Disclaimer: This article contains discussions on suicide, PTSD, and other health conditions.
It also contains spoilers.
The public perception of psychedelics is quickly changing. The state of Oregon approved the medicinal use of psilocybin—the active compound in psychedelic mushrooms—and is expected to open psychedelic clinics in 2023, the first of their kind. In addition, many US cities have even decriminalized psychedelics, including Denver, Oakland, Santa Cruz, Detroit, Ann Arbor, and more.
However, the latest surge of momentum surrounding psychedelics hasn’t always been the case. Perhaps surprisingly to many, there was a wealth of clinical research on psychedelics, (LSD in particular) in the 1950s and ‘60s in America. Hundreds of studies showed huge potential in treating alcoholism, depression, and end-of-life anxiety, among other conditions, with LSD.
But in the late ‘60s, the hippie counterculture movement latched on to psychedelics, associating them with the anti-establishment. The conservative government fought back, outlawing LSD and many other psychedelics in 1970, despite their huge potential to treat a variety of mental health illnesses.
This is how the story of psychedelics begins in Michael Pollan’s new Netflix docuseries, How to Change Your Mind, which continues from his wildly popular 2018 book of the same name. The series charts the history of four psychedelics, LSD, mushrooms, MDMA, and mescaline, and unearths the history of each powerful substance, how they were criminalized, and where current research and legalization are headed.
The series comes at a pivotal time as the psychedelic movement is gaining steam, and questions about how to use, respect, and regulate these substances aren’t fully answered. The series successfully draws on history, insight, and some of the most fascinating minds in research to try and answer these questions, helping to propel the conversation on psychedelics and their benefits into the mainstream.
The specter of prohibition
A constant theme throughout the series centers on how the War on Drugs (kicked off by President Nixon and conservative America) prohibited psychedelics for political reasons. A war veteran suffering from PTSD talks about how he was raised during the D.A.R.E. era in the ‘80s and ‘90s with “good” drugs and “bad” drugs.
“Well, ‘good’ drugs led to an opioid epidemic, and ‘bad’ drugs heal PTSD, so I think our definitions of those need to change,” said Sgt. Jonathan Lubecky, a participant in an MDMA trial.
A former police officer continues the same train of thought, saying, “We got to the point in this country where you can’t outright criminalize a particular people… but you can criminalize a substance that that particular group of people use and have a backdoor entry into their communities,” said Sarko Gergerian, Police Lieutenant and Therapist Trainee at MAPS for MDMA, referring to the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people in this country.
It’s easy to draw a comparison between the prohibition of these substances and cannabis. Both weed and psychedelics have been used for millennia and have shown incredible medical potential. And both were outlawed in the US due to fear of other races and cultures.
In fact, the legalization of first medical marijuana and then recreational cannabis is serving as a framework for the legalization of psychedelics.
From that framework, the conversation on psychedelics today is focused on the medicinal potential of the substances. MDMA, and its ability to treat PTSD, is in the vanguard—the substance has passed three rounds of clinical trials, all with resounding success, and is expected to be approved by the FDA within the next few years.
The healing power of psychedelics
Some of the most powerful scenes in How to Change Your Mind are interviews with patients whose lives have changed after psychedelic therapy. According to Professor Robin Carhartt-Harris in the show, 1 in 4 people suffer from some mental illness, and psychedelics have the potential to help. Seeing and hearing the words of these patients is moving and has the ability to change perceptions.
In the MDMA episode, an Iraq War veteran with PTSD talks about constant paranoia, nightmares every night, and the inability to trust anyone. He said that MDMA saved his life by preventing him from taking his own life because of his experiences during the war.
A woman with PTSD vividly describes past events of discovering a murder, one of the causes of her trauma. After trying multiple antidepressants and therapies, MDMA has helped her manage PTSD and be present in her life, even three years later.
In Switzerland, a man contemplates taking his own life because of cluster headaches, which he experiences multiple times a day. He describes the headaches as a smoldering ice pick stuck into the back of his eyes. LSD has given him at least a handful of pain-free days and gives him hope for the future.
A man with OCD describes his condition as someone following him around with radio static constantly blaring in his ear. One psilocybin session appears to have cured him of his condition and helped him regain his life.
In all of these instances, the pain these people were experiencing is visceral for the viewer, and their recoveries, relieving. Simply watching these patients talk about their experiences before and after psychedelic therapy is cathartic for the viewer and paints a much clearer picture of how helpful these substances are.
How to create a psychedelics industry
One of the stickiest questions facing proponents of psychedelics is how to respect indigenous cultures who use these substances for spiritual practice and healing, and who have been for thousands of years. Are rich, white Americans going to exploit these substances and make enormous profits, disrespecting indigenous cultures in the process?
The series gets into the politics of this question in the last episode on mescaline. The substance is largely derived from the peyote cactus, which only grows in a narrow band around the Rio Grande river between Mexico and Texas. There is a very real concern that legalizing peyote or mescaline will see these peyote gardens disappear to psychedelic tourists or money-hungry capitalists.
In the series, many Native Americans talk about the collective trauma of their people, after their ancestors were forced off their lands and into reservations by the US government. They describe peyote as a medicine to help heal their collective trauma.
The Native American Church was created in the 1880s in Oklahoma territory, after the usage of peyote among Native Americans spread north to the Great Plains, partly as a means for Native American communities to use peyote to heal from the trauma of their experience. Today, it is one of the biggest indigenous religions among Native Americans in the US.
Many interviewees say that peyote must be respected and not white-washed or appropriated by white America, like so much of their culture already has been.
Thinking ahead to the future, Pollan talks about how peyote is a great example of how a drug can benefit society at large and can be used in a socially constructive way to solve a community’s problems. “Drugs are highly contextualized, and it’s the meanings we put on them, the uses to which we put them, that really matter; they’re not inherently good and they’re not inherently evil, they’re tools,” he said.
But how to create an industry to support psychedelic-assisted therapy still has a lot of open questions. Pollan ponders how the current model of the pharmaceutical industry is to invent and patent a drug for people to take every day or all the time, whereas with psychedelic-assisted therapy, a person only need take a drug once or a handful of times, and in conjunction with therapy.
How does a company make that drug profitable? How much can you charge for it? Can you patent a plant? Currently, there is no model for creating an industry to support psychedelic therapy, and logistically, much still needs to be figured out.
However a new industry might arise, public perception on psychedelics and their healing potential is quickly changing. Noting a sea change in current thinking, Sgt. Lubecky talks about his experience attending a conference of police chiefs after participating in an MDMA trial, saying, “When you have the people who literally ran the Drug War now turning around and saying ‘we were wrong this, can help,’ that’s a major thing.”