Psychedelics: A First-Amendment Right
by a Psychedelicist
If certain chemicals open one up to religious experience, should they be
protected by the Constitution? ©Gnosis* Magazine, No. 26, Winter 1993.
TODAY IS THE FOURTH OF JULY, and I just put out my family's flag
in front of our house. It is supposed to mean that America stands
for freedom, including freedom of religion.
But I can't practice my religion openly in America, and although
I am legally allowed to advocate it, if I do so openly, I may
find myself less respected in my town. My opportunities at work
may be limited. My family and I could have trouble receiving government
services or aid if we needed them.
In the opening line of The Reformation, historian Will
Durant writes, "Religion is the last subject that the intellect
begins to understand." At
least part of the difficulty that Durant points to is due to the
fact that the foundation of religion is not thought, not belief,
but experience. Currently this situation is often reversed, and
the error of putting the wagon of belief before the horse of experience
has produced the sorry state of religion today. Durant's wish
to understand religion misses the point that religion is
primarily experiential, not conceptual.
Experience is the mother of thought, and religious experience
is the mother of religious thought. Church, book, and dogma are
byproducts of experience. To ask someone who has never had a deep
spiritual experience to grasp such an event intellectually is
akin to asking someone who has never tasted salt to understand
saltiness intellectually. I don 't mean that we shouldn't use
the intellect to examine spiritual experiences, but such knowledge
will be shallow and incomplete.
Sacred texts such as the Bible, the Talmud, or the Qur'an provide
us with some knowledge; they do give us some inkling of the divine.
Words can help guide us toward the light, but sometimes psychedelics
unbind us so we can turn around and face the light. Psychologist
Frances Vaughan mentions some of the ways in which her psychedelic
experiences changed her thinking:
The perennial philosophy and the esoteric teachings of all time
suddenly made sense. I understood why spiritual seekers were instructed
to look within, and the unconscious was revealed to be not just
a useful concept, but an infinite reservoir of creative potential.
I felt I had been afforded a glimpse into the nature of reality
and the human potential within that reality, together with a direct
experience of being myself, free of illusory identifications and
constrictions of consciousness. My understanding of mystical teachings,
both Eastern and Western, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and Sufi
alike, took a quantum leap. I became aware of the transcendent
unity at the core of all the great religions, and understood for
the first time the meaning of ecstatic states.
It's important to note that Vaughan describes what is both an
exploration of her mind and a religious experience. Most Psychedelicists
believe that the human mind includes a spiritual dimension, and
that if one goes far enough into one 's mind, one can reach this
level. Thus mind exploration is not merely psychology or psychotherapy;
it is also spiritual development. Because LSD and other entheogens
("entheogen" is derived from Greek roots meaning "that
which engenders god within") assist one in mind exploration,
they are sacraments.
I hesitate to use the word "God" in this article because
it comes loaded with so much doctrinal meaning. I will use the
word "god," however, as it most accurately expresses
my sensation of holiness. I do not mean a personal deity; to me
it is best thought of as a force or energy such as gravity, magnetism,
What religious experiences can be produced by LSD, peyote, or
similar entheogens? For me, they include a sense that holiness
permeates everything even though we are usually not aware of it;
a feeling of love, blessedness, and adoration, a feeling that
I am being blessed without being particularly deserving and am
returning this love toward god; and what I will call a sense of
mystical oneness, in which any sense of separation between myself
and god disappears. This is not to say that I as my usual ego
am the same as god, but rather that I temporarily leave that ego
behind and realize that separateness as we normally experience
it is an illusion.
There are many books about the experience of mystical oneness.
I will not add further to what others have said, except to point
out that mysticism can be seen as the belief in an ultimate unity
of the universe that can be directly experienced. Because of psychedelics,
I too find these ideas credible. They are the core of my belief
system. Without my psychedelic experiences I doubt that I would
have even considered them at all. In a very real sense LSD helped
me find godthe god withinand I feel that I am a better
person for it. I am eternally grateful for the blessings and spiritual
richness psychedelics have brought into my life. Without them
I would be without god. I know many of my coreligionists feel
the same. I hope my descendants will also be able to engage with
these ideas through psychedelic experiences.
How does a Psychedelicist view other current religious practices?
Within their limitations, church and word can be useful spiritual
guides if they are understood as being guideposts to the divine
parts of our minds. To Psychedelicists, however, the current overemphasis
on church and Bible verges on idolatry. These worldly, secondhand
manifestations of god are located in time and space, while god
is timeless and spaceless. In a sense church and word are like
a two-dimensional, black-and-white photograph of a three-dimensional
object. They are better than nothing. But they also miss the color,
movement, development, and most importantly the fragrance of the
sacred. They are also distorted, filtered, and polluted by history,
culture, and language. They are largely (though thanks to a few
mystics not entirely) artifacts of our ordinary state of consciousness,
with its limited experiences, perceptions, thoughts, beliefs,
What do established religions offer to psychedelic religions?
First, through their belief systems, they may prepare a person's
mind and heart for these experiences, pointing to the door, perhaps,
though not opening it. In this way they provide an expectation
of the divine and a way of recognizing, accepting, and thinking
about these experiences when they do occur. On the other hand,
I have found that organized religion often fails at this task,
so that its followers are completely unprepared for deep mystical
experience. No doubt psychedelic training, or something similar,
would provide excellent professional education for the clergy
of all faiths.
Second, religion may prepare one for sacred experience by "cleansing
one's heart and mind" through service, prayer, meditation,
or other ego-relaxing exercises. Current spiritual disciplines
are probably good "readiness" exercises.
