Talking Acid Trips and Drug Legalization with the Psychedelic Society of Brooklyn

Daniel Miller never expected to become a psychedelics advocate, but the former Ivy League-educated lawyer started the Psychedelic Society of Brooklyn last year to help change cultural and political attitudes towards LSD.

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Mar 26 2016, 1:30pm

Image via Flickr user St. Albert

"The psychedelic experience has the potential to help a lot of people," said Daniel Miller, founder of the Psychedelic Society of Brooklyn. I met him back in January at the Hell Phone Bar in Bushwick. The 33-year-old was dressed conservatively in a blue polo and jeans, looking more like the developer of some app than a nascent leader in the drug legalization movement. Subtlety, it was only his hat that highlighted his passion for mind-altering substances—the cap featured the image of a unicorn in front of a rainbow.

"[LSD] helped me quit smoking, but that's a secondary effect of my experience," he told me. "Mostly, it helped me be a happier person."

The hallucinogenic drug proselytizer was at the bar to support an event co-hosted by his group. The Psychedelic Society of Brooklyn's mission is to provide better education and encourage a "community-wide conversation that indirectly changes cultural and political attitudes towards psychedelics, thus shaping the inevitable post-prohibition world." To do that, Miller and his organization host a variety of events like the one I attended.

Like every Psychedelic Society meeting, the room was a psychedelic safe space. Under the bar's dimmed lights, roughly 100 people packed tables and stood in front of a small stage as they talked openly about their experiences with drugs. A computer programmer in his late twenties shared LSD advice with a middle-aged lawyer ("200 micrograms will really open your mind"). Miller made the rounds to speak one-on-one with his group's members. And Martin Dockery, a professional storyteller, took the stage to recount the tale of an acid trip he had on a bicycle in Basel, Switzerland, where Albert Hoffman first invented LSD. The crowd, silent throughout the performance, burst into roaring applause at the end.

Miller never expected to become a psychedelics advocate. Son of Aaron David Miller, an American diplomat to the Middle East, Daniel studied physics at Princeton and law at Georgetown University. He then began a promising career as the associate policy director for the Ohio Business Roundtable, a trade organization "comprised of the CEOs of the state's largest and most influential business enterprises," according to their website.

But Miller said he felt worn down by his competitive, goal-oriented attitude. "I was just really, really unhappy," Miller told me. "I was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, and I was unhealthy."

After working for three years after law school, Miller quit his job in August 2014 at the age of 31 and looked for the next step. That's when a friend convinced him to take his first hit of LSD.

"The LSD experience gave me a core sense of how to view the world. It wasn't us versus them, I felt I was part of a larger whole, like I was connected with others," Miller told me. "I didn't feel like I was trying to win all the time—and that had been a driving philosophy for a long time."

On top of realizing that drugs can inspire personal growth and deep introspection, he realized something was wrong with the way psychedelics are prohibited and stigmatized in society. "When I had that experience [with LSD], I thought to myself, Wow, that drug changed my life and it's illegal ? I've been told my entire life it's dangerous; it's as bad as heroin," Miller fumed to me. "That's an injustice."

The group doesn't just talk decriminalization, but also what a world with more open attitudes towards LSD could look like. "You still need to ask how [you should take LSD] and for what purpose? It's such an intellectual topic. Set and setting are integral to psychedelics. Who is going to design that set and setting? Architects and engineers and politicians need to come together to ask these questions," Miller explained.

In the summer of 2015 Miller moved to New York and started the Psychedelic Society of Brooklyn. He was not sure what he wanted to achieve with the group, but was certain he had to do something to share his message.

"I knew I needed to orient my life around different values and I didn't want to get a job similar to one I had before," Miller told me. "I believe in this, I believe it's wrong that these drugs are prohibited, and I think I have a good skill set to move the conversation forward. I thought starting a meetup would be a great way to [spark] that."

He advertised the group on Meetup and about 20 people showed up at the first meeting in Prospect Park last June. It was a varied group that included an architecture student, a nanny from South Africa, and a yoga instructor who had been a subject in DMT studies at the University of New Mexico. As the new members sat on blankets in the grass, Miller delivered a speech about the injustice of the prohibition of psychedelics.

But despite his indignation, he was afraid to speak openly about his personal experience or to have anyone else do so. "I didn't want my group to describe their trips," he said. "I was worried that it would taint me with impropriety, that it would put me at risk with the Bar [association]."

As time went on, Miller heard stories reminiscent of his own powerful trip and realized the potential of that message. "I heard person after person tell me about their experience and I realized how passionate people could be and how effective their story could be in terms of advocacy," he said. Miller decided to "come out of the psychedelic closet," as he calls it, and penned an article for Newsweek magazine titled "How Taking Acid Helped Me Stop Smoking."

Logo design by Colin Pugh

The meetings of the Psychedelic Society of Brooklyn soon evolved from focusing just on theory and facts about psychedelics through lectures and film screenings, to also include informal summits held at community dinners, small-group meetings, and open mic events where members could share their personal experiences. Today, the group has over 600 registered members, though monthly meet-up attendance varies from a couple dozen people, to the drug advocates packing entire bars like Hell Phone.

"The people who are coming are not just political advocates," said Noah Potter, Psychedelic Society member and former chairman of the New York City Bar's Committee on Drugs and the Law. "They're people who have a positive view of psychedelics and want to meet other [likeminded] people in a straight, daytime, nice, normal setting," Potter told me over the phone. "I hadn't encountered that before."

These days, there are people of all walks of life who hope to broaden the use of psychedelics. Lately, there's been a well-documented trend of young professionals, many of them in the seemingly drug-unfriendly worlds of finance or tech, who are experimenting with LSD microdoses to help them professionally.

And the Psychedelic Society of Brooklyn is by no means the only group pushing to change the public's attitudes towards drugs. For example, there's the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a non-profit research and educational organization based in Santa Cruz, California "that develops medical, legal, and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful uses of psychedelics and marijuana."

"What we do on the public education side of things seems to be reducing the stigma [around psychedelic research]," explained Brad Burge, MAPS's Director of Communications and Marketing. "That makes funders more willing to give to the research and it helps regulators be more confident in approving the research protocols."

Miller and the Psychedelic Society of Brooklyn have similar goals in mind, and plan on advocating more publicly for psychedelics in the near future. On April 19, the anniversary of Albert Hoffman's first LSD trip, Miller will lead a bike ride to raise awareness about the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics and to demonstrate the number of people behind the cause. Pending permits from the city, the route will end at the United Nations, where a Special Session of the General Assembly on the World Drug Problem is scheduled to begin that day. At the finish line, a live performance company called Psymposia will host a psychedelic storytelling event.

"Years ago if someone told me that right now I would be trying to advocate to legalize psychedelics, I would have said, 'You're fucking insane,'" Miller told me.

"It's not like one day I woke up and thought I should be and advocate for psychedelics. I just woke up and said I'm going to do something."

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