Two different studies provide further evidence of the efficacy of psychedelics in treating depression.
- A phase 2 clinical trial by Imperial College London found psilocybin to be as effective at treating depression as escitalopram, a commonly prescribed antidepressant.
- A different study by the University of Maryland showed that blocking the hallucinogenic effects of magic mushrooms in mice did not reduce the antidepressant effect.
- Combined, these studies could lead to new ways of applying psychedelics to patient populations that don't want to trip.
Due to stigma, their illegal status and difficulty in finding control groups, research with psychedelics has been a challenge. But research increasingly shows that this class of drug has legitimate medicinal uses, and they may be just as good or even better than more traditional therapies.
Now, the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London reports in the New England Journal of Medicine that when pitted against escitalopram (brand name: Lexapro), psilocybin was as effective as the popular SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) in treating moderate to severe depression. Perhaps most significantly, these results were obtained when comparing 6 weeks of daily doses of escitalopram to just two administrations of psilocybin.
Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the center who has published over 100 papers on psychedelics, is confident this study represents another step forward in applying psychedelics to mental health treatment protocols while also reducing fears a lot of citizens have around these substances. In a press release, he said:
"One of the most important aspects of this work is that people can clearly see the promise of properly delivered psilocybin therapy by viewing it compared with a more familiar, established treatment in the same study. Psilocybin performed very favorably in this head-to-head."
Credit: Robin Carhart-Harris et al, NEJM, 2021.
As depicted above, the phase 2 clinical trial included 59 volunteers. The escitalopram (control) group received six weeks of daily escitalopram in addition to two tiny (1-mg) doses of psilocybin — a dose so low that it is unlikely to produce hallucinogenic effects. The psilocybin (experimental) group received two 25-mg doses of psilocybin three weeks apart with placebo given on all the other days.
At the end of the study, both groups saw a decrease in depressive symptoms, though the results were not statistically significant. (That isn't necessarily bad because if the two drugs have similar effects, then they would not produce statistically significant results. Still, a larger study is needed to confirm that psilocybin is "just as good as" escitalopram.)
Additionally, several other outcomes favored psilocybin over escitalopram. For instance, 57 percent in the psilocybin group saw a remission of symptoms compared to 28 percent in the escitalopram group. This result was significant.
Psychedelics without tripping
As psychedelics become decriminalized and potentially legalized for therapeutic use, however, a large population of people might desire the antidepressant effects without the hallucinations. For example, the psychedelic ibogaine may be useful for treating addiction, so the company Mindmed is developing an analog that works without producing the unwanted hallucinogenic side effects.
A new research article, published in the journal PNAS, investigated the antidepressant effects of psilocybin on a group of chronically stressed mice. (Under immense stress, mice develop something resembling human depression.) As with humans, depressed mice lose a sense of joy, which can be assessed by determining their preference for sugar water over tap water. Normal mice prefer sugar water, but depressed mice simply don't care.
Once the mice were no longer juicing up on the sweetened water, the team dosed them with psilocybin alongside a drug called ketanserin, a 5-HT2A serotonin receptor antagonist that eliminates psychedelic effects. Within 24 hours of receiving the dose, the mice were rushing back to the sugar water, indicating that tripping is not necessary for psilocybin to work as an antidepressant.
While the team is excited about these results, they realize it needs to be replicated in a different population.
"The possibility of combining psychedelic compounds and a 5-HT2AR antagonist offers a potential means to increase their acceptance and clinical utility and should be studied in human depression."
Photo: Cannabis_Pic / Adobe Stock
The future of psychedelic therapy
Psychedelics such as psilocybin and LSD have a long track record of efficacy in clinical trials and anecdotal experiences. Almost all volunteers of the famous Marsh Chapel experiment claimed their experience on Good Friday in 1962 was one of the most significant events of their lives — and this was a quarter-century after the fact. A more recent, controlled study found that a single dose of psilocybin showed antidepressant effects six months later.
Proponents of macrodosing and ritualistic experiences sometimes argue that the full-blown mystical trip is the therapy, though this is anecdotal, not clinical research. As the Maryland team noted, a number of people are contraindicated for psychedelics, whether through a family history of schizophrenia or current antidepressant treatments.
