Connecting to the world through psychedelic drugs

Washington, DC (NI) – The search for meaning in life is a task we’re all faced with.

Capitalism offers us one set of answers. Life is about making money – more than the next guy, if possible. It’s about owning a swish house, a fast car and a diamond ring. Or we can look to celebrity culture. Here, what matters are Twitter followers, column inches and primetime TV slots.

Of course, if you ask anyone (including the rich and famous) what the most important moments of their life were, they are unlikely to talk about wealth or fame. They will probably talk of marriages, divorces, births and deaths. Of life-changing accidents and near-death experiences.

What if there was an activity that could reliably produce an experience to rival these? An experience that most people would describe as one of the most meaningful of their lives?

Well, there is. Taking psychedelic drugs.

In a 2011 study by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, 18 healthy adults participated in 5 eight-hour sessions with either psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) or a placebo.

Fourteen months after participating in the study, 94% of those who received the drug said the experiment was 1 of the top 5 most meaningful experiences of their lives; 39% said it was the single most meaningful experience. It’s a statistic described by the scientist in charge as ‘just incredible’.

What is the nature of the psychedelic experience?

David Nutt, Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and former head of the government’s Advisory Council for the Misuse on Drugs, says it well:

‘People in the psychedelic trip often experience being at one with the world or even with the universe. It’s as if they’ve gone out to another place. They exist beyond their body. That experience can give them a sense of perpetuity, of permanence, of being part of the cycle of life, which of course we all are.’

If one of the reasons we’re finding it so difficult to tackle problems like inequality and climate change is a lack of connection to others and the world around us, psychedelics seem to present us with a peer-reviewed remedy. That’s why I think those who desire a fairer, sustainable world should sit up and take notice.

I’ve been involved with a range of social and political movements over the years, including Climate Camp, UK Uncut, The Intruders and the Green Party.

Last November, I founded the Psychedelic Society, Britain’s first organization devoted to activism around psychedelic drugs. In just over 6 months, we’ve gathered over 5,000 supporters and 10,000 Facebook followers and have set up local groups in Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and London, with more cities on the way.

Last week, we hit the streets for the first time, setting up stalls around Brixton tube station to chat to passers-by and hand out information.

Red star microdot. Image Source: Retinafunk, Flickr, Creative Commons

Red star microdot.
Image Source: Retinafunk, Flickr, Creative Commons

The response was overwhelmingly positive, ranging from intrigue from people who have never taken psychedelic drugs, to support from people who had, but never thought they would be handed a flyer about it on the street.

Among the people we met were an ex-army officer who was using magic mushrooms to help deal with PTSD, and a young woman who had taken psychedelics for the first time just the day before.

While it’s not difficult to get hold of psychedelics, most are illegal to supply and possess in Britain (with one current notable exception: 1P-LSD). The main aim of the Psychedelic Society is to overturn this ban, and ensure that psychedelics are made available for careful personal and medical use.

Globally, things are definitely moving in the right direction. Marijuana use is being legalized in states across the US, and will probably be legal at a federal level in the next 5 years. MDMA is on course to be approved as medicine in the US on a similar timeframe. Neither marijuana nor MDMA are true psychedelics, but once they are legal to use, surely it won’t be long before we see moves to legalize the use of magic mushrooms, mescaline, LSD and other psychedelics.

Given the global shift towards legalization, it’s disappointing that the current British government is moving in the opposite direction.

Following a manifesto pledge to ‘protect young people from exposure to so-called “legal highs”’, the government has proposed a bill that would ban trade in ‘any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect’, excluding ‘legitimate substances’, such as ‘food, alcohol, tobacco, nicotine, caffeine and medical products’.

The bill will, of course, do little to stop anyone taking drugs, but it does present an opportunity for drug law reformers to make some noise, and make common cause with campaigners for sexual and reproductive rights on the issue of bodily autonomy.

As Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, puts it: ‘Nobody should be punished for what they put in their body, whether it’s a cock or a joint.’ Or, indeed, a tab of LSD.

Find out more about the Psychedelic Society and sign up for email updates here

Written by Stephen Reid for The New Internationalist.