Mind-Altering Drugs Are Here to Stay

by Gary Laderman

Originally appearing in Psychology Today, August 3rd, 2022

The striking popularity of the psychedelic renaissance in contemporary America is quite a reversal of fortune for these drugs to anyone familiar with the first explosion of interest in them among the countercultures of the 1960s. Author, and now celebrity-tripper, Michael Pollan informs the public about “how to change your mind” in his book of the same title and the companion Netflix series by imbibing the drugs himself—for the good of us all, of course.

Pollan and others are doing all of us a great service in their roles in leading the psychedelic revolution by fostering a public discussion about how inadequate our language is to the task of fully understanding the pull and power of drugs in our lives. Media coverage of these drugs, and pop culture’s obsessions with them, their changing legal status, and the extraordinary riches generated by them all point to a dramatically shifting cultural landscape, one with greater access to more psychoactive substances. The truth is, drugs are everywhere, being consumed by almost everyone for all kinds of reasons.

So, what’s new? Let’s face this undeniable fact: The penchant for altering consciousness is deep and ever-present in human history. Why is that? Why do people want to take drugs to break from normal consciousness and perceptions of reality and experience something that takes them outside and beyond more familiar states of being? Is this an evolutionary trait, as some have argued, as primal as the drive for food and sex, or perhaps tied in some way to the actions of a primate who changed the course of human societies and cognitive development?

Wherever the origins of intentionally altering human consciousness lie, the goals and outcomes of this act are multivarious and complicated. Intoxication and blissful flights of ecstasy might be a part of a trip; so too might retching and painful physical suffering. On the other hand, the physical and neurological changes might result in more subtle, less extreme alterations in feelings and bodily sensations that still make significant impressions.

Whatever the case may be, the contrast between normal awareness and everyday experiences and being in a different state of mind with experiences that modify ordinary perceptions can lead to transformations in one’s identity, community affiliation, and cosmic orientation. Psychotropic drugs impact brain chemistry and bodily functions, activating shifts in consciousness as well as subjective experiences ranging from the mystical to the miserable.

But they also play a role in a host of critical social engagements that are absolutely central to the work of culture: healing the sick, visiting the dead, restoring proper balance, discovering cosmic insights, reassuring the anxious, empowering the vulnerable, reinforcing status quos, fueling the collective imagination, and so on.

The motivations, teachings, and traditions surrounding the consumption of drugs are varied and wide-ranging, and it is difficult, if not wrong-headed, to assume the purpose for their consumption is always singular, specific, and can be neatly compartmentalized. Do people take mind-altering drugs only as a medical treatment for physical, emotional, or psychological suffering? Or maybe they do it just for recreational purposes, to feel good and get high? On the other hand, perhaps taking certain drugs, in certain circumstances, can lead to spiritual growth and connections.

The familiar categories that are employed when discussing why people use drugs—“medicinal,” “recreational,” and “spiritual”—are not unhelpful when sorting out some of what drives people to seek out mind-altering substances. But they are also somewhat conceptually limiting, as they deny the messier reality: that these categories are not mutually exclusive and allow for overlap and combinations. Additionally, while the dangers of addiction can be destructive and deadly, the category of “the addict,” a dominant conceptual frame in public culture, is overblown and informed by misrepresented data and racist attitudes, obscuring rather than illuminating the complex nature of our strong desires for drugs.

Some of the current drugs—one might even refer to them as “miracle drugs,” something we’ve heard before in the history of medicine—driving the psychedelic renaissance, like psilocybin or MDMA, have already acquired an aura of respectability because of their recent and popularized incorporation into controlled research settings and experiments. The therapeutic promises of these drugs for a range of diseases and afflictions like PTSD, depression, cancer, etc., are clearly evident in the scientific studies and media coverage of patients who are allowed to participate in them.

What is less clear is what to do with, and how to measure, the mystical component, which is, for lack of a better word, spiritual through and through. The treatment is seemingly valuable and effective for both spiritual and medicinal reasons and raises questions not only about the weaknesses in how we categorize and talk about drug use but also about how biological changes and religious sensibilities can work together in the healing of the body and mind. Raising these kinds of concerns and blurring these kinds of boundaries can be especially volatile when the “set and setting” of these studies are so determined by scientific rules, mindsets, and measurements.

Outside of that particular setting, any number of historical and contemporary contexts offer the same conclusion: People will consume psychoactive substances for holistic reasons that encompass seeking pleasures and good feelings, cures for ailments in the body and mind, and transcendent connections and orientations, either all at once or in various, overlapping ways.

The overlaps can be found in, for example, the growing interest in religious cacao ceremonies, the integration of cannabis into Christian worship and lifestyles, the activities from the symposia in ancient Greece, or across the history of coffee consumption, or during all-night Peyote ceremonies, or even in the ecstatic experiences of participants at your typical EDM festival.

We certainly need to acknowledge and address the dangers of these drugs, but it might also be helpful to acknowledge the linguistic and conceptual challenges of being honest about the ubiquitous presence of mind-altering drugs in our lives—as potentially poisonous but also potentially life-altering, with powers that might even be understood by some as sacred.

Although it is alluring and seems domesticated, the psychedelic renaissance is really only the tip of the psychoactive spear, and the deeper it penetrates culture, the more we will realize how revolutionary this “rebirth” is for the futures of medicine, psychology, and religion.

Gary Laderman is here.