By Marco Perduca
On the 50th anniversary of Woodstock last year there was a lot of talk about psychedelics, even about a psychedelic Renaissance. Everywhere, however, in the country of the Renaissance, the movement is still struggling to establish itself. A group of Dutch activists launched the ThankYouPlantMedicine proposal to dedicate February 20th to the sharing (coming out) of therapeutic experiences with psychedelics to counter the stigma that still affects those substances.
To clarify the ideas, especially if we are dealing with stuff that perhaps enhances them, alters or annihilates, we recover the original meaning of the word: those substances that “free the thought from the superstructures of social conventions” are psychedelic. The term psychedelic is not directly inherited, like many words in our daily vocabulary, from the ancient Greeks – who, however, as for hallucinogenic beverages, did not miss anything. It is a neologism that merges soul, ψυχή and manifest, δήλος.
The quoted words just above are by the English psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in a letter sent in 1956 to his compatriot Aldous Huxley, writer and philosopher, to indicate the so-called “enlargement of consciousness” induced by hallucinogens and entheogens, mainly LSD.
Consumption of these substances can enhance creativity and self-awareness, but it can also accompany therapeutic experiences of various kinds, for many psycho-physical conditions. In both cases, however, the freedom to ingest the products of nature or of chemical synthesis clashes with very restrictive, if not fully prohibitionist, laws or policies that have been pursued in a coordinated manner at global level since the 1960s. The years of the Summer of Love.
The hippies of the sixties and seventies, sometimes called flower children, were an eclectic group: some were openly against the US government, some were anti-capitalist, some anti-communist, but all were against the Vietnam War. Some were interested in politics, others were more interested in art (music, painting and poetry) or in spiritual and meditative practices. In short, there was everything.
Among the groups that have become more interested in psychedelics today, and perhaps thanks to which we can start talking about the Renaissance, there are dozens of researchers and psychotherapists who work on consciousness and knowledge with scientific practices, often heterodox, that mix chemistry, millenary indigenous knowledge and traditions, psychology, ethno-botany, and shamanism all the way up to parapsychology. In short, there is everything. Everything, but all in the name of freedom and mutual listening.
As we all remember, especially those who were not yet born at the time of the Summer of Love, Woodstock is symbolically remembered by the opening and closing pieces: “Freedom” by Richie Havens and the distorted USA anthem by Jimi Hendrix. Legend has it that “Freedom” was not in the playlist of the then basically unknown folk-blues singer and guitarist. Indeed, it seems that the song did not exist at all, but that it was created on the spot when he started playing on that August 15th 1969. In all concerts the first artist playing doesn’t matter, the goal being to warm up the audience and wait for latecomers. Since the big names expected could not reach the festival stage due to a traffic jam caused by the flood of people who, by any means, tried to reach the concert lawn, Havens had to entertain the audience for three hours. After playing everything he knew, “Freedom” emerged from an old spiritual inspired, it seems, by the crowd itself. The raw energy of that first acoustic version of Freedom remains in the annals of music.
Since then Woodstock, its music, and the widespread use of any type of legal and non-legal substance, have been linked to freedom. A freedom that did not cause victims.
Thanks to an idea of the psychiatrist and psychotherapist Ben Sessa, the Breaking Convention has been held since 2011. It is a biennial Woodstock of psychedelic therapies that looks like a festival with a thousand facets including scientific symposia on the most recent and promising research as well as innovative insights on human and social sciences, law, politics, art, history and the philosophy around psychedelics. Among the historical supporters of the Convention are the Beckley Foundation and Maps (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies); the latter is in phase three of clinical trials for the treatment of post-traumatic stress with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.
Sessa also collaborates with the team of Robin Carhart-Harris and David Nutt who in April at Imperial College London launched the first institutional centre in the world for research on psychedelics, after having carried out studies and experiments with LSD and psilocybin for years, facing legal problems and a lack of funds.
Although focused on research, the organizers of the Breaking Convention have always kept the doors open to other types of experiences too, involving people who experiment on themselves, self-taught researchers, enthusiasts or representatives of indigenous cultures and traditions. The London festival has a corollary of events that, thanks to the psychedelics, arouse and accompany mental journeys, trigger individual and collective creativity, spirituality and positivity.
“Microdosing” and self-medication are some of the keywords when it comes to psychedelics, even if Dr. Nutt and his collaborators on July 15, 2019 complained that “there is no standard on the quantity taken nor defined protocols” due to the scarce evidence on the therapeutic use of small doses of LSD, mescaline or psilocybin. However, rather than archiving certain practices as an amateurish, anecdotal and observational amusement, researchers wished for systematic studies while launching a search for volunteers for clinical trials on depression.
Ceremonies, gongs, visions, plants, chemistry, anthropology, ethno-botany, archaeology, music and activism make up the multidisciplinary nature of psychedelics in the pursuit of that psycho-cultural and increasingly political unity (Onennes) trying to build a trans-national antiprohibitionist fight.
The fight against the loss of self-determination – at the individual and indigenous people’s level – the criminalisation of cultural choices and “therapeutic” options, as well as the attack on nature and biodiversity, are the key themes of this movement which proposes a “proactive psychedelic Renaissance”.
Coming out on psychedelics helps strengthen a movement that, although not (yet) organized, is increasingly coordinated.
The General Comment on Science of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights dedicates a whole paragraph to controlled substances:
“Controlled substances and science
Scientific research is prevented on some substances as they fall under international conventions on drug control and are classified as harmful to health and without scientific or medical value. However, there is evidence that there are medical uses for many of these substances or that they are not as harmful as they were thought to be when they were subjected to this regime. This is the case of opium derivatives (for pain treatment and maintenance programs in opioid addiction), cannabis (for epilepsy resistant to other therapies) and MDMA (used in psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder) to the extent that there is available scientific evidence.”
This is not a psychedelic coming out, but a sharing of necessary actions, partly in progress, so that a psychedelic Renaissance starts being possible also in Europe. All the political activities necessary for a qualitative leap must be strengthened and 2020 could also be the crucial year in this field.