Voices: It’s time for another psychedelic ‘summer of love’

·4-min read
Voices: It’s time for another psychedelic ‘summer of love’

If you have not yet seen the Netflix adaption of Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind, make haste to your nearest computer or phone or tablet for several hours of fascinating discussion on the uses (and occasional abuses) of psychedelic drugs.

Uses, you say? Well, yes. Long before our culture decided to deride and disparage drugs such as LSD and psilocybin, they were being explored for their potential to treat a wide variety of conditions, from death anxiety to addiction and OCD. In the 1950s and 1960s, psychedelics were the focus of some of the better minds in Western psychiatry and psychology, and their research was funded by the United States government to the cheerful tune of millions of dollars. It was only later that they escaped the lab and became the heart of hippie culture – thought to be among the reasons Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act and brought research to a screeching halt.

Of course, most of us know a bit about psychedelics. They bring to mind Aldous Huxley, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, meandering canal-side ambles in Amsterdam. But despite what that amusing scene in Thailand in the second Bridget Jones flick might have us believe, psychedelics are not truly recreational. It is not uncommon for those who have taken psychedelics to count the experience among the most meaningful of their lives, up there with their marriage, the birth of their child and the first time they saw Drag Race. Steve Jobs called it “profound”. “It reinforced my sense of what was important,” he said. “Creating great things instead of making money.”

So what exactly do psychedelics do? They cleanse our gaze, blow open our doors of perception, expand our awareness so that we better understand our place within this vast, gorgeous and incomprehensible world, and what really matters to us human beings: family, friends, our community. They can give rise to great insights. Some describe the experience as “spiritual”. You could call it “enlightenment”, or “liberation”, or simply a radical change in perspective. They hush the voice of that strange little engine of self-affirmation and possession (and deception) that we call ego. Researchers at Imperial College London have suggested that LSD might be a “superhighway” to the unconscious, where our deepest fears reside.

There are drawbacks. There are awful stories of people who have had such terrifying trips they have been unable to recover. And the psychedelic ride, even when it goes well, tends to be far from pleasant. The typical shape a trip seems to take involves intense fear as the subject resists what is happening and is faced with their demons, followed by a surrendering and a placid receptivity to whatever self-knowledge their contact with the unconscious yields. My parrot, Coco Chanel*, told me that after she took LSD one memorable New Year’s Eve the pattern of the surrounding walls detached themselves and attacked her.

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But the fact is this: psychedelics are here. They have already “intimated” themselves, as Michael Oakeshott might have put it: drugs such as LSD are studied by respected institutions in the UK, the US and Switzerland, being taken by “respectable” people. “Micro-dosing” is increasingly common among those looking for greater productivity and creativity. Like the (non-magic) mushrooms of Sylvia Plath’s poem, their foot’s in the door. So why resist? Why not beckon them in, offer them a seat by the fire, and – with attention and care, of course – see what they have to say for themselves? Such a thing is surely worth discussing.

As it is, there are practical and financial barriers to research in the UK, and a shortfall of psychedelic trials on a large scale anywhere. This is because hallucinogenics are schedule 1 drugs: those considered to have little or no therapeutic value. LSD and psilocybin are class A, up there with crystal meth. This is quite staggering. And naturally they are behind the needless criminalisation of who knows how many (mostly young) people, some of whom are bound to put themselves at risk not so much by taking the drugs, but by procuring them off some lugubrious character in an anorak, lurking behind a pub on the Edgware Road.

There is a mental health crisis in the UK, and a sense of global division and alienation. You might say the rise of the instaguru and interest in spiritual practices reflect a certain collective intuition that we have become atomised and need to reconnect to something greater than ourselves. And the research suggests that psychedelics could help.

The last week of July might be a bit late for another “summer of love”. But perhaps – just perhaps – one might be coming.

*I have changed both the name and the species of this person to protect their identity

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