Dreamers at the Gates of a Post-Prohibition World

May 28, 2016

An Emerging Landscape

In sub-communities that use psychedelics, or even follow the resurgence in research, a new term is emerging: a “post-prohibition world.” The phrase suggests that we’re on the verge of breaking into a new landscape of drug regulation. It suggests a realm beyond prohibition, where psychedelics are legally accessible for individuals and institutions to explore. The idea of institutional interest in psychedelics is unexamined in great detail. Thought experiments of this nature can catalyze an intense infusion of speculation and imagination. This is an unexplored vista of futurism, laced with wonder and paranoia. Associating “psychedelics” with “institutions” creates a cultural meme that slices through aging and obsolete caricatures.

While society still grapples with some of the consequences of the “war on drugs,” it can’t be ignored that some progress is being made. If you look closely, the foundations of drug war policy are slowly folding in on themselves. The advocates of psychedelic legalization are left imagining where they might land on the spectrum between strict-government regulation and open-market legalization.

The phrase, “left imagining,” might imply a certain kind of helplessness. We each have our own idiosyncratic fantasy of a cultural El Dorado that exists just on the other side of the flood-gate. If anything can happen, does the abundance of possible outcomes paralyze our ability to forecast a post-prohibition world?

Although there seems to be an inability to conceive the role of psychedelics in our future society, I think an investigation into our current situation proves otherwise. There are layers of subtle cultural patterns that give a sense of the general direction where the ship is headed. Our present epoch sits upon an untapped gold-mine of psychedelic futurism.

Never before has there been any sense of a promising direction forward. The cultural upheaval of the late 1960’s was a delirious march towards something that couldn’t be defined. It was fueled by a romantic dream of what the future could be, but ultimately failed, by not acknowledging the larger framework it was operating within. Poking the giant manifested in a 30 year dark-age in psychedelic research. There is some literature from within this cloud, where psychedelic therapists expressed their uncertainty whether research would ever resume (1). The notion of a psychedelic society was a distant dream. So, psychedelic futurism has ranged from wide-eyed speculation on the transformation of our species, to, despair under the oppression of scared leaders who haven’t considered the psychological intricacies of these substances. The fact that we can now see a Middle road leading towards a “post-prohibition world,” signifies a dramatic reversal of hope for the future of psychedelics.

The Successor to the Psychedelic Pilot Study

For almost two decades now, psychedelics have existed in an FDA approved theoretical vacuum (2). The results of these studies are reaching wide audiences, and seem to be persuading everybody of the same slogan: the risks can be controlled, and the benefits can be paradigm shattering. The media-sanctioned echo chamber is properly maintained. The mainstream journalists, the podcast rings, and the conference circuits all frame an inevitable rescheduling. So what then? What is supposed to follow this current phase of carefully controlled pilot studies? In other words, how does this scale up? When the prototype scales up and becomes accessible to larger portions of the culture, there are all sorts of social and political dynamics that need to be considered. The current discourse only scratches the surface of what the future holds. How specifically would a post-prohibition world work?

Considering the remaining members of the Grateful Dead have been kidnapped and brought on tour with a band of pop-celebrities, it’s reasonable to assume that the rescheduling of psychedelics won’t bring upon a 21st century Haight-Ashbury. We won’t find ourselves amidst another bottom-up movement. The cultural matrices (3) of a “pre-scheduled” and a “re-scheduled” psychedelic society look very different. In our pre-scheduled landscape, research moved slowly and cautiously, while grassroots use ignited and escalated to a point where it became perceived as an actionable epidemic. What followed was a temporary scheduling that is categorized by over-simplicity, criminalization, and an immunity to scientific data. While prohibition did seem to cut the head off the snake, it’s cultural impact reverberated through the following decades, and it affected the situation we’re in today.

We are now coming from a position where, regardless of its illegality, underground psychedelic use exists in subcultures without much hysteria or threat to cultural stability. These organic bottom-up cultures will continue to exist and thrive as subsets, while the act of “re-scheduling” will be about the slow and gradual “top-down” transformation. Expanded accessibility in controlled environments will attract larger cultural subsets. Groups who didn’t previously give any regard to psychedelics, might now actually become exposed and curious about the option on the table.

