Humans have been ingesting dimethyltryptamine, a potent psychedelic, for over a thousand years. We’ve been using cocaine even longer. Marijuana was used medicinally in China thousands of years ago; soon after, celebrants in India began to ingest it as a psychedelic to potentiate religious experience. Mind-altering experiences were so prized in ancient Greece that prophets huffed narcotic vapors.
Drugs are very important to our species.
Not all drug use is good, obviously. Narcotics like opium, heroin, oxycontin, et al., can latch onto a person’s mind and compel continued use at any cost. Somebody told me recently, “I knew I was gonna get caught. I’m on probation, they drug test me all the time. I mean, I was thinking about it while I was cutting it up: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me. I was thinking about it while I was loading the syringe: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me. I thought I’d only have to do a week, though, and that seemed okay. Which is insane! I know it’s insane, but that’s what I was thinking. I guess I was wrong. I’ve been here three weeks and I still haven’t had my court date.”
Even fish, if they get hooked, will risk their lives for another dose. When human parents are snared by addiction, they endanger their children. The man whom I quoted above? He’d managed to stay sober for almost seven months, but relapsed the night of his son’s second birthday. His wife had to break down the bathroom door. After the ER, they brought him straight to jail.
In class together, we read Josh Rathkamp’s “Single Father,” in which the narrator fears that his diabetes will cause him to fall out and be unable to help his daughter. Several parents recognized their own dread. Then we read “Daddy Wake Up” by local poet Travis Combs. Combs loves his son, but, like a diabetic, a person suffering from opiate addiction might find himself paralyzed, “a mass of mess.”
DADDY WAKE UP
– Travis Combs
I hear the sound of his little feet running
down the hall, I look to make sure the door
is locked, I pull the plunger back, I hear
his joy as he yells, I’m superman.
I do the shot
thinking What if?
What if I fall out, what if he finds
me here, what if his little fingers have to
press 911, something we all teach them to do.
The fear in his voice when he says Daddy
won’t get up. The pain in his heart when
he shakes me, yelling daddy wake up, daddy
Then I do wake, the needle
still in my arm, I feel his tears on my chest
as he lays there hugging me, crying, daddy
Psychedelic drugs are safer. They tend to be non-addictive. Most are relatively non-toxic. And a single dose can initiate self-discovery that buoys a person’s spirits for six months or more.
But psychedelic drugs are tightly controlled. Despite thousands of research findings to the contrary, they’re classified by the U.S. government as having no accepted medical treatment use. Possession is a felony.
Perhaps this shouldn’t seem surprising. Spiritual drug use has been prized by our ancestors for thousands of years, but most cultures closely regulated which people would be privileged with access to those sacraments. Depending on the time and place, only wealthy people would be allowed to use drugs, or only people born to a certain caste, or only men.
In the United States, cocaine was rightfully recognized as a wonder drug for decades, but then a cadre of white supremacist politicians claimed that cocaine would turn black men into monsters. Prohibition was mediated through racism.
It’s true that cocaine is dangerous – both psychologically and physiologically – if you’re ingesting the purified compound. But coca tea is no more dangerous than earl grey. Indeed, if you decided to purify caffeine from tea leaves and snort it, you might die.
Marijuana was also legal in the United States until the racist propaganda machine started spinning stories about what would happen when people from Mexico smoked it.
Yet when people in Denver supported a ballot initiative that reduces the legal risk of possessing psilocybin-containing mushrooms, Pollan wrote an editorial denouncing the initiative. Yes, there is some nuance; Pollan states that
No one should ever be arrested or go to jail for the possession or cultivation of any kind of mushroom – it would be disingenuous for me to say otherwise, since I have possessed, used and grown psilocybin myself.
And he claims, oddly, that the ballot initiative would be merely symbolic, citing as evidence the fact that only 11 psilocybin cases have been prosecuted in the last three years, out of approximately 150 arrests. I personally have never been prosecuted for a crime, nor even arrested, but I’ve been told that it’s a very traumatic experience. I’ve heard this from very reliable sources, men who have been through all sorts of horrific trauma in addition to their arrests.
For all the people subject to this trauma – not to mention everyone more deterred than Pollan himself by the current legal status of this medicine – the initiative would have very meaningful consequences.
Instead, Pollan centers his cautionary argument on the idea that psilocybin “is not for everyone.”
That idea is true enough, as far as things go. Some people probably shouldn’t use psilocybin. Some people feel traumatized by the bad experiences they go through while under its influence. But I would argue that arrest is more traumatizing, and that the very illegality of the substance increases the likelihood that someone will go through a bad trip.
And the regulations seem absurd compared to how we treat other drugs. For instance, someone with a predisposition to develop schizophrenia could be pushed closer to this condition by ingesting psilocybin. The drug can hurt someone who uses it. But alcohol, which is totally legal for most U.S. citizens over 21 years of age to purchase and consume, causes a huge amount of harm even to people who abstain. Alcohol is the psychoactive drug that causes the most harm to others.
It’s unlikely that our sitting Supreme Court justices would have sexually assaulted anyone while using psilocybin for a meditative journey of self-discovery. Indeed, that sort of experience might have led someone to develop much more empathetic political views.
Because alcohol consumption is so likely to lead to poor decision-making and violence, it’s illegal for people on probation to drink. Many have to check in at “blow & go” breathalyzer stations once or twice a day, which is really tough for people whose drivers’ licenses are suspended. But, still, we passed this law to keep other people safe.
Or consider antibiotics. Every time you use antibiotics, you make the world a little worse. With every dose, there’s a risk that the bacteria you’re hoping to kill off will instead evolve to resist them.
And yet, even though using antibiotics hurts everybody else, they’re regulated much less than other drugs. If you take psilocybin, it’s not going to hurt me at all. But if you take an antibiotic – or, worse, if you decide to manufacture huge quantities of antibiotics and them inject 80% of them into cows, pigs, and chickens, all of whom are being raised in fetid conditions – you’re making it much more likely that I will die.
In the past, somebody might get scratched by a cat … and die. Any infection could turn septic and kill you.
In the future, a currently-treatable infection might kill me. Or kill my children.
Because we’ve allowed people to be so cavalier with antibiotics, medical professionals expect that within a generation, more people will die from bacterial infections than from cancer.
Obviously, this terrifies me.
But we’re not stopping the meat industry from using them. We’re not using our legal system to protect all of humanity from their misuse. Instead we’ve outlawed psilocybin, a compound that could usher you through a spiritual experience that helps you become a kinder, happier person.
Is that reasonable?