As the War on Drugs kicked into hyperdrive during the 70s and 80s, two brothers decided to fight back in their own way.
If you’ve paid any attention to psychedelics and the counter-culture movement of the ’60s and ’70s, chances are, you’ve heard of the McKenna brothers. While President Richard Nixon began his ‘War on Drugs’ in June of 1971, these two brothers remained as laser-focused as ever on their exploration of psychedelic compounds — namely LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and DMT. In fact, four years after the War on Drugs had begun, both Terence and Dennis McKenna wrote a book entitled ‘Psilocybin Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide’ under the pseudonyms O.T. Oss and O.N. Oeric.
The small, instructional book sought to democratize the use of psychedelic substances, in this case, psychedelic mushrooms, by allowing anyone and everyone to grow them themselves. Evidently, the book satiated an existing hunger, perhaps brought on by the deprivation of psychedelic drugs in the ’70s, and over a hundred thousand copies of this book have since been sold.
Though the authorship of an anonymous book would be just one notch on the belt of the McKenna brothers, who went on to become some of the most prominent psychedelic advocates in history. Terence, the elder sibling of the two brothers, became known for his highly articulate and extemporaneous lectures on the use of psychedelics, and how they intersect with philosophy, history and psychology. While research on psychedelics became virtually impossible amid the War on Drugs, Terence utilized his verbal abilities to attempt to deconstruct the psychedelic experience and get to the core of what it meant for humanity.
Dennis, on the other hand, pursued more conventional routes in order to explore psychedelics, beginning with a Ph.D. in 1984 at the University of British Colombia entitled ‘Monoamine oxidase inhibitors in Amazonian hallucinogenic plants: ethnobotanical, phytochemical, and pharmacological investigations’, which explored the use of the Amazonian psychedelic compounds. This research formed the bedrock for Dennis’s career in ethnopharmacology, allowing the psychedelic advocate to continue investigating the properties and experiences involved with plant hallucinogens.
Over the course of several decades, both Terence and Dennis would contribute a wealth of information to the psychedelic zeitgeist, in the form of novels, lectures, retreats, podcasts, and documentaries. Now, as we’re beginning to witness the end of the War on Drugs, we decided to sit down with Dennis McKenna himself and hear his thoughts on psychedelics and the future of drug use.
First things first, what is an ethnopharmacologist?
D: Ethnopharmacology is the interdisciplinary study of biologically active substances that are used or observed in traditional or indigenous cultures. As far as substances go, ethnopharmacology can encapsulate a wide array of substances beyond just psychedelics and can include things like arrow poisons and medicinal plants. My specialty, of course, has been the hallucinogenic plants, the psychedelics.
One of your earliest explorations into psychedelics was your thesis on ayahuasca, what made you choose that compound as opposed to psilocybin or LSD, which were much more well-known at the time?
D: Originally, I was going to work on psilocybin, specifically looking at the genetic regulation of psilocybin biosynthesis in isolating and characterizing the enzymes. However, we didn’t really have access to molecular biology techniques at that time, and although I had worked on that project for about a year, my supervisor suggested that I go to South America to explore other compounds, which he would pay for. And so I ended up going to South America at the start of 1981, which led me to put my psilocybin thesis on hold and prompted me to focus on Ayahuasca instead.
Over the course of working with these plants — both psilocybin and Ayahuasca — they became important to me personally, and still are. I am very grateful to have a relationship with Ayahuasca, it has taught me a great deal and continues to do so.
You often refer to these naturally occurring psychedelic substances like psilocybin and ayahuasca as “teachers,” could you elaborate on that? What is it that they teach people, and why do they have this effect?
D: I call these substances “teachers” because these plants can reliably induce very profound altered states, often described as spiritual states, which many people have suggested led to the development of concepts like religion and deities. I would go even further than that and suggest that our capacity for language and the human ability to form abstractions are all inextricably bound together, and I would argue that the use of these traits has been largely catalyzed by our use of these substances.
I think they taught us how to use our brains, and how to essentially practice cognition. This is the ‘Stoned Ape Theory’ that my brother Terence wrote about in the novel, ‘Food of the Gods,’ which is the belief that once our ancestors moved out of the trees and into the savannah, they inevitably came into contact with psilocybin mushrooms. Psilocybin mushrooms can be the size of dinner plates, can be bright gold or violet — they could not have overlooked these mushrooms — and when they did encounter them, they would have had these mystical experiences.
While there is evidence that other animals can make use of primitive tools, this is a big step from atomic reactors and supercomputers — I think that is what mushrooms gave us. They gave us the ability to do this to link meaningful symbols meaningful visual context to meaningful sounds and to interpretations, and to bring our abstractions into reality.
So you believe that the use of psychedelic plants helped catalyze human evolution?
D: I think it was a combination of a complex interaction of factors, you know, evolving in that environment, learning to use fire, learning to hunt, learning to fashion weapons and use them. All of that was also important, you know, but I think the psychedelic experience might have been important for this ability in making people aware of the unseen.
