The Dark Side of the Psychedelics Boom
On the use and misuse of plant medicine
Lately, I have been struggling with discussions about psychedelics with close friends and family. Since the publication of Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, psychedelics have become a hot topic. Friends and family that I would never suspect of being interested in plant medicine are suddenly very curious.
The challenge is translating that curiosity into meaningful action. You might be interested in psychedelics because everyone is talking about them, and they are suddenly legal-ish. But who wants to sit down and find the courage to embark on an adventure into the inner unknown?
The probability of those influenced by the so-called Pollan effect embarking on a psychedelic journey is slim. These medicines aren’t for everyone. Yet, it feels like something deeper is taking shape. Waves of reporting about the effectivity and placebo effects of antidepressants (particularly SSRIs) appears to be laying the groundwork for a significant shift in how the pharmaceutical industry sells mental health medicine.
Pharmaceutical companies have pushed a model of convenience when it comes to mental health with incredible profitability. Antidepressants are foundation to this model. Pop a pill everyday and, if you can afford it, see a therapist. It’s an extremely passive approach to mental health, while the effective use of plant medicine demands an active approach. This isn’t to say that this former approach is easy. Rather, it’s convenient and fits nicely with the demands of our hyper productive lives.
Companies that previously pumped us full of antidepressants understand that the rhetoric is changing, and they must find new drugs to monetize. That’s why they are working feverishly on creating synthetic plant medicines stripped of their full psychedelic power that can be taken on a daily basis. A psilocybin inspired SSRI, if you will.
Doing it right?
It’s not all nefarious drug companies. Some people are taking the plunge and embarking on psychedelic experiences. I have heard countless stories of individuals who have made the difficult decision to do an ayahuasca or mushroom journey only to partner with a woefully misinformed guide. This is a shockingly regular occurrence given the sheer number of guides and the lack of codified standards in guiding. It’s also discouraging, given how straightforward some of these substances are in practice.
Consider a heroic dose of mushrooms. Terence Mckenna is widely considered the one who came up with the idea of the hero’s dose. Over countless easily accessible lectures, Mckenna laid out his “instructions” for a hero’s dose. Someone even put Mckenna’s instructions into a song.
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Mckenna’s radically simple instructions are as follows: No less than five grams of dried psilocybin mushrooms consumed in darkness or with a blindfold, with a guide or alone. That’s it. Follow those instructions, and you will likely explore corners of hyperspace that no person has ever visited and experience healing you didn’t think possible.
The instructions might be simple but the work is hard. There are other steps one can take in the preparation and integration phase: ensuring that you have a clear intention for the journey and removing stimulants and toxins from your diet leading up to the journey. With a bit of common sense, the waters aren’t tricky to navigate. However, few guides follow this approach. I wrote about my personal experience interviewing guides in Cape Town.
I have heard sad stories of botched journeys due to poor guidance. Imagine taking five grams in a dank living room with five other people as the guide simply beats a drum and shakes crystals around your head. I have also encountered stories of journeys that didn’t achieve much (but weren’t horrific) due to a mediocre guide. Someone close to me went on a journey but failed to experience profound healing because the guide didn’t insist they wear a blindfold nor was there any discussion of removing stimulants from their diet ahead of the journey.
They ended up doing another journey a year later, this time with a blindfold and experienced a much deeper level of healing. I have had other friends eat 4 grams and then go on a hike in the mountains. A wonderful experience, no doubt, but one that doesn’t deliver the powerful introspection and healing that a genuine heroic dose facilitates.
The stories about ayahuasca tend to be much more dramatic. I have a close friend suffering from deep addiction issues who recently did ayahuasca. They came away from the experience feeling empowered, but their addiction amplified to the point of mania after the experience. When I asked questions about the “shaman” that gave them the ayahuasca, the answers were shocking but unsurprising. Anyone who spends more than 10 minutes with my friend can tell that they are suffering from addiction, yet the shaman asked no questions about the addiction and provided no treatment. Whoever this “shaman” was, they were undoubtedly not an Ayahauscaro nor versed in how these substances have been used to heal for thousands of years.
Shamans have traditionally used ayahuasca to treat ailments, addictions, and other problems in people. In many cases, a sick person will approach a shaman for help. The shaman will drink ayahuasca to enable them to see the problem and find a solution. The ill person might not even take ayahuasca themselves. It depends on the nature of the ailment (The Ayahuasca Reader is a wonderful resource if you want to go deeper with these issues). In these societies, shamans operate a lot like psychologists. They learn about their patients, use plant medicine to understand their ailments better, and finally offer treatment.
That my friend went to a “shaman” for a heart-opening ayahuasca ceremony, and the shaman couldn’t even pick up on their addiction issues, speaks volumes about how we abuse these sacred plant medicines.
Let me be clear: People should experiment with mushrooms, other psychedelics, and their consciousness in any way they want. I am deeply concerned about how many people have been turned on by plant medicines for healing but have come away with negative experiences because of a lack of resources and understanding of how to use these substances. Psychedelic work for healing and growth is the hardest work you can do. If you cut corners, the substances won’t reward you with the healing you seek.
Maybe I am being too rigid but I don’t feel like I am the only one with this perspective. We have a long road to walk as a society, and there are many barriers in our path now that plant medicines are being decriminalized.