On the Rehabilitation of Psychedelics as “Medicines”
From the Series: The Psychedelic Revival
“Here, read this!” J says, handing me a copy of Jim DeKorne’s (1994) cult classic, Psychedelic Shamanism. J is a fellow student in a mindfulness-centered, somatic psychotherapy course, and he is studying this method of psychotherapy as part of his training in “medicine work.” I take the book and read the passage he is pointing out to me:
The draconian laws against psychedelic drugs, including the prohibition of legitimate research into their effects upon human consciousness are ultimately based upon our culture’s fear of the new model of reality that they imply. To put it bluntly, if we took the psychedelic paradigm seriously, we would be forced to change our lives completely. It is hard to imagine anything more revolutionary, and hence (from the conventional point of view), more dangerous and worthy of repression. (DeKorne 1994, iii)
“This is what we’re trying to do,” J explains. “We’re healing the whole culture, one person at a time.”
Twenty-five years after the publication of Jim DeKorne’s (1994) Psychedelic Shamanism, there has been a revival of interest in the United States and around the world in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. In my research, I study the shifting status of psychedelics in American society by exploring their use among San Francisco Bay Area healers, therapists, patients, and consciousness explorers who incorporate what they call “medicine”—MDMA, psychoactive mushrooms, ketamine, and other psychoactive substances—into their practices of psychotherapy and self-cultivation. In the course of my fieldwork, I have frequently come across the claim that “medicine work” is not simply about relieving symptoms, but rather is a transformational and even transgressive kind of healing with the capacity to resolve deep-rooted traumas of the past and open human consciousness to a new reality and way of life. As J put it in the ethnographic scene above: “We’re healing the whole culture, one person at a time.”
This return of psychedelics, rehabilitated as medicines, was not a given and might surprise someone teleported from the late 1960s when psychedelics were scheduled during the Nixon administration. Hundreds of studies researching the potential therapeutic effects of psychedelics were undertaken in the 1940s–1960s, but Leary’s famous phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out” did not invoke an idiom of healing,1 and María Sabina, the Mexican curandera through whom magic mushrooms became known outside their Oaxacan context at the end of the 1950s, famously contrasted the traditional use of mushrooms for healing in her village with that of R. Gordon Wasson and the hippies who later came to her in search of God (Estrada 1981, 72–3).2
Something has happened in the past fifty years, and the psychedelics of today are not quite the same objects as they were during the counterculture. While I have not been able to trace the origin of referring to psychedelics as “medicines,” the current prevalence of the term indexes the paths they have traversed and nooks and crevices within which they have rooted and flourished in the five decades since the ban. These spaces include retreat centers for spiritual and medical tourism in Central and South America, underground psychotherapy sessions shaped by indigenous and neo-shamanic practices, and, in the last decade, clinical trials and laboratory research experiments (see Langlitz 2013; Hendy 2015; Labate et al. 2017). The legalization and rehabilitation of cannabis as “medical marijuana” is part of this story too, and it is now common to hear cannabis spoken of as a “medicine” alongside psilocybin mushrooms, salvia divinorum, ayahuasca, 5-Me-O-DMT, ketamine, ibogaine, MDMA, and LSD.
In short, what has emerged is a new category, one that brings together plants, fungi, and other “naturally” derived psychoactive entities with chemically synthesized ones. There is a shift in emphasis here away from “mind-manifesting” (the meaning of psychedelics, a term coined by Humphry Osmond in an exchange with Aldous Huxley in 1956) toward healing, well-being, and reckoning with traumatic histories. “Medicine” is a capacious term with the generative capacity to signify indigenous-inspired rituals for psycho-spiritual cultivation, the medicalization of psychedelics in clinical settings, as well as the notion of psychedelics as agents for civilizational healing. Medicine is for patients seeking relief from symptoms recognized by the DSM; for formally colonized and former colonizers yearning for healing from collective trauma; for consciousness explorers and those who wish to deepen their connection with nature or the divine. It carries within it the hope for redress of painful things, of stuck and knotted things that other treatments, healers, or political movements have not been able to resolve. It is an active agent and a relational one: one can pray to it, submit to it, express gratitude to it, and consult it as a wise teacher.
I conclude with another moment from my fieldwork. It was the evening of September 20; among psychedelic advocates 9/20 has become a “global mushroom day” devoted to raising awareness about and celebrating psilocybin and other “plant medicines.” I was in attendance at an event held at a community space affiliated with the Decriminalize movement,3 and our host welcomed us to an evening dedicated to “honoring the diverse community of Oakland that has healed from plant medicine” and “giving voice to ancestors who gave us these traditions.” Throughout the evening there were testimonies of healing from addiction, sexual abuse, and other traumas with the help of mushrooms, iboga, and other medicines; there was a display of psychoactive medicinal plants and a brief lecture about their healing properties. The evening was dedicated to the memory of Harriet Tubman; an altar had been built for her that included plants, herbs, and images of her and other important figures on the Underground Railroad. Among the floral offerings, at the center of the altar, rested dried “High John the Conqueror” root and flowers of the morning glory plant.4 Harriet was remembered as a medicine woman who knew the land and its healing plants and herbs; she used the root for protection on her journeys. For this is the work that psychedelics-as-medicines do: in the service of collective betterment and liberation, they bring together, under one roof, the ancestral with the present, the human with psychoactive allies, and the sick and suffering with healing agents of hope and restitution.5
1. As Timothy Leary (1990, 30) wrote in his autobiography, Flashbacks:
Turn On meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end.
Tune In meant interact harmoniously with the world around you—externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives.
Drop Out suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. Drop Out meant self-reliance, a discovery of one's singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change.
2. R. Gordon Wasson was an amateur mycologist; an article he published in Life magazine in 1957 introduced María Sabina and magic mushrooms to a global audience.
3. For further discussion of the Decriminalize movement, see Miro Tomoski (2020).
4. The seeds of several varieties of Morning Glory contain the tryptamine ergine, or D-lysergic acid amide (LSA). The effects of LSA resemble those of D-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).
5. I do not mean here that this “medicine work” is always felicitous; my point is to illustrate the capacity of the term medicine to contain these multiple meanings and hopes and histories. The current psychedelic revival is as full of rifts and contradictions and ethical conundrums as any other social phenomenon; for further discussion of some of these tensions in this series, see Nicolas Langlitz, “Rightist Psychedelia,” and my interview with Dr. Monnica Williams.
DeKorne, Jim. 1994. Psychedelic Shamanism. Port Townsend: Loompanics.
Estrada, Álvaro Estrada. 1981. María Sabina: Her Life and Chants. Translated by Henry Munn. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Ross-Erikson.
Hendy, Katherine. 2015. “Affecting Chemicals: An Ethnography of Clinical Research, MDMA (Ecstasy), and the Experimental Structuring of Effects.” PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley.
Labate, Beatriz Caiuby, Clancy Cavnar, and Alex K. Gearin, eds. 2017. The World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Reinventions and Controversies. London: Routledge.
Langlitz, Nicolas. 2013. Neuropsychedelia: The Revival of Hallucinogen Research since the Decade of the Brain. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Leary, Timothy. 1990. Flashbacks: An Autobiography. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher.
Tomoski, Miro. 2020. “Everything You Should Know about the Campaign to Decriminalize Naturally Occurring Psychedelics.” Double Blind, February 14.