Updated: Apr 14
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As already mentioned, psychedelics have a long history in our world. They were part of ancient Greece and Judea, where the roots of our civilization lie. Yet in the 5th Century A.D., they were banned. Why did that happen? A new world order, patriarchal and Christian, got consolidated in Europe, and this new world order considered psychedelics as heathen, demonic, and of the domain of female witches.
Fast forward sixteen centuries: psychedelics were re-discovered in the second half of the twentieth century. And their come back was spectacular. In no time psychedelic experimentation and research boomed. In twenty years more than 1000 clinical papers discussing 40000 patients treated with psychedelics for different psychological afflictions appeared, as also several dozen books. International conferences on psychedelic therapy took place. Recreational use boomed too.
And a sinister use of them made its entrance right from the beginning, in 1953: the CIA MK Ultra program, with tests with high doses of psychedelics to manipulate the minds of the subjects of the experiments.
MK ULTRA was stopped in 1973 and most files, but not all, were destroyed. Three years ago, in 2018, was the last hearing related to declassified documents. Thus, intense academic research with promising therapeutic applications, cultural upheavals set off by the young generation questioning the norms and values of their parents, and dark experiments with mind manipulation and torture were going on.
Quite abruptly, after only twenty years since their re-discovery, in 1971, governments prohibited these substances. Why were they again forbidden? Not because they were heathen, belonging to the devil, as in the fourth century A.D. The argument was this time that they represent a danger for public health, equal to heroin and opium.
The CIA mind control activities were kept under wraps. What were the dangers? There had been accidents. People thought under their influence that they can fly, and jumped to their death from high buildings. There had been overdose cases requiring medical treatment.
Yet the main reason was political: under the mind-expanding influence of psychedelics, people, especially young people, questioned aspects of society, and rejected to participate in some of them, as the war in Vietnam, and the double sexual moral.
For the next decades governments in many countries of the world, not only in the USA and Europe, waged the “war on drugs.” They declared that psychedelics are means of perdition, leading to madness, brain damage, crimes, and death. All research was stopped and thousands of people landed in prison.
Today psychedelics are still illegal in most countries. People are still imprisoned if they are caught possessing them. But during the last twenty years, we are seeing on a massive scale their come back in Europe and USA, in academia and in society at large. Nowadays we see an explosive psychedelic renaissance.
Internet and cheap flights play their role in it. On one side they are illegal, in the broad public eye still considered dangerous and bad. On the other side, they are present in psychiatry, psychology, neurobiology, psychotherapy and medicine, in self-medication, in philosophy, in religion and spirituality, in recreation, in venture capitalism, and in the tourist industry.
Make no mistake, psychiatric research units in universities wait two to five years for approval to administer these substances a limited number of times to patients with a psychiatric or physical diagnosis, under medical supervision. But universities can forward the application and the application is more often than not approved.
They are administered as chemical compounds stimulating the serotonergic system in the brain, similar to antidepressants, only puzzling more effective. Parallel with the intensive academic research, there is a very high underground consumption of psychedelics. The Dutch Trimbos Institute has communicated that in the Netherlands alone, about three thousand people consume a psychedelic every weekend.
People take them as self-medication for depression and other forms of mental suffering; for spiritual evolution; for psychological self-knowledge; as a sacrament in a religious practice; for recreation; or out of curiosity.
Often the goals blur and merge into each other. All in all, it is a buoyant and also perilous undertaking. Perils and pitfalls because the Western world does not have, as indigenous people do, an old, established tradition of using mind-expanding substances as an integral part of life.
Let us have a look at the state of these substances in indigenous cultures, who do have an uninterrupted history of using them, in spite of much persecution during colonial and forced religious conversion times.
In indigenous cultures around the world, these substances are sacred. For these peoples, according to their tradition, they are divine. They are physical manifestations of gods and goddesses who take the form of plants to teach and heal. They are not psychedelics but entheogens.
Psychedelics manifest the psyche, the mind. Entheogens manifest the spirit, the divine spirit. They are used in sacred rituals preserved from generation to generation, led by people trained over decades. They are used in sacred ceremonies to initiate community members into adulthood and the death and rebirth process, to heal, to journey to and communicate with realms of existence beyond the earthly, for divination, and more.
Yet the use of entheogen in indigenous cultures is too not devoid of a dark side. They can, and are, used to harm enemies, by conjuring powers conceived as spirits who cause illnesses or even death.
We thus have, concerning psychedelics, a spectrum from the divine to the demoniac. From healing to harming. From mind liberation to mind control. From bringing up and amplifying conscious and unconscious contents of the own psyche to possessing their own individual power. And in between as medicines influencing a specific system in the brain.
Donca Vianu is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. She offers individual counseling and guidance for integration processes. You can follow her work through her Youtube channel and watch the video version of this article here.