Illustration of people experiencing psychedelic drugs
If everyone took psychedelic drugs, they'd all gain a new and improved perspective on life. (Illustration by Sydney Sabbota, University of Michigan)

New Voices Say Psychedelic Drugs Could Make the World a Better Place

Documentaries like Netflix’s ‘Have a Good Trip’ and ’Neurons to Nirvana’ show that at a time when the world is dangerously divided, the use of hallucinogens could help fill the void between us.

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Illustration of people experiencing psychedelic drugs

Documentaries like Netflix’s ‘Have a Good Trip’ and ’Neurons to Nirvana’ show that at a time when the world is dangerously divided, the use of hallucinogens could help fill the void between us.

Unlike the problems found in an early morning SAT booklet, you don’t need to eat a good breakfast to comprehend the ones currently facing this country. Ignited by a global pandemic; a mental health crisis; and severe political, economic and social divisions — not to mention everything else — America has never been seen quite like this before. Scientists can scramble to concoct a vaccine that will combat the deadly new coronavirus, but it won’t fix some of the other massive problems America faces, problems that, to be solved, will likely require people to actively change the way they think about the world and others living in it. Humans haven’t created a pill to cease violence or diminish economic inequality and probably never will. However, there is something that could help: psychedelic drugs.

Psychedelic drugs have a mechanism that could potentially change the way people fundamentally perceive their role in society — in as few as six hours and with the same effort it takes to dissolve a cough drop on your tongue.

Common psychedelic drugs used for recreational use, called classic hallucinogens, include LSD (acid), psilocybin (magical mushrooms), mescaline (peyote) and DMT (ayahuasca). Depending on the type of drug, psychedelics can either be smoked, eaten, brewed into teas or dissolved in the mouth. The effects these drugs have depend on a variety of factors, including the person using them as well as their setting and intentions.

Psychedelic drugs create bizarre sensations — referred to as “trips” — that users wouldn’t experience in a normal state of consciousness or on any other drug. Reality becomes completely altered as time slows down, colors appear more vivid, nature and objects personify and poor judgement kicks in. To someone not on a trip, the state of the world would seem nonsensical.

As someone who has never done any form of recreational drug, let alone a hallucinogen that makes trees talk and turns reality into a kaleidoscope, I’ve never quite understood the appeal of psychedelics. The closest thing I’ve ever had to an LSD trip happened at age eleven, when my family and I went to Yellowstone National Park and saw a few colorful hot springs and a family of bison crossing the road.

I’ve always found it difficult to fully conceptualize what a trip on acid looks or feels like, or why people would choose to travel to a world resembling that of “The Wiggles.”

However, Netflix’s new documentary, “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics,” does just this, explaining the intangible psychedelic trip experience to non-users. Released in May, the documentary interviews celebrities about their experimentation with psychedelic drugs, shining a light on people who you know, love and won’t believe took acid, like Ben Stiller.

Not only does “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” allow viewers to hear about wacky psychedelic trips through the narration of beloved actors and artists, it also brings their stories to life via mystical animation and campy reenactments.

One animation depicts comedian Sarah Silverman in the form of a colorful cartoon as she takes LSD for the first time, an experience that includes staring at breathing hot chocolate and hugging homeless men in a park.

Psychedelic drugs create sensations unlike anything humans have the capability of experiencing during a normal state of mind. However, the most profound thing about them is their ability to numb the ego, allowing users to feel connected to the earth and the people living on it in a way they never have before.

In the documentary “Neurons to Nirvana,” scientists discuss how psychedelic drugs create a deep understanding of oneself and the surrounding world, as a result of linking the lower part of the brain responsible for regulating information with its middle region. This creates an emotional interpretation based on the gathered information. The process mimics the chemical serotonin, except it overflows the brain, creating intense hallucinations, deep personal insights and the feeling of merging with the outside world.

This idea is also touched upon in “The Mind, Explained,” a Netflix series that unravels the complex features and abilities of the brain, which devotes a whole episode to exploring psychedelics and the impact they have on the mind. Researchers, like Dr. Roland Griffiths, say psychedelic drugs cause users to reflect inwardly, creating an effect similar to that of meditation.

