Psychedelics and Systems Change

Prohibitionists are correct: The legalization of psychoactive drugs and psychedelics would indeed mean the end of society as we know it … and that’s a good thing.

| Summer 2016

  • “Mystical experiences often result in attitudes that threaten the authority not only of established churches, but also of secular society. Unafraid of death and deficient in worldly ambition, those who have undergone mystical experiences are impervious to threats and promises.”
    Collage by Eugenia Loli/
  • A mystical experience may invite you to quit your job, but even those who have the courage to do it usually face the reality that our economy does not reward the modes of creativity that draw them.
    Collage by Eugenia Loli/

Many arguments for the legalization of cannabis and psychedelics draw on their relative harmlessness. Countering the rationale of prohibition, we can point out that compared to legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco, psychedelics are extremely safe. Given statistics comparing the annual number of alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. (88,000) to the number of cannabis-related deaths (zero), the hysterical warnings of prohibitionists that legalization would destroy society as we know it seem ridiculous.

In fact, the prohibitionists are correct. The legalization of cannabis, LSD, MDMA, psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, and the other psychedelics would indeed mean the end of society as we know it. The threat that conservative political forces have identified is real. If these were just innocuous bourgeois playthings, “experiences” that one could consume on weekends to make life-as-usual a little more tolerable, then the guardians of the status quo would have little reason to prohibit them. They recognize, if only unconsciously, the revolutionary social and political potential these substances carry.

Psychedelics can bestow expanded consciousness, perceptions, and ways of being that are incompatible with those that undergird our society. Psychedelics have the power to subvert the alienation, competition, anthropocentrism, linear ordering of time and space, standardization of commodities and social roles, and reduction of reality to a collection of things that propel the world-destroying machine of modern civilization. They disrupt the defining mythology of our civilization, the Story of Separation.

The elements of the Story of Separation listed above also embed our economic system, which means that the spread of cannabis and psychedelics could have negative economic effects — that is, when we define economic benefit as the growth in monetized goods and services. They promise less consumption of goods and services, not more. The modern self, alienated from nature and community, has an endless craving to consume and possess, seeking to grow in compensation for the lost infinity of the interconnected, inter-existent, true self that psychedelics reveal.

Beware, then, of arguments that legalization is good for the economy. It won’t be, but it will accelerate a transition toward a different kind of economy. The psychedelic experience reveals its lineaments: less quantity and more quality, fewer “services” and more relationships, fewer “goods” and more beauty, less competition and more community, less accumulation and more sharing, less work and more play, less extraction and more healing. This is utterly at odds with the present economic system.

The present economic system compels and requires growth in order to function. Growth here means growth of goods and services exchanged for money; it means quantitative growth, growth in a measurable quantity. It is the external, collective correlate of the ever-expanding ego, the separate self. As we identify less with that self, conventional economic logic begins to break down. No longer does it make sense that we are fundamentally in competition with each other. No longer does it make sense for scarcity to be the foundational premise of economic life. No longer does it make sense that more for you should be less for me. No longer is security and control of resources the highest priority in making economic choices. Psychedelics thereby help reverse the centuries-old economic usurpation of human life, the mentality of the transaction that has encroached on human relations.

2/13/2020 11:56:28 PM

Been saying that for years now, and so far to deaf ears unfortunately.... Jim Fetter, The Consciousness of Stardust.

7/7/2019 9:54:10 PM

The loss of spirituality in modern man is indeed a real problem. Yet, while the spiritual benefits of psychedelics are real, they tend to be less permanent than purely cognitive enlightenment. The onward march of science, better living through chemistry and even the conquest of nature are more than archaic tropes to anyone with a sick loved one in desperate need of a medical breakthrough or suffering from extreme poverty that could be helped by innovation. Bringing democracy to the world is not going to prove outdated to victims of dictatorship. These and other sources of pain cannot be solved if we're tripping all the time or even hungover from our last trip. A more balanced view which doesn't throw the baby out with the bathwater might be more sustainable.

5/31/2019 2:31:42 PM

This is the most intelligent and hopeful piece of writing to cross my computer screen since the last things I've read by Fuller, de Chardin, Huxley & of course, Watts. And I've learned a new word, one that captures perfectly what we see going on around us - "ecocide.

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