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The False Promise of Psychedelic Utopia

Some advocates claim that widespread psychedelic use will change the world for the better. But it’s not so simple.

In Aldous Huxley’s 1962 book, Island, a disillusioned journalist is shipwrecked on the shores of a mysterious island called Pala. Will Farnaby wakes up in a society low in crime and violence and high in un-dogmatic spirituality, co-parenting, and birds trained to squawk out “Attention!” as a call to stay mindful of the present moment. It’s a version of utopia, fueled by the best of Western science and philosophical traditions of the East. Pala achieves this with the help of a psychedelic drug called moksha—medicine made from yellow toadstools and described as “the reality revealer, the truth-and-beauty pill.” 


This is a departure from Huxley’s Brave New World, in which a psychoactive drug is used to maintain dystopia, not utopia. Soma makes people feel good and can cause hallucinations, but it’s used as a way to sustain a complacent status quo, rather than propelling society to a more progressive way of being. Huxley told The Paris Review in 1962 that Island was “a kind of reverse Brave New World, about a society in which real efforts are made to realize human potentialities.”

Whether a psychoactive drug will bring about utopia or dystopia is a question not limited to fiction but rather increasingly salient in our modern world. As the likelihood that psychedelic drugs will be available medically and through state legislation has increased, so too has a common refrain popular in the 1950s and 1960s: that widespread psychedelic use will contribute to the creation of a better society—a world in which people are anti-war, pro-environment, and filled with love and appreciation for their fellow humans. Today, these claims are backed by a handful of recent studies that have found that people who take psychedelics can self-report a high relatedness to nature, less authoritarianism, and more openness and prosocial feelings, and that use of psychedelics can correlate with the same.


Journalist Michael Pollan said at Big Sur’s Esalen Institute in 2019 that researchers had told him, “sometimes very explicitly, sometimes less so, that these molecules have the potential to change the world. This was kind of stunning to me …To solve the environmental crisis. To end war. Bring peace.” 

“If only we could get Trump to trip,” Pollan added. 

In the protests after the murder of George Floyd, one sign read, “Cops need to do ayahuasca.” A 2020 essay in Open Democracy argued that psychedelics promote experiences of awe and ego-dissolution that could “cause subtle shifts away from self-focus, individualism, a desire for financial success and competitiveness towards more intrinsic, open, trusting, optimistic, liberal and collective dimensions of personal identity which resonate with egalitarian political views.”

But the assumption that psychedelic use will always lead to left-leaning ideals and their associated utopias is incorrect—even if this is the kind of future one personally hopes for. It’s remarkably easy to find examples of psychedelic use associated with extreme right-wing or fascist beliefs instead. Or, just as common in today’s booming for-profit psychedelic industry, examples of when psychedelics are associated with advocacy for capitalism, IP protection, and monopolies. Take just one example: Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder, Gawker destroyer, Trump supporter, and donor of millions to Republican Senate candidates J.D. Vance and Blake Masters, is also poised to own a large portion of the psychedelic industry through his investments in mental health companies Compass Pathways and ATAI Life Sciences. 


“The evidence that psychedelics will be used for system change when psychedelic advocates and reformers are using classic venture capital and pharma-industry techniques to bring it to market to mass scale—I don't see it,” said Brian Pace, a lecturer at Ohio State University and editor at psychedelic nonprofit publication Psymposia

In a forthcoming paper in Frontiers in Psychology, Pace and Neşe Devenot, a postdoctoral associate at the University of Cincinnati, propose that any utopian claims about psychedelics will have to contend with a long list of counterexamples. “The assumption that psychedelics lead to progressive politics deserves greater scrutiny—particularly given the hype around positive implications for society,” Devenot and Pace wrote. 

