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Consider two groups of characters: a monk or hermit who takes a vow of poverty and spends years in silent meditation or even a self-indulgent mountain climber set on climbing Everest, and a homeless person who supports a crack habit while doing no harm to others in pursuit of that high, or even a compulsive gamer living in their parent’s basement could be used here too.
The monk is seen as holy and dedicated to a meaningful life and the climber seen as giving it his all, while the other two more likely to be regarded as sick, or even worthless. All of them, however, are not raising children or doing productive economic or artistic work during the hours they engage in their obsessions. They are all, generally, searching for meaning or relief from life’s stresses.
Should we let meditators or climbers off the hook simply because they believe their pursuit is praiseworthy, cool, or effort based? If the meditator is so calm that they wouldn’t flinch from a gunshot going off, is being that disconnected from shared reality really something to value? Or perhaps the climber who is physically disconnecting himself from reality? Is it not more important to consider whether people are left more open to the world and integrated as a people or shut down and left fractured by whatever action they choose to participate in?
A high percentage of users of one class of psychedelic substances like LSD, mescaline, ayahuasca and psilocybin (“shrooms”) describe their experiences as being meaningful in ways that are quite different from how we typically talk about alcohol and other drugs. Even after a terrifying or apparently self-dissolving psychedelic experience, many people find that psychedelics have taught them something important. The fact that the teacher here is chemical is less important than the fact that growth and learning occur.
If we look at whether pleasures allow us to grow and connect, or if they simply take us out of ourselves, we’re better equipped to understand their value. No one can be always “on,” and simply zoning out on something isn’t always wrong. But psychedelics are different from other drugs in that they frequently make us face aspects of ourselves we might prefer to ignore. This could be one reason they are rarely addictive. The more habit-forming drugs like heroin, coke and alcohol (even TV) all tend to allow the user to escape from unwanted thoughts and emotions. Psychedelics, instead, tend to concentrate people on them.
Americans have probably also tended to be skeptical of unearned pleasure for spiritual reasons. The Puritan in them can’t value it without effort or worthiness, and if blessings are simply experienced rather than earned, and feelings are just chemicals moving about in the brain, it’s easy to start questioning whether anything matters. Psychedelics make people uncomfortable because they raise images of the homeless crack addict above and don’t have the work and effort symbolism of the climber or meditator attached. Psychedelics are godlike in their ability to change our minds, feel connected and integrated to the world, and have us see new pathways. That is revolutionary, as well as a threat, to the status quo.
If we want a better 21st century drug policy, we need to grapple with what drug experience means and not simply assume that a drug is a drug is a drug, and that being high is always worthless and inevitably leads to unhappiness in the end.