Senior author Scott Thompson is excited for future research on this topic. As he said of his team's findings:
"The psychedelic experience is incredibly powerful and can be life-changing, but that could be too much for some people or not appropriate… These findings show that activation of the receptor causing the psychedelic effect isn't absolutely required for the antidepressant benefits, at least in mice."
Hopefully, with more research occurring in psychedelics than even in the 1950s (when studies predominantly relied on anecdotal evidence and little government support), the longstanding stigmatization of psychedelics is beginning to recede. This could open up new possibilities for both clinical research and, for those curious about the ritual effects, a continuation of introspective experiences.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
A new study explores the therapeutic potential of the psychedelic drug ibogaine, which has been used in Africa for centuries.
- For decades, people have reported that the psychedelic drug ibogaine seems to rid addicts of their cravings for drugs.
- In a new study, researchers created a variant of ibogaine that's less toxic and doesn't cause hallucinations.
- The results showed that the variant seemed to significantly lower depression and drug relapse rates in tests on mice.
A new study suggests a modified version of the psychedelic drug ibogaine could help treat addiction and depression.
Although the ibogaine variant has yet to be tested on humans, rodents who were treated with it showed decreased symptoms of depression and significantly fewer drug relapses, especially for opioids.
What's also encouraging is that the variant is far less toxic and hallucinogenic than ibogaine, meaning it has the potential to become a more widespread treatment than its psychedelic relative.
First, what's ibogaine?
Ibogaine is a uniquely powerful psychedelic drug that produces hallucinations and other effects that can last 24 hours. It's the active compound in the iboga plant, which has been used for medicinal and religious purposes in West Africa for centuries. The drug is central to the Bwiti spiritual discipline, practiced by Bantu peoples in Gabon.
In the 19th century, French Christian missionaries sought to rid the Bantu of their religious practices, causing some of the Bantu tribespeople to flee deep into the jungle, where they encountered Pygmies. The Pygmies showed igoba to the Bantu, who later incorporated it into Bwiti initiation rites.
Despite its religious applications, ibogaine is neurotoxic and can cause irregular heartbeat. At high doses, the substance can be lethal.
But it's also thought to have a unique therapeutic effect: For decades, people have reported that ibogaine seems to significantly—and in some cases, completely—rid addicts of cravings for drugs.
How? One hypothesis is that psychedelics like ibogaine help the brain grow more dendritic spines, which promote communication between neurons. This strengthened communication may benefit addicts, who often show decreased synaptic connections in the prefrontal cortex.
Tabernanthe iboga bark powder
Credit: Kgjerstad / Wikimedia Commons
To explore ibogaine's potential as an addiction treatment, the researchers behind the recent study, published in the journal Nature, aimed to create safer, less toxic analogues of the drug.
The team created an ibogaine variant that, like ibogaine, had an element called a tetrahydroazepine ring, which seems to be involved in promoting the growth of dendritic spines. This variant—a compound called tabernanthalog (TBG)—was less toxic and less hallucinogenic.
Experiments on mice suggested TBG has antidepressant and anti-addiction potential.
One test showed that mice subjected to a series of stressors showed less depression symptoms after one treatment, effects similar to ketamine, another psychedelic drug. More surprising was a test on opioid addiction: TBG seemed to virtually eliminate relapses in mice who had become addicted to heroin. This anti-addictive effect lasted about two weeks.
The researchers suspect TBG might be able to treat multiple conditions simultaneously.
"We've been focused on treating one psychiatric disease at a time, but we know that these illnesses overlap," David Olson, assistant professor of chemistry at UC Davis and senior author on the paper, told UC Davis News. "It's unbelievable how little we know about them." "It might be possible to treat multiple diseases with the same drug."
But before drugs like TBG could be used to treat addiction or depression in humans, more research will be needed to better understand the drug, its safety and whether its therapeutic effects extend beyond rodents. Another interesting question, though not explored by the study, is whether the psychedelic properties of ibogaine possess therapeutic benefits; by removing the trip aspect, would users be missing out?
