The Powerful Allure of Psychedelics in Today’s Disenchanted World

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As a psychiatrist and psychedelic researcher in Melbourne in 2022, I’ve reached the conclusion that we are in for a wild ride with psychedelics over the next few years.

Last night I watched the first episode of Michael Pollan’s Netflix series and it certainly was impressive, and can I say seductive? How, after watching this show, could anyone resist the temptation to dabble in mind-altering substances? My colleague Stephen Bright posted that he “loved the cinematography”, and along with the production and inspiring narration, the whole package was a very bright green light for psychedelics.

Close up of fingers putting a pill into a mouth. Colored lights all around

In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age published while I was writing this piece, Pollan claims “he is not an advocate for people taking psychedelics but for more research and for more public understanding.” After watching his show and reading the newspaper article, which was all about psychedelics and was included in the Lifestyle section of the papers, I remain unconvinced about that.

Local filmmakers too are getting in on the act and along with all the positive media that psychedelic medicine are attracting, there are the many people I have already written about who are pushing to get these drugs out there as fast as possible to treat psychiatric illness and promote human development.

Now I hate being the odd man out but there is another angle to all this hype. Let me explain.

Last week I was referred a case that beggars the imagination.

A middle-aged couple who had lost their only child through illness a few years previously had been unable to deal with their grief. The grief was overwhelming and apparently disabling, possibly because they had struggled for many years to conceive through IVF. The child was precious and the loss too difficult to deal with.

After a number of failed attempts to get psychological help, the couple turned to a so-called therapist who claimed she was part of a team involved in psychedelic research in Melbourne. This therapist then offered to treat the pair individually with psychedelic assisted psychotherapy. The couple accepted.

I do not know what therapy was offered or how it was delivered.

I do not know the dosage of the drug administered which I believe was psilocybin.

What I do know is that the therapist was not qualified, was not acting legally and lied about her involvement in the research.

I am also fairly confident in saying that there is as yet no evidence that psilocybin assisted psychotherapy is a preferred treatment for unresolved grief. Perhaps MDMA, but not psilocybin.

Anyway the “treatment” went ahead. The wife was the first to have her dosing and from all reports coped quite well although I have no knowledge of whether she felt better afterwards. What I do know is that when I spoke to her some time later, she was extremely distressed, and increasingly desperate. Not because of what had happened to her, but rather because of what had happened to her husband.

He had had his psilocybin dosing the day after his wife but unlike his wife, the experience had thrown him into a profound catatonic depression. With that, the “therapist” quickly disappeared, the family could not afford private care, and the poor fellow was rapidly admitted to, and then confined in, a public psychiatric facility. He had become increasingly unresponsive and his wife had been unable to cope with his total dependence upon her.

The treating psychiatrists in the hospital who understandably had little understanding or experience of what had happened to this man, began treating him with large doses of a powerful tranquilizer olanzapine, as well as antidepressants, and were seriously considering electro-convulsive therapy.

I’ll leave this tragic misadventure at this point. Certainly, a lot more needs to be done to help this poor man and at this stage I would be foolish to prognosticate.

Hopefully he’ll get better but this case is worth noting, not only because of what has happened and the suffering it has caused, but also because it raises a number of questions about where we are heading with psychedelics.

Yes, psilocybin is regarded as a relatively safe substance. A study by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs in the UK led by Prof David Nutt concluded that mushrooms (psilocybin) were the least harmful of the 20 substances considered, including alcohol and tobacco smoking. An Australian study replicated these results.

I do not wish to argue with these studies and their conclusions about harm, but I do know that any research can never take into account what I would describe as the quotidian context. Research is all about metrics, averages and ideally large populations. It can never take into account individual contexts and situations. With our patient there was an unusual and dangerous mindset, a man with profound unremitting grief hoping for relief and with no previous experience with psychedelics, combined with a risky treatment setting involving poor therapeutic and illicit practices. It was a recipe for a disaster.

Psilocybin might be safer than other drugs but no-one can deny its potency, its potential, and the psychological risks it will always present. It is not fear and loathing that I am expressing here but rather respect, respect for a group of special substances that are at our disposal and that can both help or harm. This ultimately depends upon us and how we administer these substances.

And this case also exemplifies what I would call the current Australian psychedelic bottleneck. Maybe it’s happening elsewhere but certainly it is happening in this country. To borrow an overused phrase, in my opinion we face a perfect (psychedelic) storm, not too dissimilar too the psychedelic storm of the 1970s.

Let me explain.

