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Criminals and Researchers: Perspectives on the Necessity of Underground Research

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The following originally appeared on The Nexian.

Shortly after presenting on behalf of the DMT-Nexus at the Psychedemia conference at the University of Pennsylvania, in September 2012, I was interviewed by a Harvard Graduate student for a paper he was writing. The purpose of the interview was to discuss “the decision-making process related to pursuing psychedelic research.” By and large, it was a positive discussion that I hope was as enjoyable for him as it was for me.

During the interview, I was asked a question that I couldn’t get out of my head, even after the interview had finished. I was asked why I felt there was a need for underground psychedelic research. I found myself somewhat caught off guard by this question, as the need for psychedelic research has always seemed self-evident to me. Psychedelics challenge so much of what we are commonly told about the nature of the world around us, how could they not be deserving of research? At first glance, this need for psychedelic research, combined with the fact that these substances are currently criminalized, generates a de facto need for underground research. That is to say, if there’s a need for researching psychedelic compounds and these compounds have been criminalized, then becoming a criminal in order to research them seems to be a viable, or perhaps even necessary, route.

I do not deny that there is sanctioned research being done on psychedelics, nor do I deny that there are groundbreaking results coming out of sanctioned psychedelic research. However, the fact of the matter is that there is not “enough” psychedelic research being done, nor do I believe it is possible to ever pursue “enough” psychedelic research within the confines of sanctioned institutions set within a prohibitionist paradigm.

Underground psychedelic research has pushed the envelope in many ways, at times going beyond the limits of sanctioned science in significant ways (examples range from extraction methodologies to phytochemical and ethnobotanical research, and beyond). These underground contributions to psychedelic science are indivisible from the broader context of psychedelic research, but are paradoxically dismissed by some (but certainly not all) sanctioned psychedelic researchers.

This was the essence of the answer that I presented in this interview. Even when the interviewer pushed back and said that psychedelic research was becoming more and more accepted, I reiterated that there is a myriad of underground research that surpasses the findings of currently sanctioned research. And that’s where I left it. To be honest, I was pretty happy with my response at the time. Although I could feel a nagging doubt at the back of my mind, trying to tell me I was forgetting something, I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly it was. It was not until I stepped into the shower later that day that what I had neglected to say slammed into my mind like a runaway freight train. I stood there, shocked at myself for my omission. How had I missed it?
The Privileged Position of Sanctioned Psychedelic Research

Why is there a need for underground psychedelic research? Because 1) not everyone has access to the privilege required to become a sanctioned psychedelic researcher and, 2) the institutions that facilitate sanctioned research have pre-existing agendas that limit the scope of psychedelic research. Yes, the fact that psychedelics are illegal lends itself to underground research. However, the reason why underground psychedelic research is a necessity is because the institutions required to legitimize psychedelic research are exclusive loci—points at which institutional politics and financial security intersect, providing the means for a select few to engage in psychedelic research without legal penalties looming over their heads. This is not to denounce the efforts of sanctioned psychedelic researchers, but to examine the assumptions behind the question, “Why is there a need for underground psychedelic research?”

This question assumes that: 1) sanctioned psychedelic research can examine all of the interesting or relevant questions, 2) becoming a sanctioned researcher is possible for anyone who is passionate about researching psychedelics, and 3) that institutions and researchers sanctioned to engage in psychedelic research should have a monopoly on such research. A cursory glance at the credentials of some of the leading names in the field of Psychedelic Research presents a laundry list of post-secondary degrees from a who’s who of the top academic institutions in the United States. Simply put, even if every person interested in Psychedelic Research had the desire to acquire legitimacy by attending these institutions, such a goal would be largely unattainable.

