It would take a book — or at least a series of columns — to chart even a smattering of the fascinating aspects of this complex social process. But one question deserves to be answered first: Will the legalization effort succeed? I think the answer is yes.
There’s no doubt that legalization faces challenges from prohibitions put in place during the Nixon and Reagan administrations. But the combination of medicalized research and cultural mainstreaming is potent. The advocates are for the most part white, well-educated and well-off. And they are using science to make a persuasive case that the old arguments against psychedelics are obsolete, grounded as they were in a fundamental fear of the experience of altered consciousness.
Start with the medicalization approach, which represents a stark contrast to the way psychedelics entered American awareness in the 1960s. In that period, the attraction of psychedelics was primarily their capacity to expand consciousness. Think of Tom Wolfe’s classic “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” But today’s psychedelic activists — although they may themselves be motivated by something similar — focus their public message on the therapeutic use of psychedelics. Psychedelics are depicted as medicines capable of bringing healing, particularly for hard-to-treat conditions like severe depression, PTSD and schizophrenia.
Seen from the standpoint of legal strategy, this makes sense. In contemporary American public life, it’s difficult to stand up and say that our collective consciousness is in serious need of expansion. (What, exactly, would that even mean?) Yet we all know that even as we have gotten more sophisticated about the prevalence and reality of various forms of mental illness, the professions of psychiatry and psychology have struggled to provide adequate treatments. If psychedelics can be shown to work in controlled scientific studies, that will create a powerful argument for their legal, medical use.