VolteFace are excited to be co-hosting an event with The Psychedelic Society: ‘The Legal Regulation of Psychedelics’ on the 17th December at Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL.
In a piece originally published on his blog, writer David Charles relives a lost psychedelic adventure in the Dutch countryside, and ruminates on the benefits of responsible tripping.
Imagine the scene. You’re on holiday with a big group of people you don’t know too well. The twelve of you hired a huge house in the countryside, sharing rooms to split the cost. You’ve been sunbathing on cushions in the garden, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of summer, drifting away in a meditation on beauty.
At some point, somebody brought you a glass of water and a hummus, avocado, spinach and tomato sandwich on continental dark bread. You weren’t too hungry at the time, so only ate half the sandwich, leaving the remainder on the plate to dry in the hot sun. You drained the glass of water, grateful because you’d left your water bottle upstairs.
An hour or so later, you decide to return to the attic bedroom you share, for a lie down in the shade. As you poke your head through the attic trapdoor, you see the following, in series: a collection of cushions arranged around the sun-trap window overlooking the garden you’ve just left; a plate bearing a half finished hummus, avocado, spinach and tomato sandwich on continental dark bread; and a half full bottle of water – your bottle of water. You can’t help but be overtaken by the odd sensation that you’ve just entered a scene you only recently vacated: the same meditative garden view, the same sandwich, and your bottle of water.
Life is full of leaping gaps. In this case, the leap is across the gap between the evidence before your eyes and the indisputable knowledge that you did not in fact recently vacate this room. So you make a leap and reconstruct the most likely story.
The cushions were most probably arranged there by your room-mate who, just like you, wanted to look out over the beautiful summer garden. Just like you, he became thirsty in the hot sun and, not wanting to leave his meditative perch, cast around for water. Then he saw your water bottle. You imagine him in that moment, twisted in his sitting position, caught in a deliberation: would you mind his drinking from your bottle? No, he decides: you’d understand.
You’re surprised, as you stand there in the trapdoor taking in the scene, that you’re grateful to your room-mate. You’re grateful that your water bottle could be there for him in his moment of thirst and that you could share with him the fundamental gift of water. But most of all you’re grateful that, despite only meeting the evening before, he showed steadfast faith in your generosity of spirit.
You walk up the last remaining steps and lie down on the bed, still looking at the scene: the arrangement of cushions, the sandwich and the water. A peace descends and you find yourself switching easily between the two perspectives on the scene. There’s yourself, unwittingly generous giver of water, and your room-mate, grateful receiver of water. Then it strikes you that both of you have been generous, for there is no gift without gracious acceptance. That’s why we ‘give’ thanks, you think to yourself: gratitude is itself a gift.
But you realise that there is a third perspective. Just as they had with you in the garden, someone, presumably the same someone, had thoughtfully prepared and delivered to your meditative room-mate an identical hummus, avocado, spinach and tomato sandwich on continental dark bread. As your heart begins to beat in a revelation of loving connectedness you feel an urge to complete this circle of gratitude. Your clamorous stomach awakes and you leap to your feet, walk to the cushions and fall upon the half-finished sandwich in glorious appreciation. The gift is completely consumed and the third perspective, the selfless sandwich maker, acknowledged in full.
The closing image of this scene is of you gratefully polishing off someone else’s sandwich. It’s an act infused with symbolism and indicates that, perhaps for the first time in your life, you fully comprehend exactly how much love goes into leaping the gaps that separate us as independent human beings. Next time, you promise the universe, you will be the one making the sandwich.
For me, the preceding scene sums up the enduring psychedelic experience, far more than tessellating visions of geometry, wise faces in wind-blown trees and melting roundabout rides. The psychedelic experience was one of connectedness, a dissolution of the narrative voice that we hear in our heads that seeks to separate our shared encounters with this world, to divide the I from the Us, the Mine from the Ours.