The psychedelic aspect
Maybe. Psychedelic experiences are mysterious and highly subjective, with some people reporting terrifying and negative trips, while others gain useful insights. Here's one account of a positive experience posted on Erowid:
"[1 hour 20 minutes after ingestion] I am having an intense communion with a spirit in the shape of a purple-colored, brain-shaped cloud of vapor, which shows me the interconnection of myself and all things in the universe. It must sound comical to read it in words, but it was the most profound and beautiful experience in my life."
"[7 hours after ingestion] [...] something interesting has started happening in my brain. I feel as if there is a distinct second consciousness inside me, and I can carry on internal conversations with it, asking questions, receiving answers. The other consciousness seems extremely wise, I sense it is another part of me that has never been encumbered by fears or doubts [...]"To be sure, you can also find reports of ibogaine making people sick, being too powerful or not being worth the money to experiment with it at a treatment center. But regardless of the psychedelic properties, the new study adds to the renaissance of research exploring how psychedelics can help treat mental health conditions.
Clinical trials by Janssen Pharmaceuticals showed troubling results.
- A new analysis in The British Journal of Psychiatry claims the FDA approval process for ketamine was rushed.
- Only one of three clinical trials showed efficacy, while the discontinuation trial produced troubling outcomes.
- Ketamine's side effects include anxiety, poor appetite, delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, rage, and craving.
There was a lot of excitement when the FDA fast-tracked trials for ketamine as a depression treatment in 2016. The announcement marked a major turning point in our understanding of psychedelics, which were deemed a Schedule 1 substance as part of Richard Nixon's racist 1970 "War on Drugs." Ketamine was approved for use as an anesthetic that same year; due to increasing recreational usage in the 1990s, however, it was deemed Schedule III in America in 1999.
Though ketamine is not a traditional psychedelic—they have an agonist (or partial agonist) effect at brain serotonin 5-HT2A receptors—it falls into this class due to its hallucinogenic and dissociative effects. Recently it has been referred to as a "party psychedelic." Psychedelic therapy advocates were pleased when the FDA approved a nasal spray medication for treatment-resistant depression known as esketamine in 2019. Janssen Pharmaceuticals launched Spravato shortly after.
This move is exciting. Trials of two types of ketamine—racemic ketamine and esketamine—showed early positive results, even though researchers are not exactly sure how it functions in depression treatment. We do know antidepressants and antipsychotics are showing less efficacy and more chronic side effects than previously believed, however.
There is precedent in the psychedelic realm. Psilocybin, ayahuasca, ibogaine, MDMA, and LSD are showing early positive results in treating anxiety, depression, addiction, and PTSD. This does not mean we should rush blindly ahead, however.
That's the consensus reached by Mark Horowitz (writer) and Joanna Moncrieff (editor), whose recent analysis, published in The British Journal of Psychiatry, concludes that we're moving too fast in clinically adopting ketamine. As their data shows, caution is necessary.
Since its discovery in 1962, ketamine has been used broadly as a sedative and anesthetic; to aid in emergency surgeries in war zones; as a bronchodilator for severe asthmatics; to treat certain type of seizures; in postoperative pain management; and now, as a nasal spray to treat depression. Unlike SSRIs and SNRIs, esketamine works immediately—in as little as two hours—making it more attractive to patients and clinicians.
The Experimental Ketamine Cure for Depression
While treatment-resistant depression sounds extreme, Horowitz notes the definition: patients unsuccessful with two different antidepressants, a low bar for the term "resistant." The problem with trying esketamine, he writes, falls back on the FDA fast-tracking of the drug.
"Out of the three short-term trials conducted by Janssen only one showed a statistically significant difference between esketamine and placebo. These were even shorter than the 6–8 week trials the FDA usually requires for drug licensing."
Each trial lasted only four weeks. The FDA normally requires that two such trials show better results than the placebo; in this case, only one achieved this goal. The successful trial showed a four-point margin on a scale that goes to 60.
Failing to provide two effective trials, the FDA allowed Janssen to submit a discontinuation trial as evidence. This 16-week trial let patients either continue or stop treatment. The problem: side effects were treated as evidence of relapse, not withdrawal symptoms.