This doesn’t mean that psychedelics will never contribute to making the world a better place. They are an exciting treatment option for myriad mental health conditions, and a tool for spiritual and meaning-making practices that could also enrich the lives of those without a diagnosed disorder. Some people who take psychedelics have profound experiences that de-center their “self” through “ego dissolution,” where the experience of “I” melts away. They feel interconnectedness with others, their loved ones, or the universe at large. It’s not a stretch to hope that such experiences would bring about a kind of empathy and care for each other, and that such powerful individual realizations might foster a better world. 


“The core idea was, psychedelics are this unitive, mystical state—you realize we're all connected, and we have more in common than different,” said Rick Doblin, the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), in a recent GQ interview. “Then, politics changes. That was the animating vision. The antidote to genocide, to environmental destruction, was the sense of connection. Not just the idea of it, but the felt experience of it.” There’s also a historical correlation of psychedelics to the counterculture movement in the 1960s and ’70s, a time rife with anti-war, environmental, women’s movement, and civil rights protests. 

But broadcasting that psychedelics will automatically have these universal progressive effects on a larger scale, that they will turn everyone into a liberal, or that they will bring about a mythical utopia, could have serious consequences that could undermine psychedelics’ benefits. 

The presumption of a psychedelic utopia could lead to turning a blind eye to unethical practices if it’s taken for granted that psychedelics always lead to prosocial behaviors. Or it could delegitimize research or calls for decriminalization through hyperbolic claims since, actually, the idea that psychedelics can change people’s affiliations in a consistent manner is the stuff of MK-ULTRA—the CIA’s attempt to use psychedelics as brainwashing tools. These assumptions also ignore some of the most interesting aspects of psychedelics: their amenability to context and extra-pharmacological factors, and how it is that set, setting, and culture can influence so many different kinds of experiences. 


When it comes to the climate crisis, systemic racism, or world peace, “we should and can, as a society, think about these issues with more complexity and care,” said David Yaden, an incoming assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine and member of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. “I think any utopian pronouncements about psychedelics—that psychedelics can somehow save the world from these environmental and humanitarian issues—sound extremely naive at best and trivializing of the enormous complexity and urgency of these issues at worst. I don't think that we should be looking to psychedelics to address these issues.”

Speculations about how psychedelics might transform society are a longtime staple of psychedelic culture. “You only need to think of Timothy Leary claiming psychedelics will restructure society and culture in the 1960s, or Terence McKenna arguing the psychedelic mushroom is the answer for the nuclear mushroom and the planetary crisis,” said Ido Hartogsohn, an assistant professor at Bar Ilan University in Israel and author of American Trip: Set, Setting and the Psychedelic Experience in the 20th Century

In 1966, the poet Allen Ginsburg reportedly said to a roomful of Unitarian ministers that if everyone tried LSD, “then I prophecy we will all have seen some ray of glory or vastness beyond our conditioned social selves, beyond our government, beyond America even, that will unite us into a peaceful community.” Leary once claimed that “turning on people to LSD is the precise and only way to keep war from blowing up the whole system.” Al Hubbard, the “Johnny Appleseed of LSD," wanted to give psychedelics to the executives of the Fortune 500 companies, and by doing so, “change the whole of society.”


“I just find the whole thing kind of spurious,” said Tehseen Noorani, an anthropologist at Durham University. “Think about some of the stories that we hear that spawned this notion. It’s super elite people, a few white men, in the 1960s or 1950s and they’re shouting some version of ‘Eureka’ in their living rooms, and then saying, “This is it. Everyone needs this.’”

These sentiments can still be easily found today. Christian Angermayer, a funder of Compass and cofounder of ATAI Life Sciences, said in a recent interview with Uma Thurman that while his focus is on medicalizing psychedelics for mental health treatments, he also foresees a possibility of wider applications—like when groups are unable to compromise, like Democrats and Republicans. Ayahuasca has been proposed as a peace-mediation strategy for the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

During the Q&A, an audience member asked Angermayer whether world leaders could take psychedelics together, and how long it would be until a president could openly admit to taking these drugs. Angermayer responded, “Psychedelics make you a better human being, and that’s what we want our politicians to be.” 

