Risks of Love
Part one of a four-part series.
Everything I have ever learned about psychedelics has depended upon the willingness of people to take risks.
There is a reason psychedelic explorers have been called “psychonauts” and not “psychoccountants.” Besides that whole legality thing, there has never been psychedelic insurance because psychedelics users have been their own actuaries, doing their best guesswork of the risks in real-time with limited information.
First were the ancient humans who played plant roulette until trialed error became discovered relationships, cultivated to this day through Indigenous tribes. From a Western perspective, you had the Wassons and the McKennas of the world taking the risk to visit these unknown-to-them cultures, unsure of what they would find but daring to go nonetheless. Of course, there have been many happy accidents like Albert Hoffman’s chemical serendipity, but then he took the risk to take it again, and then took the risk to report what he found as honestly as he could.
The '50s and '60s became one big cultural dice-roll that drew snake eyes, leading to the underground era of the past 50 years. These generations risked their time, reputation, sanity, and sometimes, a piece of their soul. Some of these adventurers even drilled literal holes in their head and lived to lead psychedelic research foundations. It is only natural that they should attempt to finally lower the legal risk for themselves. It is also only natural that their survivorship bias might make them mistaken for exactly how lucky they are.
So despite hazy hypotheses around the ancient use of psychedelics and the paths trod by the Indigenous, every contemporary Westerner who has ever taken a psychedelic has been something of a pioneer, for profit or peril, wittingly or un-. Even modern clinical trial participants have taken risks into the unknown of a live hypothesis. In the most optimum conditions, every contemporary psychonaut is still history’s psycheguinea pig: as Dr. Roland Griffiths said after his latest trial, “People will go psychotic. People will die.”
Every generation of humans owes a debt to ancestors who took risks and lived to tell about it. Whether psychedelic in nature or any kind of experimentation beyond the bounds of certainty, transparently “safety third” risks on behalf of others are humanity at its best. They are risks of love.
However, the most dogmatic of psychedelic believers have often avoided taking one important kind of risk: the risk to tell the whole truth.
Why Not Lie?
Q: Why did you write Food of the Gods?
I felt if I could change the frame of the argument and get drugs insinuated into a scenario of human origins, then I would cast doubt on the whole paradigm of Western Civilization, in the same way that realizing that we came from monkeys did a great deal to re-set the dials in the 19th Century Victorian mind. If you could convince people that drugs were responsible for the emergence of large brain size and language, then you could completely re-cast the argument from: "Drugs are alien, invasive and distorting to human nature" to: "Drugs are natural, ancient and responsible for human nature." So it was consciously propaganda.
By all accounts from a generation older than me, Terrence McKenna was the guy for psychedelic theorizing, a subcultural rock star. By now, McKenna’s popularity may be eclipsed by his memetic “stoned ape hypothesis,” which posits that the swift evolution of the human brain could have been caused by our primate ancestors eating mushrooms. He advanced this in Food of the Gods, a book that for many is part of the psychedelic canon.
Much less well-known than this hypothesis is his above admission that it was intentionally crafted as feel-good countercultural sophistry. Unfortunately, I have come to believe that this deceptive strategy is closer to precedent than exception.
The impulse of psychedelic leadership to craft sellable narratives is often rationalized, if not quite justified, by the virtue of self-defense. Psychonauts did not start or even name the so-called “War on Drugs.” War is hell, and all warfare includes information warfare. If the state has told half-truths to justify imprisonment, the psychedelic shadow has been to tell half-truths back out of seeking freedom to explore in peace—perhaps not cognitive peace, for this can be a volatile business, but peace of mind that the state will not jail you for seeking new avenues of consciousness.
So why not lie?
One simple reason is because the willingness to tell the truth, no matter how inconvenient, is the difference between generations of psychonauts giving the world useful information versus selling the world a bunch of bullshit (I will be discussing more in the future, but for now, here’s an article with some examples).
Another simple reason is because—as anyone remotely plugged into this world now knows—that bullshit includes the inexcusable lack of taking responsibility and accountability for sexual abuse, tossing out organized religion while retaining the worst feature of it.
Even under the shadow of prohibition, even in an era when McKenna’s “conscious propaganda” would turn into popular theory, I believe there used to be a more honest—if not always connected to reality—psychonaut conversation.
Am I delusional for believing it used to be better? I’ll admit, I’ve never been deeply plugged into psychedelic boards like The Shroomery or the DMT Nexus, and I didn’t begin seeking professional conversations until around 2018. When I first began seeking information about psychedelics, I perused erowid.org and other random psychedelic forums back in 2009 and 2010, along with asking veterans on adjacent communities like old Phish message boards. For the next decade I would lurk again from time to time, listen to Joe Rogan and Duncan Trussell and whatever psychedelic person they had on their podcasts. I was hardly an insider, but psychedelia was core to my countercultural spiritual seeker milieu.
Maybe I was just ignorant as hell, maybe it’s because the internet was just different back then, maybe it’s because now more and more of the mainstream conversation includes people who are still fresh-faced… but my memories of the old psychonaut conversation felt both weirder and more grounded—certainly less corporate. It didn’t feel like there was a culture of dishonesty about risks, even if we didn’t know or think about all of them. When I lurk anonymous forums and subreddits now it seems like people are less informed, not more, than they used to be. And I think decentralized psychedelic leadership bears some responsibility for this poor education.
