One of the most inspiring events of recent years for me was Breaking Convention 2015, a biennial conference and get-together for scientists, thinkers and dabblers in the psychedelic world. It had the full rainbow of utopianism, bonkersness and cold hard science that you would hope for from such an event. There were people with hairstyles that should not have been legal and respectable men in suits. It was the most disparate and welcoming crowd I had seen in a while. I wandered through the sunshine at Greenwich, completely sober, watching London float on a heat haze like a city from the future. It felt like the future there.
And then 2015 ended and 2016 happened.
I was struck by the oddity, in 2016, of Home Secretary Theresa May’s exceptionally illiberal Psychoactive Substances Bill passing into chaotic legislation – perhaps a bellwether of the Brexit mentality to follow – as trials here and in the USA confirmed the benefits of psychedelic experiences for depression, addictions and end-of-life engagement for terminal cancer patients.
These developments are exciting. They are powerful tools for working with struggling minds. The idea that we have to let people slip into misery, addiction or terminal illness to access psychedelics grates. Once you’re in jeopardy, there’s a slim chance that you may one day be granted therapeutic access via a licensed practitioner. Otherwise, you are a criminal.
In 2013, I wrote this:
If a similar liberalisation strategy goes ahead, it will be authoritarian in its own way, in letting medicine and psychiatry mediate experiences that have long been part of human existence. But at least some good may come of it, and the old moral panics about irreversible madness and the bad trip to infinity may eventually die down in the face of empirical evidence.
It looks like the first part of this might happen, and given the political climate we find ourselves in now, it feels like a fantastic tool for psychotherapy. There is more work to do, though.
Imagine a substance that promoted long-term empathy for other people and life, that made people happier and more productive, that saw anger ebb away. Imagine such a thing existing. It feels like something we could all do with more of right now.
Lay psychedelic use overwhelmingly has these outcomes. See James Fadiman’s microdosing studies; read Erowid or Reddit. Read what people have to say about it themselves. Sometimes there are thorny moments, which are overcome and learned from. People go to the jungle to drink ayahuasca precisely for the thorny moments and come back feeling strong.
Find me the acid casualties, the people who went mad after one trip, who had never taken any other substance before, who jumped out of a mythical window and tell me that they outnumber the people who have brought light into their lives. Tell me that they outnumber the deaths caused by drink-driving and booze-fuelled violence, let alone the slow alcoholic decay of mind and body. Find me the acid casualties, full stop.
The thing is, the acid casualty myths put about in the 1960s were just that: nearly all mythological in character, they were put about in order to curb what looked like the beginnings of a dangerous social revolution. You don’t want your future ruling class thinking property is theft, love trumps war, that God is found in the intricate workings of the universe rather than the established Church. There will always be people out there who break themselves via the mechanism of indiscriminately taking loads of drugs, although the reasons for doing so will inevitably be found deep within their personal and social worlds; those broken souls got labelled acid casualties, because acid felt dangerous.
Psychedelics are dangerous. They are dangerous to a world order of anger, violence and greed, whose continuation depends on ignorance and fear. They are dangerous to a social world dominated by alcohol and its capacity to help us bury and forget that this is how things are. The people who take them are dangerous for the best possible reasons, and that is why I am going to write about them this year.