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Do psychedelics make you a “better human being”? An often cited paper from 2017 found in an online survey that people who had used psychedelics were found to be more liberal and less likely to endorse authoritarian ideas. In another study of only 14 people, those who took psilocybin were also found to be less likely to embrace authoritarian views, like fascism. In 2011, Johns Hopkins psychedelic researchers found that mystical experiences were associated with increases in openness in 51 people. 


Though intriguing, there are some concerns around selection bias: It could be that people who participate in psychedelic studies and surveys online, or respond to flyers that advertise for “a study of states of consciousness brought about by psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychoactive substance used sacramentally in some cultures” may have been prone to such beliefs already. 

But as Marc Gunther wrote in Medium, many people now view psychedelics this way—as much more than just a treatment for mental health. “It’s about how they can heal the world. There is sickness all around us. The threat of climate change. Unconscionable poverty amid great wealth. Extreme political polarization. These are manifestations of deeper ills: People feel disconnected from one another and from nature.” 

Mike Tyson, the boxer, told Reuters that he hoped psychedelics could change the world, after they “saved his life” from a traumatic brain injury. Beyond just his own individual health, "I believe this is good for the world," Tyson said, expressing the hope that society could become more “empathetic and just.”


These ideas are appealing because psychedelics often do bring about meaningful and deep personal shifts in individuals. “These are deeply transformative agents which open all sorts of new radical possibilities for the individual,” Hartogsohn said. The extrapolation is that by changing minds, society will follow suit. Yet that isn’t a logical next step to take. “The fallacy lies in underestimating the power of social and political structures to stifle change, in underestimating the challenges of grounding transformative experiences and putting them into action, and not recognizing that the transformation may assume diverse types of forms." 

In a recent Los Angeles Times profile of Sa’ad Shah, who is leading one of the largest psychedelic venture capital firms, he described how he went from working in hedge funds to working at Noetic. “It’s a classic hero’s-journey type of story,” Shah said.

But Shah’s interest in theology and mysticism, and eventually taking ayahuasca in Brazil, didn’t lead him to journey very far. He still ended up in finance, and is practicing biopharma in the typical way, in collaboration with pharmaceutical companies and IP protection. 

“Shah welcomes Big Pharma and big institutions to enter the fray in the interest of spreading the chemical gospel far and wide,” journalist Sam Dean wrote. “He sees the financial and therapeutic potential for psychedelics not in the cannabis model, which would make psychedelics broadly available for retail purchase, but in the pharmaceutical mode—psychedelics as prescribed drugs, with patent rights, administered in medical settings.”


Stories like this, about how psychedelics don’t necessarily fundamentally change who people are or how they participate in the world, are common. “You have people coming out of the profound unity of mystical experiences accessible on psychedelics in Silicon Valley, and somewhere after that, a very early thought is: How can I make an app to monetize this?” Pace said. “I don't think that necessarily tracks with this idea of creating a utopia.”

Devenot and Pace's forthcoming paper is rich with precedents for psychedelics being associated with ideologies the opposite of those they’re typically correlated with in popular culture. Jake Angeli, the “QAnon shaman” who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, regularly took psychedelics. As philosopher and writer Jules Evans wrote, Angeli is “a big believer in using psychedelic ceremonies for mental health. Somehow all those psychedelics failed to turn him into a liberal.” The neo-Nazi group the Base attempted to extract DMT, as VICE News’ Ben Makuch and Mack Lamoreaux have reported. The group also used LSD in a “neo-Pagan male-bonding ritual” that involved beheading a ram.


The list goes on and on: The founder of neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer used and was an enthusiast of LSD and psilocybin. Markus “Notch” Persson, the Minecraft inventor who called feminism a “social disease,” allegedly experimented with LSD. Florida representative Matt Gaetz took MDMA during his interactions with sex workers. Numerous cults have utilized psychedelics, like the Aum Shinrikyo and Rajneesh, which used chemical and biological weapons against the public.The founder of 8chan was on mushrooms, as Pace has reported, when he “got the idea for the free-speech absolutist forum that became a haven for white supremacy.”