Ketamine users have a long history of withdrawal issues, including anxiety, poor appetite, delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, addiction, rage, and craving. The discontinuation trial considers such effects as proof of ketamine's efficacy, not as symptoms of withdrawal.
Science writer Peter Simons explains why this is worrisome:
"Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that, within the discontinuation trial, a single site in Poland drove the apparent finding of efficacy. Data from this site suggested that 100% of the placebo group supposedly relapsed (compared with about 33% of the placebo group in all the other sites)—an unlikely result. When data from this suspicious outlier was removed, the study analysis showed no evidence that esketamine was better than the placebo."
Add to this that six people in the esketamine group died during the trials, including three by suicide—two of whom had previously shown no signs of suicidal ideations—and a troubling picture emerges. The FDA accepted Janssen's explanation: the problem wasn't esketamine, but their underlying condition. This is possible, but the company did not provide conclusive evidence.
Jennifer Taubert, executive vice president and worldwide chairman of Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on "Drug Pricing in America: A Prescription for Change, Part II" February 26, 2019 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony from a panel of pharmaceutical company CEOs on the reasons for rising costs of prescription drugs.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
According to Horowitz, this is a chronic problem with clinical trials and governing agencies.
"It would seem that themes from history are repeating: a known drug of misuse, associated with significant harm, is increasingly promoted despite scant evidence of efficacy and without adequate longterm safety studies."
He also notes that half of the patients experienced disassociation and one-third experienced dizziness. On this point, allow me to break the fourth wall. I've been experimenting with psychedelics since 1994 and am writing a book on psychedelics in ritual and therapy. I ingested a range of substances during my college years. By far, the most troublesome was ketamine. While I'm now aware of Parecelsus's dictum—what is beneficial in small doses is toxic in large doses—I wasn't measuring it out in the 1990s.
Administered doses in Janssen's trials were considered similar to recreational usage. I recall that a bump provided an energetic lift, yet when I'd occasionally snort a line, all bets were off. After a hearty dose one evening, I laid down, sat up, and stood in succession. I couldn't tell the difference between those three physical positions. Ketamine is the most dissociative substance I've ever taken, and I stopped shortly after that last instance.
Psychedelics are the next wave of mental health treatments—call it a continuation, given their role in traditional rituals. We came to rely on pharmacology too much in the twentieth century; hopefully we're learning from those mistakes. As Horowitz points out, however, it appears we're not.
The important word in psychedelic therapy is ritual. There are environmental and social factors entwined with our health. In the right context, psychedelics have tremendous healing power. And to be fair, some ketamine clinics are taking proper right safety precautions as well as designing treatment rooms to be more conducive to healing than sterile white rooms. Patients are anecdotally reporting success in depression treatment with ketamine. This isn't an either-or situation.
But we cannot make the same mistake we've made with CBD and believe these substances are cure-alls. We also can't afford to designate ketamine under the umbrella term "psychedelics." As Alan Watts wrote, hallucinogen is not a proper definition of the psychedelic experience, though it's fitting when describing ketamine. Conflating substances will only further confusion during a time when we need clarity. If the addictive properties and dangerous side effects of ketamine play out widely, it endangers the entire psychedelic therapy model.
We can hope for a clinically-effective dosage and delivery mechanism of ketamine. We can't, as Horowitz's analysis shows, make the same mistakes over. Pharmacological intervention has a place in psychiatry, but it's come to dominate the industry, often no better than placebo and psychotherapy. We need healing, not more side effects.
Why do so many people encounter these 'elves' after smoking large doses of DMT?
- DMT is arguably the most powerful psychedelic drug on the planet, capable of producing intense hallucinations.
- Researchers recently surveyed more than 2,000 DMT users about their encounters with 'entities' while tripping, finding that respondents often considered these strange encounters to be positive and meaningful.
- The majority of respondents believed the beings they encountered were not hallucinations.
The psychedelic drug DMT can conjure powerful visions. In low doses, people often hallucinate fractal patterns, geometric shapes, and distortions in the physical space around them. But things get much stranger with higher doses.
When people consume enough DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) to have a "breakthrough" experience, they often encounter beings commonly known as 'elves' that seem autonomous, existing in a reality separate from our own.