We will see how the bodies that control policy will shape the legal environment, and in turn, shape the institutions that want to get invited to the party. A range of institutions will operate within sensible regulations to get approval to administer psychedelics and conduct programs that utilize them. We have already gotten a sense of how the FDA and DEA might regulate the medical accessibility of psychedelics. (4) The pending success of the psychiatry community may spark a contagious attitude, where institutions from all sides of the table follow their curiosity on substances that were previously taboo. Just this summer, William Richards of Johns Hopkins piloted a study that invites clergy members from within the United States to experiment with psilocybin (5).

Therefore, a world where medical, religious, psychiatric, scientific, academic, and cultural establishments provide contexts for psychedelic experiences is ripe for questioning, imagining, and articulating. At the end of the process of escalation, prohibition, and rescheduling, seems to be an environment where citizens can choose between a variety of platforms for legitimate psychedelic use. The highly controlled and monitored era of the “pilot study,” seems as if it’s designed to grow into a “gatekeeper” model. (6)

Intricacies of the Gatekeeper’s Ritual

A context for a psychedelic experience that is constructed by an institution is fundamentally different than a context set up by the individual. In an environment where psychedelics are illegal and pushed to the underground, an individual has the responsibility to take set (and) setting into their own hands. Sometimes factors are carefully controlled, and sometimes they are left up to chance. However, in the realm of institutions, set & setting will be carefully curated. Protocols and environment will be designed for specific types of experiences and outcomes.

Those who advocate for the liberation of consciousness from cultural programming, and demand that that their altered states be unmediated by a regulating figure, might find the concept of a gatekeeper troubling. While there are obvious benefits for widespread cultural integration, there are also more concealed possibilities of hierarchical abuse. Establishing an entity that controls how a population uses psychoactive substances might sound like a dystopian classic by Huxley. (7)  For this reason, it is a widely held belief that psychedelics should be distributed “horizontally.” Similar to Leary’s model of social change, it is thought that viral proliferation and bottom-up transformation is the way forward.

However, the idea of a “gatekeeper” is by no means historically new. If we look at all the different cultures that used psychedelics throughout history, all of them were moderated in some way by a figure that determined the rules, granted access, and established rituals. By controlling the parameters in which psychedelics were accessed, the gatekeepers in turn built the cultural matrix that would shape the set & settings of psychedelic experiences. This has typically been the case, until modern times. The chaos of the 1960’s resulted from a historically novel situation, where underground access of substances prevented a gatekeeper from steering the direction of a culture. Small research communities were building rituals and protocols that were evolving based on their experiences with patients (8). But underground distribution systems set up by groups like the Brotherhood of Eternal Love allowed the culture to access LSD without the need to go through an authority figure.

The counter-culture instilled the ethos of do-it-yourself religion. It was a religious interpretation that fused Eastern mysticism with American individualism. But a look into our past reveals that carefully guarded psychedelic rites actually created meaningful and stable contexts that would benefit the culture at hand, and thus the individuals within it. Our modern society is in great need of contexts for these experiences. While some are able to utilize psychedelics as tool on their own, the general population is unaware of the intricate dynamics and the various applications of these substances.

The challenge is: any figure that steps in to provide a context, will inherently be coloring it with its own social, political, or religious aspirations. This begins to illustrate the double-edged sword of ritualized experience, and an upcoming conundrum that western civilization will find itself in. How much of the psychedelic experience should be shaped by the individual, and how much should be shaped by the state?

As our modern gatekeeper is in its earliest stages of development, it is worthwhile to study historical precedents. It’s worth understanding the dynamics between authority figures and cultures, and how this relationship can imprint upon an individual’s trip.

The Shaman: Gatekeeper of Indigenous Culture

The Shaman is an archetype of a sole gatekeeper that had an extensive knowledge of botanical preparations, songs, and ceremonies that would steer indigenous cultures. What is unique about this archetype of the gatekeeper, is the process in which individuals were selected to become a “shaman,” and help craft the cultural matrix. When someone showed a tendency for powerful dreams or naturally-occurring hallucinatory visions, they would be recognized by the tribe (9). The shaman-initiate would become empowered by inheriting generations of training, knowledge, and ritual to help lead the tribe in its religious and cultural matters. So the gatekeepers weren’t figures who earned their authority through the mastery of their intellect. They were quasi-magical, other-worldly figures who possessed experience and wisdom regarding the navigation of psychic realms. They were walking saints.