“Meditation is the tried and true course to investigation of nature of the mind and psychedelics is the crash course,” Dr. Griffiths said. “Most people will rate this experience a year afterwards as being among the most personally meaningful or spiritually significant experiences of their entire lifetime.”

Spiritual awakenings resulting from psychedelic drugs have the capacity to fundamentally change the way people not only view their own life, but their contribution to the surrounding world. In “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics,” esteemed chef Anthony Bourdain credits psychedelic drugs for expanding his mindset.

“I think it enabled me early on to imagine another point of view, another perspective,” Bourdain said about taking psychedelic drugs. “It made me a better person, both creatively and every other way.

Not only can psychedelic drugs lead to spiritual growth and understanding, but researchers have started looking into how they could be used as medical treatments for mental illness and addiction. Psychedelics like LSD have the ability to create new neural pathways, a process that could “shake up a snow globe” and help break cycles of depression and addiction.

A study conducted at Johns Hopkins University administered magic mushrooms to 15 people looking to quit smoking. Six months later, the experiment had a success rate of 80%, an astronomical statistic when compared to other smoking cessation drugs that are only 35% effective.

Despite the positive outlook psychedelic drugs give to the future of medical treatment, and their ability to encourage humans to live more symbiotically with the environment, one roadblock stands in the way: the law. Classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, psychedelics consist of some of the most highly regulated substances in the United States.

Due to government control, not much research on psychedelic drugs exists. Stigmatized for decades, people have claimed psychedelics fall into the realm of extremely dangerous and addictive drugs. While they can certainly be abused, no substantial evidence links psychedelics with addiction or severe long-term health effects.

Users can experience bad trips, which often include disturbing hallucinations as well as panic attacks, although these will only last for about 12 hours or until the drug wears off, and can be mitigated if in the right environment. Some cases of flashbacks or prolonged psychosis due to the use of psychedelics have been reported, but these instances are rare.

My introduction to psychedelic drugs took place in the 11th grade, when a friend asked me if I would try LSD with her. As a proud graduate of the D.A.R.E. program in elementary school, my prompt answer rolled incredulously off my tongue with a hint of judgment: No.

With the exception of Mike Pence, I’m just about as strait-laced as they come, the type of person who wears pants year round — even in the sweltering heat. In high school, I wrote articles about how kids should swap their vape pens for less addictive highs, like studying for biology.

In “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics,” comedian David Cross toys with the idea of widespread psychedelic use.

“The first couple times I tripped, I really did believe the planet would be a better planet if everybody took acid once,” Cross said.

The thought of legalizing psychedelics and allowing people to freely roam about public parks high off their minds on acid is, to me, about as heartwarming as the thought of zombies terrorizing my childhood home. Cross’s idea is radical, uncomfortable and, much like the information surrounding psychedelic drugs, uncertain.

But even an avid rule follower like myself can’t overlook the potential benefits these drugs could have, not just on individuals, but on society as a whole. Don’t we all know someone who could benefit by having their ego knocked down a few pegs?

Recognizing the potential benefits of highly stigmatized drugs like psychedelics requires the suspension of judgment, the ability to hear a different opinion and a willingness to question a believed narrative and learn something new — something that, ironically, could be catalyzed with a trip on acid.

Though, even if psychedelic drug use did become widespread, it would be ridiculous to say it could mend all of America’s problems. At least, in “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics,” famed musician Sting seems to think so.

“I don’t think psychedelics are the answers to the world’s problems, but they could be a start,” said Sting.

A cure to violence doesn’t exist because, to put it frankly, it’s just not that simple. In a country divided by Republicans and Democrats, those who wear masks and those who don’t, I often find myself looking for the correct answer, usually out of only two possible options. But as a country, perhaps we need to start offering choices that embrace complexity and favor the in-between.

Maybe Sting’s assertion holds true. Maybe psychedelic drugs could be the start to finding lasting change in our country and our world.  Maybe for some, this means taking psychedelics, and for others, just changing the way they think about them.

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