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The Drug War's True Failure

...and the Yearning for a Deeper Self
by Mike Young

On Good Friday 1961, 20 theological school students served as subjects for Harvard's last legal experiment with psychedelic drugs. It was classical science: double-blind, control group, outside evaluators, the works. The question: Does the drug (psilocybin, in this case) give the subjects a mystical experience? Nine of the 10 who got the drug, and one of the 10 who didn't, said that's what they had. Three evaluators, specially trained to judge whether the subjects' narratives matched the characteristics of classical mystical experience, agreed.

None of the 20 seminarians went on to abuse drugs. Indeed, in a 25-year follow-up, those who got the drug said the experience had positively influenced their lives. Further, research outside the US with this class of drugs has shown significant value in treating mental illness, alcoholism, drug abuse, and intractable pain and alleviating fear and anxiety in the terminally ill. Yet if repeated today, the experiment would result in one very large drug bust.

I was the one who got the drug and said, "No, I didn't have a mystical experience." But within a year, I had changed my mind. I didn't meet God. I didn't acquire any new religious beliefs. I certainly didn't become a saint. What did happen was that my little ego died, quite painfully. Oh, I have managed to resuscitate a serviceable replacement, but I have known ever since that my ego isn't me.

If I hadn't had the experience, would my life have been different? I have no way of knowing. There are too many other reasons why it might have gone the way it did. But a different me walked out of the experiment in 1961 from the one who had walked in. I had learned that human consciousness is richer, more profound, more filled with shining potential than both fundamentalist secular humanists and fundamentalist Christians have ever guessed.

Part of the human propensity to ingest drugs comes from religious motives. The drug experience feels like an encounter with something deeper, more intense, more real, more awe-some than the bland rounds of daily existence. It's no accident that some people return from it spouting language that sounds like quotations from the mystics. There's a deep human hunger for such depth and intensity, more than ever in our overorganized, overroutinized spectator society.

Among the motivations for altering one's consciousness is a yearning, if not for a higher power, then at least for a deeper self, which may be a distinction without a difference. I'm not talking about "believing what you know ain't so." I'm talking about that shift of attention from the narrow ego to a larger sense of self, the discovery of the deep connections between that self and others and "the interconnected web."

From 1969 to 1982, I worked as a probation officer in Los Angeles County, California. The drug scene provided stiff competition for anything I had to offer my clients. Even when they weren't high, their experience, as they related it to me, was more intense, exciting, and real than anything they had seen in straight society. This may be part of the reason there is no "cure" for drug abuse, other than a life with depth.

For those who successfully navigate the path to a drug-free life, it's not a path back to health but a path onward, to a life more fully human.

The drug problem is real, resulting in lost lives, trashed families and relationships, lost human potential and productivity, and distorted social institutions. But not all drugs are the same, nor are they always used in the same ways. Our laws against drugs, however--the rules of engagement for the War on Drugs--show scant recognition of this fact. They lump psilocybin, mescaline, LSD, and marijuana--all nonaddictive--together with heroin, morphine, and cocaine. Meanwhile, heroin and morphine continue to be withheld from terminally ill patients, even when nothing else successfully controls their pain, in order to keep these dying patients from becoming addicted. The government is now insisting on the same insane standard for the medical use of marijuana. Such is the failed and crazy-making logic of the War on Drugs.

The Harvard drug experiment that I took part in points to one avenue by which we might begin to understand the human propensity to modify our consciousness. Such understanding may give us some badly needed handles on alternative responses. For until we begin to formulate nuanced and thoughtful strategies for dealing with drug use, we will continue to distort every aspect of our society, and make the real drug problems worse.

The Rev. Mike Young, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu, HI, currently serves on the citizen advisory committee for the needle exchange program in Honolulu. In the 1960s he served as UU campus minister at Stanford University, and in the 1990s he was minister of the UU Church of Tampa, FL, where he belonged to the police chief's citizen advisory committee.

UU World XIV:6 (November/December 2000): 13-14.

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