The form and nature of DMT elves vary in reports, but one thing remains curiously constant: People tend to rank these encounters among the most meaningful experiences of their lives. For some people, these encounters change their beliefs about reality, the existence of an afterlife, and God.
A recent survey provides some of the most detailed information about these encounters to date. Published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, the survey includes responses from 2,561 adults about their single most memorable encounter with a being (or beings) after smoking or vaporizing DMT. (DMT is an endogenous chemical, meaning the body produces it naturally, though it's currently a Schedule I drug in the U.S.)
Most respondents had used DMT about a dozen times in their life. The survey excluded experiences in which people consumed other drugs with DMT, and it didn't include experiences with ayahuasca, which is a brew that contains DMT.
The results show:
The encounters produced an emotional response for 99 percent of people. The most common emotions were "joy (65%), trust (63%), surprise (61%), love (59%), kindness (56%), friendship (48%), and fear (41%) during the encounter experience, with smaller proportions reporting emotions such as sadness (13%), distrust (10%), disgust (4%), or anger (3%)." Interestingly, 58 percent of respondents said the being also had an emotional response, almost always a positive one.
The encounters felt more "real" than reality. This was true for 81 percent of respondents during the encounter, and 65 percent after the encounter. One respondent wrote: "There was an indescribably powerful notion that this dimension in which the entity and I convened was infinitely more "real" than the consensus reality I usually inhabit. It felt truer than anything else I'd ever experienced."
People described the entities in different ways. The most commonly chosen labels "were "being," (60%) "guide," (43%) "spirit," (39%) "alien," (39%) or "helper" (34%). Other labels selected by small proportions of respondents (range 10–16%), included the terms "elf," "angel," "religious personage," or "plant spirit," and very few (range 1–5%) reporting the terms "gnome," "monster," or a "deceased" person."
Most people said the beings weren't hallucinations. About three-quarters of respondents said they believe the being was real, but it exists in some kind of different dimension or reality. Only 9 percent said the being existed "completely within myself."
Most described the beings positively. "When asked about the attributes of the entity, a majority of the sample reported that the entity was conscious (96%), intelligent (96%), benevolent (78%), sacred (70%), had agency in the world (54%), and was positively judgmental (52%). Fewer reported that the entity was petitionable (23%), negatively judgmental (16%), or malicious (11%)."
Most received a message during the encounter. About two-thirds of respondents said they received "a message, task, mission, purpose, or insight from the entity encounter experience."
What kinds of messages? Some people were shown that death isn't the end, that everything and everyone is connected. Others had personal insights revealed to them, such as bad behaviors that they should stop.
Some messages were strangely practical — one respondent said the beings revealed the location of a Zippo lighter that had been missing (it was buried deep in a couch, go figure). There was also the respondent who said a being "was teaching me the rules/regulations of the NFL."
The encounters were often followed by lasting changes in well-being and beliefs. About one-quarter of respondents said they were atheist before the encounter, but only 10 percent said they were after.
"Additionally, approximately one-third (36%) of respondents reported that before the encounter their belief system included a belief in ultimate reality, higher power, God, or universal divinity, but a significantly larger percentage (58%) of respondents reported this belief system after the encounter."
What's more, 89 percent of respondents said the encounter led to lasting improvements in well-being or life-satisfaction. Why? The researchers suggested that "ontological shock" — the state of being forced to question your worldview — may "play an important role in the enduring positive life changes in attitudes, moods, and behavior attributed to these experiences."
"As such, it is possible that, under appropriate supportive set and setting conditions, DMT could show promise as an adjunct to therapy for people with mood and behavioral problems (e.g. depression and addiction)," the researchers wrote.
The study also noted that DMT encounters have a lot in common with near-death and alien-abduction experiences, which also have been shown to produce long-lasting changes in personal beliefs.
What are DMT elves?
Do DMT entities actually exist in some other dimension, or are they hallucinations that the brain generates when its visual processing system is overwhelmed by a powerful tryptamine?
