Psychedelics: A Political Science

by P. GordonWhen various State governments and international bodies made d-Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and numerous other psychedelic drugs, illegal in the mid-1960s, they single-handedly ended medical research and, apparently, politicised the psychedelic experience. Now, after a 40 year hiatus, human research with psychedelic drugs has tentatively begun again. But is the psychedelic experience any less political now than it was then? And, moreover, who has the right to dictate how the subjective effects of these substances are understood? To answer these questions, it is first necessary to return to the heyday of psychedelic research.

The discovery of the psychoactive properties of LSD by Albert Hofmann in 1943 led to a frenzy of psychiatric research with a group of drugs that became known as psychedelics—a word meaning ‘mind-manifesting’ and coined by the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond. This class of drug includes various plants and chemicals, including LSD, peyote, Psilocybe (magic) mushrooms and N-N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT). The promising research of the period seemingly demonstrated their positive efficacy when used alongside psychotherapy, in curing personal neurosis and exploring a patient’s unconscious, leading to the development of psycholytic therapy. However, it was the psychedelic approach that most obviously led to the State-control of these substances, for it seemingly offered an escape from the dominant socio-economic consciousness of the everyday world.

The psychedelic approach aimed at producing ecstatic experiences in supposedly healthy individuals and was, therefore, stepping outside the strictly medical sphere. This understanding has its roots with the author Aldous Huxley, whose books The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956) explored mescaline within an artistic, spiritual and philosophical discourse. Interestingly, this reading of the psychedelic experience opened a new window through which society’s status quo could be questioned and challenged. Indeed, some argued that these substances, when used in a psychedelic framework, could heal cultural, spiritual and social wounds that were perpetuated by the capitalist, corporate West. Psychedelics, first understood to reveal personal pathologies, began to be understood as examining wider society as the cause; social pathologies. As such, they became a threat to the established order.

Thanks, in part to Huxley, psychedelics became a method by which individuals could question their own identities in regard to their social and political construction and, as such, were soon adopted into radical movements as a form of resistance. Such luminaries as the Harvard psychiatrist Timothy Leary, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and the author Ken Kesey, began famously placing LSD at the centre of the 1960s counterculture. Huxley’s value transformation of psychedelics provided an experience for the youth culture, which lay outside of the socio-political tick-tock of the Corporate West and allowed individuals a moment’s reflection. The result, coming on the back of a consumer-driven 1950s, was the invigoration of a radically politicised youth culture, and the status quo was challenged in the most tangible of manners, for the power of psychedelics lay not in the word, but in the experience.

Therefore, the popularisation of psychedelics outside, yet born out of, the medical sphere was one of a number of contributing factors that led to a changing social perception in the value of psychedelics. However, a glut of negative and, more often than not, falsely reported media stories, alongside the burgeoning counterculture, which took on LSD as a badge of identity, all contributed toward the scheduling of psychedelics by State governments across the West. Along with the criminalisation of members of the counterculture who used psychedelics, a tactic that had already been employed with cannabis in order to criminalise ethnic minorities in the U.S., medical research also came to an abrupt end and many from the medical establishment blamed Leary and others for the marginalisation of their work. However, this belies their failure to recognise the intrinsic political dimensions of their own research; civilization has its discontents indeed.

While that particular U.S. counterculture came to an end around 1970, the politicised imaginal of the psychedelic experience as a form of resistance did not disappear and, in many respects, this could be seen as one of the major reasons for the continued victimisation of psychedelics  by the State. Arguably the State recognised, more clearly than the medical establishment, that the psychedelic experience was not a pure medical space and, in fact, its inability to reconcile these implications punished those in need of treatment along with the wider social, whose ability to engage politically through psychedelics was effectively repressed (while at the same time sanctioned through their illegality.) What the scheduling did, however, was to promote campaigning from two camps; the medical and the political.

