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The Altered Mind: Psychedelics & the Ethics of Mind-Enhancement — Event and Response to Rick Doblin

March 29, 2018

Yesterday evening I had the great privilege and honor of hosting Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies) at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, as part of an event organized by the Harvard STS Program. Rick, whose been leading the effort to bring MDMA into a medicine since the 1980s is also a Kennedy School alumnus. He graduated from HKS in 2001 with a dissertation on the regulation of the medical uses of psychedelics and marijuana. Rick can be considered an exemplary alumnus for an institution such as HKS which is dedicated to educating and empowering public policy reformers: he has been a key figure in bringing about a huge and long awaited public policy revolution — the renewal of psychedelic research, and the medicalization of psychedelics. It was for this reason among others, that it felt particularly meaningful to bring him back to HKS.

The event was titled “The Altered Mind: Psychedelics & the Ethics of Mind-Enhancement.” It sought to adumbrate and discuss the social, political and ethical questions surrounding the resurgence of psychedelic research (see the abstract here). Apart from Rick we also had an excellent panel, which included Harvard Prof. bioethicist Dan Wikler, as well as New School Anthropology Prof. Nicolas Langlitz and myself. The whole thing was moderated by Prof. Sheila Jasanoff, director of the STS program at Harvard.

Here is a transcription of my response to Rick Doblin’s presentation, which explores some of the intersections between drug discourses and normativity.



Thank you all to coming to this event which was intended to invoke some of the fundamental and rarely asked questions surrounding psychedelic research and drug research in general.

I want to continue on some of the issues and questions that were raised by the previous speakers and include them within an even broader discussion which I believe we should be having about the normative issues framing psychedelic research and medicine.

Before we go into that, it should be noted that drug laws and regulations have been regularly and intimately shaped by questions of normativity. There is rich historical and sociological literature that details the many ways in which anti-drug campaigns and drug laws have historically been inextricable from racism and the persecution of racial, cultural, and political minorities: In the case of marihuana these were Mexican immigrants, Chinese immigrants in the case of opium, black people in the case of cocaine. In each of these cases, anti-drug campaigns were accompanied by strong sentiments of racial belligerence, opposition to minority groups and to the social values associated with these groups.

The case of psychedelics was not different, though admittedly the persecuted group here was not a racial group but a cultural and political group which included hippies and political radicals.

Back in the 1960s psychedelic use was strongly associated with specific cultural and political trends such as pacifism, opposition to the war in Vietnam and anti-authoritarianism. Psychedelics were widely understood by their users, as well as by their detractors, to be drugs which foment opposition to certain cultural norms including consumerism, materialism, nationalism and the work-ethic. They were considered to undermine the very normative and ideological foundations of civilization. Many of their users saw them as harbingers of a new kind of society. “Present social establishments had better be prepared for change” Timothy Leary argued at the time. He predicted that mind-altering drugs would radically transform human nature and society.

Leary’s attempt for a psychedelic cultural revolution did not lead to the expected results, and over the past couple of decades, the story of the so called ‘psychedelic renaissance’ has been inextricable from the trend of ‘mainstreaming psychedelics,’ the distancing of psychedelic research from its earlier associations with the counterculture and political radicalism.

Rather than transforming society through countercultural activity, later day psychedelic advocates agreed that the better route goes from within the culture. After suffering from their association with 1960s political discord and strife, psychedelic advocates vied to bring them back as a bipartisan issue, which I think explains some of the issues that were raised here today regarding psychedelic research and its connections to conservative groups.

Psychedelic activists of the 1960s burned draft cards, but those of the 21st century provide therapy to Army veterans and this must be seen as part of an effort to rehabilitate psychedelics in the public eye and change their image from drugs which challenge the social order to drugs that seek to ‘heal’ it, as some psychedelic advocates would say, or perhaps even support it, as others might say.

At the same time, psychedelic research is still associated and to some extent dependent on a broader community with distinct cultural resonances. This wider group, which meets together at conferences and events, still provides financial, moral and cultural support for the cause of psychedelic research. The big question for the members of this culture is whether the benefits of the medicalized mainstreaming of psychedelics justify the normative costs. In other words: to what extent does entering the scientific and medical game dilute what members of the community perceive to be fundamental, core psychedelic values.

While many advocates argue that medicalized discourse falls short of doing full justice to the more radical sociopolitical implications of psychedelics, in most cases the community surrounding these agents has been overwhelmingly supportive of the contemporary wave of research. The subjection of psychedelics to the analytic gaze of science is considered a necessary step for gaining scientific recognition of their merit and securing their future availability. This, in spite the fact that many users and advocates consider legal access to psychedelic therapy and experimentation an inalienable human right. This idea of psychedelics as a human right is justified and expressed either through reliance on anthropological data about the historical ubiquity of psychoactive use in human societies, or in the language of cognitive liberty – the assertion that the right to alter one’s state of mind according to one’s wishes is tantamount to the right to free speech.

So far, I’ve described the mainstreaming approach and its reception from within the psychedelic community. Rick has been a chief proponent of this approach, which argues that the value of psychedelics can be recognized by all sides of the cultural and political map. And yet, at the same time psychedelics are also promoted as fostering certain kinds of values which in today’s political climate seem to relate quite clearly to a specific part of the political landscape. Psychedelics have been widely proposed to promote values of eco-awareness, universalism, anti-authoritarianism, tolerance and openness. The question of whether and how comfortably these values sit together with the mainstreaming of psychedelics, and whether the political implications of psychedelics might subvert their bipartisanship remains unsettled in my eyes.

If we assume that there exists a relationship between drug laws and normativity: that psychoactive drugs which alter minds help produce certain types of societies, and that drug norms and laws are shaped by the agreement or disagreement, between the values held by society, on the one hand, and the values associated with certain drugs, on the other hand – then we might assume that it is not per accident that the drugs most in use in late capitalist society are drugs which have been described as drugs of productivity and adjustment such as caffeine, Ritalin, Adderall, Zoloft and Prozac.

One useful distinction in this regard is made by communications professor Corey Anton who speaks about two archetypal types of drugs. The first type is tight drugs, which help their users become more attuned to the demands of society, without causing any dramatic perceptual effects. The second type are loose drugs, which explicitly alter consciousness and free individuals from the grip of normative values. By contrast to the tight drugs which fuel civilization, the psychedelic experience, has been popularly associated with changes and challenges to social values.

The question of whether this is indeed the case, remains open to debate. There is evidence to suggest that psychedelic experiences promote free thinking and  liberal values, but there is also historical and ethnological data about groups who used psychedelics while engaging in sorcery, war and human sacrifice; and although predominantly identified with leftist politics, psychedelics have also had some supporters from the right.

I would argue that psychedelics might indeed support liberalization, but that their exact social effects depend on the set and the setting, or the context in which these drugs are being used. Psychedelics can be used to liberalize, individualize, and radicalize, but they can also be used to strengthen communal structures and values, as shown by ethnological research.

The return of psychedelic research therefore presents us with a question regarding the kinds of values society wishes to espouse. We already have legally sanctioned use of drugs to enhance productivity and facilitate adjustment to society’s values. Are we willing to approve drugs that are assumed to promote social values such as openness, tolerance and opposition to authoritarianism? And if, on the other hand, we assume that it is set and setting that shape the normative effects of psychedelics, what kind of set and setting do we put in place to determine the types of values that psychedelics end up promoting?

These are a few of the issues that I see coming up, and which, to my mind, underscore the crucial normative questions that any discussion about the social role of psychoactives in general and psychedelics in particular must take into account.

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