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Psychedelics and Social Policy

  Psychedelics: A First-Amendment Right

    by a Psychedelicist

        If certain chemicals open one up to religious experience, should they be
        protected by the Constitution? ©Gnosis* Magazine, No. 26, Winter 1993.

TODAY IS THE FOURTH OF JULY, and I just put out my family's flag in front of our house. It is supposed to mean that America stands for freedom, including freedom of religion.
    But I can't practice my religion openly in America, and although I am legally allowed to advocate it, if I do so openly, I may find myself less respected in my town. My opportunities at work may be limited. My family and I could have trouble receiving government services or aid if we needed them.
    In the opening line of The Reformation, historian Will Durant writes, "Religion is the last subject that the intellect begins to understand."[1] At least part of the difficulty that Durant points to is due to the fact that the foundation of religion is not thought, not belief, but experience. Currently this situation is often reversed, and the error of putting the wagon of belief before the horse of experience has produced the sorry state of religion today. Durant's wish to understand religion misses the point that religion is primarily experiential, not conceptual.
    Experience is the mother of thought, and religious experience is the mother of religious thought. Church, book, and dogma are byproducts of experience. To ask someone who has never had a deep spiritual experience to grasp such an event intellectually is akin to asking someone who has never tasted salt to understand saltiness intellectually. I don 't mean that we shouldn't use the intellect to examine spiritual experiences, but such knowledge will be shallow and incomplete.
    Sacred texts such as the Bible, the Talmud, or the Qur'an provide us with some knowledge; they do give us some inkling of the divine. Words can help guide us toward the light, but sometimes psychedelics unbind us so we can turn around and face the light. Psychologist Frances Vaughan mentions some of the ways in which her psychedelic experiences changed her thinking:
The perennial philosophy and the esoteric teachings of all time suddenly made sense. I understood why spiritual seekers were instructed to look within, and the unconscious was revealed to be not just a useful concept, but an infinite reservoir of creative potential. I felt I had been afforded a glimpse into the nature of reality and the human potential within that reality, together with a direct experience of being myself, free of illusory identifications and constrictions of consciousness. My understanding of mystical teachings, both Eastern and Western, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and Sufi alike, took a quantum leap. I became aware of the transcendent unity at the core of all the great religions, and understood for the first time the meaning of ecstatic states.[2]