In Australia, particularly in. Melbourne, we have psychedelic research progressing well but slowly in the scheme of things, partly due to Covid and partly due to the nature of good research. This situation understandably encourages impatience.

On top of this there are people like Pollan, along with advocacy groups and associated prominent individuals generally with no scientific or medical background, pushing hard to get these drugs out there, because they are potentially therapeutic and/or life enhancing.

We have an unknown (at least to me) number of underground therapists, shamans, healers and so on, actively providing people with these substances. This activity is completely unregulated and therefore dangerous.

Fortunately, we have the Australian Psychological Society encouraging psychologists to get interested and educated in the use of these substances and wanting the RANZCP to get involved as well. But as I have frequently emphasized before, that is not happening! The College of Psychiatrists, for various reasons has not as yet shown much interest, or used its considerable influence in all of this which really rankles.

So put all that together and you get a large number of people wanting to have a psychedelic experience or treatment, but legally they cannot. So it is done illegally and stuff happens, some good stuff and some bad stuff. And that, in my opinion, is just not good enough. We can, and should, do better.

We need to protect the vulnerable from the charlatans, the over ambitious, and yes, the greedy. We need to let the research run its course, so that we can learn how to use these drugs safely within a safe controlled environment. We need government agencies such as the TGA and the State Health Departments to stand up to the pressure groups and introduce appropriate regulations in conjunction with professional bodies such as the Australian Psychological Society and the College of Psychiatrists.

There is another side to all this.

The great twentieth century sociologist Max Weber wrote extensively about the disenchantment of modern life. He believed that since the Enlightenment, science and reason had eroded the sway of religion, spirituality, superstition and magic such that transcendent values had become increasingly unavailable to many, especially in secular cultures, which modern Australia has become. He argued that through reason the world had become transparent and demystified, and hence disenchanted.

For Weber the disenchantment of the world was the alienating and undesirable flip side of scientific progress.

Interestingly he borrowed from Hinduism and described the world as a great enchanted garden, all too easily uprooted and disturbed by science and reason as we humans lose our ability to see nature as an inherently meaningful order. Or in other words the loss of animism – seeing all of nature including humans as alive, interconnected and part of the whole – leads to anomie, loss of meaning, depersonalisation and the objectification and abuse of nature with all its environmental consequences.

If Weber was correct and indeed we do live in a disenchanted world, what is then logically required is the collective reawakening of a sense of wonder and awe, a revival of universal ethics, and a restoration in the belief of animate interconnected nature.

So what has this to do with psychedelic drugs. Well, all you have to do is watch Michael Pollan’s show to find out. There you will see a kaleidoscope of psychedelic-induced wonderments such as magic, transcendence, ecstasy and ultimately re-enchantment. Hard to resist, particularly if we are indeed living in a world where disenchantment has the edge over enchantment.

This I believe is the oft-forgotten force behind the powerful allure of psychedelics.

But for those of us in the psychedelic research domain who urge caution and patience as opposed to excitement and experimentation, the sad truth is that our warning voices are being drowned out by the cacophony created by the protagonists driven by the lure of enchantment who seem to have completely forgotten the Leary legacy and the harm these drugs can do.

This then is the recipe for a perfect psychedelic storm!

With psychedelics it is important to remember that no matter what happens to our minds, we must keep our feet on the ground. The day will come when these psychoactive medicines will have their place in the psychiatric and psychological armamentaria, but we are not quite there yet.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

13 COMMENTS

  1. This is unfortunate that some are trying to use the Mental Health Myth to promote more drugs.

    People on this board have been promoting LSD and Methamphetamines as the remecy to ~Mental Illness~.

    This Thomas Insel is seemingly the advisor to California Governor Gavin Newsom who is trying to subject the unhoused to involuntary psychiatric procedures. Drug use is a big part of what Newsom and Insel and their supporters are representing as ~Mental Illness~.

    Well Insel seems totally committed to total mood alteration by chemicals. All prescription drugs, drugs that give you a euphoria like sex. And he has a start up company which is promoting the use of LSD to further ~Mental Health~.

    Joshua

  2. What we have here seems to be written from a prohibitionist mindset. I find this mindset not unrelated to the attitudes behind forced psychiatry. Declaring that you may *not* have a certain substance in your body (e.g. “recreational” drugs) denies your bodily autonomy just as much as saying you *must* have a certain substance in your body (e.g. antipsychotics under an “assisted” outpatient treatment order); though the latter is, in addition, a *violation*.

    The author’s faith in regulatory frameworks is touching. As he says: “This activity is completely unregulated and therefore dangerous.” That is a creed stated as a syllogism.