There is a world of meaning and profundity and connection far beyond what we normally experience and everyday life, in the notion that you know that we are all one. We are all connected. We are not really separate either from each other or from the rest of nature, you know, and if you step back and look at that, you have to sort of say well, yeah, obviously. Psychedelics are a tool that let you revisit and reaffirm that fact.
If this is indeed the case, and humans evolved in part due to our use of these psychedelic compounds, what do you think the effect of prohibition has been? Now that we’re quite removed from these substances?
D: Well I think one of the immediate impacts that comes to mind is our relationship with nature. My brother Terence used to talk about these “Dominator cultures,” which promote the worldview that humans are here to dominate. The most recent example of a dominator culture is Christianity.
Because of the concepts of the afterlife that Christianity promotes, there is no incentive to value nature. It is all about your reward in the next life. In Christianity, nature is something that we have every right to dominate, control, and exploit, and this mentality essentially says we are separate from nature, we are superior to nature.
Well, we are seeing the consequences of that attitude now in terms of the way we treat the planet, and the way, you know, we treat each other, and ourselves. This dominator attitude may be traced to this separation between humanity and these plant teachers. This estrangement from nature that has happened over the last few thousand years, most likely beginning with agriculture.
Through agriculture, we could exert control over the environment. We could grow plants, and that made it a lot easier to survive. This had an effect of making this essentially feel that we are separate from nature and not part of it.
We have encouraged this idea that we control nature; that nature exists to serve us and that is exactly the opposite of the message you get from psychedelics.Dennis McKenna, author, lecturer and ethnopharmacologist
Netflix recently released a documentary called ‘Have a Good Trip’ that featured many prominent celebrities including Ben Stiller and Sting. Why do you think psychedelics are moving into the mainstream again?
D: I think one of the factors behind the resurgence in the interest of psychedelics is that people are looking for meaningful experiences, and religion does not offer that anymore. The last thing religious leaders want is for somebody to have a genuine mystical experience. That is the province of the priests and the shamans and all that ordinary schmucks like you and me, we are not privileged enough to experience such things.
The current religious institutions are more or less hollowed out, and they are not places you can go for spiritual enlightenment. Religion and many other spiritual institutions have a mission to tell you what to think. The invitation is turn off your mind — Stop thinking, just accept these tenets or beliefs and you will be fine. Stop asking all these pesky questions. Psychedelics, on the other hand, have worked to democratize spirituality.
This is why people go to South America to take Ayahuasca — it is not thrill-seeking. These are sincere people who really feel that something is missing from their lives who look to psychedelics to satisfy their spiritual impoverishment — And oftentimes, it does.
How do you feel about the current cannabis legalization movement? Could this lead to the eventual legalization of psychedelic compounds?
D: I think it is a very hopeful sign that things are changing, you know, and it is not going to happen clearly of the federal level or maybe not immediately but in various states, these decriminalization petitions, and initiatives are happening, and I think that is definitely a hopeful sign.
Compared with psychedelics, cannabis is much more widely used much less scary. People have the perception that psychedelics seem a little more dangerous than cannabis, and so on people are more comfortable with cannabis. But the proliferation of cannabis is definitely opening people up to the possibility that we were wrong to criminalize plants to begin with. And I think we’re already seeing this with the proliferation of ayahuasca, as the plant begins to permeate beyond the Amazon.
In fact, I think drug prohibition has backfired in a sense. We’re fed all this nonsense about the evils of marijuana, and then you try it, and you find out that not only is none of this true, but actually cannabis has a lot of benefits. Then you begin to explore other substances.
Do you think the legalization of psychedelics should be limited to medical purposes?
D: I think that people should have access to these medicines that they should not be regulated or prohibited in any way, and I also think that the very idea that we as a species have the right to declare certain substances as being prohibited or persona non grata is ludicrous.
That being said, I do see psychedelics becoming commercialized and corporatized and, you know, developed essentially as pharmaceuticals. This is a bit dismaying to me as I think that approach risks leaving something very important behind. You can focus on the molecules, and you can develop clinical therapies around those, but it is very hard to rip these substances out of their cultural context. You lose a lot if you try to do that, and yet at the same time, obviously these substances can be important for medicine and they are important for mental health and Psychiatry.
I would like to see a rediscovery of shamanic practices alongside this growth in psychotherapeutic practices and create a fusion of these where the best of both can be somehow combined together.
Here is a chance for psychiatry to redeem itself by integrating psychedelics into the practice, but they cannot do that without harking back to the traditional ways that they were used.
Do you have any closing remarks?
D: I think we need to entirely revise how we view drugs. Drugs are a kind of technology, and as such, they can be used for good or used for evil. There is no such thing as a bad drug, there are just plenty of bad ways to use drugs. It is all about the decisions that we make in terms of how we are going to use these technologies — if we use them at all. It all comes down to the individual. Ultimately, you have to trust yourself.