When Devenot and Pace searched Stormfront, a hate site rife with antisemitism and white nationalism, they found it revealed pages of discussion around psychedelics. One post from 2017 reads, “Well, I can tell you this much: I have tried LSD several times and it certainly did not make me a liberal idiot.” 


To explain how psychedelics can be found affiliated with such disparate views, Devenot and Pace endorsed the metaphor of pluripotency, which is the ability for a stem cell to be coaxed to become any kind of cell. In similar ways, any facet of the psychedelic experience could be expressed alongside varying ideologies, Devenot said. Outcomes like openness, gratitude, interconnection—all of these could be applied to and co-exist with disparate political or ideological beliefs. 

For example, though gratitude has been reported to be a part of the reason psychedelics make people more prosocial, a recent experiment found that when people were primed to feel gratitude, they were more willing to be obedient to authority, and more likely to grind up worms in a grinder when told to, than those without any gratitude priming. Mindfulness can also lead to different end results. As psychologist Michael Poulin has found, when mindfulness is wielded in people focused on individualism rather than interdependence, doing mindfulness meditation makes people less generous with their time and makes them partake less in a prosocial activity. Spirituality, too, has been shown to both promote well-being and a connection to others and, in some cases, to “spiritual bypassing,” where difficult emotions are avoided. 


“One thing that we really emphasized in our paper by looking at people like Jordan Peterson is the way that experiences of interconnection can be experiences of connection to hierarchy within which you feel like you have this privileged status,” Devenot said. “It’s not an egalitarian interconnection; it's interconnection to this larger thing that can be served, like [with] more authoritarian views of society and politics.”

“Far from being a universal panacea capable of ‘healing the world,’ psychedelics might just reflect or amplify the dominant values of the individuals that use them,” as anthropologist David Dupuis wrote. Pace agreed: “What we're seeing is the amplification of what's laying around—which in this case would be sort of neoliberal individualist narratives.”

The work on psychedelics and pro-environmentalism specifically caused a lot of excitement because of the escalating climate crisis. Several studies and surveys have indeed found that people who use psychedelics have a closer relationship to nature. In a study from 2019, From Egoism to Ecoism, researchers from Imperial College London found that psychedelic use was correlated with increases of nature relatedness two and four weeks after the experience, as well as up to two years later. If people had experienced ego-dissolution and were in natural surroundings during their trip, the correlation was increased. 


In 2019, a co-founder of the Extinction Rebellion said at the psychedelic conference Breaking Convention: “The causes of the [climate] crisis are political, economic, legal, and cultural systemic issues, but underneath that are issues of human trauma, powerlessness, scarcity, and separation. The system resides within us and the psychedelic medicines are opportunities to help us shift our consciousness.” 

That psychedelics could prompt pro-environmental behaviors is called the biophilia hypothesis, which argues that once the border between ourselves and the natural world dissipates, we’ll be more likely to care about nature.

The anthropologist Dupuis, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, was at the Breaking Convention talk in person and said that the majority of it was astute, but he felt this point was “quite naive.” Dupuis has been studying ayahuasca tourism for 10 years, repeatedly interviewing and following Western clients who travel to the Peruvian Amazon to drink ayahuasca in a ritualistic setting with a shaman. 

Observing his subjects over 10 years has led Dupuis to question the biophilia hypothesis. Even if they reported an increase in their relatedness to nature, he hasn’t seen this increase make an impact on their concrete behaviors. Some people might have switched to eating organic food, but overall they were still consumed with making money, product consumption, and emitting a lot of CO2 traveling from France to the Amazon.


“My feeling is that this ayahuasca ritual and this experience is more likely to affect people’s self-reported connection to nature rather than leading them to already substantial pro-environmental behavior change,” Dupuis said.

