The Case for Taking Psychedelics Seriously

Psilocybin mushrooms (Wikimedia)

If we can get past their undeserved cultural stigma, we’ll find that these drugs have the potential to greatly benefit society.

Mention magic mushrooms to a social conservative and expect a patronizing stare. Magic is for wizards; fungi are for stews. Mixing the two leads teenagers to jump out of windows.

Such skepticism has its merits. In the 1960s, Harvard Psychology professor Timothy Leary famously led the charge for a psychedelic nation. After losing his professorship for allowing undergraduates to be test subjects in his experiments, he took the drugs from his laboratory and offered them to baby boomers across the country. “Turn on, tune in, drop out” became a hippie rallying cry; taking psychedelics became a way to give the establishment the finger.

The result was catastrophic — for the kids and the drugs. Irresponsible usage caused young users to put their safety at risk, while psychedelics became tied to the hippie movement in the public imagination. Acid became a metaphor for anarchy; psilocybin became synonymous with sex. Flower-child pacifism and sexual revolution came to dominate the psychedelic narrative.

Hence, the case for decriminalization is usually made to conservatives on libertarian grounds: What right should government have to dictate what people put in their bodies?. It is a strong case, particularly when we consider the fact that the state has allowed pharmaceutical companies to peddle opiates, now the most commonly abused drugs in the America, for years. We accept that a prison sentence is not the appropriate response for self-inflicted harm of that sort. We consider prosecuting it at public expense an unjustified attack on personal autonomy. Why should we treat psychedelics, which are far less dangerous if used properly, any differently?

But this does not mark the case closed, because the argument comes with consequences. If magic mushrooms can be decriminalized, why not cocaine, heroin, or crack? If our bodies are off limits, why don’t children have the right to get high? Evidently, government has at least some say in what people place in their bodies. You can reject the legitimacy of that say, but you won’t be backed by an unwavering principle.

In defaulting to a libertarian case whenever the topic arises, conservatives turn the psychedelic conversation into a drug conversation. But “drug” is a loaded term for a category that has no basis in reality — there is a conservative case to be made for the role of psychedelics in society, and conservatives should be playing an active role in making it.

First, psilocybin is a boon to public health. A single guided trip has been shown to relieve anxiety and distress in cancer patients, helping the terminally ill find value in the remaining months and weeks of their lives. As a treatment for depression, it is more effective than any current mental-health treatment; it is also nonaddictive, and non-toxic no matter the dosage.

If conservatives are concerned about the harms caused by hard drugs, psychedelics should be their friend, not their foe. The annual Global Drug Survey reported that mushrooms are the safest drug used recreationally — and crucially, they are better able to break addictions to nicotine, alcohol, and cocaine than all available forms of rehabilitation. They have even been shown to reduce rates of recidivism among criminals, making them a potential salve for our ailing criminal-justice system.

The implications become more interesting when applied to the level of culture. There has long been disagreement within conservatism regarding the proper role of the free market, the question of whether or not the excesses of our economic system commodify that which ought to provide us with meaning. Traditionalists often argue that capitalism requires a spiritual framework to moderate rampant consumerism, and evidence suggests that psychedelics could be of tremendous use in the formation of such a framework.

Mental activity under these substances is similar to that seen in long-term meditators, where the brain’s default mode network — the area responsible for the ego — becomes less active. Attempting to articulate the lived experience of these brain states is similar to articulating any transformational religious experience; mysticism goes beyond the reach of language. In the words of Michael Pollan, the author of a bestselling book on the topic, “‘God’ is sometimes the biggest word we have to describe big experiences.” People are often led to religious fulfilment through moments that seem to go beyond the point of materialist explanation —encounters with the unknown that convince them that reality defies conventional categorization.

And there is a long tradition of such encounters with psychedelics. Experimentation goes back to ancient Greece, where Homer, Aristotle, and Plato diluted their wine with psychoactive compounds. Fungi were the first organisms to ever come to land, and we are more closely related to them than we are to any other kingdom — DMT, a particularly potent psychedelic, is even produced inside our brains. From the Mazatec of Mexico to the indigenous cultures of the Amazon, psychedelics have long helped human beings explore the inner landscapes of their minds.

Nobody earns their mystical experiences; transcendence that comes from a pill is caused by the same chemical changes that arise from listening to music in a place of worship. Observing our mind on drugs allows us to better understand how we can achieve the same end without drugs.

In short, psychedelics are a tool, and it is up to us how we use them. If we act properly, they can be a tool for healing, not chaos, a way to help us see people as ends, rather than means. In a 2016 study, six months after a single dose of psilocybin, 67 percent of subjects said it was one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. Many spoke of a revived sense of curiosity, a renewed connection to nature, and a restored sense of gratitude for those closest to them.

By the looks of it, Silicon Valley is co-opting the substances for its own purposes. Steve Jobs famously gushed about his experiences with LSD — and indeed, the innovative power of psychedelics is worth noting for any conservative who wants to put an end to stagnation. But from micro-dosing mushrooms to taking ketamine at Burning Man, the venture-capital world is producing corporate acid, attempting to turn these drugs into a colorful, extra-strength form of caffeine for public consumption.

Conservatives could be emphasizing the traditionally ritualistic nature of psychedelic use, pointing out that the use of a sober guide has always been integral to orchestrating a positive experience. They could be urging advocates to establish the dangers for people predisposed to schizophrenia, encouraging clinical trials while questioning outright legalization. Finally, they could be striving to create suitable environments for widespread usage — insisting on moderation and control, but noting the incredible potential such usage has for people across the country.

Dismissing anything labelled a drug is a massive missed opportunity. In 2018, Rebekah Mercer, the billionaire Republican financier and co-owner of Breitbart, donated $1 million to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies — clearly, support does not have to break down along conventional political lines. Psychedelics are not toys that young people want to abuse for a good time; they are powerful, life-altering substances that could be the equivalent of a telescope for our studies of the mind. It is time for conservatives to begin taking these drugs seriously. If they do, society at large will benefit.

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