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Psychedelics and who should be able to use them

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In the 1960s, tensions rose over who should have access to psychedelics.

There were advocates who thought everyone should be able to use psychedelics. There were also researchers who thought psychedelics should stay in the lab.

But when psychedelic drugs were banned by federal law in 1970, it ended the debate over who should have access to them.

Now, psychedelics are back. They’re growing in popularity, and the tensions around access, money and research are back, too.

Today, On Point: Psychedelics and who should be able to use them.


Amy Lynn McGuire, professor of biomedical ethics. Director of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine.

Also Featured

Sandor Iron Rope, board member of the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative, president of the Native American Church of South Dakota.

Brom Rector, founder of Empath Ventures, a venture capital fund that invests in psychedelics.

Brian Pilecki, clinical psychologist based in Oregon, psilocybin facilitator in-training.

Melissa Lavasani, CEO of Psychedelic Medicine Coalition, chairwoman of Decriminalize Nature D.C.

A history of psychedelics

TIMOTHY LEARY [Tape]: Turn on. Tune in. Drop out.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: By the time Timothy Leary uttered those famous words in San Francisco in 1967, the former Harvard psychology professor was already well known as the “high priest” of the psychedelics movement.

Leary, and the rapid expansion in the popularity of psychedelic drugs, had captured the world’s attention by the mid 1960s.

In this moment from a British documentary series called “World Tomorrow,” Leary describes an LSD trip. He’s seated, cross legged on the floor, as a child wearing beads toddles by.

LEARY [Tape]: There’s a sense of being in communion with powers greater than yourself and intelligence, which far outstrips the human mind and energies which are very ancient. You have a sense of a veil is pulled away, and for the first time you see how things really are. 

CHAKRABARTI: Not everyone was along for the ride. The movement to bring psychedelic drugs to all was met with great resistance from the federal government, of course, which had first secretly, and illegally, experimented with psychedelics in projects such as the CIA’s MKUltra program.

The federal government later pivoted to viewing psychedelics as a threat as their public use spread.

Researchers also expressed serious reservations. Scientists, such as Dr. Stanley Krippner at Maimonides Medical Center in New York believed psychedelics showed strong promise as a treatment for a wide range of conditions — but only under controlled circumstances. He was featured in that 1967 British Documentary “World Tomorrow.”

STANLEY KRIPPNER [Tape]: LSD could be integrated into the general fabric of American society, but we will need additional research to indicate how best this should be done. We want to have research to indicate how it affects the educational process, whether or not it should be used in schools, universities and colleges. We will need research to indicate what types of mental illness it’s most effective for. 

But the controlled, meticulous roll out of psychedelics research was not what Leary and others had in mind when they envisioned integrating the drugs into American life. In 1966, Leary appeared on the Merv Griffin show. He told Griffin he’d already taken LSD 311 times – and predicted one day, you would too.

LEARY [Tape]: And I’ll say to your viewers, within ten or 15 years, psycho chemicals which expand consciousness and accelerate the mind and open up the wisdom that’s inside will be just as common as books are today. When your kid comes home from school, you won’t say to him, What book did you read today?

You’ll say, Which molecule did you use to open up? Which Smithsonian Institute or which Library of Congress existence as your mind? I know that sounds far out, but everything, every new advance in science just seems impossibly. How can you use drugs to open up your mind as an educational tool?  

CHAKRABARTI: Enter, President Richard Nixon.

PRES. NIXON [Tape]: America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. 

CHAKRABARTI: June 17, 1971, Nixon announced the federal government’s hundred-million-dollar war on drugs abroad … and at home. His administration passed the Controlled Substances Act, which included making all psychedelics a schedule one drug – making them both illegal, and effectively banning all research using the drugs.

And that would be it. For almost 50 years. Scientists who wanted psychedelics to stay in the lab, and Timothy Leary, who wanted the drugs out in the world … both shut down to the enforcement power of the federal government.

But a half century later … the times are changing.

The movement to decriminalize psilocybin or “magic mushrooms” began in the last decade, and several cities have decriminalized its use.

On January 1st, Oregon became the first state to allow adult use of psilocybin.

And though psychedelics remain schedule one drugs, in 2014, a research group at Johns Hopkins university was the first in the country to obtain regulatory approval to conduct psychedelic research on healthy volunteers. And research in the field is once again growing.

But what about those tensions from the 1960s – the divide between people who want psychedelics for all, and scientists who believe in restrained use only in the lab?

Will we relive those tensions … or could things get even more complex? Because in the 21st century, when legalization is on the horizon, big money investors aren’t far behind. How could they influence the renewed use and slow spread of psychedelic drugs? Listen to today’s program above to learn more.

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