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How Psychedelics Can Be a Path to Transformation

An exploration of psychedlics' potential to support personal, spiritual, and cultural transformation.

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The California ballot initiative for partial marijuana legalization (Proposition 19) may have been defeated for the moment, but nevertheless more than four million voters said "yes" to it. Between the recent reduction in California's penalties for use -- now reduced to a fine for possession of under an ounce of marijuana -- and the burgeoning medical marijuana industry, clearly the times are a-changin'. There are many hundreds of thousands of certified medical marijuana users in California, and twelve other states now have some reduction in marijuana criminalization as well. With scientific research into the clinical effects of psychedelics also burgeoning and a growing number of papers indicating benefit for various psychiatric conditions (post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, terminal illnesses, and drug addiction), thereby bolstering historic claims for clinical utility, and with the horrific costs of failed prohibition more and more obvious to the public, decriminalization -- if not legalization -- has become more of a possibility. With this as background, it is imperative to undertake a public reevaluation of where we are with respect to psychedelic use, its risks, and its potential to support personal, spiritual, and cultural transformation.

The History: Ancient and Modern

Psychoactive substance-induced alteration of consciousness is ages old, the specific history dependent on humans' particular geographic location and corresponding native plant habitats. The remarkable discovery, perpetuation, refinement of use, and sacralization of psychoactive substances in early and stone age cultures testifies to the timeless human interest in transcending "ordinary" historical and cultural realities.

Marijuana use dates at least to 4000 years BCE -- the earliest cultivated plant remains known having been dated to that time. Humans and marijuana have co-evolved, influencing each other reciprocally in terms of cultivation and culture.

The use of mushrooms and other psychoactive plants in Mesoamerica is undoubtedly thousands of years old and was ineradicable despite the deliberate murder of practitioners by the Inquisition and genocidal suppression of indigenous cultures by the European colonizers.

In fact, Europe was desperately poor in psychedelics, these being limited to the toxic tropane alkaloids contained in mandrake, henbane, and poisonous nightshades such as datura (popularly known as thorn-apple, jimson weed, or devil's trumpet). European consciousness developed its particular distortions in concert with the addictive and easily manufactured toxin known as ethanol, which is of limited value for mental and spiritual transformation.

Most remarkable is the Amazonian creation of ayahuasca (yage), the admixture of two separate plants that had to be bundled to create the remarkable oral dimethyltryptamine-based experience that was practiced as divination and personal transformation by native shamans. Ayahuasca use has recently spread to North America, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court's recognition of the União do Vegetal with hoasca as an acceptable sacrament and indispensible part of the União do Vegetal Church's ceremonial life, much as peyote is legal for the Native American Church.

Prohibition has often arisen in tandem with use, and has tended to serve elites who, hiding behind moral authoritarianism, attempt to regulate the "mind" in order to control dissidence. On the other side, use of substances for social control has its own history. For example, the Opium Wars were aimed at securing British capitalist interests in China and sedating the Chinese and, as many have argued, the pestilence of heroin use in the ghettos of the United States was fomented by the CIA in the 1960s and '70s. Prohibition and criminalization -- and, in our times, the "war on drugs" internationalized by the United States -- distort the discussion of psychoactive substance use and criminalize the exploration of mind-altering drugs, as if this were an activity to be controlled by the state. That demonization makes for both propagandistic deception and overstated advocacy.

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