Psychedelic History II: The Darker Side

An earlier post about Bicycle Day illuminated the recent history of psychedelics in popular culture, especially in North America.


This article will delve no deeper, but will expose some of the more sinister elements of that history to present a realistic view of what we need to do moving forward.


It begins with ethnographer/anthropologist Gordon Wasson's groundbreaking LIFE magazine article.


In his article, Wasson does a great job detailing their exploration of Mixteca culture via the sacred mushroom. It's a classic ethnography, respectful, and well-written.


The author waxes poetic about the mushroom's capacity as "a detonator to new ideas," and refers to the way the mushroom is received as a "catechism."


Without the othering so common in ethnographies of the early 20th century, Wasson introduces the Anglo-American reader to Indigenous wisdom. He also made famous Maria Sabina, who subsequently became one of the most famous shamans in the world.


Wasson's wokeness fostered anti-colonial dialogue but failed to become the gold standard for cross-cultural encounter--in the psychedelic scene or elsewhere.


Then, poor Wasson inadvertently created a colonialist calamity by publishing the name of Maria Sabina's village in the LIFE magazine piece. The anthropologist is not to blame; how would he have known what would happen next?


Nothing wrong with psychedelic tourism; and at first the village welcomed the gringo visitors just as which occurs now in the Amazon with aya tourism. But back then, the power dynamics were even worse than what they are today. There was no post-colonialism in the public consciousness then. Even big-hearted hippies were oblivious to the damage caused by traveling with more cultural baggage than maletas.


In a brief talk at the 2021 Catalyst Conference, Alex Belser reveals another disturbing truth in the annals of North American psychedelic history: LSD was touted for its efficacy in conversion therapy, by luminaries like Timothy Leary and even Ram Dass.


Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) redeemed himself by coming out boldly and raising awareness about homophobia and the damaging effects of social labeling. The label of "druggie" is counterproductive, harmful, says Ram Dass.


We need to forgive Leary and Alpert. They were operating within the confines of the culture that spawned them. But we forgive and we remember, because we are still operating within some mental constructs that will seem appalling just a generation or two hence.


Aren't you still noticing that anti-racism and LGBTQ rights are rote? We're a ways off from these schemas being second nature, that's what I see, anyway.


Also, let's remember, psychedelics were heralded for their utility in conversion therapy because of the way they reset the brain/mind by opening a window of neuroplasticity.


I believe/hope many of the interventions used within DSM-driven mental health systems will be regarded, someday soon, as being as offensive and useless as conversion therapy is now.


As a psychiatric survivor, I hope this to be true. What about you? What troubles you about the history, present, or future of psychedelic medicine?

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