    It's important to note that Vaughan describes what is both an exploration of her mind and a religious experience. Most Psychedelicists believe that the human mind includes a spiritual dimension, and that if one goes far enough into one 's mind, one can reach this level. Thus mind exploration is not merely psychology or psychotherapy; it is also spiritual development. Because LSD and other entheogens ("entheogen" is derived from Greek roots meaning "that which engenders god within") assist one in mind exploration, they are sacraments.
    I hesitate to use the word "God" in this article because it comes loaded with so much doctrinal meaning. I will use the word "god," however, as it most accurately expresses my sensation of holiness. I do not mean a personal deity; to me it is best thought of as a force or energy such as gravity, magnetism, or light.
    What religious experiences can be produced by LSD, peyote, or similar entheogens? For me, they include a sense that holiness permeates everything even though we are usually not aware of it; a feeling of love, blessedness, and adoration, a feeling that I am being blessed without being particularly deserving and am returning this love toward god; and what I will call a sense of mystical oneness, in which any sense of separation between myself and god disappears. This is not to say that I as my usual ego am the same as god, but rather that I temporarily leave that ego behind and realize that separateness as we normally experience it is an illusion.
    There are many books about the experience of mystical oneness. I will not add further to what others have said, except to point out that mysticism can be seen as the belief in an ultimate unity of the universe that can be directly experienced. Because of psychedelics, I too find these ideas credible. They are the core of my belief system. Without my psychedelic experiences I doubt that I would have even considered them at all. In a very real sense LSD helped me find god—the god within—and I feel that I am a better person for it. I am eternally grateful for the blessings and spiritual richness psychedelics have brought into my life. Without them I would be without god. I know many of my coreligionists feel the same. I hope my descendants will also be able to engage with these ideas through psychedelic experiences.
    How does a Psychedelicist view other current religious practices? Within their limitations, church and word can be useful spiritual guides if they are understood as being guideposts to the divine parts of our minds. To Psychedelicists, however, the current overemphasis on church and Bible verges on idolatry. These worldly, secondhand manifestations of god are located in time and space, while god is timeless and spaceless. In a sense church and word are like a two-dimensional, black-and-white photograph of a three-dimensional object. They are better than nothing. But they also miss the color, movement, development, and most importantly the fragrance of the sacred. They are also distorted, filtered, and polluted by history, culture, and language. They are largely (though thanks to a few mystics not entirely) artifacts of our ordinary state of consciousness, with its limited experiences, perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, and feelings.
    What do established religions offer to psychedelic religions? First, through their belief systems, they may prepare a person's mind and heart for these experiences, pointing to the door, perhaps, though not opening it. In this way they provide an expectation of the divine and a way of recognizing, accepting, and thinking about these experiences when they do occur. On the other hand, I have found that organized religion often fails at this task, so that its followers are completely unprepared for deep mystical experience. No doubt psychedelic training, or something similar, would provide excellent professional education for the clergy of all faiths.
    Second, religion may prepare one for sacred experience by "cleansing one's heart and mind" through service, prayer, meditation, or other ego-relaxing exercises. Current spiritual disciplines are probably good "readiness" exercises.
    Third, through sacred rituals, established religions may facilitate direct experience of the divine. Some find that ecclesiastical ritual does work for them, and they do sometimes experience the divine through religious practice. But they often make the major error of presuming that their own paths are the only path to god.
    Fourth, religious texts and rituals take on deeper meaning and significance when viewed from a sacred state of consciousness. Among the two-dimensional words that suddenly become three-dimensional in meaning through psychedelics are such statements as "The kingdom of God is within you"; "We are all children of God"; "Be still and know that I am God"; "You must die and be born again to enter the kingdom of heaven." As a Christian Psychedelicist, most of my experience is with the Bible, but I understand from friends of other religious backgrounds that their texts also become more meaningful.
    Thanks to LSD, I now see church, religious practice, and dogma as derived from spiritual experience, though not as the real thing. I am not saying that beliefs, organized religion, and church-centered activities are useless or unimportant. Many people find these things to be adequate spiritual foundations. I'm glad they have found them, but their religions do not work for me. As Psychedelicists, my coreligionists and I depend on direct, intense spiritual experience.
    Although the Bill of Rights says that the government shall not establish any religion, those religions which are based on church, book, or dogma are legally established in the sense that they and their members alone receive constitutional protection for' their practices, persons, and property. Followers of these religions are not persecuted; Psychedelicists are. LSD and other sacraments are illegal, and those who use them are subject to legal sanctions.
    Psychedelic sacraments are the sine qua non of our religion. Depriving a Psychedelicist of LSD, sacred mushrooms, peyote, or other sacraments is akin to depriving a fundamentalist of his Bible or a Catholic of her church. Psychedelic experience is the foundation of my practice.
    During the Reformation, many clergymen feared that the printing press would make the Bible available to the common person. They feared that the untutored and unwashed might criticize the church and clergy or even set up their own churches. This is exactly what happened, and the reformers came to be known as Protestants. From about 1300 to 1600, "heretics" such as John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, John Calvin, and Martin Luther claimed that the Bible, as the word of God, was the most direct expression of God. They held that church, dogma, and clergy could be judged by the standards of the Bible.
    Today psychedelics enable us to take Protestantism a step further. Following in the tradition of William James, this century's "heretics," including Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Huston Smith, Walter Clark, Walter Pahnke, William Richards, and other Psychedelicists, claim that the direct experience of god, undistorted by church, belief, or revealed word, gives the purest sense of the divine. Today's Psychedelic Reformation carries religious democracy a step further— to experience. No longer is the experience of god limited to a few saints and holy people; each person can and should have his or her own experience of god. Just as common access to the Bible was at one time suppressed by church and state, so are psychedelics suppressed now. Just as Protestants, reformers, and Puritans were seen as the heretics and traitors of their times, Psychedelicists are misperceived as the religious heretics and political traitors of our own times.
    Without doubt the most successful special-interest group in Washington today is the drug prohibition lobby. My child is taught in school that my spouse and I are criminals because our path to god uses psychedelics. When I was in school, we were taught that one of the worst things about Nazi Germany and the communist countries was that children were taught to spy on their families, neighbors, and friends. "Aren't we glad we live in America," my teachers said, "where we don't do such things?" Yet my child's school partakes in the DARE anti-drug program, which teaches children to spy on their parents.[3]
    How and why does the government persecute my coreligionists and me?
    By extending their fiefdoms beyond their original borders, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the Public Health Service exercise control over the nonmedical uses of psychedelics. It makes sense to me that they should have some control over medical uses, but it does not make sense that they also exercise control over religious, scholarly, artistic, and scientific uses of drugs.
    By ignorantly promulgating the malicious idea that the only proper use of drugs is medical, the DEA and other agencies, and self-serving politicians including President Bush, have produced a destructive War on Drugs which kills more people than drug abuse itself.[4] They do not realize that drugs have both medical and nonmedical uses and have been used beneficially for tens of thousands of years.
    By interpreting religion as being an organization or a set of beliefs and by outlawing the use of psychedelics as sacraments, the government establishes a preference for church-and word-based religions. It handicaps all experience-based religions, psychedelic and nonpsychedelic. It persecutes my psychedelic religion.
    Today I changed to a new month on my Girl Scout calendar. As is appropriate for July, it has a picture of a group of Girl Scouts—a black, a blond, a Latina, and several generic whites—folding the American flag. I wonder if these children are being taught that the essence of America's freedoms is protecting the rights of minorities.
    Almost 400 years ago, some of my ancestors left their native land to seek religious asylum in Holland. Later they crossed the North Atlantic in a small boat to come to what is now America. A portrait of them hangs in the Capitol rotunda. Today I look at my flag and wonder. will I too have to leave my native country to seek asylum because of religious persecution?

    The author has requested anonymity.


1. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, part 6: The Reformation (Springfield, Ill.: Simon & Schuster, 1957), p. 3. (back)

2. Frances Vaughan, "Perception and Knowledge: Reflections on Psychological and Spiritual Learning in the Psychedelic Experience," in Lester Grinspoon and James Bakalar, eds., Psychedelic Reflections (New York: Human Sciences Press, 1983), p. 109. (back)

3. Joseph Pereira, "The Informants in a Drug Program: Some Kids Turn In Their Own Parents," The Wall Street Journal, April 20, 1992, pp. 1, A4. (back)

4. Religious Coalition for a Moral Drug Policy, Reason, Compassion, and the Drug War (Washington, D.C., 1990), p. 29. (back)

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