"Neurons to Nirvana," a superb documentary directed by Oliver Hockenhull, provides context for a piece of mail that arrived today, a stock advisory. The headline is "Investors Guide to Emerging Marijuana Markets." A company is touting "advanced development of medical marijuana-based cancer treatments."
As the flier points out, marijuana is now accepted for medicinal use in over half the states. "The U.S. marijuana market is taking shape to become one of the biggest money-making opportunities in your lifetime."
What? Only a lifetime ago the classic scare flick, "Reefer Madness," was solemnly warning that smoking pot could lead to addiction, madness, and death. This attitude produced the war on drugs: billions spent, many people incarcerated, scientific researchers impeded. Meanwhile, millions of underground users have not been assured of purity and drug cartels have got rich.
But something appears to be changing.
That change has many progenitors. One is Rick Doblin, a graduate of the Kennedy School at Harvard and founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies or MAPS. He is among the experts who appear in "Neurons to Nirvana."
In the title of the movie, the word "neurons" signals that we are about to hear from scientists. Hockenhull's searching documentary brings together 23 experts not only on marijuana but also on MDMA and on classic psychedelics such as LSD, psilocybin, and ayahuasca.
We hear from researchers such as Roland Griffiths (at Johns Hopkins), Dennis McKenna (associated with the Heffter Research Institute), and David Nichols (at Purdue); explorers in the ayahuasca regions of South America such as Wade Davis and Jeremy Narby; psychiatrists such as Charles Grob (at the UCLA Medical School) and Stephen Ross (at NYU); psychedelic pioneers such as Ralph Metzner, (an emeritus professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies); experts on MDMA such as Julie Holland and Michael Mithoefer; British experts such as Amanda Feilding (founder of the Beckley Foundation), and David J. Nutt (at the Imperial College in London); and others equally well-known in the scientific community.
They speak here less to colleagues than to ordinary people interested in psychedelics and other psychoactive drugs.
Near the end of the movie, a serious-looking character, unidentified but perhaps from what is called the golden age of TV, explains that "man at present is using only a fraction of his brain capacity" and "certain drugs are powerful devices for expanding this awareness." Over scenes of surf on a rough coast, sounding a little astonished after all these years of explaining, Ralph Metzner says "I think it's unwise to be so scared of the possible risks of these drugs. There's risks in anything. I mean there are risks in driving a car, there are risks in crossing the street, but to be so scared of them [mindful molecules] as to make them illegal and inaccessible to anyone who might want to research them or might want to think about them? Why would we do that?"
Metzner continues, "Are we so sure that we can solve all the problems that confront us that we want to throw away a possible tool that can expand consciousness, that could possibly, you know, give us some more insights, some more possibilities of how to resolve the difficulties that we're facing? I think not."
Despite prohibition since the early 1970s, use of these mindful molecules, especially among the young, has been extensive. The main effect of prohibition, apart from spending on the "war on drugs," has been a ban on scientific research, now breaking down, thanks to the efforts of such U.S. groups as MAPS, the Heffter Institute, Bob Jesse's Council on Spiritual Practices, and the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research, and Service.
According to the movie, the ban on these psychoactive drugs was imposed by elites frightened by movements against the war in Vietnam, the women's movement, the ecological movement, and the civil rights movement: the elites were being challenged by kids stoked on drugs, and power came down hard in defense of its ways. According to David Healey, director of Psychological Medicine at the University of Cardiff, elites "felt that things were getting out of control, so that in the mid sixties there as a move " to get the genie back into the bottle."
If you supported one or more of these movements, or now take their accomplishments for granted (or if you are a libertarian), you may also back a right to use mindful molecules. At Johns Hopkins, Professor Griffiths found that a high percentage of subjects in a study of psilocybin regarded their session as "among the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their entire lives."
Significant how? According to Manuel Schoch, a Zurich analyst shown in the movie, "in the old times you could go ten years for meditation and then once, if you were lucky, on the way you would realize, 'ah, that's what Jesus or Buddha meant.' Now you can do it in six hours, in ecstasy. It [the feeling] will not keep, but you get the insight, and if then you are serious, you can start to work with that insight. But first the door has to open."
Hockenhull's film comes at a moment of transition in cultural attitudes, challenging the "war on drugs," favoring a distinction between harmful or addictive drugs such as "speed" and what have been called mindful molecules. If we're moved by the experts whom the director has gathered, and his genius at finding images that resonate with their messages, then many viewers may reconsider attitudes toward mindful molecules.
"Neurons to Nirvana" includes Sanjay Gupta, the neurosurgeon and reporter for CNN, apologizing for negligently accepting an official negative view of marijuana and then discovering that science led in a different direction. Perhaps the movie is saying that what the U.S. needs is a war on wars, on wars sustained by panic and misinformation.