The late American ethnobotanist Terence McKenna believed that DMT beings — which he called "machine elves" — were real. Here's how he once described one of his DMT experiences:
"I sank to the floor. I [experienced] this hallucination of tumbling forward into these fractal geometric spaces made of light and then I found myself in the equivalent of the Pope's private chapel and there were insect elf machines proffering strange little tablets with strange writing on them, and I was aghast, completely appalled, because [in] a matter of seconds... my entire expectation of the nature of the world was just being shredded in front of me. I've never actually gotten over it.
These self-transforming machine elf creatures were speaking in a colored language which condensed into rotating machines that were like Fabergé eggs but crafted out of luminescent superconducting ceramics and liquid crystal gels. All this stuff was just so weird and so alien and so un-English-able that it was a complete shock — I mean, the literal turning inside out of [my] intellectual universe!"
McKenna believed machine elves exist in alternate realities, which form a "raging universe of active intelligence that is transhuman, hyperdimensional, and extremely alien." But he was far from the first to believe that DMT is a doorway to other realms.
Indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin have used ayahuasca in religious ceremonies for centuries, though no one is quite sure when they first started experimenting with the psychedelic brew. The Jibaro people of the Ecuadorian rainforest believed ayahuasca allowed regular people, not just shamans, to speak directly to the gods. The 19th-century Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio wrote of other Amazonian shamans who used ahaysuca (known as the "vine of the dead") to contact spirits and foresee enemy battle plans.
In the West, research on DMT experiences has been sparse yet interesting. The psychiatrist Rick Strassman conducted some of the first human DMT trials at the University of New Mexico in the early 1990s. He found that "at least half" of his research subjects had encountered some form of entity after taking DMT.
"I was neither intellectually nor emotionally prepared for the frequency with which contact with beings occurred in our studies, nor the often utterly bizarre nature of these experiences," Strassman wrote in his book "DMT The Spirit Molecule".
Of course, many people believe that DMT elves are merely hallucinations. But the question remains: Why do so many people encounter similar beings?
One answer: That's exactly what people expect to encounter. After all, it's likely that people who seek out a rare and intense drug like DMT have researched it, and possibly stumbled across McKenna's machine-elf idea. So, that's the image their brain produces. (An Erowid survey on the topic of DMT beings once included the question: "Do you know who Terence McKenna is?" 54 percent of respondents reported having some knowledge of him.)
Another explanation comes from a 2004 DoseNation article by James Kent, the author of "Psychedelic Information Theory — Shamanism in the Age of Reason". Kent argued that "humans across all cultures have alien and heavenly archetypes embedded in their subconscious, and psychedelic tryptamines can access the archetypes with a high level of success."
Kent said he's encountered DMT elves during his own experiences, and that he's even managed to have "rudimentary conversations of sorts" with them. In his personal experiments, he tested whether these beings could reveal to him any information that he himself would be incapable of knowing. They couldn't.
Manuel Medir / Getty
"Whenever I tried to pull any information out of the entities regarding themselves, the data that was given up was always relevant only to me. The elves could not give me any piece of data I did not already know, nor could their existence be sustained under any kind of prolonged scrutiny."
It's also worth noting that not all people who smoke DMT see beings, and that some see beings that look nothing like elves or aliens. The diversity of these reports seems to count against the argument that DMT beings exist in some objective alternate reality.
In other words, if DMT beings exist in some other dimension, shouldn't they appear the same to anyone who visits that dimension? Or do the beings assume a different appearance based on who's looking? Or are there many types of beings in the DMT universe, but most look like elves?
You might start seeing elves just trying to sort this stuff out.
Ultimately, nobody knows exactly why DMT beings take the forms they do, or whether they're just figments of overstimulated imaginations. And the answers might be beside the point.
In the recent survey, 60 percent of participants said their encounter with DMT beings "produced a desirable alteration in their conception of reality whereas only 1% indicated an undesirable alteration in their conception of reality."
DMT elves may be nothing more than projections of the subconscious mind. But these bizarre encounters do help some people find real meaning, whether it's through personal revelation or the raw power of ontological shock.
Just for giggles, would it be a good idea to have our leaders take shrooms?
- The idea of mass ingestion of psychedelics to drive people to environmental activism has been put forward lately, inspiring much debate.