    Indeed—-there are plenty of shysters in the unregulated psychedelic space: just as there are a great many shysters with the imprimatur of state approval in the highly regulated field of psychiatric “medicine”. Why on earth would anyone who has experienced psychiatric abuse (many readers of this site, one supposes) think that bringing psychedelic therapy under the jurisdiction of psychiatry is going to make it *safer*?

    When an underground shyster (psychedelic or otherwise) defrauds or abuses a patient, that amounts to one abuser versus one victim (to first approximation). When a psychiatrist defrauds or abuses, that is one abuser *plus an entire system with the force of law* against one victim/patient.

    The key difference between an underground abusive therapist and an abusive psychiatrist is that the abusive underground therapist isn’t likely to call the police on you.

    • Nice comment nchurch. As someone who was viciously attacked for daring to complain about being called an “Outpatient” before police were called to detain me ( a criminal offence under our Criminal Code), ‘spiked’ with a date rape drug which then became my “Regular Medications” with a fraudulent prescription, and then interrogated for 7 hours, I truly understand your comment about the ‘underground therapist’ not calling the Police on you.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZ9UQKBUrsg&t=2s

      The ability to authorise the ‘spiking’ of citizens and then have police cause an ‘acute stress reaction’ before such interrogations being enabled by the criminal negligence of the ‘legal representatives’ who claim to be protecting the community. Imagine being able to ‘spike’ with ‘acid’ rather than their current drugs of choice? Wouldn’t that have been effective in Abu Ghraib? (which technically used the same ‘coercive methods’ being enabled here. The Medical Officer able to authorise the ‘spiking’ of the ‘patient’ post hoc…. that is, once they have “edited” the documents to make them a ‘patient’)

      Worth going back to the article at this point;

      “I’ll leave this tragic misadventure at this point. Certainly, a lot more needs to be done to help this poor man and at this stage I would be foolish to prognosticate.”

      Leave the misadventure at the point where psychiatrist starts drugging the guy and considering the use of electricity? Why there? And let me say that he will be a “poor man” if he has to pay for the ‘treatments’, given that he can now be snatched from his bed by police and ‘treated’ until his wallet is empty. In fact, that can happen anyway, given that all that needs to occur is a Community Nurse to tell police he is an “Outpatient” and the whole mechanism goes to work on ‘fuking destroying’ him and his family. This being the response by a hospital administrator to my pointing out her duty to report suspected misconduct to the appropriate body. Her choosing instead to not report and conspire to pervert. and with zero accountability, and police actively engaged in concealing their misconduct, well……. glad someone didn’t have the stomach for what was planned for my ‘treatment’ and rudely interrupted the intended ‘unintended negative outcome’.

      “When a psychiatrist defrauds or abuses, that is one abuser *plus an entire system with the force of law* against one victim/patient.”

      Hey, in my State they let Community Nurses diagnose ‘patients’ before they even leave the hospital (a telephone call from a concerned citizen [enemy] enough to warrant ‘intervention’ of police and the paperwork will be sorted later with what they call “editing” ie the removal of the crimes. Police prepared to retrieve evidence/ documented proof if necessary. No psychiatrist necessary until they have basically traumatised the victim, and then hand them over to a psychiatrist to do the cover up. Called an ‘assessment’ which they have ‘prepared’ you for [once again see how inmates were prepared in Abu Ghraib]. Not unlike the scenario above really.

      The legal protection of “suspect on reasonable grounds” (ie the “Criteria” set out in the Mental Health Act), no longer required now they have reworded the law to read “suspect on grounds THEY believe to be reasonable” (ie arbitrary detentions, with police used to ‘coerce’ the victims to speak, and then allow them to be ‘verballed’ on the statutory declarations. These then used for the purposes of uttering, whilst the victims family is fuking destroyed).

      So much for your right to complain huh? Australian Charter of Heath Care Rights lmao. Flagged on Police system for an automatic referral for “hallucinating” (ie thinking you have the right to complain to police about criminals, when they think they have retrieved the proof from you) should you dare have the proof. Your own ‘legal representative’ telling these people, ummm you might want to have another look before we look. There’s a little bit of “editing” to be done first.

      Consider, a lawyer you hire can keep information that you were ‘spiked’ and had a Community Nurse lie to police regarding your status to have them force you to speak at the point of a gun because ……… they have signed a confidentiality agreement with the State and know you will not get access to the information you were the victim of crime? Though I note the hospital did “edit” the fraudulent set of documents for them first, before providing them, despite the protections afforded by our Chief Psychiatrist of allowing legal representatives access to unredacted documents to protect human rights……… they couldn’t do that. Tell people they are using police for kidnappings and torture? You must be mad.

