Psychedelic enthusiasm must be more honest about the reality of the risks.
Psychedelics are often referred to as a “frontier,” and I know many of my fellow Christians are becoming more curious about joining it, or have already. Truly, life on the frontier can feel exciting, full of intoxicating adventure, a place of discovery where the possibilities seem limitless. It is a place where we feel we are doing good for future generations in our exploration.
But if psychedelics are a frontier, we need to deal with this fact: frontiers are dangerous.
A frontier is dangerous, in part, because it is intrinsically a step into the unknown. The frontier, beyond the edges of society and known terrain, has little in the way of support systems, legality, or accountability. As such, it has rogues looking to take advantage of the ignorant and vulnerable in pursuit of a gold rush. Journalist Shayla Love recently wrote an excellent piece on the downsides of psychedelics, which if you have not read, I recommend pausing and digesting first before continuing on.
Just like the Oregon Trail, the psychedelic field has snake-oil salespeople selling dreams that do not align with reality. Even after good trips, once the waves of excitement and euphoria die down, it can be unclear whether the promised land is any better than the one left behind; I imagine some people who made it alive to Oregon wish they had just stayed in Missouri. I assure you that many of their loved ones agree.
Frontier stories also suffer from survivorship bias. I have seen too many psychedelic communities break down through psychological unwellness. I know too many people who feel disturbed, unsupported, and pressured to remain silent about a bad experience to believe the frontier myths of easy glory.
Psychedelics are not only a social frontier, but an inner frontier into unknown parts of the psyche. It is undeniable that psychosis and other mental health problems can emerge, and some people never come back the same, such as in this thread of acid casualties or the tragic case of Justin Clark. Further, I echo John Horgan’s thoughts from 2015 that even “taking psychedelics in a supervised research setting will not necessarily eliminate the risk of a bad trip.”
It is something of an open secret that psychedelic therapy has been pursued as a trojan horse for legalization by people with a belief in psychedelics, in the truest spiritual sense of the word, based on their own personal direct experiences. As a religious person, I have no problem at all with spiritual beliefs, nor beliefs that psychedelics offer spiritual experiences—provided we know them as beliefs. But as Love’s article details, this makes it hard to know what of the latest science is valid because research institutions often have scientific activists seeking confirmation bias for political gains and profit rather than relentlessly and skeptically pursuing truth. Given these and other internecine dynamics, it is too apparent why the psychedelic response is dismal when stories of abuses by research institutions emerge.
Thankfully, some voices are saving lives on this frontier. As noted by Love, one watchdog group in particular, Psymposia, is asking many hard questions about research, reporting stories of abuse in clinical trials and the underground that are inconvenient to psychedelic triumphalist meta-narratives, including ones I used to believe. As someone deeply disgusted and disturbed not only by the abuse but by the response to the abuse, I join the growing chorus asking for more critical engagement in the name of institutional harm reduction.
If I sound like a downer, or this is causing you intense anxiety for yourself or a loved one, I want to temper my caution with hope: frontiers do have many wonderful souls, many find that a bad trip is not forever, that darkness can be faced head-on, that fearful moments can turn into joy, and should you find yourself in the middle of a harrowing experience, there are a variety of techniques to navigate to safer ground. If you or a loved one has had a genuinely horrible experience, their effects can often heal over time, and support from professionals, peers, and prayer can alleviate post-psychedelic distress. And certainly, frontiers can have beauty, purpose, and meaning. Personally, Ayahuasca helped me come back to Christianity and devote my life to Christ.
But if I am to be in full integrity, I must tell you that I also went five years without psychedelics after one overwhelming psilocybin experience in my early 20’s (the Book of Proverbs notes, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” and that day I became wiser). There were still other times when irresponsibility caused more bad experiences. Besides overwhelm, we might also be underwhelmed, experiencing little to nothing profound, and leave disappointed that we didn't get what we felt was promised. Still other times, a practitioner may not be as competent or ethical as advertised. There are potential side effects, such as HPPD, and we simply do not know all the psychological risks. Please, beloved, be cautious, and know that it’s always okay to walk away from a planned experience.
If we decide to accept the risk and head out on the frontier, there are things we can do to educate ourselves to reduce the chance for harm. As a Christian, beyond the basic containers of set, setting, and dosage, I take John the Baptist as one model for spiritual preparation. The job is not to make God come to us—Grace is freer than that. The job is not to be the savior—nor is it the substance’s job to save, lest we make it an idol. What we can do to “prepare the way” is to model the self-emptying kenosis of Christ, removing our pride and clearing our interior ground. We can “make straight the paths” in our bodies, hearts, and minds through healthy physical practices and the ordinary spiritual disciplines of prayer and reading scripture, setting sacred intentions rather than false expectations. However we prepare, it is important to tone down our hype and be disabused of oversimplified narratives.
Ultimately, no matter whether we’ve had zero psychedelic experiences or plenty already, I want us to be free of psychedelic FOMO in order to discern wisely. You may well decide that, in your situation, the exploration is worth it. The stakes for healing from crippling trauma, depression, and other anguish may have the right calculus to go on the journey. The call into the unknown may be strong.
But it is completely okay to decide that the risks of psychedelic use are too great. It does not make you less enlightened, your soul less loved by God, your spirit less free, your life less adventurous; it does not make you less anything. God delights in you as you are.