Truth or Consequences, D.E.A.
Plant medicines have unprecedented power to heal, but they're being kept from the people who need them most.
*Content warning: Contains descriptions of sexual assault.
“They think they can just do it to you,” she slurred, smoke escaping from the corner of her upper lip as it curled upwards over well-aligned canines. “They think they do whatever they want. But that’s rape, you know.”
I nodded and stared into her eyes, steel-blue and shining with tears, pools of bottomless pain that you could drown in. I still see it now: her pleading, pinched expression; the hopelessness behind it. She was gritty and determined, but tired; slowly succumbing, desperate to give up the fight. She pulled on the cigarette my host in Galway had rolled for her, spitting through gritted teeth, describing how nearly every sexual encounter she’d ever had had been involuntary.
The most recent experience was just weeks ago: walking home from the pub, an intruder pressed stiffly against her from behind. “The only reason it didn’t happen that time is because now I fight back,” she said, jabbing this point home with the cigarette pinched between two fingers. She described how she’d thrown her attacker to the ground, pinning him under one knee until she had the strength to run.
When I commended her for her bravery, she shook her head, blinking wet black tears. She didn’t like what this life was making her become, she said. She didn’t want to be someone who recoiled at another’s touch; whose pulse quickened self-defensively at approaching footfall. She wanted to feel pretty and be reciprocally desired, but these experiences had been robbed from her, and all she could do was mourn them.
I told her I was sorry that this had been her reality, but she didn’t want my pity, she just wanted the pain to stop. My companions hung back when she went to find her friends, but I stayed, because she needed someone to listen. I wanted to be the person for her that I wish had been there for me not many years ago, when I was in a similar emotional state. Her pain was my pain, her struggle my struggle, and it’s a struggle shared by nearly everyone who has inhabited a female, queer, or otherwise othered kind of body. I left her with my email address and told her to write. She probably won’t.
I walked home as fast as possible, head on a swivel, through the ghastly circus sideshow of an Irish closing time. These grim scenes are imprinted on my memory: loud lads spilling into the streets; girls in skin-tight dresses doubled over, dripping vomit on exposed breasts. How was this the same land where, just days before, I’d felt the healing power of the feminine in the forests, awed at windswept coastlines, and stood in sacred presence encircled by stones?
It’s not their fault; Ireland has its own problems, but here might as well be anywhere. Our cultures are quick to blame the substances themselves or ascribe their abuse to individual weakness—but in fact, these are absolutely natural reactions to the unnatural experience of living in a traumatized, patriarchal, late capitalist culture. There are no real solutions proposed to the various forms and consequences of abuse, no relief for lives routinely devastated, because these aren’t issues that those in power are forced to reckon with, and the status quo serves them quite well.
Yet solutions do exist: in psychedelic-assisted healing, there is hope where there once was darkness. I want nothing more than to take her by the hand and lead her to a psilocybin microdosing circle or an MDMA-assisted psychotherapy session; through such methods, people have been healed of afflictions that were once life sentences, from combat-induced PTSD to treatment-resistant depression. I want to wipe the mascara-streaked tears from cheeks, stroke the mousy blonde curls off her forehead, and whisper that it will all be okay.
But I can’t, because I don’t want to lie to her. These potentially lifesaving approaches are illegal, the current system built on disempowerment, learned helplessness, and fostered dependence. As long as modes of healing outside the medical-industrial model are either an elite commodity, with its barriers to entry, or forced underground, with its accompanying risks, their benefits will remain out of reach for people like my friend.
Even as some countries and U.S. states move toward decriminalizing and legalizing certain plant medicines, such as psilocybin, cannabis, and cannabidiol (CBD), the U.S. federal government is angling to move other consciousness-altering compounds further away. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has proposed that five tryptamines—4-OH-DiPT, 5-MeO-AMT, 5-MeO-MiPT, 5-MeO-DET and DiPT—be placed under Schedule I, the most restrictive classification of substances under U.S. law, which currently encompasses the classic psychedelics, from peyote to psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA, as well as cannabis. (These substances are restricted in a nearly identical way, using nearly identical language, in the UK, under Schedule I, Class A of the UK Misuse of Drugs Act.)
Schedule I substances are those denoted as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”—despite scores of clinical trials, research studies, and anecdotal accounts that point to exactly the opposite outcomes. This, in the face of psychedelic-assisted therapy helping people with terminal illnesses stare into the abyss and find peace; overcome catastrophic childhood trauma; and free themselves from lifelong addiction, sometimes after only a single experience, not to mention the deepened sense of spiritual connection that has drawn people to these substances since the dawn of time.