In the US, post-secondary education is inaccessible to all but those wealthy enough to bear its financial burden, or those brave enough to gamble on repaying mind-boggling amounts of student loan debt. This is the result of a number of socioeconomic factors: 1) the ever-increasing financial costs of post-secondary education in the US, 2) rapidly growing economic inequality that rivals so-called “Third World” countries, 3) a job market where real wages and benefits have stagnated and declined since the mid-1960s, and 4) the transition from an unsustainable production-based economy to an unsustainable financial-product-based, so-called “service” economy. To pretend that post-secondary academic institutions are accessible to all is to ignore the stark realities of the society in which we live.
The Limited Scope of Institutionalized Research

There is also the fact that institutions have their own agendas and motivations. Alongside an increasing shift towards profit motives within academia, there are also widely accepted trends among various fields of research. The presence of such trends in academia is nothing new; warring schools of thought within academia are arguably as old as academia itself. However, these trends affect what can and cannot be brought into the ivory tower. When discussing a field of study as radically at odds with dominant culture as Psychedelic Research, the presence of these trends must not be overlooked. It is also worth noting that, increasingly, academia represents the privatization of knowledge. Underground researchers may have their own groupthink, but it is, at least, a different groupthink from sanctioned perspectives, and many groups of underground researchers present explicit disdain for the privatization of knowledge and seek to find ways to work against it.

Additionally, there is, at least at present, a limit to what the institutions responsible for sanctioned psychedelic research will allow for when it comes to the scope of psychedelic research. Much of the current research deals with the utilization of psychedelics as “medicine,” or substances that can help people regain some sort of “functionality” that they have lost. This approach is visible in a myriad of studies, including but not limited to, MDMA for the treatment of PTSD, psilocybin for the treatment of depression in terminally-ill patients, psilocybin for the treatment of cluster headaches, ayahuasca or iboga for addiction treatment, and many others. This research is meritorious, but focusing solely on “psychedelics as medicine” risks falling into Puritanical notions of what qualifies as a “medicine” and what qualifies as a “drug.”

Psychedelics are far too important to be co-opted by the false dichotomy of medicine vs drug, where mind-altering substances that are used for purposes other than to treat pathologies are viewed as illegitimate. Or, as we’ve seen with Cannabis, where scientists attempt to remove the psychoactive components of these substances, while preserving their medicinal effects. I would posit that in many cases, the psychoactive components are inextricably bound to the medicinal benefits observed by researchers.

This notion of using substances for the preservation of a fixed, “functional” whole, seems somewhat isolated to psychoactive substances. You can currently walk into a health and supplements store and purchase, over the counter, large quantities of compounds designed to enhance your bodily performance. However, the government has declared a litany of substances that can enhance physical and mental functions–but are also psychoactive–illegal, under the false premise that these compounds are hazardous to the health of people who ingest them. To quote Terrence McKenna’s alleged quoting of Timothy Leary, “LSD is a psychedelic drug which occasionally causes psychotic behavior in people who have not taken it.”
Expanding the Scope of Psychedelic Research

The point of this is to say that psychedelics go far beyond treating illness. Exploring psychedelics as medicines presents fascinating and truly beneficial  research, but this is hardly the full story. Psychedelics present the ability for personal enrichment, ranging from neurogenesis to prolonged feelings of well-being and openness. Psychedelics also challenge many of the ontological models and assumptions we hold about the very nature of reality and existence. Limiting our research of psychedelics to the acute medicinal benefits in a disease-prevention/treatment model seems to neglect significant components of the effects of psychedelics.

The medicinal approach is perhaps the easiest pill for FDA and IRB panels to swallow, but this is precisely why we need underground psychedelic research…At least as long as these substances are criminalized, and quite probably even after legalization.

Psychedelic research, both sanctioned and underground, is experiencing a major resurgence, and seems to be here to stay. An increasing body of scientific and anecdotal evidence documents the incredible potential of psychedelic compounds. It is my sincerest hope that we will see many of the prohibitionist barriers to psychedelic research crumble, allowing for both greater numbers of sanctioned researchers and a safer environment for non-sanctioned researchers to continue this important work. But, for the time being…

I am a criminal. I am a researcher. Won’t you join me?

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