Should psychedelic drugs be legal?

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May 7 2003 11:44 AM

Tripping De-Light Fantastic

Are psychedelic drugs good for you?

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Grob and his colleagues found that UDV members were on average healthier physiologically and psychologically than a control group. The UDV adherents also had elevated receptors for the neurotransmitter serotonin, which has been correlated with resistance to depression and other disorders. Many of the UDV members told the scientists that ayahuasca had helped them overcome alcoholism, drug addiction, and other self-destructive behaviors.

These findings emboldened UDV adherents based in New Mexico to sue the U.S. Justice Department for the right to drink their sacrament. The case dates to 1999, when federal agents seized 30 gallons of ayahuasca that the UDV group had imported from Brazil. Last August, a federal judge in Albuquerque ruled in favor of the UDV worshippers. The judge contended that the Justice Department had not shown that ayahuasca poses enough of a health risk to warrant restricting the UDV members' right to practice their religion. The Justice Department lawyers appealed, and the case is now before the 10th Circuit Court in Denver.

Of course, even advocates of entheogens admit that they pose risks. Ayahuasca can cause cardiac irregularities and other dangerous side effects, Grob notes, when combined with amphetamines, antidepressants, cheese, red wine, and other common substances. Ayahuasca drinkers generally fast before sessions to reduce the risks of these side effects.

In the new book TheAntipodes of the Mind, an in-depth study of ayahuasca visions, the Israeli psychologist Benny Shanon recalls that the tea transformed him from a "devout atheist" into someone awestruck by the wonders of nature and of human consciousness. But he warns that ayahuasca can also be "the worst of liars," leaving some users gripped by belief in ghosts, telepathy, and other occult phenomena. Similarly, in Cleansing the Doors of Perception, the eminent religious scholar Huston Smith recalls that during the Good Friday experiment, in which he participated, one subject became so agitated that he had to be injected with Thorazine. Smith nonetheless contends that entheogens can serve a spiritual purpose, if used with reverence; after all, mind-altering substances have played an inspirational role in many religions, including Hinduism and the Eleusinian cult of ancient Greece.

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I have firsthand experience of the double-edged nature of entheogens, which I've taken sporadically since my late teens. There have been moments of vertiginous anxiety; one particularly bad trip in 1981 left me with unsettling flashbacks for months. But overall the pros have outweighed the cons. I usually end up feeling the way I did after my LSD sojourn last summer: existentially refreshed, with a renewed appreciation of ordinary existence.

Entheogens are far less addictive and toxic than alcohol or tobacco. Why should we continue to be denied their benefits, in religious or non-religious contexts? Risks could be minimized by making these substances available only through licensed therapists, who can screen clients for mental instability and advise them on how to make their experiences as rewarding as possible. Some people might be prescribed entheogens for a specific disorder, such as depression or alcoholism. And just as drugs such as Prozac and Viagra are prescribed not just to heal the ill but also to enhance the lives of the healthy, so might entheogens.

This scenario may not be so far-fetched, given last year's court decision favoring the UDV in New Mexico and other developments. A sanctioned study of psilocybin's capacity for treating obsessive-compulsive disorder is now under way at the University of Arizona. And UCLA psychiatrist Grob recently received FDA approval to investigate whether psilocybin can relieve anxiety in late-stage cancer patients. Maybe those of us who enjoy an occasional psychedelic sojourn will be able to do so without feeling like outlaws. Wouldn't that be a trip?

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. His next book, The End of War, will be published in November.

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