By Shelby Hartman
Amid a fractured political landscape, an unprecedented pandemic, and a reckoning with the country’s racist past, psychedelics may offer some hope for healing in the United States. In recent decades, a renaissance of psychedelic drug research has grown at prominent institutions like Johns Hopkins, New York University, and Imperial College London, among others.
Psilocybin, the psychoactive component in psychedelic mushrooms, and MDMA, sometimes confused with its adulterated version, ecstasy, have both been given breakthrough therapy status by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), because they’ve shown so much promise for treating conditions for which we currently have few effective options. Psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression and MDMA for post-traumatic disorder are projected to be legal within the next five years as drugs that will be administered under the supervision of trained therapists.
The psychedelic renaissance started gaining momentum following a promising study that administered psilocybin to terminally ill patients in the mid-2000s. Since then, its focus has been to legalize psychedelics as medicines for mental health by gaining approval from the FDA.
Psychedelic researchers, some of whom studied psychedelics before they were outlawed by Richard Nixon in 1970, have intentionally chosen to focus on the “medicalization” of psychedelics. They have likely done so to avoid a potential backlash like that which occurred during the 1960s when LSD came to be associated with the radical counterculture, fueled by Timothy Leary and other cultural icons of the time. Longtime researchers and advocates such as Bill Richards, Rick Doblin, Ann and Michael Mithoefer, Charles Grob, Ann Shulgin, James Fadiman, Bob Jesse, and many others have done incredible work to patiently and strategically navigate the bureaucracy necessary to get psychedelics through the FDA approval process.
As mainstream acceptance of psychedelics grows, however, it’s worth considering the broader potential of psychedelics beyond the medical sphere. Psychedelics often inspire deep and profound changes in personality and outlook. These changes can also impact a person’s political beliefs, how they interact with other people, and, even, how they regard themselves in relationship to the planet and all living things.
The Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a leading psychedelic research nonprofit, and the Centre for Psychedelic Research (CPR) at Imperial College London collaborated on a study looking at how ayahuasca might promote peace and heal cycles of trauma in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
MAPS Director of Policy and Advocacy Natalie Ginsberg, Dr. Leor Roseman, and Antwan Saca, a Palestinian peace activist, interviewed about two dozen Jewish Israelis and Christian and Muslim Palestinians who drank ayahuasca together. The participants all made it clear that they chose to drink ayahuasca for personal and psychospiritual reasons, not political ones. And still, many of the Israelis reported greater feelings of unity with the Palestinians and vice versa as well as newfound feelings of compassion where they once felt anger.
One Jewish woman recalled, “[At] almost every retreat, there is a moment in which [a small group of Palestinians] are comfortable enough to sing in Arabic. This is always an amazing moment…suddenly you hear your most hated language, by far, maybe the only language in the world that you really didn’t like, and suddenly it sends you to light and love.”
In another survey, published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, researchers at Imperial College London investigated the association between psychedelic use and personality, political perspectives, and nature relatedness (i.e., feeling a connection to nature). They concluded: “lifetime psychedelic use positively predicted liberal political views, openness, and nature relatedness, and negatively predicted authoritarian political views.” They also found that participants who had experienced what’s called “ego dissolution” while under the influence of psychedelics (when one’s sense of self dissipates, enabling feelings of greater connection to the world) were more likely to have left-leaning political views.
Of course, more rigorous research is needed to establish a connection between political views and psychedelic use—it could be that people who use psychedelics tend to be more liberal and feel more connected to nature, not that psychedelics cause these outlooks.
Regardless, we do have enough data at this point to definitively say that psychedelics often inspire greater feelings of unity and empathy that persist after the trip.
In fact, one of the ways that researchers predict the therapeutic efficacy of a psychedelic experience is by administering a scientifically-validated survey to participants called the mystical experience questionnaire. Following a psychedelic experience, each participant fills out this questionnaire, which asks them to what extent they experienced timelessness, peace and tranquility, amazement, a sense of reverence, a sense of oneness with their surroundings, a bond with something greater than themselves, and other criteria, originally identified by religious scholars aiming to understand naturally-occurring mystical experiences associated with meditation, fasting, and other means. Amazingly, researchers have found a direct correlation between the strength of a person’s mystical experience while on a psychedelic and how much therapeutic value they reap from the experience once it concludes.
One small study found that psilocybin increases empathy. Psychedelics, such as psilocybin and MDMA, have also been used for decades in the underground as tools for couples’ therapy. This is all to say that psychedelics not only show promise for individual healing, but also for healing relationships and promoting feelings of connection to others as well. What could be more vital for encouraging healthy discourse more broadly?
I won’t claim psychedelics can “save humanity” or “save America,” although I know people who believe that and you really can’t blame them if psychedelics changed their lives for the better.
But it seems fair to say, based on what we do know, that psychedelics have the potential to do a whole lot more than treat depression, trauma, and other mental health conditions. Does that mean they’re the answer to decades-old conflicts like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the growing political divide in the U.S., racial tensions, and differing views on how to respond to the rising number of natural disasters on the planet? Even to an idealist like me, it seems like a radical suggestion to say that psychedelics are the answer, given how complex these issues are. But they could be a part of the solution.
Shelby Hartman is Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of DoubleBlind, a print magazine and media company at the forefront of the psychedelic movement.