Psychedelics are illegal in the UK, and throughout most of the world. Psychedelic mushrooms are Class A drugs, a classification reserved for pharmaceuticals deemed to be of no known medical or therapeutic value and bearing a high risk of abuse. The crime of possession carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. The recent Psychoactive Substances Act extends that threat to cover the possession of anything that ‘affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state’. In its current form, the Act could be used to outlaw incense, perfume and flowers. Alcohol, caffeine and tobacco are exempted, as our prisons overflow with florists.
What we need are not more fear-provoked and fear-provoking legal bans, but mature, informed encounters with drugs, therapies and medicines that have such potential to create profound, mystical-type experiences of the world. Encounters such as the one extended to me by The Psychedelic Society: one timeless weekend in a rented house in Amsterdam.
We stood in a circle in the garden, sun shining on our faces, feet bare in the grass. Nine of us were there for the ‘experience’ and for most it was to be our first psychedelic trip. Guiding us through the encounter were three experienced sitters from The Psychedelic Society. Their job was to stay sober and use their wisdom and love to support us through whatever might arise: hunger, thirst, trauma and ecstasy. In turn around the circle, each of us shared our emotions, fears and intentions for the trip. Some expressed nervous anxiety, others were thrilling with anticipation. I felt ready to accept whatever was to come with an open mind. Not too open, though. I was keen to explore the sensations of ego-dissolution that I had read about, but I was not prepared to go deep into trauma therapy and I wanted to trip alone, feeling my own way through the experience.
Besides the dose, there are two important factors in determining your variety of psychedelic trip: set and setting. Set is what we shared in that circle: our internal psychological environment prior to the trip. Setting is the external physical environment you will be tripping in. The house where we stayed felt like a four-storey mansion squeezed into a cosy bungalow, sitting in pleasant grounds by the side of a canal in a commuter satellite of Amsterdam. It had been chosen for its comfort and the double-height downstairs living area was scattered with sofas, armchairs, pillows and cushions. Off to one side was a Japanese style dining chamber, to the other a jacuzzi. The hosts were clearly used to having tourists coming here to take advantage of the psychedelic loopholes for which Amsterdam is famous. A sound system bathed the whole space with music designed for an Imperial College medical trial exploring the therapeutic uses of psychedelics for people with depression.
After a sage blessing, we enter the house in thoughtful silence and, one by one, brew a lemon, ginger and honey tea. When the water has cooled, we add 22g of strong Psilocybe Hollandia truffles. This will contain enough psilocybin to trip, but the exact quantity isn’t verifiable. The Dutch legal loophole that permits the sale of truffles doesn’t extend to extracting the psychoactive psilocybin compound, so we can’t dose precisely. Some of the more experienced, or adventurous, members of the group also take a capsule of Syrian Rue, an enzyme inhibitor that prevents the breakdown of tryptamines, including the psilocin that makes us trip, thereby deepening and extending the experience.
I drain the first infusion. Some people experience stomach cramps: that’s why we make the tea with ginger. I feel the first tinglings of a high, but it’s no more than a strong cup of coffee. I prepare a second infusion. I try to suppress my laughter, like I’m in a library, watching a bunch of strangers trying to keep it together, while everything dissolves around us. As my vision begins to fragment and my fingers lose their precision, I dig the truffle fragments from the bottom of my glass and chew them down. Then I lie back.
The first indication that anything might be amiss is when I see how the wind in the trees becomes a woodsman with a moustache talking to me through the window. I can’t hear his words, and it’s no more remarkable than an optical illusion or imagining the man in the moon. I’m still able to switch between reality and dream. It feels as though my blood is flowing engorged through my veins, somehow closer to the skin surface that usual. My heart seems to centre itself in my throat while a dull ache ties itself into my stomach. At precisely the right moment, I stand up and make my way into the garden, just about holding it together. I lie down in the grass, put on my eye mask and immediately disintegrate.
My upbringing was most definitely drug-negative. I went to a school where ‘drugs’ were for drop-outs, all illegal pharmaceuticals trawled and dumped in the same drag-net of mystery and fear. I never knew for sure whether my friends and family had taken psychedelics, and I had certainly never been in a situation where I could have taken any – and I’m fairly certain I would have refused if I had been offered.