There are environmentalist ideas built into this kind of tourism: that Indigenous people are not destroying nature in the same way that other civilizations are, and that their way of life is more natural or harmonious with the planet. Dupuis has also observed how the economic opportunity of shamanic tourism has led to the construction of shamanic centers in the forest, reception centers, and the overexploitation and destruction of natural habitats.

This doesn’t show that it’s wrong to associate psychedelic use with nature relatedness; it just might not be the full picture—one slice of one kind of psychedelic experience and user. Yet, it can be used to promise widespread impacts on the climate crisis. 

Journalists and researchers shouldn't ignore such findings, but we shouldn’t assume and present that they will always be the norm, or that self-reports will definitely lead to greater global change. This requires a mea culpa on my part, too: I wrote in 2019 about whether nature-relatedness was something climate communicators could invoke when talking to others about climate change—but the headline that ran on the piece echoed some of these overstated claims: “If everyone tripped on psychedelics, we’d do more about climate change.” 


“I don’t think we can confidently say psychedelics necessarily produce these alleged effects, but I don't think we should rule out their potential either,” Hartogsohn said. “I think about psychedelics in terms of affordances. These agents do have immense potential to facilitate peacebuilding, social awareness and eco-awareness. But it depends on the context. In a different context, psychedelics might fuel nationalist or fundamentalist agenda.”

Usually, the way pharmacology is viewed is that certain compounds have mostly predictable physiological results. When you drink caffeine, you feel more awake; a sleeping pill will make you tired. But with psychedelics, their effects are brought about by both pharmacology and so-called “extra pharmacological factors” like mindset, setting, culture, integration, and more. 

Silicon Valley is a striking example of how widespread psychedelic use won’t automatically produce a utopia. “When Silicon Valley executives are using psychedelics, it’s often to increase the performance, creativity, productivity in a strong professional competition context,” Dupuis said. “For me, it’s showing that psychedelics are nonspecific amplifiers of preexisting crucial factors rather than a way to change your way of seeing the world.”

This makes it an open, and fascinating, research question as to whether psychedelics are in fact tools for people to connect with moral values, and if they promote certain political or ideological beliefs. Psychedelics create prime environments in which to study “extra-pharmacological” factors, which are other influences that can change, enhance, or direct the effects of a chemical compound. 


Dupuis said it’s a good thing that psychedelics don’t reliably change people’s political affiliations or beliefs about society in a homogenous way: Even if they produced a version of a progressive utopia, that process would would be in line with the idea of psychedelics as a “brainwashing tool,” which the CIA tried to investigate in the 1950s with its unethical and covert project MK-ULTRA. 

“Psychedelics were tested for their brainwashing capacity in very unethical studies decades ago and found wanting,” Yaden said.“That experiment has been run. Lots of people took psychedelics, and the utopia did not come.”

Yaden and Johns Hopkins’ Matt Johnson wrote a rebuttal in Scientific American in 2020 to the idea that psychedelics could consistently change someone’s political affiliation. Based on the evidence available, Yaden said, “It’s certainly possible that various beliefs can shift around. Some of these might be more left-leaning, some might be more right-leaning, but it's extremely unlikely that we'll see shifts in affiliation.”

Suggestibility under psychedelics is well-known, but there could also be an influence of the “noetic” quality of psychedelic experiences, that realizations you have on the drug are deeply true without needing any evidence to be proven so. Nicolas Langlitz, an anthropologist and historian of science at The New School, said that as more people take psychedelics, we’ll better be able to test claims like “psychedelics lead to increased environmentalism and anti-authoritarianism.” 


“This aspect of the psychedelic experience lends itself to creating experiences that deeply impress themselves on people,” Langlitz said. “If it goes along with a certain ideology, a ritual context in which particular content is pushed, then it could generate an experience where you know you burn these ideas into people's minds.”

To ask and answer these kinds of questions requires interdisciplinary work, said Noorani, involving psychologists, neuroscientists, and pharmacologists working alongside social scientists and anthropologists. In the 1950s, anthropologist Anthony Wallace proposed that placebo-controlled trials should be complemented with culture-controlled trials that tested drugs at the same dose in different social and cultural contexts—it could also be time to revive a strategy like that. 