Am I just being nostalgic? Was I just a noob and now I’m a jaded vet? Was the conversation just more singular, and now it’s splintered? Was there less of an information gap back then between the professional-class psychonauts and the plebs? Was the information just less sanitized? Am I unfairly comparing 2022 professional psychedelic Twitter to these ancient pseudonymous lands? Are these dumb questions?
Either way, if it was more honest, this honesty did not always lead to accuracy. And as I have been doing more research into the darker history of psychedelia with undercirculated and inconvenient stories, I am finding out a lot of things that definitely were never discussed in the good old days and still aren’t, to the extent where it gives me straight up, “Oh, man, have I been in a decentralized cult?” vibes. More on that in future posts.
However the scene actually was back in the day, there remain multiple dubious Grand Psychedelic Theories of History which overstate the centrality of psychedelics to human development. Like McKenna, sometimes these theories are known to be tenuous, but they are repeated under the wink-wink guise of “what if?” in order to give meaning and respectability to something mainstream science and mainstream religion deemed totally unrespectable. Can we fault these efforts to bring dignity to psychonauts when society took it first?
Well, I think I personally can. Because the result of habitual what-iffing means there are a lot of ideas that have been oversold beyond their evidence base and result in false senses of security. This does not mean it’s always intentional—apophenia and pareidolia are two “innocent” cognitive errors that proliferate psychedelic meaning-making—but even if nobody intends deception, the end result is a populace deceived.
In my view, the appeal for mainstream respectability must have a rigorously honest and self-critical hermeneutic. Self-criticism, itself, is part of what would make a psychedelic movement respectable. If this is a deal-breaker, then I suggest that the project of mainstream respectability be abandoned altogether.
One More Reason to Tell the Truth
Clearly, misrepresenting the truth of risks ain’t it.1 For one…I mean, I should hope it’s self-evidently wrong. For two, it makes informed consent impossible.
But another reason to tell the truth about risks: our historical psychedelic data comes from a pool of self-selected risk-takers. When psychevangelists bring in people who are risk-averse, this brings an entirely different set and setting than what psychonauts are used to.2 I don’t have a double-blind study, but it might be a little different between how 23 year-old Burner Bonnie handles deviations from the ontological norm versus someone’s Lutheran Great Aunt Nancy, or even Great Aunt Nancy’s 75 years-old-but-still-a-hippie friend who signed up for a trial. Downplaying risk to a wider population who aren’t first adopter types gives me concern about an even more unpredictable future.
But also consider this: removing the pretense of risk also robs the user perhaps an important part of the experience itself, the spiritual experience that comes within having survived and overcome something risky. And perhaps the robbery of this truth—that some risks are worth taking—is the greatest lie of them all.
Cope or Hope?
My psychedelically-critical friend asked me, “Do you ever wonder if the pro-psychedelic crowd is a strawman? Because I don't know anyone in the professional sphere who wouldn't agree with basically everything we say.”
It’s a good question. I don’t want to create a strawman or paint myself as some lone wolf truth-teller. I ain’t.3 I’m just speaking as someone who for years felt such intense anxiety to not deviate from sharing anything that was “bad for the movement,” and I know others feel this anxiety too.
I am hopeful that there seem to be more professionals willing to take the risk of candor in private, and occasionally in public. Based on my own conversations and what I hear through grapevines, it seems that there may already be a gap between the honesty of conversations behind closed doors among insiders and the propagandistic public conversations through mass media outlets. And to be fair, how different is that from any industry? Finally, I am hopeful that, even if it was contentiously received by subcultural power brokers, the Cover Story podcast became the talking point of psychedelic circles this year. It shows there is still a thirst for truth, however painful.
But there is still a genuine problem, there is still a lack of circulation of inconvenient truths to the general public that professional psychonauts pretend to educate. I’ll be honest, it can be painful when some people share criticism in private but then refuse to share anything approaching a negative story in public. Can I have compassion for it? Yeah. But it is still painful and contributes to the problem. For instance, there are incredible journalistic productions, like James Kent’s The Ten miniseries (for his Dosenation podcast) which documents a lot of historical psychedelic problems. This series is two years old by now, but I didn’t know about it until I began intentionally hunting down psychedelic dissent this year. This alone gave me a feeling that reminded me too much of my religious deconstruction: damn, I’ve been lied to.
It is good that in private, professional psychonauts might be more interested in self-criticism, but this still largely permits the loudest psychevangelists to overstate evidence and distribute misleading information. It is good that I see more scientists beginning to engage in candid debates about each other’s work, but I wish they didn’t have to push back against such overstatements in the first place.
To answer my friend’s question, I don't think it's a strawman to say there is intense social pressure within a professional Team Psychedelia that refuses to recirculate bad stories out of fear of losing status within the movement. What will be challenging is reuniting it with a growing parallel Psychedelic Critical ecosystem into a fully shared conversation rather than us-versus-them dynamics. I hope that this can be a goal of ventures like Tim Ferriss’ journalism fellowship—not to create counter-propaganda, but to live into the journalistic duty to rigorously pursue and report the truth. Because the general public still hasn't heard nearly the whole of it.
And I hope those who feel pressure to keep their criticism private can discover more courage to share it out loud. This may require taking an ineffable level of risk in, and of, love.
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By the way, here's some candor: I think this is an original take, but my memory sucks and if someone already stated this idea differently long ago and my unconscious glommed onto it, I forgot its source. If so, let me know and I'll cite it!
I’m a Southerner, I can say this.