Excessive Exuberance

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

The first wave of research into psychedelics was doomed by an excessive exuberance about their potential — which seems perfectly predictable when you’re working with drugs that cause excessive exuberance:

For people working with these remarkable molecules, it was difficult not to conclude that they were suddenly in possession of news with the power to change the world — a psychedelic gospel. They found it hard to justify confining these drugs to the laboratory or using them only for the benefit of the sick. It didn’t take long for once respectable scientists such as Leary to grow impatient with the rigmarole of objective science. He came to see science as just another societal “game,” a conventional box it was time to blow up — along with all the others.

Was the suppression of psychedelic research inevitable? Stanislav Grof, a Czech-born psychiatrist who used LSD extensively in his practice in the nineteen-sixties, believes that psychedelics “loosed the Dionysian element” on America, posing a threat to the country’s Puritan values that was bound to be repulsed. (He thinks the same thing could happen again.) Roland Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, points out that ours is not the first culture to feel threatened by psychedelics: the reason Gordon Wasson had to rediscover magic mushrooms in Mexico was that the Spanish had suppressed them so thoroughly, deeming them dangerous instruments of paganism.

“There is such a sense of authority that comes out of the primary mystical experience that it can be threatening to existing hierarchical structures,” Griffiths told me when we met in his office last spring. “We ended up demonizing these compounds. Can you think of another area of science regarded as so dangerous and taboo that all research gets shut down for decades? It’s unprecedented in modern science.”

I can definitely think of other areas of science regarded as so dangerous and taboo that all research gets shut down for decades.

I also have no trouble imagining how a loosed Dionysian element could go awry. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    His only good poem, but a really, really good one. I have the original City Lights issue.

    Ferlinghetti is much better overall.

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