Thus, the DEA’s proposed rule, writes Derek T. Fraser for DoubleBlind, “flies in the face not only of medical science, but also the DEA’s own stated support for a White House proposal to ease research restrictions on substances already in Schedule I, as well as the Office of National Drug Control Policy directive to embrace harm reduction” (a set of policies and procedures that aim to mitigate negative consequences of substance abuse). It also contradicts the rhetoric of leaders who claim to value the lives of their most vulnerable constituents. If you truly want to promote the healing of those who both suffer and perpetuate violence against women and other underrepresented people, the exploration of entheogenic substances is an essential element.
Decriminalizing plant medicines could not only help those who are hurting, but promote practices and foster gathering places centered around cultures that are safer and more welcoming for women, queer people, and underrepresented folks, offering alternatives to bar, pub, and booze culture. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love a lot of things about beer, wine, and spirits, and believe that any substance can be used to either escape or to heal. Alcohol, like any other, can be a mechanism for artistic expression, inspiration, connection to the earth, and community-building—but it’s also a significant factor in violent crime all over the world, while cannabis and psychedelics share no such links.
The drive to connect with each other and what’s beyond through consciousness-altering substances is universal; as Alexander and Ann Shulgin write in “PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story,” the needs to alleviate pain, gain energy, and kickstart inspiration are just as natural, expressed through relationships between people and plants in nearly every culture—from opium to henbane, alcohol to ibogaine, maté to cocaine—and historically, only a small percentage of the population have abused these sources. They help us explore the connections to our inner selves and forces larger; tryptamines, the class of psychedelic compounds that includes psilocybin and LSD, are a molecular key that fits into the lock of our neurotransmitters, quieting our mental chatter and opening a direct line to the divine. When entered into with the right intention, they can reveal the nature of reality as infinite, loving, and interconnected.
Diana Bazer, an avowed atheist who described her psychedelic experience as being “bathed in God’s love,” inspired Michael Pollan to write the article and book that helped foster the current psychedelic renaissance. Alexander Shulgin writes that through his own explorations with the entire range of consciousness-altering compounds, “I have experienced, however briefly, the existence of God. I have felt a sacred oneness with creation and its Creator, and—most precious of all—I have touched the core of my own soul.”
And that’s exactly why those in positions of power have sought to repress them. The greatest trick that capitalism ever pulled was convincing us that salvation, from spiritual to psychological, comes only through intermediaries. Psychedelics offer direct experience of the divine, and that is a direct threat to the status quo.
The systems that dictate our relationships with psychedelics, Shulgin says, are paternalistic and prejudiced, designed to accumulate and concentrate power in the hands of a few—and they use racism and fearmongering to manipulate public perceptions. The same culture that champions individual sovereignty has “seen fit to try to eliminate this one very important means of learning and self-discovery,” he adds, “this means which has been used, respected, and honored for thousands of years, in every human culture of which we have a record.”
Today, these substances have been demonized and repressed to such an effective degree that even other proponents of consciousness-altering—including many in the food and beverage community—react with revulsion, fear, or ridicule at the mention of psychedelics, and dismiss or denigrate cannabinoid-centered culture. So far, patriarchal culture has largely succeeded in keeping us separate from not only spiritual connection, but each other and the natural world.
I wanted to tell that Irish lass healing is within her grasp; that she doesn’t have to wake each morning with the apparitions of attackers in her head and walk home with her hands balled in fists each night. I wanted to direct her to the means of discovering her inner truth and the divine light that animates us all, buried beneath so much culturally accumulated detritus. I wanted her to see her radiance, feel her beauty, and be free. But I didn’t want to lie to her. I had no way to connect her with the healing she needed in that place and time under these political, legal, and cultural conditions.
Yet there are glimmers of hope on the horizon: Medicinal ketamine is now legal in the U.S.; Oregon and Washington, D.C. have decriminalized certain forms of plant medicine and therapies, and other U.S. municipalities are making similar moves. London mayor Sadiq Khan reportedly plans to decriminalize class B substances, including cannabis, and opponents of the DEA’s proposed rule have been granted a hearing. In the meantime, psychedelic research is ongoing at places like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and Imperial College London—and those of us who have found healing through psychedelic medicines must continue to speak.
Standing beside her as the night turned into day, listening as her suffering gave voice, I was also ministering to my younger self. As Ram Dass said, “we’re all just walking each other home,” and I hope that, if only for a night, it helped her to feel seen. Maybe, one day, there will be another way. For now, all we can do is keep walking, hoping we’ll find the place where we can rest.