The sociological identify of the gatekeeper, and the role they played in guiding the ritual, ultimately framed the relevance of the experience and added a sacred dimension to it. These rituals still exist today, and are gaining popularity amidst the recent movement of ayahuasca tourism. Many assert that ayahuasca taken in its traditional context is superior to taking the plant in a vacuum (10). It hints that the ritualistic curation of set, setting, and matrix can actually help frame personal experiences that are potentially more therapeutic, insightful, or awe-inducing than experiences that are undirected and left to chance. It also hints that the psychological dynamics of a plant or substance can be so complex, that many prefer an “expert” to give guidance and support during the experience.

The Eleusinian Mysteries: Gatekeepers Within Democracy

The Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece is a compelling and relevant case study about how the gatekeeper model operated at the scale of a democratic society. There is a vast amount of area to cover on Eleusis in regards to the construction of societal matrices that shape psychedelic set & settings. It seems as if the Wasson, Hoffman, Ruck hypothesis (11) caused a fixation over solving the identity of the kykeon, rather than analyzing the Greek rituals and regulatory systems that shaped the hallucinatory odysseys for generations of pilgrims.

For the intentions of this introduction, the main take away is that for 1,700 years, two families collaborated with state and local governments to build a cultural matrix that allowed psychedelics to exist within society without debasing it. The catch is, the ritual was extremely specific, and included a formulaic year-long initiation process that every generation had to go through. The peak of the ritual seemed to have involved the use of an ergot alkaloid in the context of a psycho-dynamic, mythological, and theatrical event (12). The homogenous preparation, paired with a scripted setting, seemed to have produced a singular experience that a new wave of individuals would encounter year after year.

The idea of a “uniform” or “planned” psychedelic experience that can be systematically evoked on demand, not only defies our current understanding of psychedelics, but confronts the controversial topic of the amount of influence a gatekeeper should exert before, during, and after a psychedelic trip. The socio-political structure of psychedelic administration at Eleusis wouldn’t be considered ethical in modern times. Yet, it provides an example of an institution that provides a specific set and setting to its populace.

The initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries didn’t explore their internal landscape through idiosyncratic and personally-driven intentions. Rather, they were immersed in a mythological, Lord of the Rings-esque, journey, which culminated in the use of a botanical catalyst to trigger specific mental archetypes. The lack of individuality in this ritual might cause many to suspect that the hierophants at Eleusis were running an MK-Ultra like operation, ultimately bent on using mysticism as a tool for mind-control (13). However, it was reported that the pilgrims from Eleusis had uniformly positive, illuminating and life-altering experiences. It was considered to be the pinnacle of the Greek mystery religions. (14)

Eleusis, although it exhibits a scenario where the gatekeeper had absolute control over psychedelic experience, is another interesting example of how the gates can be constructed to create specific, poetic, and transformational experiences that could not be attained without the orchestration of a ritual.

Gatekeepers Within Modern Society

There is much we can learn, translate, and implement from these cross cultural analyses. However, there are some unique conditions inherent to modern society that have no historical precedents. A study into the dynamics of the 1960’s is an excellent way to understand how the establishment of a gatekeeper was interrupted by these conditions.

The cultural phenomenon of the late 1960’s seemed to shock our collective memory so sharply, that the institutional use of psychedelics from 1950 – 1967 evades certain historical narratives. Many are unaware at the depth of psychedelic exploration that was conducted by mainstream institutions:

  • Over forty-thousand sessions were conducted in federally funded supervised environments. (15).  
  • Psychedelics were available to graduate and undergraduate students to study consciousness in Germany, given that the student presented a reasonable letter of intent. (16).  
  • The Marsh Chapel experiment at Boston University was famous for administering mushrooms during a Good Friday service to see if they facilitated mystical experiences of a similar nature to the ones recorded in ancient texts. (17).
  • Working professionals, including business owners, architects, engineers, and scientists were given LSD to see if it enhanced their ability to solve real world problems. (18).
  • Computer scientists in California were using LSD as a creativity tool to help solve the problems in personal computing. (19).
  • The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous realized the potential psychedelics had in curing substance addiction. (20).
  • The University of Maryland conducted hundreds of studies that tested psychedelics as a tool in palliative care for persons dying of a terminal illness. (21)
  • Nurses at mental hospitals become familiar with altered states to better empathize with their patients. (22).
  • Incoming data from figures like Schultes and Wasson revealed that ancient cultures had used these same substances for thousands of years, revising our historical models. (23).
  • There existed in Prague, places where people could go to receive psychedelics in a supervised settings, and there were talks to develop similar research centers in the United States. (24).

