Drugs and the Mind (1963)
Date: Saturday, November 24 @ 23:38:25 UTC
Topic: Ceremonies & Sacraments
DRUGS AND THE MIND
When Aldous Huxley published his essay "The Doors of Perception" in 1954, he did much to publicize the effects of a very strange drug. "Mescaline," he wrote," admits one to an other-world of light, color, and increased awareness. In some cases there may be extrasensory perceptions. Other persons discover a world of visionary beauty. To others again is revealed the glory, the infinite value and meaningfulness of naked existence. . . ."
By the time Huxley got to try it, mescaline had been studied as a medical curiosity for some thirty years. Peyote, the tiny cactus from which it is obtained, had been known for centuries; it had been worshipped as a god by the ancient Aztecs. Indians of the Rio Grande region took up the use of peyote for narcotic effect, and the practice quickly spread northward until, in the twentieth century it reached tribes in such far-flung places as Wisconsin. So widespread was its consumption that the Bureau of Indian Affairs tried to suppress it in the 1920's, and with the passage of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938, the government was empowered to seize shipments of the cactus crossing state lines.
Peyote has always been important in the religious ceremonies of the tribes that use it, even of those that have converted to Christianity. The Native American Church - a sect with several thousand Indian members - even makes ritual use of peyote buttons as communion wafers in a Christian service. Because of the sacramental significance of the cactus, the government has never been able to control peyote as rigorously as it does marihuana, a plant whose effects on the mind are not too different. As recently as 1960, for instance, an Arizona state law prohibiting possession of peyote was successfully contested on the grounds that it abridged Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.
Since the publication of Huxley's article, non-Indians in large numbers - especially artists, writers, and students - have begun to use peyote and its active principle, mescaline. In addition, other similar drugs have become available: LSD, originally extracted from a fungus attacking rye; psilocybin, the narcotic substance present in several species of Mexican mushrooms; and dimethyltryptamine, a short-acting synthetic. Collectively, these are the hallucinogens or "hallucination-producing" drugs. None of them is addictive, and the bulk of medical evidence supports the assertion that none of them is physically dangerous.
The legal status of these compounds is confused. Peyote is classed as "habit-forming" in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (though, in fact, it is not), and shipments of it may be confiscated if they are not properly marked with warnings of this classification. Mescaline, psilocybin, and LSD, however, have been relegated to the twilight area of "new drugs" - substances not thoroughly studied and therefore available only to "qualified" investigators. The law does not define the adjective.
Physicians and most law enforcement agents urge that "qualified" be taken to mean "qualified by possession of the M.D. degree," since, they claim, the medical safety of the drugs has not been conclusively demonstrated. Even if mescaline, psilocybin, and LSD are not physically harmful, they argue, there is reason to believe that they can aggravate latent mental disorders or precipitate psychotic reactions. Yet most of today's investigators of the hallucinogens are not doctors; they are, instead, psychologists, artists, and theologians, most of whom have made spectacular claims for the compounds. These people tell us that the drugs are keys to religious understanding, accessible means of attaining mystical insights and self-fulfillment, powerful tools in psychotherapy, and so forth. They further charge that attempts to make the drugs available only to medical doctors stem from Western society's reluctance to admit that genuine spiritual experiences may be had through drugs.
The issues raised by the availability of these chemicals can no longer be ignored. By now, hundreds of people have taken one or another of the hallucinogens and reported their adventures. A large black market in the drugs has sprung up, particularly in university communities. More and more non-scientists are trying to start research projects on "consciousness expansion" with psilocybin or LSD, and the national press is beginning to take notice of their work. Before very long, therefore, the Food and Drug Administration will have to define the vague points of the law under which it operates. If it decides to place the hallucinogens under tight controls, there will be violent protests from all of the groups interested in using the drugs for non-medical purposes. If it allows the present investigations of consciousness expansion to continue, there will be equally loud protests from doctors and law enforcers.
It is especially fitting that a Harvard magazine present a discussion of hallucinogenic drugs because Harvard has been a center of controversy over them. Very many students and officers of the University are keenly interested in the drugs, and surprisingly many have actually taken them. Last year, LSD-impregnated sugar cubes sold for one dollar apiece on the Harvard Square black market. This year, mescaline and psilocybin may both be had, though at prices well above their value in legal trade. In December, 1962, Harvard found it necessary to warn undergraduates that the taking of hallucinogens "may result in serious hazard to the mental health and stability even of apparently normal persons." The psilocybin research of two members of the Faculty - Timothy F. Leary and Richard Alpert - has caused bitter disagreement over the acceptability of such non-medical work with drugs in the University. This research also aroused so much public attention that the Food and Drugs Division of the Massachusetts Public Health Department launched an inquiry into the activities of Leary and Alpert. The two men decided to separate their research from Harvard last spring, and accordingly established the International Foundation for Internal Freedom - a private corporation - in which to continue their studies. Applications by I.F.I.F. personnel for permission to obtain and distribute drugs to interested groups have raised complicated questions which existing laws seem unable to answer.
THE HARVARD REVIEW has assembled articles on several aspects of hallucinogens: from the purely botanical to the medical and metaphysical. Together these articles represent the views of most of the groups involved in the disputes over the drugs: psychologists, artists, students, doctors, and theologians. The editors of the REVIEW are not necessarily committed to the opinions of any of these groups; they have published the following articles to provide information on a timely and important issue.
- ANDREW T. WEIL
Source: Harvard Review, Summer 1963
This was the introduction to that publication.