Coming Out of the Psychedelic Closet Conversation

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The decades-long “War on Drugs” has created a situation in which the use of psychedelics is a social justice issue.
The existing international moratorium against psychoactives, including psychedelics, is a form of cultural hegemony. Although psychedelics have been used for millennia by cultures around the world, the United States during the 20th century successfully exported its ideology against “illicit drugs” through international treaties.
But this proscription against psychedelics such as LSD, ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms, and mescaline is problematic on multiple levels: It is an affront to cognitive liberty – the right to freedom of thought and mental self-determination. As Amanda Feilding – executive director of the Beckley Foundation – wrote in a recent newsletter: “If a person is not in any way damaging anyone else by their actions, it should be their freedom to choose their preferred state of consciousness.”

It is also an attack on freedom of religion. Although there are a few exceptions protected under the Religion Freedom Restoration Act, the ban against psychedelics outlaws the practices of longstanding indigenous traditions, and it disregards the spiritual import of psychedelics to which people have attested in countless other contexts.

Why I’m Staying In the Psychedelic Closet
I must confess that I am a person who can’t exactly “come out of the psychedelic closet.” I work in the media, which makes me somewhat of a public figure.

I have to maintain relationships and rapport with politicians, business owners, community organizers, nonprofit leaders, and members of the communities where I work, not to mention the trust of those who follow my work and those above me in my organization. Coming out as a champion of psychedelic use, given the cultural stigma, would easily damage my standing in a lot of these areas.

While there may be individuals in each subset of people I mentioned that I could, and perhaps have, discussed my psychedelic experiences with, a public proclamation that I am a person whose identity has been informed by psychedelic experiences would not be a smart move on my part. I’m also not sure how necessary it would be.
The psychedelic experiences that truly shaped me were very personal, very inward, and very ethereal, making them hard to truly put into words for others. I will not try to sum up all the philosophical and personal insights psychedelics have given me, but I can say that I carry myself differently, and psychedelics shaped the way I interact and empathize with people, both for the better.

Out Yourself
At the closing session of the last Drug Policy Alliance Reform conference, I asked the audience to go home and tell people about where they had been, what they’d learned, and further, to out themselves as “responsible drug using adults.” This encouragement was well received, (and tweeted) just as it was at a MAPS’ Psychedelic Science a few years back when I, like Dr. Devenot in her essay, likened our crusade for cognitive liberty to that of the fight for gay rights.

I quoted Harvey Milk, who said:
“Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, then every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.”

Harvey Milk made it clear that “rights are won only by those who make their voices heard.”
We need to out ourselves because we need to stand up and be counted. You can’t expect to get equal rights unless you push for them, and you can’t push for them without first standing up and being “out.” But what about Milk’s idea that you’ll feel better if you come out of the closet? How would it be to unburden yourself, to freely and fully share that part of you that is so often hidden? As a psychiatrist, I have to admit, Harvey’s probably onto something with this idea. As difficult as it would be, I imagine it’d also be liberating to not have to hide anymore.

The Psychonaut’s Dilemma
As a psychologist and a research scientist, I’ve found that the topic of psychedelics can be sensitive and complex. There are a number of growing edges where important conversations are beginning to happen. I would like to focus here on two related interwoven perspectives, clinical and scientific, where I think further discussion is warranted.

From a clinical standpoint, it is crucial that counselors, therapists, social workers, and medical and mental health professionals do their best to create a safe space where clients or patients can discuss their concerns and experiences without fear of judgment. For those who do choose to come out of the psychedelic closet, having a safe sounding board such as a trusted counselor can be an invaluable asset. By cultivating an openness and curiosity toward patients’ and clients’ experiences that may differ from our own, we move closer to a stance that does not pathologize the unfamiliar, further alienating and potentially harming those we are trying to serve.
From a scientific standpoint, there has been growing interest in conducting research with psychedelics at institutions around the world. This covers a wide gamut ranging from molecular and preclinical models with cells and animals, to studies in humans on neurological and psychological effects. Along with such work, new discussions are emerging around the nature of psychedelics and their therapeutic potentials, bringing a number of important questions to light.

For instance: What is the role of culture in studying psychedelics such as ayahuasca and psilocybin, which have served in aiding spiritual rites among indigenous peoples for centuries and are now finding their way into a largely secular, scientific setting?

What is the role of subjective experience in studying and understanding psychedelics in the first person, and how can such approaches be reconciled and integrated with third-person methodologies such as neuroscience and behavioral pharmacology?

What kinds of training and precautions are necessary for people to safely administer psychedelics to others? Is personal experience with psychedelics valuable or appropriate for individuals administering psychedelics to others in laboratory or clinical settings?

