Psychedelics are the new medical marijuana.
keep a photo of myself from the bad year, when I left the job I thought defined me and broke up with the man I’d planned to marry. I’m wearing a sleeveless dress no adult who weighs 93 pounds should be wearing, with my undernourished limbs and oversized head. I make myself look at it once in a while because I don’t want to forget.
My life once felt so bleak that I didn’t want to be here. I couldn’t kill myself because I love my children, but I thought about it all the time. I starved myself and told people my new retirement plan was to die young.
Around that time, private ayahuasca ceremonies were becoming a thing from Laurel Canyon to Park Slope, so I went to one in a multimillion-dollar house with a Jewish shaman who played New Age music on a boom box. I had read everything I could get my hands on about this ancient medicine made from sacred Amazonian plants—not all that much at the time, and a lot of it pretty terrifying—and I waited with more than a little trepidation for the big bang that would fix me.
When the mood wasn’t right and nothing happened, I was disappointed and then bored, listening to the guy next to me groan and sob and watching the guy across from me paint pictures in the air with his hands. I snuck into the garage to vape.
I took that experience as another sign of what a hopeless, crusty loser I had become. Not even drinking this legendary brew could bring back my appetite for food, for life. I figured this ayahuasca thing was just more bullshit, a hallucinogenic Landmark Forum for entitled people who have exhausted their therapists’ patience.
I was wrong, of course, as Cosmic Sister founder Zoe Helene, a seasoned journeyer who drinks ayahuasca only in Peru (where it’s legal and revered) would prove. Helene awarded me one of the first Cosmic Sister Plant Spirit grants so I could travel to the Nihue Rao healing center outside of Iquitos and experience traditional ayahuasca ceremonies with shamans where Mama Aya lives. I spent four hellish nights in the rainforest, wrestling with anger and despair about my father dying before I was born—deep, pre-language demons I thought I’d dealt with in the Landmark Forum, with God knows how many therapists.
My journeys were desolate and brutal, total annihilation of the universe and terrifying solo rocket launches into empty orbits. I felt my father’s heart attack, and his crushing angst about who would take care of me was the sword that finally cut through the dark energy I’d been born with. I forgave him for dying and myself for thinking he didn’t care enough to stick around and meet me. I told him he could let go, I would take care of myself now. Free for the first time in my life, I spent the last night juggling exclamation points, tossing them up to pop pink balloons that rained down sparkles of love on everyone around me.
The pink glow lasted. I went home and started rebuilding my skeletal self and reinventing my career—as a cannabis cookbook author and chef, no less. I met a nice guy who feeds me when I’m in work mode. I never considered suicide again. Coffee, Tea, or Ayahuasca? Psychedelics are the new medical marijuana, offering a world of therapeutic possibilities for so many things that ail us, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), debilitating grief, opiate addiction, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)—and Americans are more interested in them than they’ve been since the 1960s. In a recent YouGov survey, 53 percent of Americans said they support medical research into psychedelic medicines, and 63 percent said they would be open to having medical treatment with psilocybin, ketamine, or MDMA if the substances were proven safe.
“[Psychedelics] can create experiences of wonder and awe and connection to a ‘Divine Realm’ that leads to significant behavioral challenges.”
—Kenneth Tupper, British Columbia Centre
on Substance Use
In December 2016, the Journal of Psychoparmacology dedicated its entire issue to psychedelics. Michael Pollen’s 2018 book about psychedelic therapy, How to Change Your Mind, which he said took him to “places I’ve never been—indeed, places I didn’t know existed,” was an immediate bestseller. In 2017, in the widely acclaimed book A Really Good Day, Ayelet Waldman wrote that microdosing, or taking about one-tenth of a normal dose of LSD on a regular basis, helped her deal with severe mood swings. Silicon Valley executives microdose LSD for a gentle blast of focus and creativity.
Psilocybin from “magic mushrooms” is emerging as a treatment for smoking cessation, alcoholism, and cocaine dependence, and terminal-cancer anxiety, while MDMA, aka Ecstasy or Molly, is showing great promise for treating PTSD and autistic adults with social anxiety because it lets them safely reprocess traumatic experiences that normally leave them overwhelmed. MDMA, which emerged in the late 1970s as a tool for psychotherapists and made its way into the hands of ravers and yuppies, was “the drug that LSD was supposed to be, coming 20 years too late to change the world,” Newsweek wrote in 1985, the year the DEA made it a Schedule I substance. In 2017, the FDA gave MDMA breakthrough therapy status based on its effectiveness in PTSD studies, and it could be approved for legal therapeutic use by 2021.
