I’ve watched the last two episodes of How to Change Your Mind, devoted to MDMA, known colloquially as ecstasy, and Mescaline respectfully.
The MDMA episode concentrated on therapeutic uses, particularly in connection with PTSD. Much of the footage covered particular cases. MDMA allows you to talk through your traumatic experiences without negative affect and thus facilitates coming to terms with them. Spotlights pioneering independent researcher Alexander Shulgin, Rick Doblin, and the organization he founded, Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which has funded studies conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs. It noted that MDMA was close to FDA approval for therapeutic use.
Mescaline is the psychoactive ingredient in peyote, which has long been used in Native American communities in the United States and in Latin America. The episode goes into this history and has extensive interviews with contemporary Native Americans, particularly in connection with the Native American Church, which has succeeded in gaining access to peyote for ceremonial use. These interviews explore the therapeutic importance of peyote, but also its broader spiritual significance and its importance in maintaining a sense of cultural identity.
The last third of the episode gives a great deal of attention to the Decriminalize Nature movement, which is active throughout the United States in urging legislation to decriminalize entheogens (the term it has popularized for psychedelics). The goal is not so much to legalize the drugs but for law enforcement to give them low priority. The movement is at odds with those Native Americans who advocate for peyote. In part the issue is one of cultural appropriation, but it is also practical. Peyote is in limited supply because the cactus takes a long time to mature and exists only in a few locations. Native Americans don’t want the limited supply to be all but taken over by others. Consequently the decriminalize movement has excluded peyote from consideration. In a final note, Pollan noted that, for this reason, he chose not to try peyote.
The episode also mentioned the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece, which may have been mescaline based, though other psychedelics are possible as well. We also have footage from an interview with Aldous Huxley, who had tried mescaline and, in consequence, wrote The Doors of Perception (1953), which I read in my freshman year in college (but not in connection with any course). It has become a classic in the psychedelic literature.
This brings up a split in psychedelic community between populist and elitist theme. The populists, exemplified by Tim Leary advocate giving the drugs to everyone and thereby change the culture. Huxley was more elitist, advocating that use should be confined to “the best and brightest” (a phrase used in the episode) and the benefits would somehow filter down to the rest.
There is a final plea that the use of psychedelics can change our relationship to the natural world, something sorely needed in this time of climate crisis.
The series does a good job of presenting the history of psychedelics over the last seven decades. Its strongest case is for therapeutic use. The spiritual and metaphysical case is (much) weaker. The problem, I fear, is with the larger culture. That of course is what the spiritual/metaphysical argument is about. We don’t seem to have the concepts and terms needed to frame a strong argument. Yes, psychedelics and psychedelic research were suppressed. More than that, a whole ‘zone’ of cultural development was impoverished, leaving us with New Age this and that. But that, I fear, is just a middle-class veneer over consumer culture.
It's not clear to me how Pollan could have addressed this.
I have this vague feeling that, when the Metaverse isn’t mostly hype and a way to sell more technology, it represents a desire for something that psychedelic culture was seeking, even promising, but couldn’t deliver – and not because the drugs were suppressed.
Intimations of a Fourth Arena?
I need to think more about this.