Dark Side of the Shroom: What Psychedelic Legalization Gets Wrong
How do you patent and regulate a spiritual sacrament?
Author’s Note: Today I’m taking a break from my usual poem of the day to try something new. Below you’ll find an article I wrote earlier this year about the rollout of psilocybin legalization in Oregon and across the US, particularly how poorly prepared our current cultural and legal frameworks are to acknowledge their rich history as entheogens (aka religious sacraments) and integrate the experiences of the sacred they elicit into patients’ everyday lives.
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Pop quiz: Who discovered America? Who discovered psilocybin?
Did Christopher Columbus pop into your head for the first question? What about Timothy Leary for the second? Maybe some psychonauts thought of the Mazatec curandera Maria Sabina, who first allowed western researchers like R. Gordon Wasson to partake of psilocybin as religious sacrament, in which case you're only a little closer.
Chances are you didn't think of COMPASS Pathways, the billionaire-backed biotech company currently leading the pack in the emerging psychedelic healthcare space. Yet as the scientific literature piles up on their profound effects and authorities relax prohibitions on their cultivation and use, psilocybin and other psychedelic therapies have been adopted, promoted, and even co-opted by such corporate ventures with enough speed to make your head spin.
In 2019, for example, COMPASS filed patents attempting to claim basic components of “set and setting” for a psilocybin session like “a room with a high-resolution sound system,” or a therapist providing “reassuring physical contact” as intellectual property. With the market for consciousness-altering medicines projected to reach a value of $10.75 billion by 2027, the corporate sector is paying attention to these formerly maligned substances and angling for their share of the profits to be made off their medicalization. But all this rampant speculation and proprietary marketing hype tends to overlook the rich, fraught cultural history that psilocybin and other psychedelics carry with them.
“There’s a lot of blah blah that’s totally hyped and unreflective about the mass incarceration and prohibition we just went through,” says Penn State professor Richard Doyle. “There is no psychedelic renaissance; there is a collective decision that it’s okay now and not too weird to encourage these things.”
Doyle literally wrote the book on humanity’s coevolution with psychedelic plants—one of them, anyway—called Darwin’s Pharmacy. More recently, he coauthored with Trey Conner and Neşe Devenot of the University of South Florida St Petersburg and the University of Cincinnati, respectively, the paper Dark Side of the Shroom, about the implicit erasure of countercultural and indigenous models this new wave of “psychedelic capitalism” perpetuates.
“In the scholarly world, I'm finding a lot of pressure to legitimize a model we could call psychedelics without the psychedelic worldview,” Doyle says. “‘Can we just make sure these are strictly defined within an already failed scientific, materialist model of consciousness policing?’”
In the paper, Doyle and his colleagues critique the interdependent complex of university-funded researchers, corporate marketers, and high-profile psychedelic pundits like Michael Pollan for trying to gatekeep access to psilocybin and standardize methods of delivery before decriminalization can progress. The presumption is that any one state or corporate-funded medical institution can and should decide for how, when, and if anyone should undergo a psychedelic experience, as though a one-size-fits-all approach could be mapped onto experiences noted for their metaphysical subjectivity.
This narrative also takes for granted the fact that people have already been successfully experimenting with and treating ailments through psychedelics for centuries. Attempts by hierarchical institutions—no matter how reputedly “woke”—to control or curtail their usage have often only amplified the potential harms, with the failed War on Drugs serving as prime example.
“How is it that mainstream science deserves a monopoly on psychedelic science?” Doyle asks. “What has it done but participate in that very prohibition and reject the epistemologies that come along with it?”
At one point in Dark Side of the Shroom, the authors quote pharmacologist David E. Nichols’ insistence that there’s no way to distribute these medicines “unless you have a big industry.” Never mind that there are already much more affordable and accessible resources to grow psilocybin available at the click of a button, including Third Wave’s own Mushroom Grow Kit. While pundits, politicians, and investors engage in painstakingly slow yet highly publicized debates about how to funnel psilocybin through existing regulatory frameworks, the medicines are already getting around through a vast network of therapists, life coaches, clinics, and retreat centers, many of which can be found through Third Wave’s growing directory.
“[W]e need to build policy that allows for bottom-up healing,” says Doyle, “which sounds like a non-sequitur, because we have such an assumed monopoly of medicine that we call anything else ‘alternative medicine.’”
Among psychedelic practitioners, it’s common knowledge that “set and setting” are among the most decisive factors in determining the ongoing impacts of a psychedelic journey. In the pursuit of scientific objectivity and corporate legitimacy, official institutions can overlook how their own bias may influence how these medicines are received, for better or worse.
Marketing psilocybin like other pharmaceuticals can give the impression that they’ll work like “magic bullet” pills to cure mental illness and singlehandedly solve the mental health crisis, deemphasizing the patient’s responsibility for integrating the experience and managing their health going forward. This approach has already failed many times over, such as in the case of SSRI antidepressants like Prozac, which were presented as miracle cures when first introduced in the ‘80s, with ever diminishing returns.
It’s not just the marketing that limits healing; the conventional scientific view of mental illness doesn’t necessarily help either. In multiple studies, patients who were told their depression was caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain had worse outcomes and less perceived ability to manage their moods using nonpharmaceutical strategies. In one study cited in Dark Side of the Shroom, the inflated sense of psychedelics’ efficacy influenced one participant to misrepresent their experience with MDMA to focus on only “the good stuff,” glossing over the disappointment that it wasn’t the instant transformation they’d expected.
“I was still horribly broken and it was devastating,” they admitted later. “It shattered me in a whole new way.”
Researchers themselves have also been guilty of perpetuating the hype to fit with the reductive, reactionist media narrative of psychedelics in isolation as a cure-all. For example, in an opinion piece for The Guardian, Robin Carhart-Harris, the Principal Investigator of clinical trials comparing psilocybin with a leading SSRI, extrapolated inconclusive results to imply psilocybin was definitively more successful. Contrast that to the commentary by his co-researcher Rosalind Watts, which underlines the importance of sociocultural context in determining psychedelic outcomes:
“[O]ur results show the magic of genuine care, time, presence, respect, and being part of a healing community. And that is what is sorely missing from our psychiatric system.”
The rush to convert natural medicines like psilocybin into pharmaceuticals and intellectual property only erects new barriers to access, making treatments more costly and prohibitive. By viewing them as agents for self-improvement and boosting productivity by gaming our brain chemistry, the influence of global capitalism effectively desacralizes and puts behind a paywall what many indigenous cultures have long upheld as religious sacraments accessible to all.
“As soon as we use some supposedly superior method for interacting with psychedelics as the legitimate way,” says Doyle, “we either explicitly or implicitly other all of these ways…that are actually thousands of years old and well established for how to manage a psychedelic experience and how to use these plant medicines for healing, as opposed to how to establish what the causal mechanism is of a psychedelic molecule.
“The unintended consequences of well-meaning regulatory frameworks have a strong record for cultural demolition and widespread incarceration,” he continues. “Let's not jump to any conclusions about best practices and critically trust the counter cultural and indigenous frameworks first - they have the most experience and have somehow thrived through the prohibition.”
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