Fear began to mutate into curiosity when, in my thirties, I first met people who were both well-adjusted and regular psychedelic users. Indeed, these people weren’t just well-adjusted, they were in many ways better-adjusted than I. Through them, I learnt that behind the fearful media image of psychedelics there was both science and history, which could, if we allowed, contribute to a much more mature and complete awareness of psychoactive compounds. Psychedelics have been used as both medicine and spiritual guide by humans for thousands of years and to dismiss such compounds as of ‘no known medical or therapeutic value and bearing a high risk of abuse’ seems to me at best an act of gross arrogance, at worst gross negligence.
After the hysteria of the 1971 global shut-down on scientific psychedelic experimentation, the doors are once again creeping open. Recent academic studies have found that responsible psychedelic treatment can help war veterans recover from post-traumatic stress disorder, patients with advanced cancer diagnoses face death, and addicts overcome their drug, tobacco and alcohol dependencies in cases where years of conventional treatment have failed.
For those of us mercifully free of serious addiction or severe trauma, Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins University led a 2008 study into the power of psychedelics to occasion mystical-type experiences. More than half of the 36 people involved in the study, none of whom had ever taken psychedelics before, found that just one session with psilocybin was enough to rank inside their top five most personally meaningful experiences of their entire lives. This remained true fourteen months after the psychedelic was taken. Almost two-thirds concluded that this one psilocybin session had increased their sense of well-being moderately or very much, again with the results undimmed over a year later. If this is news to you, then imagine my astonishment when I learnt that as long ago as 1991, psychologist Rick Doblin found that seven theological seminary students reported similar results – deeply felt positive mood and persisting positive changes in attitude and behaviour – twenty-five years after their only encounter with psilocybin.
Eight years ago I was diagnosed with an under active thyroid and my doctor told me that I’d have to take synthetic hormones every day for the rest of my life. Over the first few months of taking these drugs, what I’d call my personality changed dramatically. I went from being comatose calm, cold even beside the radiator, sleepy-headed and slothful, to being energetic, carefree and ready to devour the life that had gone missing with my dying thyroid. As the absurdity of our gaoled florists shows, all substances have psychoactive effects: everyone buzzes after strawberries and cream, and crashes with the sugar come-down. The only question is whether the balance of psychoactive effects make the drug valuable to the user. Thyroxine, for me, unequivocally answers the question in the positive; though nominally legal, it would probably kill you.
Exactly one year ago, I became a vegetarian. My energy levels dropped through the floor: I just couldn’t eat enough. On day five I felt on the verge of dizzy collapse and had to roam the streets at night begging for vitamin pills. I gradually recovered, but over the following six months I lost four kilograms in weight. This caused a knock-on effect to my medication, flipping my thyroid into over activity. This imbalance led to anxiety, irritability, sensitivity to heat, fatigue and insomnia. Whether we are aware or not, our biological and psychological well-being is in lock-step with all organic matter – food, drug, drink – we ingest. The unnatural dichotomy between legal and illegal drugs is a distinction that I see as increasingly arbitrary and untenable. In my opinion, it would be shocking negligence indeed to dismiss the exploration of entheogens that human beings have used for millennia to explore the buried riches of our psyche and the furthest dimensions of the universe.
Don’t Panic. There is no established scientific link between taking psychedelic drugs and either physical or psychological health problems. Psychedelics are extremely low in toxicity: it is far easier to overdose on paracetamol, which is deadly in quantities you can pick up in any supermarket. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, there has never been a recorded overdose of psychedelics and, in a comprehensive review of the literature in 1984, psychiatrist Rick Strassman found that “well controlled studies of neuropsychological function have generally failed to discern significant differences between groups of LED users and controls”. Two 2015 surveys with a combined population of over 300,000 people found that users of psychedelics were no more likely to suffer from mental health problems than anyone else. Quite the opposite, in fact: one of the surveys, of 190,000 people, found that “[l]ifetime classic psychedelic use was associated with a significantly reduced odds of past month psychological distress”, suicidal thinking and planning, and suicide attempt. One team of researchers conclude that “it is difficult to see how prohibition of psychedelics can be justified as a public health measure.” In other words: if you are a healthy adult, you have nothing to fear from responsible psychedelic drug use.
