Gary Laderman is Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Religion at Emory University. His most recent book is Sacred Matters.
Forget the war on drugs. As Jimmy Carter recently argued in the New York Times, it is time to call off this wasted effort, heed the recommendations of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, and create more reasonable, empirically-based, economically beneficial rules and regulations. It is time to shift policies, attitudes, and responses in the face of a rampant hunger for drugs across all sectors of society. Let’s face facts: despite the vacuous sloganeering for the last few decades, Americans continue to just say yes to drugs; and while they may be dangerous, they can also be positively transformative and, dare I say it, sacred.
Scientific evidence may help confirm what many religious cultures from around the world have known for centuries: certain substances can be spiritually powerful and life-enhancing. Just last week, the Health section of Time magazine included a story on psilocybin research from Johns Hopkins with the delicious title, “Magic Mushrooms Can Improve Psychological Health Long Term.” What the title doesn’t convey is front and center in the first sentence: “The psychedelic drug in magic mushrooms may have lasting medical and spiritual benefits...”
Spiritual benefits? You can read the details yourself in Time or this Mother Jones piece, but bottom line is that the drug can induce transcendental, mystical experiences in volunteers who feel better and more fulfilled over time, with relatives and close friends claiming the individual also became “calmer, happier, and kinder.” Yes, it’s a rather limited study but the explicitly religious language suggests that this drug isn’t just medicine in the conventional sense, but a potentially sacred source for enhancing and enriching the mind, body, and spirit. Perhaps they need more volunteers for future studies?
In a more serious and less explicitly religious vein is the excitement surrounding MDMA, the key ingredient in what is commonly known as Ecstasy. AlterNet recently ran a piece by Scott Thill on scientific research suggesting that the drug holds a great deal of therapeutic promise for veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While Thill unpacks the politics of this research, he also links to another recent article on MDMA in O, The Oprah Magazine with the more sacred-sounding title “Can a Single Pill Change Your Life?” The reportedly transformative and life-altering affects from scientific studies, as well as anecdotal accounts from raves, suggests we should take seriously claims that the drug may have medicinal and spiritual value.
The linkage between drug ingestion and religious experience—medicinal therapies and sacred realities—is a common feature of social life in many cultures. Drugs of all kinds, initially drawn from the plant world in the form of mushrooms or tobacco, jimsonweed or soma, have been considered powerful and invaluable because they combine medicinal and spiritual goods, are embedded in meaningful, socially vital rituals and myths, and heal by way of cosmic revelation. Sacred medicine isn’t restricted to the pursuit of a healthy individual body but can have, in some cultural settings, powers not associated with modern medicines: divination and recovery of lost objects, enlightenment and transportation to the world of the dead, ecstasy and communication with the spirits and ancestors, transformation and social revitalization.
It is certainly the case that good medicine in one society is a scourge in another; what one society labels unhealthy addiction can be, in different cultural circumstances, a ritually religious way to provide community members with spiritual illumination and mystical transportation, as well as psychological well-being. Yet one fact is clear: drugs have been used by humans throughout history for religious intoxication, leading some to argue that, like survival or sex, aggression or music, these experiences are also part and parcel of a primal, biological human drive. Sacred, intoxicating, illuminating medicines are a proven, reliable channel to worlds of meaning and experience relevant to truths about the here and now, as well as those beyond space and time.
But of course the historical and anthropological arguments about the sacred values of certain drugs are too subtle and complicated for those largely social conservative voices that have dominated the public debate and only see such matters in simplistic and narrow terms: Just Say No. Perhaps a surge in scientific investigations of substances like psilocybin, MDMA, cannabis, and LSD would help to win and finally shut down this costly, misguided, and futile war. Even better, maybe we can convince a leading political figure on the scene, like Rick Santorum, or Sarah Palin (or hell, why not even recently disgraced former Representative Anthony Weiner?) to volunteer as an experimental subject to test the long-term spiritual effects of magic mushrooms.