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
[Originally published 30 November 2000 in
World Magazine by
Unitarian Universalist Association.]