      Anyway, good comment I thought.

  3. The cynical believe that psychedelics are being set up to be the next big cash cow for the drug companies. They want to get into this market and need these substances legalized and studies showing them as beneficial in order to achieve that. Similar to the story of marijuana.

    Though I don’t know this is true, it is certainly a pattern we have seen with other “new” psychoactive drugs.

    Your point about Max Weber’s work is very well taken. My understanding of the situation is a bit extended by my interest in past life memory, but there is no doubt that the materialist sciences and their accompanying industries have turned “modern life” into a dull and pointless struggle for survival for many people.

    The Hindus DID have a valid view of life, though it was incomplete.

    In the end, I know with certainty that psychedelics will be no panacea and growth in their use will more than likely only lead to further problems. The way to spiritual growth is not through drugs, of that I am certain. And I see the most important path to mental health as being through spiritual growth.

  4. I am not usually a person to agree with a sociologist, as in Max Weber so noted in this article, but I do think there is a certain disenchantment incurred in an industrial society. Of course, now, I believe we have hyper-progressed in this electonic/technological society. However, we are still the same human beings we have always been. My personal opinion about psychadelics is that I am against their use. However, I also believe that it is not my right to interfere in another’s persons choice as to these or any drugs. Most of these drugs have been illegal, as least in the US for many years so that has been a prohibition for some against their use. Now, I am amazed that psychiatry, etc. is trying to utlize these drugs as “chemical therapy.” Perhaps, they intuitively, realize that the traditional they have used cause way too much trouble for so many. But, in my opinion, this, too is a dead end street. Of
    course, each person is an individual, but there are those of us who know that you do not necessarily need psychadelic drugs or any drugs for mind-altering experiences. For some, it can be achieved through meditation, ritual, etc. However, I know from experience, there are some who can call up a psychadelic-like experience with just so much as a thought. Just think of those classmates in school, you might have labeled as spacey or space cadets, etc. It’s kind of like the “I want what he/she has.” But the only way they can achieve it is to endanger themselves through the use of these drugs. And what is so odd is how all those “space cadets, etc.” do get bullied, criticized, etc. for behavior that comes naturally to them, but is eventually coveted by others but only achieved through psychadelic drugs. In my opinion, if something to be achieved must only occur through extraordinary methods, even though that could be damaging or dangerous, then it is up to that person to consider strongly his or her reasons for needing to do this. However, I am fearful that many psychiatrists, etc, may be so needful of a “quantifiable” result for insurance or other purposes, that those who are most vulnerable may be sacrifices on the altar not just for money but for our societal/cultural obsession with numbers and not human beings. Thank you.

  5. The scammers who got the old dude daffy, would have likely pulled their scam off had they known that B3 in multigram quantities would have put paid to his unpleasant states much more easily than a trip to the alleged funny farm. They wouldn’t even have to flee.

  6. Two cows standing in a field. One cow says to the other one…… “have you heard about this Mad Cow Disease?” And the other one replies “Yes, but I’m not worried about that because I’m a helicopter”

    I can see how psychedelic’s might work. lol

  7. There is so much wrong about this essay. Reminds me of the late 1960’s, when mass media was rife with stories about LSD trippers going blind from staring at the sun, or walking off roofs. Reefer Madness lives! Leary the hobgoblin! You cite an anecdote, about which you at least admit you know next to nothing, as a cautionary tale. The worst example of the correlation vs. causation humbug…what else might have been going on with this fellow?
    Charlatans abound in any field, including psychedelic-based therapy, as we are increasingly aware. We all must be cautious and respectful around issues of set, setting, dosage, our bodies, intent, et al.
    My USA state, Oregon, has embarked on a groundbreaking, thorough, multi-year citizen initiative-based journey toward psilocybin therapy involving a wide-ranging array of stakeholders. Let’s see how it goes.
    What we DON’T need is ill-informed, alarmist, self-contradictory nonsense. Like this essay.
    Cheers!

    • The problem with these drugs is not their side effects but the fact that they are based on a faulty model of the mind and spirit.

      The confusion about which model is correct leads to at least two camps warning against the use of psychoactive drugs: The ones who reject them only because they don’t work or have horrendous side effects and the ones who reject them because they are based on a false model of the mind.

      I would only reject your arguments because I don’t believe that we should use drugs to treat the psyche. From my point of view, those who do think it is OK to use drugs for “mental health” purposes can fight endlessly over which drugs are safe and effective. They’ll never really figure it out.

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