Introduction: The Psychedelic Revival
From the Series: The Psychedelic Revival
Be it ayahuasca tourism, LSD microdosing, psilocybin therapy, or MDMA as treatment for PTSD, psychedelics are constantly in the news. Popular interest reflects a surge in clinical research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics over the last decade.1 Michael Pollan’s (2018) book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, brought this research to a general audience, normalizing psychedelic therapy like never before. Alongside psychedelics in clinical research, the traditional consumption of psychoactive plants and fungi for healing and divination has been attracting increasing numbers of outsiders, especially from the Americas and Europe. During the 1980s and 1990s, these substances were exclusive to marginalized subcultures, found in dance clubs and music festivals, the syncretic rituals of new agers and eco-spiritualists, and ceremonies of indigenous Americans (in the case of peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, and ayahuasca) and a small number of Central African tribes (in the case of iboga). Today it’s not uncommon to see articles in major news outlets about MDMA for couples therapy or the pitfalls of taking ayahuasca for those over seventy.
What’s being called the psychedelic renaissance (Sessa 2012) continues apace today. In 2019 alone, Imperial College London and Johns Hopkins University, at the forefront of clinical research in the United Kingdom and United States respectively, announced the opening of research centers dedicated exclusively to psychedelics. Following two successful campaigns in the summer of 2019 (in Denver, Colorado and Oakland, California), the movement for the decriminalization of psilocybin mushrooms has also picked up around the United States. Several initiatives aimed to get on the November 2020 ballot, including a statewide campaign in Oregon that would make psilocybin therapy legal and establish a new state regulatory apparatus to oversee it.2 Psychedelic research even reached the U.S. Congress in June of last year when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sponsored a vote to make it easier for researchers to receive funding to conduct research on these controlled substances. The proposal didn’t pass, illustrating that there are still limits to the enthusiasm for psychedelic healing. Still, the shifts in the cultural value and meaning of psychedelics in the last decade have been remarkable.
This newfound interest is accompanied by growing support for changing the regulatory status of some or all psychedelics in the United States, although the details are contested. In the United States, almost all of the substances known as psychedelics (LSD, MDMA, psilocybin, DMT, ibogaine, mescaline, and the plants and fungi that naturally produce these compounds) are Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act.3 The Drug Enforcement Administration grants an exception to the Native American Church to use peyote, but exceptions for ayahuasca (based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993) have been checkered. Similar laws exist around the world, following the United Nations’ Convention on Psychotropic Substances, with exceptions for traditional use. Legal gray areas have allowed for the growth of spiritual retreat and treatment centers catering to travelers in places as diverse as Costa Rica, Canada, Mexico, the Czech Republic, and New Zealand. In 2018, the FDA granted breakthrough status to Compass Pathways, a pharmaceutical company, for psilocybin treatment for depression. In anticipation of a new market for medicalized psilocybin, a number of companies have cropped up looking to get into this emerging industry early. In the world of psychedelic therapy, concerns about criminalization are now turning into concerns about for-profit companies limiting access (e.g., through intellectual property claims).
These pieces bring into focus the complicated temporality evoked by contemporary psychedelia. On one hand, the language of “renaissance” effaces continuous histories of practice among nonmodern people, reenacting colonial logics of extraction, appropriation, and erasure. It also ignores the subcultural practices on which new forms of consumption build, papering over syncretism and continuity with the attention-grabbing language of novelty. At the same time, counter-narratives among decriminalization activists and other psychedelic enthusiasts tend to uncritically stress the ancientness of these practices, constructing them as unchanging links to a timeless past—rhetoric that is all too familiar to anthropologists. This series recognizes new facets of contemporary consumption alongside those that predate modernity, highlighting continuity and heterogeneity. We use the term “revival” to refer to the cultural, legal, and economic phenomenon of this contemporary moment and to underline this quality of being both old and new, a recurrence and a reformation.
Questions of authenticity and appropriation have been especially charged in light of psychedelic tourism to regions with healing traditions with these plants and fungi. Such tourism is drawing critical attention (from both inside and outside these communities) to the claims of shamanic authority and ancestral knowledge mobilized in these new industries.4 On the other side of this encounter, the ethos and expectations of psychedelic tourists are bringing together contemporary spirituality and political identities in a reclamation of interspecies kinship. These journeys in search of indigenous American healing are reanimating and reconfiguring elements of the colonial encounters of previous eras. The decriminalization movement in the United States and the emerging medical-psychedelic model are bringing these tensions to the fore, raising the question, what does the psychedelic revival owe to indigenous practitioners?
