Slate lights the trip fantastic

John Horgan’s Slate essay about the hallucinogens (see “note on language” below) makes four points with which I agree:

1. Many people use these plants and chemicals not only harmlessly, but with lasting benefit to themselves.

2. Severe damage from this class of drugs is relatively rare, and addiction nearly unknown.

3. Some of them probably have therapeutic value in the hands of skilled practitioners of the healing arts. If that’s true, those uses ought to be permitted rather than forbidden.

4. They have long been used, and are being used today, in both formal religious ritual and for individual spiritual exploration. Respect for religious liberty requires that those uses should be allowed insofar as doing so is possible without significantly compromising the goal of controlling the damage from drug abuse.

But Horgan then goes on to suggest that permission for medical or ritual/spiritual use would naturally encompass permission for the use of these agents by virtually anyone for virtually any purpose: Horgan himself, for example, for his preferred purpose of clearing the cobwebs out of his head every so often.

“Risks,” Horgan blandly assures us, “could be minimized by making these substances available only through licensed therapists, who can screen clients for mental instability and advise them on how to make their experiences as rewarding as possible.” Well, it has a nice sound to it, but it needs a few details filled in:

— Just how are these therapists to be: 1) Trained? 2) Licensed? 3) Regulated?

— Which plants and chemicals should be available for the purpose?

— Who’s going to produce them, and who’s going to carry the liability insurance?

— Who’s in charge of taking care of the casualties? (The fact that most people use a drug safely doesn’t mean that some people won’t get badly hurt.)

The proposition that any responsible adult ought to be able to use any hallucinogen, or at least any of a list of relatively safe hallucinogens, as long as that person can show he knows more or less what he’s doing, is certainly an arguable one. For anyone calling himself a libertarian, it’s almost a necessary position: the consequences of opening the floodgates to the hallucinogens wouldn’t be nearly as grave as those of legalizing the use of, say, cocaine, or of alcohol, if it comes to that.

Of course, that position is also a complete political non-starter. A bill to legalize the hallucinogens would get exactly one vote in the current House of Representatives — maybe two, if Ron Paul could talk Barney Frank into going along — and none in the Senate.

By contrast, the claims for medical and religious use are, in political terms, relatively plausible. The fact that allowing the use of peyote in in Native American ritual has produced roughly zero observable damage is a powerful argument for those asking for the extension of that permission to other materials and other spiritual traditions. (Though, here again, working out the details is likely to prove both complicated and contentious.) If someone can do the studies to show that psilocybin is a useful adjunct to psychiatric treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the Food and Drug Administration might well be persuaded to sign off on the New Drug Approval that would convert psilocybin from a banned drug to a licensed medication.

The main political barrier in each case is precisely the fear that allowing limited use for religious or medical purposes would open the floodgates to any and all uses, condemning the country to another decade of “acid tests,” “be-ins,” and Day-Glo paisleys. For the PTSD patients who might benefit from psilocybin and the adherents of the ayahuasca-using churches who want to use their sacrament openly, accounts such as Horgan’s are their worst political nightmare.

If the question about the hallucinogens is presented to the public and the agencies of government as a question about medicine or a question about religion, it has a chance of being answered favorably. If it gets presented as a question about “drugs,” it doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell.

A note on language: Most pharmacologists call these agents “hallucinogens.” That’s confusing in English, because in English “hallucination” means roughly “thinking you see things that aren’t there.” Frank delusions are actually fairly rare side-effects of hallucinogen use; most of the time, users maintain adequate reality-checking and are perfectly well aware of the difference between the jaguar they imagine they’re talking to and a real, live jaguar. In Latin, though, the root word means simply “to wander,” which is as good a description of the effects of the hallucinogens as one could wish: they’re chemicals that make the mind wander.

“Psychedelic,” a coinage of the 1950s, means in the literal Greek “soul-manifesting,” which seems to me a term with an enormous number of assumptions built in to it and an enormous amount of baggage attached to it. (There’s a long essay to be written about our current culture’s resistance to translating psyche as “soul” and its preference for the more neutral-sounding “mind.”) “Entheogen,” an even more recent coinage that’s supposed to mean something like “evoking the god within,” packs in even more assumptions, and seems especially inappropriate when used generically to name the chemicals rather than specifically to name their ritual or spiritual uses.

So, despairing of introducing my own coinage, “psychoperipatetic” (i.e., “causing the soul to walk around,”) I prefer to stick with “hallucinogen.” But Bob Jesse of the Council on Spiritual Practices, who has thought about these matters as carefully as anyone, prefers “entheogens” and explains why here.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: