History of Psychedelics in Western Culture

By Charles Billy,

Recent research into the use of psychedelic drugs to induce mystical experiences, which can help to treat existential anxiety, has just been completed (Griffiths et al., 2006; Griffiths et al., 2011; Grob, Bossis, & Griffiths, 2013). Promising results from these studies show substantial changes in personality, mood, and well-being that is lasting (Griffiths et al., 2008;  MacLean, Johnson, & Griffiths, 2011)(Video 1). Subsequently, a shift in perspective towards the use of psychedelic drugs is occurring, opening the door to continued research. Some psychologists are brazen enough to assert the use of certain psychedelics may even revolutionize psychiatric treatment (Sessa, 2005; Carhart-Harris, 2015)(Video 2 & Video 3). The renaissance of psychedelic research brings into light a line of sociological, ethical, and philosophical questioning. However, very little sociological examination has been done analyzing the impact of psychedelic counter-culture of the 1960’s. In order for psychedelic use to be integrated into a treatment paradigm, researchers must ask themselves “what about the psychedelic research and counterculture caused it to become taboo and later illegal?” Within this paper I present a history of psychedelics in western culture, showing the changing philosophy behind their use in society, culminating with their eventual ban.

Potentially, psychedelics have been used by humans for millennia. The most commonly occurring of all psychedelics is the Psilocybin containing mushroom. Estimates place the inception of mushroom-worshiping cultures between 6,000 and 7,000 years ago (Zamaria, 2016). However, until the mid-1950’s the use of psilocybin containing mushrooms remained within Mexican and Central-American culture, where they are used for divinatory and ceremonial purposes (Grob et al., 2013; Smith, 2016: Wasson, 1980). Ayahuasca, a brew containing the psychedelic Dimethyltryptamine, has similar roots, estimating that is has been used in ceremonial practices for close to two millennia (Dobkin de Rios & Grob, 2005). Nonetheless, colonial settlers, who viewed the practice as barbaric,  drove the use of naturally occurring psychedelics underground.

Similar to ayahuasca and psilocybin containing mushrooms, peyote eluded the awareness of western science until Arthur Heffter isolated mescaline from the cactus in 1896 (Bogenschutz, 2016). Later, in 1943 Albert Hofmann was successful in isolating LSD from the ergot mold (Elcock, 2013). While working with the molecule, a tiny amount of LSD managed to make contact with Hofmann’s skin. It was rapidly absorbed into his system, causing him to realize the acute psychoactive effects of LSD hours later while he was riding his bike home from the lab (Veracini, 2011; Video 4). Feeling transformed by the experience, Hofmann became a major proponent in the study of psychedelic drugs.

The scientific interest in hallucinogens persisted through the 1950’s, leading to public exposure. Humphry Osmond, English Psychiatrist and researcher, became interested in the therepeautic potential of psychedelic use. Having read a publication by Osmond, Aldous Huxley, a prominent writer and philosopher at the time, contacted the researcher in hopes that he could assist him in his research. Osmond, knowing Huxley’s capacity for self-expression, is enthralled to have him aid in his subjective research. On May 3, 1963, Huxley, under the supervision of Osmond, ingests Mescaline. In his experience he claimed to have come to a realization about the objective reality of nature, and how current paradigms of the majority culture are misaligned with this reality. In essence, Huxley renounced dualism for a monist philosophy he called a perennial philosophy. Perennial philosophy asserts that all religion and spirituality is the product of one source of knowledge, influencing all forms of religious scripture.

Overcome with amazement from his experience, Huxley catalogs his accounts in a book he later titles, “The Doors of Perception” (Huxley, 1954). The Doors of perception, in addition to giving anecdotes of the psychedelic experience, offers metaphysical interpretations influenced by by a loss of ego. Huxley postulated that an ultimate reality would transcend subject/object dualities and that the valuation of experience perpetuates a dichotomous perspective. That is, interpreting experience as either “good” or “evil” would divert one’s attention from the unity of reality. Experience is “neither agreeable nor disagreeable. It just is” (Huxley, 1954). Mystical experiences he proposed could challenge dichotomous definitions canalized into our belief system through social conditioning. However, despite recognizing the spiritual value of organized religion, Huxley lacked confidence in the capacity for conventional religious practices to elicit such experiences. Within the Doors of Perception, Huxley openly advocates for the use of psychedelic drugs as mind opening substances that could eventuate an evolution in consciousness (Huxley, 1954).

Having been driven underground due to the dogmatic Judeo-Christian views of the French Inquisition, Mazatec ceremonial psilocybin use was thought to be extinct at the turn of the 20th Century (Smith, 2016). However, an amateur mycologist by the name of Gordon Wasson pursued the possibility of their continued use in the highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico. Wasson managed to befriend the Mazatecs, eventually partaking in the sacramental practice of ingesting psilocybin containing mushrooms (Wasson, 1957). The subjective experience led him to become a major proponent for the use of psychedelics as Entheogens1 in spiritual practices (Wasson, 1980). Wasson went on to publish his profound accounts with the Mazatec people in “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” which was published in Life magazine in 1957 (Wasson, 1957). The publication also caught the interest of Hofmann, compelling him to reach out to Wasson. Subsequently, Hofmann secured a mushroom specimen from Wasson and then later isolated the psychoactive tryptamine alkaloid, Psilocybin, from the fungi (Hofmann, Frey, Ott, Petrzilka, & Troxler, 1958).

Having been moved by the Wasson article in Life, clinical psychologist, Anthony Russo, traveled to Mexico, seeking to engage in the mushroom ceremonies of the Mazatec tribe. Just as Wasson had experienced, Russo felt an intense shift in perspective following the psychedelic experience. He claimed that he was better able to address traumatic feelings that he had been suppressing. In an attempt to help the recently widowed Leary overcome a depressive state, Russo attempted to persuade Leary to try “magic mushrooms” (BBC, 2000). A year later, Leary decided to join Russo on a trip to Mexico to procure Psilocybin mushrooms. Unbeknownst to Russo, exposing Leary to psychedelics would have immense cultural, scientific, and judicial implications. His experience was profound, claiming that he “learned more about the mind by that pool [on psilocybin] than in 15 years as a diligent psychologist”

Transformed by his experience, Leary went on to begin a new chapter of his life at Harvard University. His focus was clear, he wanted to study the potential for psilocybin and other timothy-leary-video-gamespsychedelics to bring about a paradigm shift. Intrigued by the allure of accessing novel aspects of consciousness, graduate students at Harvard flocked towards Leary. During his time at Harvard, Leary oversaw and partook in many studies looking at the acute effects of psilocybin. Most intriguing to researchers were the mysticomimetic effects experienced while on psychedelics.

Enthralled by the potential to induce a mystical experiences, Leary along with Richard Alpert initiated studies examining the acute effects of psilocybin. Most notably, the “Good Friday Experiment” was extremely controversial at the time (Video 5). In sum, the experiment involved 10 theology students attending Harvard university. To accentuate the mystical features of the experience, participants within the study were all given psilocybin within a church setting while listening to a sermon. The results were profound. Nine out of 10 of the participants experienced a full mystical experience, reporting deeply felt feelings of oceanic boundlessness, oneness, and aspects of consciousness that are ineffable. For example, one participant reported:

“The panorama of my life seemed to be swept up by this unifying and eternal principle…  I seemed to relinquish my life in “layers”; the more I let go, the greater sense of oneness I received. As I approached what I firmly believed to be the point of death, I experienced an even greater sense of an eternal dimension to life. There seemed to be infinite possibilities of time and space.” (Pahnke, 1963, p. 131)

Swept away by the results, Leary felt that psychedelics were “bigger than Harvard;” he wanted to share the mind-revealing drug with the world (Hiatt, 2016). Leary began pressuring his graduate students to take psilocybin, claiming that if they wished to be in the field of clinical psychology the need to take the drug (BBC, 2000). The unethical approaches towards taking psychedelics continued to worsen as Leary began to hold experiments at his own house. Many of his colleagues wondered whether or not his aim was scientific or hedonistic. Nevertheless, Leary continued to examine the potential for psilocybin to engage creative states of consciousness, inviting poets, writers, and artists to his home to partake in his experiments. Amongst the people who visited Leary’s home was Allen Grinsberg, who was a figurehead with countercultural beatnik movement (Stevens, 1987). Grinsberg was outspoken in his views on psychedelics, proclaiming that everyone should be exposed to the experience. Continuous controversy revolving around the unethical practices of the Harvard Psilocybin Project eventually culminate in the firing of Leary’s research partner Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) in 1963. To add to his reputation, despite not being true, Leary told the public he too was fired at the same time from Harvard (Hiatt, 2016). In essence, Leary wanted everyone to see him as a rebel from society. Leary left Harvard that same year when his contract expired.

Timothy Leary, in the company of those a part of Harvard Psilocybin Project exile from Harvard, dropping out of the public eye. Eventually Leary reemerges in Millbrook, New York, where offers the guided use of different psychedelics in a “controlled setting” (Stevens, 1987).  Leary focuses his attention on the use of LSD, offering it to whomever frequented his house. Millbrook eventually became a center for intellectuals, wishing to explore novel states of consciousness, to come and try psychedelic drugs. However, the actions of Leary and those who joined him in his LSD trips, did not go unnoticed by the public. Soon, Leary was drawing national attention, attracting large groups of people and the media (Anonymous, 2015; Video 5 & 6).

While Timothy Leary and his group of intellectuals pioneered the psychedelic countercultural movement in New York, Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters began their trip across the US in the west (Stevens,1987). Crossing the nation in their magic bus, the Merry Pranksters persuaded a younger generation to try psychedelics, imploring anyone they came across to take the “acid test”  Using his influence as a successful author, Kesey captivated national attention (Babbs, K, 2015). His anti-establishment views managed to gain another platform when the Merry Pranksters joined up with the Grateful Dead. At the time, the Grateful Dead, who were open in their views on Psychedelic use, were just growing in popularity. Consequently, LSD was being forced out into the public arena as the famous began to advocate their use.

Within a short time, Timothy Leary and his iconic phrase, “Turn on, tune in, and drop out” became associated with an entire Psychedelic movement that opposed the majority Judeo-Christian ideologies of the era (Leary, n.d.; Video 8). Leary and his contemporaries saw the mystical states of consciousness accessed through psychedelics to be indicative of an underlying unity. Contrary to the Christian view that man had a special place in the cosmos, post-modernist views of the psychedelic culture saw man as being a part of nature (Elcock, 2013). Moreover, the paradigm countered the patriarchal conceptualization of God, claiming there only to be a personal god. Man wasn’t intended, according to this philosophy, to be told what god is like but rather to experience god themselves. Leary, in aligning with these views, told society to reject “big brother,” renouncing bureaucratic structures that inhibit one’s ability to live freely.

In many ways, post-modernist views of the psychedelic culture mirrored the philosophy of the Civil Rights movement and other counter cultural movements of the era. In essence, people of the era realized that reality was a social construct and they were free to create it in anyway they saw fit. US citizens challenged the power of the government like never before, opposing openly the war in Vietnam and divisive policies. Similarly, Leary continued to preach peace, love, and happiness to a generation. With prestigious pop-culture icons such as the Beatles frequenting his home in Millbrook, Leary remained in the public eye. Empowered by his fame, Leary felt that he may be able to take his message one step further. In 1967, Leary ran for Governor of California (Stevens, 1987). To help in his campaign, the Beatles wrote the song “Come Together,” furthering the influence of Timothy Leary and the psychedelic movement.

The government was forced to respond to the national attention figureheads such as Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey were bringing to Psychedelics.  The government in attempt to stunt the growth of the psychedelic movement released a slew of anti-drug propaganda. Commercials and films that were aired in movie theaters and on television painted a frightening picture. The propaganda film attempted to paint a picture of a traumatizing euphoria, disconnecting the mind from reality. The propaganda asserts that Psychedelic use will lead to a psychosis, which the person can never return from. Others lead people to believe that psychedelics relinquish any agency and, when under their influence, may cause a person to commit heinous crimes (Anonymous, 2009).

Nonetheless, psychedelic use did not subside by the late 1960’s, drawing national attention. Firm in his beliefs about LSD use, Nixon banned the possession of LSD in 1967. Subsequently, research on LSD began to wane as stigma around the substance grew exponentially.  The psychedelic community was not halted by the change in policy, however. Continuously, Timothy Leary gained national recognition for his altruistic and anti-establishment views, using psychedelics all the same. The transcendental perception of psychedelic use, unfortunately, was about to come crashing down from the heavens and into a sort of hell. In 1969, Charles Manson’s murders were being played on TV’s across the nation. Infamously, Manson had utilized LSD on his victims, attempting to use the drug as mind-control substance. The news media ran with the story, using the story as a springboard for anti-psychedelic propaganda. The public once again viewed psychedelic use as evil, seeing Manson’s victims as being forever changed by the use of psychedelics (Anonymous, 2009). As time progressed, government drug bans on psychedelics increased. Negative perceptions of psychedelics continued to persist for approximately 30 years. In the last two decades, negative cultural and scientific perceptions of psychedelics is finally beginning to change.

Undoubtedly, figureheads, such as, Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley, and Ken Kesey, in the psychedelic movement had huge cultural impact during the 1960’s and beyond. From the anti-establishment to the radically spiritual views, ideologies proposed during the 1960’s revolutionized popular culture. The message was clear “tune in, turn on, and dropout.” In other words, renounce conventional ways of living that exalted material consumerism and connect with nature. Spreading peace, love, and harmony as his underlying message, Leary influenced a an entire generation of writers, musicians, poets, and artists. However, his unethical nonchalant approach to psychedelics shocked and appalled the mainstream. Concerted efforts to derail his movement were often fruitless until 1969, when the Manson murder trial hit the news channel. Utilizing LSD as a mind-control substance, Manson carried out ritualistic murders. The result of the murders and occult acclaim Manson received was an ominous cloud being cast over the perception of psychedelic use in society. In conclusion, the impact of the psychedelic movement is profound, however, no empirical research exists examining the full breadth of the its effects.


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  1. Entheogen is an alternative to the word “psychedelic,” which may carry a pejorative connotation, meaning “generating the divine within” (Elcock, 2013). The word is meant to convey that such substances are to be used intentionally for spiritual and psychological growth.

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