The mainstreaming of psychedelics as medicines is another example of this kind of novel recurrence. The contemporary medicalization of psychedelics recalls a period of post-war experimental psychiatry abruptly curtailed by medical safety legislation and prohibitionism in the wake of the 1960s counterculture.5 Countercultural history still colors popular perceptions of psychedelics but their ultimate meaning is being reconstructed. The popularization and medicalization of psychedelics is breeding new cultural contexts and consumption practices, creating new discussions around their presumed potential for transformation. To give one notable example, DARPA recently signed on to develop new antidepressants from compounds including psilocybin and ketamine that would be medically effective without the “hallucinogenic . . . and disorienting side effects” that they view as “limitations.”6 Will the spiritual-religious dimension, so central to their countercultural meaning, be marginalized by the medical model of psychedelics? How does the embrace of psychedelics by right-wing nationalists change our understanding of the substances (e.g., the notion that the psychedelic experience necessarily affords liberatory politics)? Considering the structural inequalities of mental health care and the high rates of addiction and depression in the United States and other modern societies, who will have access to psychedelic therapy and how will it be administered?
The medicalization of psychedelics also raises a series of theoretical and practical questions in pharmacology and psychiatry. It has long been recognized that psychedelics are sensitive to the context of their ingestion, as summed up by the shorthand of “(mind)set and setting.” This term was attributed to Harvard psychedelics researchers in the early 1960s to refer, respectively, to the psychological and physical contexts that they thought conditioned the psychedelic experience. In a departure from disciplinary norms, psychedelics force researchers to consider the context of these new treatments when measuring effectiveness. This same dynamism seems to undermine scientific attempts to define psychedelics as therapeutic drugs, forcing a shift from an essentialist to a relationalist approach. Might then these substances be charting new territory in psychopharmacology’s own epistemology?
This new interest in psychedelics is also bringing more people into contact with traditional understandings of these plants and fungi, often through intensely embodied and affective experiences of their consumption. Such engagements destabilize modern ontological categories, eroding the boundaries of “drugs,” “medicine,” and “spirituality.” A new vocabulary is taking root among practitioners: no longer “psychedelics,” they are now often referred to as entheogens (meaning, from the Greek, to generate the divine within); or simply as medicine, often personified as teachers, and their effects referred to simply as healing. These practices create relationships between modern people and nonhuman—and in some cases non-material—entities. They suggest emergent forms of contemporary spirituality in North and South America, Europe, and other modern settler societies that are new iterations of old themes. An interview with Dimitri Mugianis, a former activist for ibogaine as addiction treatment, illustrates the complex syncretism of these substances in the contemporary United States.
Lastly, from ethnographic accounts of peyote dating back to the late-nineteenth century (Dawson 2019) to the popular theories of amateur ethno-mycologists in the twentieth century (Letcher 2008), anthropology has been entangled with the cultural meanings of these plants and fungi ever since they became known outside of their local communities. We hope this series sheds light on the role anthropology is still playing in how these substances are understood inside and outside the academy.
1. Some consider the psilocybin trial at Johns Hopkins’ Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit in 2000 to be the watershed research trial of the contemporary period.
2. These campaigns have been forced to improvise after the shelter-in-place orders in mid-March 2020. The California campaign still had several hundred thousand in-person signatures to collect in order to get on the ballot. A push to allow for online signatures was unsuccessful. Subsequently, the campaign’s ballot petition failed to meet their deadline. The Oregon campaign appears to be moving forward.
3. In addition, ketamine, a dissociative compound that is known to cause mystical experiences and is currently being used as a treatment for depression, is categorized as a Schedule III non-narcotic.
4. Over the last two decades, leaders in the Amazon have published official statements to clarify the spiritual, political, and economic stakes of such practices for outsiders. For example, see the statement from healers in the Colombian Amazon published last year.
5. In particular, the 1962 Kefauver-Harris drug amendment act and the 1971 Controlled Substances Act (see Dyck 2008; Oram 2018).
6. A recent article in the Marine Corps Gazette argued for the efficacy of microdosing psilocybin and LSD for “cognitive function and flexibility” (the subtitle of the article is “Improving Performance Enhancement in Intelligence Analysis”) (Albayrak 2019).
Abayrak, Maj Emre. 2019. “Microdosing: Improving Performance Enhancement in Intelligence Analysis.” Marine Corps Gazette, February: WE1–WE5.
Dawson, Alexander S. 2018. The Peyote Effect: From the Inquisition to the War on Drugs. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Dyck, Erika. 2008. Psychedelic Psychiatry: From Clinic to Campus. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Letcher, Andy. 2008. Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom. New York: Harper Perennial.
Oram, Matthew. 2018. The Trials of Psychedelic Therapy: LSD Psychotherapy in America. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Pollan, Michael. 2018. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. New York: Penguin.
Sessa, Ben. 2012. The Psychedelic Renaissance: Reassessing the Role of Psychedelic Drugs in 21st Century Psychiatry and Society. London: Muswell Hill.