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Giulio Sica - 21 Nov 2020


Mental wellbeing is as much to do with the state of society, how our institutions are set up. It must also recognise that a demarcation of the use of these substances into medical and recreational is a false dichotomy

Psychedelic plants and substances have been used for thousands of years in societies across the world. They are used in ritual, for healing, to gain insight. They didn't need scientific evaluation and approval then to gain legitimacy, and they don't need it now, despite what the ever-deepening narrative would have you believe. In more recent times, our modern western postwar culture began to use chemically created substances for enjoyment and as ways to gain new insights. Cultures formed spontaneously around this use, without medical direction or approval. Individuals and groups using these substances sought knowledge and direction from ancient indigenous cultures, spiritual and meditation practices were incorporated into the developing ritual and recreational use. This became known as the counterculture. It was spontaneous, it stumbled its way through. You could say it was an organic process.

Oppressive governments of the west, so-called democracies, which simultaneously invested huge amounts of taxpayers' money on military infrastructure, weapons and propaganda, plundering countries across the world for resources in neoimperial wars, banned such drug use and used media and propaganda to demonise users, creating a drug war, the effects of which are still so deeply embedded in the public perception that the effects remain to this day. This moral view of the "evil" of drug use pervades the straight culture of politics and mainstream news, and science and medicine also has that view of what constitutes a well or an unwell person. The philosopher Michel Foucault had a lot to say about how medical institutions falsely ascribe ideas of normality onto society.

Music and entertainment culture continued to grow and benefit creatively from such widespread and growing use, with each successive generation developing different ways to experience altered states. Since music and entertainment became more closely linked with the economic system of copyright, production and distribution, the western economies also benefited hugely from the profits of consumer culture, and were happy to exploit consumers and the producers of this art. Thus, they had to grudgingly concede specific ground in normalising drug use, while keeping its establishment perception and legitimacy of use very much within a prohibitive framework.

Campaigners who have long been aware of the therapeutic benefits of various psychedelics campaigned to have these unjust and destructive laws against use of drugs overturned and it seemed that the most beneficial way was to show, through the respected research of science and medicine, the benefits of the use of psychedelics. The scientists and psychiatrists, over the past couple of decades, have seemingly managed to do a good job of showing the efficacy of these susbtances, but always within the strictures of an already repressive medical model. As such, they have gained respect and a significant space to speak, which has afforded certain voices a unique and limited power. But with ever-increasing encroachment on the narrative of psychedelic community, the scientific analysis of the benefits became the sole arbiter of the truth of these substances. We see this in the most prominent groups, both scientific and media, which, alongside prioritising scientific narratives, seek to demonise - as repressive politicians did in the past - purveyors of the countercultural view, one that is revolutionary in both political and spiritual terms.

Now we have what is called a psychedelic renaissance, where scientists, doctors and psychiatrists, working with government and financiers, are telling society at large that they are the sole arbiters of how to administer these substances safely and the sole arbiters of what constitutes therapeutic use. They tell us this is the only way that these substances can gain prominence in this society, and they have reneged on the necessity of questioning the diseased functioning of that very society. This is truly an outrage, but one that seemingly goes unremarked by those who should know better. Many who simply want to see these substances used to help people are going along with this but it is unlikely to lead to the benefits for society claimed by the scientists, because these substances are not limited to a scientific understanding, especially when that scientific framework is so closely linked with the very destructive economic system that causes so much mental disease in society. It is a dead-end route, but one that the technocracy seems determined to pursue.

Having spent decades both as someone who has researched these substances in my own unique way, which comprises spiritual, political and street cultural wisdom gained as much from communing with other adventurers within that context, I cannot consent to this demarcation into "respectable" therapy, based around systems which are inherently corrupt. Science is not neutral, since it is linked with economic interests which invites corruption of varying degrees, from outright crude and obvious, to the more genteel and sophisticated kind which is harder to call outright. But don't kid yourself that this is a renaissance. It is the same cliquey, class-based, jobs-for-the-boys-and-girls carve-up as it has always been. I'm just so disappointed that those who know this seem to be keeping silent, or couching their criticism in overly diplomatic ways. What we need more than ever in these times is for people to speak out. I look around and I don't see many doing so.

There are many natural psychedelic substances, such as cannabis and psilocybin mushrooms, which can be grown by anybody, anywhere and with minimal direction and guidance, which can lead to positive changes in society. Science and medicine, psychiatric and psychological evaluation, should be used in the service of people, not to direct the experience and determine what constitutes a good or bad experience according to the limited philosophical structure of scientific materialism. Psychedelics induce states which are often described as spiritual and the existing dominant model of science and medicine has no framework to determine how to negotiate such territory, so mistakes will inevitably be made. It is rather science and medicine which needs a renaissance, it needs to create structures to incorporate spiritual worldviews, but evidence suggests it is loathe to do so.

But most importantly society needs to recognise that mental wellbeing is as much to do with how our institutions are set up. It must also recognise that a demarcation of the use of these substances into medical and recreational is a false dichotomy. Recreation, true recreation (which is not exploitation by consumer-led entertainment), creates health and wellbeing. Once we look more closely we can see that health and educational institutions themselves are in serious need of reform. These institutions should not be directing how psychedelics are used, it should be the other way around. These substances can provide insight, but the real work will come through people from the grassroots level making decision on how their society should be run. Psychedelics can play a part, but the laws will need to be changed by collective pressure and while science and medicine can play a part, the destructive capitalist, consumerist system cannot, since it is at the root of our societal malaise.

So I hope that those many prominent voices within the psychedelic community and beyond start to open up to say that never have we been more in need of the insight and understanding on how to reorder our society. Let us find ways to use these substances and to use spiritual and ecological practices to begin the process of healing and creating a society where every voice is valued and where collective wisdom becomes the way we create better ways of living.