The pitfalls of legalizing (and commercializing) entheogens

Ayahuasca and other entheogenic substances have gained widespread interest in the Western world as potential therapeutic agents for healing a wide spectrum of biological, mental, and spiritual diseases. In the United States, psilocybin (the active psychoactive substance in “magic mushrooms”) and MDMA have been given FDA “breakthrough therapy” status for treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, respectively, while ketamine infusion therapies are being used for treatment of PTSD and chronic pain. Meanwhile, many opiate addicts are seeking reprieve in ibogaine, whose effects include elimination of acute opiate withdrawal symptoms and abatement of post-acute withdrawal symptoms (1). The use of ayahuasca for spiritual growth and to address issues like depression and addiction also continues to rapidly grow, both generally and post-ibogaine.

The irony that these psychedelic substances -- which have been demonized by governments, public policy, and the medical system itself for the last 50 years as dangerous and of no medical utility -- would have the potential to be wonder treatments for conditions that until now have been largely characterized as untreatable or at best manageable, should remain at the forefront of anyone’s mind who chooses to use them.

The type of research being done to promote these tools in the biomedical community and to generate interest from pharmaceutical investment does not properly address how the “psychedelic experience” and high entropy brain states that follow are best leveraged through proper psychotherapeutic support and the sustained, individualized effort toward actualizing their healing potential.

In short, the push to place these adjunctive therapeutic tools into medical legitimacy seems to be largely funneled into pharmaceutical pre-marketing strategies versus a comprehensive picture of how healing with these substances occurs. Lastly, it seems that the government’s agenda of developing sleek, marketable drugs (FDA “breakthrough status” was given for the compound psilocybin, not the mushrooms that contain psilocybin) will limit their access to those who can afford the treatments versus those who are most in need or those most likely to make use of their benefits.  

As potential consumers of these substances, we need to avoid the temptation to identify these compounds as quick-fix medication and look at them as catalyzing agents toward understanding the provenance of our individual “dis-ease.”  For many of us, the origins of our individual disease process are directly related to our programmed worldview and prevailing level of self-awareness. The process of integrating, practicing, and utilizing the information gleaned from the entheogenic experience is where the work and the healing begins. Ayahuasca itself does not heal (parasitic illness are an exception); psilocybin itself does not heal.

These substances will generally reveal to us where our “illness” is rooted, show us the path to healing, and maybe kick us a little ways down the path. The rest of the healing process depends on our willingness and consistent effort to walk through the resolution of traumas, release stuck energies or emotions, and move toward disentanglement with our perceived illness. In other words, the ingested substance is at best 20% of the solution (I’m not discounting the therapeutic benefit of a profound mystical experience here); we are the remaining 80% of the solution.

As with many of our deepest challenges, adaptive change is only achieved through steady, sustained effort and proper support.  If we buy into the pharmaceutical industry marketing of expecting a quick fix or relief of symptoms with minimal to no effort on our part, we will most likely not experience the full capacity for the intrinsic self-healing power that these compounds want us to find.

References:

1) Alper, K., Brown, TK. (2018) Treatment of opioid use disorder with ibogaine: detoxification and drug   use outcomes. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Use: 44, 24-36