- Suppose we gave it to people with power instead. It seems like it would be more effective.
- While psychedelics can offer some benefits, they won't necessarily be the right ones to get the job done.
A couple of months ago, Gail Bradbrook, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, called for the mass ingestion of psychedelics as an act of civil disobedience. She suggests that psychedelics could serve as a catalyst to inspire people to turn to environmental activism.
However, others have argued that this suggestion might be poorly aimed. While it might serve to give some of the recorded benefits of psychedelic usage to a large number of people, it wouldn't cause much immediate change in environmental policy. They instead suggest that we give our politicians drugs, magic mushrooms to be precise.
For the sake of argument, how bad of an idea is this really? Would it be effective?
One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small….
Psychedelics have a variety of increasingly well-documented effects. Their use is associated with an increase in openness to new experiences and ideas, shifts in worldview, reduction in anxiety and depression, increases in creativity and empathy, and a newfound love of progressive rock.
It is easy to see why the suggestion of giving our political leaders the stuff would be made. Several of these traits seem like they could be good for anybody. If people with power gained these traits, perhaps they would make the world a better place.
Plus, imagine how entertaining the State of the Union address would be if everybody there were tripping.
Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images
The idea that we ought to give all of our politicians drugs isn't a new one. Somewhat disturbingly, it is also one that has been suggested several dozen times throughout the past fifty or so years.
More of the more amusing suggestions came from the Beatles after they discovered marijuana and psychedelic drugs. In the Beatles Anthology, they discuss how they once felt that giving all of our leaders the stuff would put an end to wars.
Grace Slick, the lead singer of Jefferson Airplane, once even planned to spike the tea of Richard Nixon with 600 micrograms of LSD- roughly as much as your conspiracy theorist uncle took the day he realized the lizard people had taken over the world – to give him a new perspective on the world. Luckily for everybody involved, they didn't let her onto white house grounds when they saw her bodyguard was Abbie Hoffman.
In another universe, this picture features Nixon and Jerry Garcia. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
Time to kill the vibe for you hippies.
However, there are more than a few reasons why we might not want to drug our politicians and why it might not even be all that effective for getting society to the point that proponents of psychedelics wish to.
While it is easy to rage at politicians who don't do exactly what you want them to, you must remember that they didn't spontaneously generate — they were elected. Every climate change denying scoundrel in office was put there by an electorate of their peers.
Fixing one person — or even a few hundred elected ones — doesn't change that, and then you've only won until the next election anyway.
Secondly, the traits that are fostered by psychedelics don't always make for capable politicians. While an acid trip might make a Machiavellian politician care more for the environment, it would likely also make them less likely to use the dirty tricks they currently employ to make actual change happen. President Lyndon Johnson might have been an awful person; he was also effective. Increasing his empathy levels might have been a good thing, but it might also have diminished his effectiveness at promoting The Great Society.
You need people in power with both concern and skill to change things. If you think that a bunch of people coming down from psychedelics are going to be effective at running a democratic government faced with a crisis, go watch the board meeting of any housing co-op deal with a major issue.
This point, sans psychedelics, was made five hundred years ago by Machiavelli in his masterpiece, The Prince. In it, he argues that the traits that make for a good person are not the same as those that make a great statesman. While that might seem obvious to some of you, it is a controversial point that landed the book on the Catholic Church's list of prohibited texts.
He considers the case of Girolamo Savonarola, a Catholic Clergyman who came to power in Renaissance Florence. Even if you accept his vision of the New Jerusalem in Florence as a society worthy of creating, which you probably don't, you have to admit that he wasn't very good at statecraft once he and his supporters came to power.
This lack of skill undermined any attempt at good he could have made. If he had been a little less godly, perhaps he could have built more of the New Jerusalem.
The lesson rings true to this day. We need not only politicians who care about the right things or are made to care about them by public pressure, but who have the skills necessary to affect change. While an acid test with all of our current leaders would be extremely entertaining, it probably wouldn't amount to much.
Should we have all of our politicians take shrooms to get them to take action on certain topics? Probably not. But just because this wouldn't work doesn't mean there aren't other ways to make a difference. While this idea is amusing, there are other ones.