It would be easy to screw up. We are entering a delicate phase in our cultural appreciation of psychedelics. As the scientific community is finally permitted to resume sober examination of the potentially remarkable therapeutic and personal development uses of psychedelic drugs, there is a responsibility on all of us to educate ourselves and re-awaken a mature awareness of this precious treasure from our more enlightened past. While the establishment BBC airs a TV series on the tribal and traditional use of psychedelics in religions including Christianity, we must remember that it was only in 2008 that the Netherlands made magic mushrooms illegal. The psychedelic truffles we ingested are only legally available in so-called Smart Shops (€25 per trip) because they were (probably by accident) left off the schedule of banned substances. Politicians very rarely lead; they react.
During this delicate phase, the work of organisations like The Psychedelic Society is vital to connect the strengths of the scientific academy with individual experiential knowledge and us. Only when we have taken personal responsibility and shown our courage, knowledge and maturity will politicians be able to find the courage, knowledge and maturity to change the laws we live by. The signs are promising, but – as the enduring 1971 global ban shows – it would be easy to screw up.
One of the beauties of the psychedelic experience is that you are entirely lucid throughout: everything you see, feel and do, you can remember and bring back to earth afterwards. That’s what makes psychedelics so useful for therapists treating anxiety, post-traumatic stress, addiction or depression: the patient can face their pathologies in a very physical and experiential way. There is no sense that my visions are unreal or that my thoughts and imaginings are fantasies: I can reach out and touch them and return home with them if I choose.
The first hour or so of my trip is spent rolling around on the grass, watching the light play with kaleidoscopic colours and geometry. I laugh at the absurdity of my internal narrative voice and watch as ‘I’ play whack-a-mole with the different voices of ‘myself’, squashing each one, only for another to arise. ‘Outside of this eternity,’ I write, ‘there is a me to wake up to. And who do I wantthat to be?’ There’s a lot of underlining in my notebook, as the words land with weight on the page.
At some point, one of the facilitators brings me out a sandwich. ‘Are you hungry?’ the voice says. ‘I’ve made you a sandwich. I’ll leave it here for when you’re ready to eat.’ I thank him distantly. Time and space has lost its meaning. Audio turns to visuals. The sound of a rustling in the shrubbery behind me turns into a family of rabbits, or a squirrel who snuggles to me for warmth. The harder I close my eyes, the more the universe turns purple. Later (whatever that means), I notice the sandwich beside me and eat half, leaving the remainder on the plate to dry in the hot sun. I gulp down the water someone has left for me.
Gripping my notebook like a life-buoy as the world swirls around me, I try writing down some of the realisations that arrive as I overhear other people talking. ‘Everyone’s on their own trip, but we’re all together,’ I note. ‘It’s frustrating because we’re not all as connected as we are.’ Then: ‘We share a memory.’ And: ‘Understanding each other is hard. So just listen.’ It feels like the veil of what we call reality has fallen away: I see that we are a unified, mysterious us – an us that includes each soul in its human body, but also each thread of consciousness in the plants and the planets – and we are all, in every moment, co-creating the universe.
After this peak experience of visionary revelation is over, I manage to stand up. I make my way slowly up the stairs to the attic room I share. As I poke my head through the trapdoor, I see the following, in series: a collection of cushions arranged around the sun-trap window overlooking the garden I’ve just left; a plate bearing a half finished hummus, avocado, spinach and tomato sandwich on continental dark bread; and a half full bottle of water – my bottle of water. I can’t help but be overtaken by the odd sensation that I’ve just entered a scene I only recently vacated: the same meditative garden view, the same sandwich, and my bottle of water. Finally, I understand the depth of gratitude we feel towards each other for sharing the bounty of consciousness with all of us.
The weekend ended exactly the way it should: slicing tomatoes, cooking spinach and spreading hummus on bread. Making sandwiches for others.