Numerous organisations have appeared during the forty year research hiatus, with the aim of re-initiating human research with psychedelic drugs and which, of late, have begun to make inroads. For instance, the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and The Beckley Foundation in the United States and Britain respectively. They’ve helped fund research with MDMA, psilocybin and iboga, with the hope of using psychedelics to combat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), cluster headaches and addiction, and to ease terminally ill people through the dying process. The results have all been very promising and the medical sphere for understanding psychedelics is once again taking central stage. However, we should remain aware that psychedelics are a socially, politically and culturally powerful tool that if restricted can be used as a method of repression.

For instance, is it any surprise that the State has allowed research with MDMA in order to combat PTSD in soldiers returning from war? Once these drugs were taken out of medical hands by the State, was it not only a matter of time before they began to openly utilise them as part of their war machine? Is it perhaps the only credible way to reintroduce them? This is not to say that MDMA should not be used in this way, for the soldiers do indeed deserve the finest treatment available, however, in the wider picture, they are being used to rectify the ills (social pathology) caused by the State’s unethical intervention in other countries. How far have we come from the mid-late 1960s when psychedelics were a promise of a new social order to overturn the corporatist, war-mongering State (i.e. the Vietnam conflict), to today’s circumstance when they are being used in the service of that very same State? The question of non-medical use, therefore, has become even more important in light of these developments and  is no less political than it once was.

State and corporate media have created an atmosphere of fear surrounding psychedelics ever since the 1960s. And, although even the slightest, surface-depth research reveals these fears to be unfounded and based on political and moral bias, as opposed scientific evidence, there still remains a popularly-held fear within the public. This fear serves to repress us and bind us to State values that determine how we should live our lives in its service. Therefore, dispelling the fear of psychedelics also means dispelling a fear that the State uses to control us—to repress us as critical, thinking individuals. By mastering our own psychedelic imaginations, we free ourselves from those who wish to deceive and control us. The re-emergence of psychedelia within the medical sphere has retained its political dimensions, whether it’s acknowledged or not. Unanswered questions from the heyday of psychedelia remain: Are psychedelics to be used to merely treat the symptoms of our social pathologies? Or should they be used philosophically, artistically and spiritually in order to transform society’s ability to heal itself? To my mind, at least, they remain an important critical social tool.

Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a historian, writer and editor. He is the founder of the Psychedelic Press, co-director of the Psychedelic Museum, and is currently undertaking his PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests focus on the history and literature of psychedelic substances, and the role of writing in spiritual and magical traditions during the 19th century. He is also the author of the novel 'Erin', and has occasionally be known to perform a poem or two.

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7 Responses

  1. Daniel Williams says:

    They should be used – period.

  2. nice article rob. I was wondering if you could maybe expand on your point at the end of paragraph 5, where you say about researchers and ‘their failure to recognise the intrinsic political dimensions of their own research’ ? Would you consider it a part of scientific research to acknowledge the political aspect of the work therein? I understand that the human is a political animal, but when you have division of labour, as is such in the western world, can you blame the researchers for their failure in this area?

    • PsypressUK says:

      Thanks Jim.

      A good deal of ‘serious’ researchers lamented the politicized/popularized approach to psychedelics because they saw it as an external influence that brought about an end to their work. However, they perhaps should have recognised that the seeds of such an approach lay in their own methodologies. Freud’s ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ is a case in point, which shows how repression is standard tool of civilization/society, although Freudian researchers had always limited themselves to an analysis of the individual pathology-thus treating the symptom of society.

      Psychedelics, however, increasingly began to reveal, outside personal and familial experience, the socio-cultural experience of the West to be pathological. It was, therefore, only a small step to saying that psychedelics could be used to deal with the cause of the social pathology i.e. as political tools, used medicinally, to heal society at its core, rather than just suppliment its existence by treating its symptoms – challenging modes of thinking and experiencing.

      Psychiatric/medical failure to recognise any similarity between the political and themselves was perhaps purposeful in order to disassociate themselves from the rabble, but the implications remained quite central to their own ‘scientific’ project. Overall, I think, my point was that the division between the spheres is quite blurred and instead of trying to clarify the difference between the two approaches, the researchers should have instead recognised the popularization as being the wider implications of their research and investigated it accordingly: Politics and science are, in this sense, more than just entwined, they are rooted together.


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