Third, through sacred rituals, established religions may facilitate
direct experience of the divine. Some find that ecclesiastical
ritual does work for them, and they do sometimes experience the
divine through religious practice. But they often make the major
error of presuming that their own paths are the only path to god.
Fourth, religious texts and rituals take on deeper meaning and
significance when viewed from a sacred state of consciousness.
Among the two-dimensional words that suddenly become three-dimensional
in meaning through psychedelics are such statements as "The
kingdom of God is within you"; "We are all children
of God"; "Be still and know that I am God"; "You
must die and be born again to enter the kingdom of heaven."
As a Christian Psychedelicist, most of my experience is with the
Bible, but I understand from friends of other religious backgrounds
that their texts also become more meaningful.
Thanks to LSD, I now see church, religious practice, and dogma
as derived from spiritual experience, though not as the real thing.
I am not saying that beliefs, organized religion, and church-centered
activities are useless or unimportant. Many people find these
things to be adequate spiritual foundations. I'm glad they have
found them, but their religions do not work for me. As Psychedelicists,
my coreligionists and I depend on direct, intense spiritual experience.
Although the Bill of Rights says that the government shall not
establish any religion, those religions which are based on church,
book, or dogma are legally established in the sense that
they and their members alone receive constitutional protection
for' their practices, persons, and property. Followers of these
religions are not persecuted; Psychedelicists are. LSD and other
sacraments are illegal, and those who use them are subject to
Psychedelic sacraments are the sine qua non of our religion.
Depriving a Psychedelicist of LSD, sacred mushrooms, peyote, or
other sacraments is akin to depriving a fundamentalist of his
Bible or a Catholic of her church. Psychedelic experience is the
foundation of my practice.
During the Reformation, many clergymen feared that the printing
press would make the Bible available to the common person. They
feared that the untutored and unwashed might criticize the church
and clergy or even set up their own churches. This is exactly
what happened, and the reformers came to be known as Protestants.
From about 1300 to 1600, "heretics" such as John Wycliffe,
Jan Hus, John Calvin, and Martin Luther claimed that the Bible,
as the word of God, was the most direct expression of God. They
held that church, dogma, and clergy could be judged by the standards
of the Bible.
Today psychedelics enable us to take Protestantism a step further.
Following in the tradition of William James, this century's "heretics,"
including Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Huston Smith, Walter Clark,
Walter Pahnke, William Richards, and other Psychedelicists, claim
that the direct experience of god, undistorted by church, belief,
or revealed word, gives the purest sense of the divine. Today's
Psychedelic Reformation carries religious democracy a step further
to experience. No longer is the experience of god limited to a
few saints and holy people; each person can and should have his
or her own experience of god. Just as common access to the Bible
was at one time suppressed by church and state, so are psychedelics
suppressed now. Just as Protestants, reformers, and Puritans were
seen as the heretics and traitors of their times, Psychedelicists
are misperceived as the religious heretics and political traitors
of our own times.
Without doubt the most successful special-interest group in Washington
today is the drug prohibition lobby. My child is taught in school
that my spouse and I are criminals because our path to god uses
psychedelics. When I was in school, we were taught that one of
the worst things about Nazi Germany and the communist countries
was that children were taught to spy on their families, neighbors,
and friends. "Aren't we glad we live in America," my
teachers said, "where we don't do such things?" Yet
my child's school partakes in the DARE anti-drug program, which
teaches children to spy on their parents.
How and why does the government persecute my coreligionists and
By extending their fiefdoms beyond their original borders, the
Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health,
and the Public Health Service exercise control over the nonmedical
uses of psychedelics. It makes sense to me that they should
have some control over medical uses, but it does not make
sense that they also exercise control over religious, scholarly,
artistic, and scientific uses of drugs.
By ignorantly promulgating the malicious idea that the only proper
use of drugs is medical, the DEA and other agencies, and self-serving
politicians including President Bush, have produced a destructive
War on Drugs which kills more people than drug abuse itself.
They do not realize that drugs have both medical
and nonmedical uses and have been used beneficially for tens of
thousands of years.
By interpreting religion as being an organization or a set of
beliefs and by outlawing the use of psychedelics as sacraments,
the government establishes a preference for church-and word-based
religions. It handicaps all experience-based religions, psychedelic
and nonpsychedelic. It persecutes my psychedelic religion.
Today I changed to a new month on my Girl Scout calendar. As is
appropriate for July, it has a picture of a group of Girl Scoutsa
black, a blond, a Latina, and several generic whitesfolding
the American flag. I wonder if these children are being taught
that the essence of America's freedoms is protecting the rights
Almost 400 years ago, some of my ancestors left their native land
to seek religious asylum in Holland. Later they crossed the North
Atlantic in a small boat to come to what is now America. A portrait
of them hangs in the Capitol rotunda. Today I look at my flag
and wonder. will I too have to leave my native country to seek
asylum because of religious persecution?
The author has requested anonymity.
1. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization,
part 6: The Reformation (Springfield, Ill.: Simon &
Schuster, 1957), p. 3. (back)
2. Frances Vaughan,
"Perception and Knowledge: Reflections on Psychological and
Spiritual Learning in the Psychedelic Experience," in Lester
Grinspoon and James Bakalar, eds., Psychedelic Reflections
(New York: Human Sciences Press, 1983), p. 109. (back)
3. Joseph Pereira, "The Informants in
a Drug Program: Some Kids Turn In Their Own Parents," The
Wall Street Journal, April 20, 1992, pp. 1, A4. (back)
4. Religious Coalition for a Moral Drug Policy,
Reason, Compassion, and the Drug War (Washington, D.C.,
1990), p. 29. (back)
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