin to high anxiety, late-stage cancer
patients. Results show that a single session in a safe and supportive setting, allowing
the sacred to be experienced should it occur, benefits both the patient and the
patients family. Another, more controversial treatmentonce allowed inside the
United States but since pushed out to other countriesuses iboga, an African
psychedelic plant, to break the cycle of heroin addiction. Given the poor track record
of conventional treatments and the high cost of addiction, untreated and treated
alike, this area should be getting more attention and support in the future. In fact,
several recovered addicts found it to be so valuable that they now treat their
brethren illegally in inner city environments without medical support.
Inexplicably, what is yet to resume is psychedelic therapy to overcome alcohol
addiction, far and away the most fully researched, tested, and proven effective
therapy of the pre-prohibition era. Virtually nothing has been written about it in
recent years, even in underground circles. It remains an inexplicably ignored sector
of what is otherwise the current renaissance of medical research into psychedelics.
A number of other countries, including Germany, Switzerland and Israel, are allowing
or supporting psychedelic projects primarily involving use of MDMA to help people
overcome the chronically debilitating effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
(PTSD). With hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women returning home from
the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD, demand for a treatment with a higher
cure rate is intensifying. That Vietnam vets, decades after that conflict, are still in
treatment makes it all the more likely that eventually MDMA-based therapy programs
will be offered to veterans. Perhaps, as with cluster headaches, the first reports with
be from vets self- medicating and helping one another, as is already happening with
marijuana. The VA hospital system is underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded,
however, and without external pressure will be unlikely to soon be able to institute
any major improvements on its own.
There is of course continued and still extensive use of psychedelics for self-
exploration, illegally and without trained guides. A survey of college students found
that the most often cited reason for taking psychedelics was self-exploration, not
spiritual or recreational use. Just as the acceptance of medical marijuana has
spawned the dispensary where patients can buy their medications, if current trends
continue we can expect the emergence of clinics and institutions specializing in
psychotherapeutic treatment with different kinds of psychedelics.
Creativity and problem solving
The term psychedelic is already in popular use to describe a certain kind of music
and visual art. It carries no stigma for an artist to avow that psychedelics influenced
the creation of a song, a painting or a dramatic production. Their use is widely
accepted in the technical world as well, even though there is, as yet, hardly any
discussion about it.
During the dot-com revolution, companies were formed by people young enough to
have grown up with psychedelics readily available. Drug use for them was casual and
frequent. That two recent Nobel Prize laureates acknowledged that psychedelics
played a role in their scientific breakthroughs suggests that there has been far more
use of these substances in the scientific community than has become known.
Paralleling the thousands of people who attended the scientific conferences in Basel
are the much larger groups that flock to the yearly Boom Festival in Europe and The
Burning Man Festival held in Nevada. While not all of the 50,000 people at Burning
Man have taken psychedelics, the vast majority of attendees have.
On YouTube, individual factual and conceptual videos on psychedelics have been
viewed by over one million people. In 2009, National Geographic Television was able
to sell advertising space for a full evening about drugs. The evening began with an
hour about meta-amphetamine. A second hour toured the world of marijuana
planting, growing, selling and using. The final hour was on contemporary psychedelic
use, primarily biomedical and therapeutic studies, but including local urban drug
dealing and the use of psychedelics by artists to improve and expand their skills.
Such programs indicate how far we have come since the 1936 anti-marijuana
exploitation jeremiad, Reefer Madness, was distributed as informational.
The overall trend is toward greater openness and greater availability of information.
Trained guides for spiritual and scientific sessions are still hard to come by, but
cultural and market forces are favorable for institutions to be created for such
This overview is based on the optimistic hope that the proper uses of these
remarkable substances will not be overwhelmed by trivial popularization, as was the
case when psychedelics were made illegal.
The counter-forces to wider acceptance include the usual suspects: stupidity, fear,
greed, self-interest and inertia. The criminal groups and the law enforcement/prison
establishment employed to enforce drug laws are already becoming active. In
California, the prison guard unions are among the groups who donate most heavily to
political campaigns and who will undoubtedly spend a great deal fighting the various
initiatives. Some members of organized religions will undoubtedly also be among the
opposition. Almost every religious institution has a vested bureaucracy determined to
pose itself as the sole authorized intermediaries between the faithful and the Divine.
In the past, the possibility of direct spiritual contact afforded by psychedelic
experiences were seen as a significant threat to these establishments. Recently,
however, American law has allowed the establishment of churches that employ
psychedelic substances as the sacraments that they truly are. Let us hope that a new
generation of leaders in the mainstream churches take inspiration from this.
Additional opposition may come from the international banking system. If this sounds
unlikely, it is only because most of us are unaware of the value of illegal drug sales. A
United Nations study of the world financial meltdown of 2008-2009 concluded that
one of the few continuing sources of liquidity was the $232 billion dollars (thats the
real number) of drug profits during that period. The majority of these profits were
from drugs such as heroin and cocaine, but keeping the laws muddy and confusing
serves these interests better than laws focused solely on addictive drugs.
As favorable as these trends may be, what matters most is how your understanding
of you and your place in the natural order has been made clearer or richer or of
more value because of your actual or anticipated psychedelic-supported experiences.
If the resultant insights are not integrated into your life, they can be trivialized,
ignored or even pathologized. Huston Smith says the question is not do these
substances support religious experience, but does their use lead to a religious life?
Psychedelic researcher and Buddhist practitioner Rick Strassman says, Spiritual
experience alone, even repeated, is not the basis for becoming a better person.
Rather, psychedelic insights tempered and put into practice using ethical ands moral
considerations appears to be the best way to harness the power of psychedelic
In many cultures, a psychedelic explorer is called upon to find something of use to
his or her society learning about the healing properties of a plant, bringing back a
healing song or recovering a nugget of wisdom to help people live in greater
harmony with themselves and with the natural world. That psychedelics make such
experiences more easily available does not lessen this responsibility.
The question posed by the poet Mary Oliver, What is it you plan to do with your one
wild and precious life? is one that psychedelics impel you to take seriously.
Born in May of 1939, James Fadiman received a B.A. from Harvard in Social Relations
in 1960 and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University, in 1962 and
1965, respectively.In the last forty years he has held a wide variety of teaching,
consulting, training, counseling, editorial, and other positions.While living in Paris
during his student years, James Fadiman was introduced to psychedelics by his
undergraduate advisor, Richard Alpert (Ram Das), who was on his way to
Copenhagen with Tim Leary and Aldous Huxley for the first major presentation about
the positive potentials of psychedelics at an international conference.
by James Fadiman on February 10 2010
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