Everybody uses drugs. Existing as a human requires you to do so. The frailty of our bodies and minds necessitates ingesting substances that maintain our physiological states.
Yet drugs are not for survival alone. Since ancient times, human beings have taken drugs precisely in order to shift the status quo, transcend waking life, and achieve altered states of mind.
Changes in consciousness produce changes in culture. Although we often think of politics and economics as the primary ways to create social change, our drug habits do so too, starting from the level of the individual.
Imagine for a second that you are a doctor tasked with prescribing a drug for this country’s current cultural ills: increasing inequality and rising rates of anxiety; slowing innovation and interpersonal isolation. What might you recommend?
Patient preferences would lead you to caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, the American mainstream’s drugs of choice. But a closer look reveals these substances to be symptoms, not solutions. Caffeine is a symbol for meritocratic mania; alcohol for the increasingly superficial character of human relationships. Cigarettes represent the most depressingly appropriate metaphor of all: quietly comforting, forever reassuring, but always leaving you wanting more.
Looking at patient practices might also lead to a fourth answer: sugar. Perhaps the most socially acceptable drug of all, sugar has been on the rise for years. Deceptively addictive and silently catastrophic, sugar is the embodiment of the modern social media company — the drug that everybody uses, but nobody really wants.
None of these substances do anything to break up the narratives that we have come to believe about our lives: our obsessions with consumption and status; our perceived distance from nature and between one another. They are the equivalent to painkillers and antidepressants: useful short-term relief but useless without an effort to address the underlying cause.
The same cannot be said for psychedelic drugs.
Thanks to years of irresponsible usage in the 1960s, psilocybin and LSD were made illegal. But now, thanks to new research, the stigma is beginning to fall away. The findings have been remarkable: For those suffering with psychiatric conditions, opioid dependencies, and nicotine addictions, a few trips have shown better rates of treatment than other currently available options.
And the results do not simply paint these drugs to be a cure for the mentally ill. They hint at the promise they hold for the culture at large: improved personality traits, a revaluation of the familiar, a renewed sense of wonder, and a restored sense of gratitude for the people closest to you.
Unlike other psychoactive drugs, such as stimulants and opioids, psychedelics tend to qualitatively alter ordinary conscious experience. Unlike over-the-counter drugs, these substances are non-toxic when taken at standard dosages. And contrary to popular belief, they are also non-addictive. Mental activity under a psychedelic is similar to that seen in long term meditators, where the brain’s default mode network becomes less active, allowing the individual to experience stimuli beyond the thin thread that they require to survive. Recent research has highlighted the similarities between these states and the brain activity of children, which is characterized by greater playfulness, connectedness, and divergent thinking.
The significance for our cultural moment is clear: an appreciation for our natural world is essential to our sense of environmental responsibility; an aid to creativity is crucial to remedy stagnant innovation; an increased sense of human connection could make it fun to disagree and a loss of attachment to the ego could act as a counter to political tribalism.
Any suggestion that psychedelics could provide a remedy to some of our ills requires serious caveats. The drugs that many recreational users believe they are taking are often riddled with impurities and there can be no overstating the potential problems for people with mental instabilities and genetic predispositions towards schizophrenia. The advocates of the sixties got a lot wrong about psychedelics, but they got one thing right: set and setting — one’s mindset and location — are of the utmost importance in turning these drugs from potential dangers into tools for improved wellbeing.
It takes one look at the current state of America to know that pursuing a drug-free country is no longer an option. More importantly, it was never an ideal worth fighting for. Non-addictive, non-toxic, and only requiring a single dosage, psychedelics have a great amount to offer this country’s people and wider culture. At the very least, they are superior to continued dependencies on substances that worsen mental states, increase the risk of suicide, and feed our social problems. While complete legalization may be a step too far, serious thought must be given to a middle ground (as a new Harvard club is doing). That middle ground may include guided trip therapy, integration with meditation retreats, and increased monetary support for research. What is clear is that it must include an opening up of our minds.
Sahil Handa ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies and Philosophy concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.