The fascinating developments that spanned across so many fields were due to the careful research and implementation strategies that were conducted by institutions. This ushered in the period of the first psychedelic renaissance. This period existed before mass cultural adoption, and was categorized by a spirit of exploration. Those involved with the research had the sense that they were early adopters who were pushing the boundaries of culture and consciousness. Researchers like Pahnke, Smith, Leary, Alpert, Cohen, Hausner, and Richards often used metaphors relating to exploration, Columbus, new frontiers, and the New World, to explain the mental territory they were uncovering. (25). From the examples cited above, there would be no reason to doubt that psychedelics could benefit culture at large. Yet, the shocking nature of the counterculture overshadowed the institutional progress that was made.

The technological capabilities that allowed us to synthesize psychedelics and realize their promise, also allowed them to spread like wildfire. While institutional use was deliberate, promising, and warranted further exploration, the overwhelming surge of underground use, and its following cultural expression, urged officials to put the lid on the can. The bacterial wave of the “electric feel” aborted two decades of psychedelic research, and prevented the birth of modern psychedelic institutions. All the progress that was being made was immediately stunted. Funding was cut, and research groups disbanded. The suicide of prominent czech researcher, Milan Hausner, was emblematic of the devastation that this blackout caused to those within the movement. (26)

While the modern condition of mass accessibility stunted the development of a psychedelic gatekeeper, the research rekindled its momentum fifty years later. The underground has stabilized, and the nascent psychedelic institution has a somewhat clear path to fulfill its role as a gatekeeper.

A One-Hundred Year Birthing Process

Let’s assume that 1943, the year when Hoffman accidentally dosed himself with his synthesis of LSD, (27). marks the time when psychedelics were reintroduced to modern society. Now let’s imagine that the 2040’s will be remembered as the decade when psychedelic centers sprouted around the world. This means that it takes one-hundred years for psychedelics to integrate into modern cultural systems upon their discovery. Considering these substances are igniting a paradigm shift in psychiatry, psychology, neuroscience, religion, and the phenomenology of consciousness; one-hundred years isn’t bad. This period has a complex dynamic, with an arc that includes: discovery, mystery, confusion, promise, hysteria, prohibition, outrage, defiance, and re-establishment.

When looked at from a distance, it seems as if this is a natural and organic evolution of culture. Yet, from within the context of a lived human life, it seems as if drug policy is immovable. A generation only lives through a segment of this cycle. Gary Snyder is quoted for saying that it will take three generations for psychedelics to integrate into culture (28). The first is characterized by a cultural explosion and subsequent oppression. The second generation is about slow and careful research in laboratories to reverse policy. The third generation lives within a flourishing culture where psychedelics are normalized.

We are amidst Snyder’s second generation. It is easily to dwell on the frustrations of the rescheduling process. It is easy to criticize western civilization for being the only culture that doesn’t strive for non-rational states of consciousness, as do many intellectuals in the psychedelic circuit (25 – Ott, Nutt, Grof). It is easy to rehearse the dozens of rational arguments that poke at the absurdity of our drug policy. Yet, regardless of our efforts and our angst, the birthing process is a complex dynamic that will unfold at its own pace. Regardless of the multi-tentacled nature of the psychedelic hydra, the safe passage through “generation two” ultimately relies on its utility as a medicine. Rather than swim against the current, or get involved in a game where we have no role, let’s realize that the conception of “generation three” is “blue-ocean” territory. (29)

If we shift our attitude from one of oppression, to one that realizes we are in the final phase of a profound metamorphosis, the conversations will shift. The current discourse is very much focused on the medical trajectory, but not so much on where it will land. While there aren’t many elaborate discussions on the genetic makeup of a post-prohibition world, the public figures that are spearheading psychedelic legalization have been slowly revealing some thoughts that indicate where things might be headed.

This community is composed of people who embody the imperative to give birth to psychedelic culture, and to psychedelic institutions within modern society.  Rather than passively spectating the research that we have no consequence on, we have the ability to steer the conversation in accordance with our talents and visions. We have a responsibility to design the society that the medical movement will ultimately deliver us to.

