Is the psychedelic movement elitist?

by Katya Kowalski


There is no doubt that psychedelics hold incredible healing potential to treat mental illnesses. Their ability is so great, claims circulate that they can ‘cure’ conditions, a term almost unheard of in psychiatry.

The psychedelic movement has highlighted the vast benefits of these currently controlled substances, helping to liberalise and destigmatise them. It has particularly focused on the benefits of alternative treatment methods.

But has this come at the price of reinforcing stigma toward non-psychedelic drugs such as opioids?

Highlighting the treatment potential of psychedelics is important, but we shouldn’t be trading in one stigma for another.

Drug policy is faced with ‘black and white’ thinking from both sides of the political spectrum. Psychedelics have rightfully liberalised this space, broadening out the conversation that controlled substances have therapeutic elements.

But has this discussion shifted far enough to assume that psychedelics are inherently better than other drugs?  

This kind of exceptionalism has to be avoided.

Psychedelic exceptionalism is the ideology that less-harmful and less-addictive drugs are inherently better, safer and more desirable to use than other drugs (i.e. cannabis, psilocybin or ayahuasca). Whereas heroin, cocaine and alcohol can be seen as the polar opposite.

This exceptionalism stigmatises not only these drugs but the individuals that use them. It plays further into perpetuating the war on drugs ideology by labelling certain drugs as inherently better. The war on drugs suggests this with alcohol and tobacco being legal, drawing arbitrary lines around the legal status of drugs.

The psychedelic movement must distance itself from this.

Psychedelics must be rightfully acknowledged as incredible substances and tools for healing – but we shouldn’t act as if they are the exception.

Showcasing alternative medicine is promising, but it should come at the cost of disregarding a person’s choice of drug and what they choose to use for pain relief or medication.

This movement shouldn’t result in an either or approach, all of this can coexist. 

What needs to happen is ensure that the psychedelic movement looks to destigmatise all narcotics, not just certain ones. We shouldn’t be destigmatising one substance at the expense of another.

We know that drugs can have life changing impact on individuals – both positive and negative. This depends on set, setting and dosage. This is the key to understanding the inner workings of how each drug experience can lead to vastly different effects. However, individual differences are also an important factor here. For instance, recent research is beginning to show that some are genetically predisposed to developing psychosis as a result of cannabis. As psychedelic medicine becomes more mainstream, similar findings may emerge. Would this be a step back for the movement?

As we try so hard to fight the war on drugs, we need to ensure our ideologies don’t result in regressing back to it. All drugs have harms and benefits, so let’s not reinforce the idea that certain ones are better. Let’s get rid of drug elitism.

This piece was written by Katya Kowalski, Stakeholder Engagement Officer at Volteface. Tweets @KowalskiKatya

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