As psychedelics become more mainstream, the people who choose to take them, for myriad reasons, will be more diverse. As the diversity of the users and uses for psychedelics increases, the range of extra-pharmacological factors will broaden too. 

Mainstreaming comes with pluralism. For some people, psychedelics may make them dedicate themselves to the climate crisis, social justice, and world peace. Some may just use it as a mental health treatment. For others, it could lead to a greater dedication to more rigid right-wing or capitalist ideas, and even promote doing whatever is necessary to protect the hierarchies that uphold it. 

“That’s very interesting from a social-scientific point of view,” Langlitz said. 

The current period of psychedelic research has now lasted for about as long as the one that took place in the 1950s and 1960s, before psychedelics were outlawed. Yaden thinks that over-exuberant promises and assumptions about global impacts could have a serious consequence: getting in the way of the research that’s going on now. 

Even saying that the medicalization of psychedelics will completely solve the mental health crisis is an overstatement. “Vast wealth inequality is being mobilized via venture capitalists to monopolize and own this space,” Pace said. “And big predictors of mental health outcomes are things like debt, political violence, systemic structural violence, climate change. Psychedelics aren't going to solve those problems.”

Psychedelic drugs don’t need to bring about utopia in order to be valuable as research subjects or to be decriminalized. Psychedelic advocates are already at risk of psychedelic exceptionalism: the claim that psychedelics should be legalized because of their positive benefits. But not incarcerating people for drug possession or use has been shown to be beneficial for reasons that have nothing to do with purported utopian qualities of the drug itself. 

Believing that the ends justify the means, that utopia is coming so the path to get there can have ethical bumps in the road, is “extremely dangerous logic when we're talking about psychedelics because there's so many vulnerable people because the experience is so powerful and so amenable to influence,” Devenot said. She said it could also distract from complementary practices that are helpful to mental health: “Like organizing, union forming, community-based mutual aid projects, like things that are actually materially connected to well-being and resilience might become not as much of a focus because you believe that this pill is just going to fix things.”

It's worth remembering that the word utopia was first introduced in Sir Thomas More’s 1516 book, but the word utopia meant “no-place.” Langlitz warned that “utopia” means very different things to different people. As American academic Lyman Tower Sargent has written, since every group would define their own utopia differently, the concept of one place being a utopia is a contradiction. “There are socialist, capitalist, monarchical, democratic, anarchist, ecological, feminist, patriarchal, egalitarian, hierarchical, racist, left-wing, right-wing, reformist, free love, nuclear family, extended family, gay, lesbian and many more utopias,” he wrote in Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction. 

Moksha, the name for the psychedelic drug on Huxley’s utopian island, means liberation in Sanskrit. As Farnaby explained, the drug “does something to the silent areas of the brain which opens some kind of neurological sluice and allows a larger volume of Mind with a large ‘M’ to flow into your mind with a small ‘m.’”

When Farnaby takes moksha-medicine, he has a transcendent experience. “From a preternaturally wretched and delinquent self, he had been unmade into pure mind, mind in its natural state, limitless, undifferentiated, luminously blissful, knowledgelessly understanding,” Huxley wrote. 

In the end, even Pala was not immune to the nefarious forces of the outside world. At the end of the book, Western capitalists arrive to overtake the island and extract its natural resources. Huxley made the point that the colonizers couldn’t rob the people of Pala, or Farnaby, of their individual enlightenments that they achieved through the moksha-medicine. “Disregarded in the darkness, the fact of enlightenment remained,” he wrote. 

But as the academic Gorman Beauchamp wrote in the journal Utopian Studies, one reason the Palanese don’t fight back was their adherence to pacificity, an outlook they got from the moksha-medicine: “The gentle and pacific Palanese cannot resist the superior armed force of the Colonel, nor does their philosophy encourage them even to try.” 

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