As for ayahuasca, scores of medical journal articles are now exploring how journeying changes the very brain chemistry to beat back the anxiety and depression. Every weekend across North America, thousands of seekers gather for not-so-underground ceremonies like the one that didn’t work for me. For $11,000, San Francisco-area startup professionals can travel to the Amazon with Entrepreneurs Awakening for the real deal—but they don’t have to go to all that effort. In San Francisco, self-help guru Tim Ferriss told the New Yorker in 2016, drinking ayahuasca is “like having a cup of coffee.”
LSD, Past Lives, and Outer Space
Psychedelics affect the brain by binding to the same receptors as the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin and facilitating communication between disparate regions that normally don’t talk to each other. Kenneth Tupper, director of implementation and partnerships at the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, told NBC News that under carefully controlled conditions, psychedelics “can create experiences of wonder and awe and a connection to a ‘divine realm’ that leads to significant behavioral changes.”
At a recent international conference on the science of psychedelics in London, psychiatrist Ben Sessa explained that psychedelic therapy “offers an opportunity to dig down and get to the heart of the problems that drive long-term mental illness in a much more effective way than our current model, which is take daily medications to mask systems.”
At the Johns Hopkins University’s Psilocybin Research Project, studies found that people had a more “open” personality, greater appreciation for new experiences, and enhanced curiosity and imagination —effects that persisted for 14 months—after a single psilocybin session. And in 2018, a study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that people feel more connected to nature and less supportive of authoritarian views after a psychedelic trip.
That anti-authority effect is, of course, the reason psychedelics— which encouraged an entire generation to drop out and make love when the government desperately needed them to join up and make war—are illegal. In the 1950s, LSD was sold under the name Delvsid and used in conjunction with psychotherapy to treat anxiety and obsessive neuroses. A good number of researchers and therapists were studying the effects of drugs like LSD, which Canadian psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond called “psychedelics” from the Greek word for “mind manifesting.” Hollywood stars including Esther Williams and Cary Grant were outspoken about its effectiveness, Anais Nin wrote about experimenting with it, Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson tried it as a means to sobriety, and the CIA slipped it to unsuspecting victims to see how they would respond.
A Threat to Police States
Timothy Leary, the ex-Harvard professor who told people to “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” probably did more than anyone else to antagonize the government into making psychedelics illegal. President Richard Nixon called Leary “the most dangerous man in America” for his proselytizing about LSD. Leary told Playboy in 1966 that it was “the most powerful aphrodisiac ever discovered by man,” kicking up those age-old fears about young people’s virtue and predicted it would “enable each person to realize that he is not a game-playing robot put on this planet to be given a social security number and to be spun on the assembly line of school, college, career, insurance, funeral, goodbye. … Instead of relying on canned, static, dead knowledge passed on from other symbol producers, he will be using his span of 80 or so years on this planet to live out every possibility of the human, prehuman, and even subhuman adventure.”
Or, as Hunter S. Thompson would explain in Playboy eight years later, “If acid helps people see through conditioned hallucinations, then acid’s a threat to such police states as now exist in America and in Russia.”
All too much for the US government. In 1968, a year after the Summer of Love, LSD possession was banned. Two years later, nearly every psychedelic known, including LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, peyote, and cannabis, was declared a Schedule I drug with no medical value. The message–drugs are bad–would be impossible to ignore for the next several decades.
That message is antiquated. As we wrestle with so many seemingly intractable issues—opioid abuse, mental illness, mass shootings and violence, PTSD, and skyrocketing suicide rates—we can no longer afford to ignore tools that psychiatrist Stanislav Grof wrote, in the foreword to Albert Hoffman’s 2005 book, LSD: My Problem Child, “make it possible to study undercurrents that govern our experiences and behaviors to a depth that is not by any other method and tool available in modern mainstream psychiatry.”
Perhaps Amanda Fielding, founder of the think tank Beckley Foundation, summed it up best in a recent Wired interview. “There are these incredible compounds that synergize amazingly well with the human body and can be used to have incredibly positive results,” Fielding said. “And what do we do? We criminalize them. I mean, they are more carefully controlled than nuclear weapons. It is mad.”