The Asymmetric Risk of Coming Out in Queer and Psychedelic Communities
In Coming Out of the Psychedelic Closet: Psychedelics and Identity Politics, Nese Devenot posits a correlation between coming out as LGBTQ and coming out as a psychedelic user. In so doing, she proposes to map the identity of ‘psychedelic people’ and the movement toward legalization and social acceptance of psychedelics onto other identity-based claims for human rights protections and the civil rights movements coalesced through these claims. For her, ‘psychedelic people’ are doubly oppressed through drug war policies and social stigma against the psychedelic experience. She argues, psychedelic users can and must assume their rightful place in the fight against cultural hegemony and oppression.

I contend that the risk of coming out as queer is grossly unequal to the risk of disclosing as a psychedelic user.
Though Dr. Devenot briefly addresses queer critiques of her argument, I aim to demonstrate that she does not go far enough in considering the asymmetry of risk inherent within living an authentic life as each identity. Her claim for adopting the language and tactics of queer struggle for the psychedelic cause constitute an inapposite appropriation, rather than a mutually agreeable contribution to the civil rights discourse.
Dr. Devenot’s impetus for correlating queer and psychedelic identities is her belief that they share a number of central qualities that transcend their differences. Both are not normal as defined by current Western standards. Both are hidden, insofar as it is not always immediately apparent if someone is queer or psychedelic-minded. To live authentically, both must tell others about this part of themselves.

Disclosing one’s true identity can be immensely freeing. In the context of queerness, it has been described as “an act of bravery, authenticity, and openness.” 1 Dr. Devenot quotes Sandra Lee Bartky describing similar emotions vis-à-vis sharing the psychedelic experience: “There is an inexpressible relief in ‘coming out.’” That feeling of freedom, of living authentically, cannot and must not be discounted. However, coming out, as what, matters.
Disclosing as a psychedelic user can have consequences. Employers who include these substances on occupational drug tests can leverage the results in hiring and firing decisions. Use of these illicit compounds can result in legal prosecution. The War on Drugs currently powers the prison industrial complex; in 2011, 48% of federal inmates were serving for drug offenses.2However, hallucinogen-driven arrests appear to be rare. A review of published legal cases found that, in substantially all cases noting hallucinogen use, the impetus for arrest was sexual assault or drug deals turned violent, and not the illegality of the substance.3 The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that only 1% of adults on probation were under the influence of hallucinogens (where hallucinogens include PCP) during their committed offense.4

Coming Out in Solidarity
Discussions about psychedelics, identity, and disclosure inevitably provoke strong emotional responses. As the Teafaerie describes in her essay, these emotions sometimes make it difficult to continue the conversation. The diversity of perspectives represented here is encouraging, since it is only through respectful dialogue that we can learn from one another and refine our thinking about these timely issues. With this spirit of openness in mind, I will close with some reflections on the varied perspectives offered here.

Some of the respondents reject using words like “discrimination” and “oppression” in the context of people who use psychedelics, arguing that the social costs are miniscule and asymmetric when compared to those that attend the widespread prejudices against racial, sexual, and gender minorities. While I agree that the challenges are not identical in either scope or severity, the claim that things could be much worse is not a sufficient justification for silencing other critiques of marginalization.

As a scholar of intersectionality, I agree with Vivian M. May’s argument in Pursuing Intersectionality, Unsettling Dominant Imaginaries that since systems of oppression are “enmeshed and mutually reinforcing,” one form of inequality should not be treated as “superordinate” and used to silence other struggles for self-determination and equality. Intersectional activists have emphasized that the “single-axis” approach to social justice that focuses on individual groups often leaves the operative logics of discrimination unchallenged.
By restricting forms of redress to sanctioned groups, single-axis tactics risk reinforcing the very foundations of inequality and discrimination that resulted in the problem to begin with.
As May describes, “many equality strategies paradoxically legitimize and even expand the forms of violence and harm they seek to dismantle, in large part because they do not depart from the binary logics and hierarchical processes that undergird inequality.”

“Social justice movements don’t succeed until they have a face, and psychonauts won’t have a face until we stand up and tell our family, neighbors, and friends about our own experiences. Of course, as MAPS and others work to develop psychedelics into legal medicines, we’ll see even more “coming out” of subjects who were treated in the initial studies. But the vast majority of psychedelic users aren’t diagnosed with a mental illness. It’s much harder to dismiss an uncle, brother, or childhood friend who has been benefited medically, psychologically, or spiritually from psychedelics.”
Daniel Jabbour, founder of the Psychedelic Society – San Francisco Chapter


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