14 April 2010


John Tierney reports in the NYTimes that for the first time, rigorous clinical studies are being conducted into the potential positive effects of administering hallucinogens (in this case, psilocybin) in the treatment of mental disorders -- including depression, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety disorder -- and in expanding our understanding of human consciousness.

The double-blind trials are administered under benign, controlled conditions, with trained medical and mental health professionals on hand to monitor patients' experiences. Prestigious institutions taking part include Johns Hopkins University, the University of Arizona, Harvard University, UCLA, and New York University, with most funding coming from non-profit groups.

It is remarkable to me that forty years after my own introduction to psychoactive drugs (back in the days when I thought I was a hippy), the U.S. government still clings to a paranoid perception of drug research that dates back to the 1930s. As in so many changes in attitude, the feds lag far behind the scientific community and the general public.

A short list of substances I've tried includes marijuana, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, speed, hashish, Jimson root, sacred datura (see image above), mescaline, laughing gas (in a dentist's office), and others. Intuitively, I paid attention to set and setting, that is, to my mindset at the time and to my physical and social surroundings. No one who is struggling with a mental disorder, emotional turmoil or extreme physical discomfort should try such substances, unless under the supervision of a trained therapist.

To give you an example -- the first time I tried acid (LSD) was alone, in my tiny duplex apartment in Tucson, Arizona in 1970. I trusted the purity of the drug, since I knew and trusted the person who'd given it to me. I had no time obligations to meet, no pressures or distractions. It was a beautiful experience -- candles, enjoyable music, a safe environment. As happens to many, I felt my normal psychological and sensory perceptions alter, revealing nuances of emotion and color which had been present all along, but which my busy daily mind had failed to notice.

Let's be clear about a common misconception -- drug-induced hallucinations are not inherently unpleasant or overpowering. They vary from individual to individual, but do not include seeing, hearing or feeling anything that doesn't exist (as in the image below). No little green men or fanged monsters. Rather, one's sensory perception is intensified. Using LSD as an example -- colors are more vivid, the harmonics and overtones in music emerge more clearly, the taste of various foods is intensified (though one does not feel an unusual urge to eat, as happens with marijuana). Further, there are no visual straight lines when under the influence of acid. Rather, one sees gentle, undulating curves and soft pulsing motion, as though the walls were slowly breathing. It's a bit like viewing a scene through a film of water falling along a pane of glass. Clarity remains, but in a different form. Trying to describe the visual effects of acid is a bit like trying to describe the Grand Canyon to a blind person. Words give only an approximate impression of the reality.
(Note: so-called bad trips are normally a result of two possible factors -- one's emotional state going into the experience, or the chemical purity of the substance being used. When I was younger, purity was common. These days it is rare -- street acid is laced with everything from strychnine to baby powder. I would not trust it today.)

Psychologically, one is lifted from daily cares and assumptions, one's sense of self gradually dissolves and becomes one with the surroundings, an organic part of an organic whole. It is a very moving, transformative experience, one which many interpret in spiritual terms, but which I see as simply noticing what was always there, both within myself and in my surroundings.

I've intentionally never been a heavy or habitual user of any psychoactive drug, so I've avoided encounters with bad trips or mental/physical side-effects altogether. And I've never ventured into the realm of more addictive or destructive drugs like heroin or angel dust or opium, again by choice. It is an urban myth that there is a domino effect among drugs, with marijuana inevitably leading to intermediate drugs and finally to heroin. More government sensationalism with no credible clinical evidence for support.

It has been twenty years since I last smoked marijuana, and twenty-five or thirty years since I last dropped acid. There have been no adverse residual effects in my life. To the contrary, I'm grateful for the expansion of consciousness which I went through, and absolutely support the current trend toward clinical studies which may reveal medical or psychological uses for hallucinogens (just as there are legitimate medical uses for marijuana in the treatment of claucoma or chronic pain). Here is Tierney's article -- it describes in greater detail the rigor of the trials, and the experiences of those participating.

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