Envisioning the Parameters and Components

I recently attended a talk given by Rick Doblin at the Alchemist’s Kitchen, a new venue that recently opened on the lower east side of Manhattan. Rick is the director of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, the non-profit organization that is navigating psychedelic research through the gears of capitalism. His talk was titled, “Envisioning a Post-Prohibition World.” (30). It’s primary focus was the immediate future of MDMA in the context of psychotherapy, but also slightly touched on the realm beyond. Someone asked Rick a fascinating question on the balance between pilot studies and psychedelic futurism. He asked if the groups conducting the research to help legalize psychedelics should be hesitant to publicly come out with their vision on what a future psychedelic society might look like. Is there a risk that a vision of the future might be received as too radical, and thus, detrimental to the critical short-term work that is being done? Rick emphasized the importance of this question, and explained how it was imperative to have a transparent agenda with the public. Over the last few years, he’s been very open about his ideas on the future. He’s discussed the need to train therapists, the concept of a psychedelic facility, and different models of access. (31). He’s talked about the transformation of MAPS from a non-profit into a benefit corporation that can legally sell drugs to institutions. (32). He’s shared ideas on how psychedelics could be used by different religions to help them discover a common core of mysticism that unites them all. (33). He’s even used current trends to extrapolate into the future, and has given dates of when to expect certain things to happen.

If it is possible to define the parameters and components of a post-prohibition world, then it’s also possible to build a comprehensive vision of the future. Some of the pieces are laid out, but they’re not composed to create a picture of the future that is saturated with implications. There are varying ways to interpret the problem, and varying solutions to the same problem.

While futurism is an act of speculation, I’d argue that this is a breed of psychedelic futurism that we haven’t seen before. It is different, in the sense that it is attainable. This isn’t about turning on a critical mass of the population, articulating the transcendental object at the end of time, or rendering visions from the altered state. This is something manageable. This is a model of futurism that will actually unfold within the structures and processes of capitalism. We can anticipate how psychedelics might integrate into culture over a decade, and put it in terms of budgets, resources, and schedules. A cultural implementation strategy for psychedelics might seem contradictory to the experience itself. But if psychedelics are to integrate and penetrate the programs of a western culture, it is necessary that the bridge to the altered state is constructed out of stable and familiar building blocks.

During the final years of the pilot study era, we are left with idle hands and imaginations. We have the opportunity to question how things might work in a post-prohibition world. We have the responsibility to ensure that these emerging institutions are shaped in a way so that they facilitate individualism within a supportive community. We are still early on in the process. If our dreams about a post-prohibition are crafted and communicated in a convincing way, we can take an active role in shaping our future.

A Proposed Thought Experiment

The next section is an extrapolation, a thought experiment, an exercise in imagination, and a researched piece of science fiction. It is an exploration of what might happen between the years 2021 and 2040, a two decade period that may one day be remembered in psychedelic history as a distinct and transformative episode. How might carefully controlled MDMA sessions blossom into a culture where psychedelics are routinely used in psychedelic centers across the country? How might formal and informal psychedelic communities interact? How might certain milestones correlate with specific changes in public opinion? How might the regulatory model we conceive shape the cultural matrix that steers the altered states of the next generation?

# Footnotes IN PROGRESS

1: Grof, Stanislav: LSD Psychotherapy

2: MAPS.org, FDA studies

3: Eisner, Bettery

4: DEA regulation @ Marin Studies

5: Richards, William: www.religiousleaderstudy.org

6: After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation

7: Huxley, Brave New World

8: Grof, Stanislav: LSD Psychotherapy

9: Halifax, Joan: Shamanic Voices

10: Ayahuasca Tourism Article

11: Wasson, Hoffman, Ruck: Road to Eleusis

12: Wright, Dudley

13: Irvin, Jan: Manufacturing the Deadhead

14: Hall, Manly Palmer

15: Nutt, David: London Real

16: Richards, William – film

17: Pahnke, Walter – Good Friday Experiment

18: Fadiman, James

19: Markoff, John

20: Osmund, Humphrey

21: Grof, Stanislav

22: Osmund, Humphrey

23: McKenna, Terence

24: Hausner, Milan

25: Leary, Tim

26: Hausner, Milan

27: Hoffman, Albert

28: Snyder, Gary

29: Blue Ocean Theory Link

30: Rick Doblin Talk @ Alchemist Kitchen

31: Doblin – Rogan

32: Doblin – Burning Man Talk

33: Doblin – Online Interview