Amid an abundance of food and drink, flickering candles and a heady air of altered states,100 or so people in north London’s New Unity church watched John, a mop-haired Irishman in his late 20s, tell the story of how he learned to love through therapy, poetry and ayahuasca.
“I arrived at Cuzco and, sure God, how do you find an ayahuasca ceremony?” he said from a stage adorned with a creeping, twisting vine of fairy lights. “Well you Google it obviously, and you go on to TripAdvisor.” That bizarre mix of the hi-tech and the traditional, the western world and the south, sums up the Psychedelic Society, which held its first “psychedelic supper” on Sunday.
The event – a bring-and-share meal with speakers – comes amid a renaissance in the use of psychedelics. In two years, the number of young people reporting using LSD has almost tripled; the number reporting use of psychedelic drugs more broadly is up 88%.
This rise has come alongside a resurgence of research into the use of psychedelic drugs for mental health. Decades-old reports that claim LSD may profoundly help addicts are being revisited. Recent studies have found that psilocybin – found in magic mushrooms – may have lasting benefits for people suffering from depression.
At the dinner, Maria, 30, said her interest in psychedelics began after volunteering for a UK study earlier this year that tried to replicate those effects. She had already undergone conventional treatment for depression, using two different medications, without success.
Psilocybin offered an alternative path, forcing her to explore her “madness”, she said. “It was a bit [psychologically] painful, but it was beneficial because it helped you realise the patterns, and how to break them. I wouldn’t say it was a cure, but it was a catalyst for asking about the self. It was wonderful – for two months afterwards I was depression-free.”
The problem is that psilocybin and LSD are schedule 1, class A illegal drugs, neither regarded officially as having a medical use. They are more tightly restricted than heroin and cocaine, which mean massive costs to any researcher who wants to work with them. Scientists like Dr David Nutt, the former government drugs adviser, have heavily criticised the law, and proposals for a tighter ban on psychoactives.
No suspicious mushroom risottos were being passed around at the dinner on Friday night – the society says it does not engage in illegal activity during events. However, attendees discussed the darknet’s anonymous drug marketplaces, as well as mushroom picking (the psychoactive liberty cap is in season in Britain). There are also legal and semi-legal alternatives, the society points out.
A change in the law on psychedelic drugs is its key aim, and not merely for their reputed therapeutic purposes. Society at large can benefit from psychedelic drugs, it says. “The current legal context does not reflect our massively rich history of using psychedelic drugs,” said Nadia, organiser of the Psychedelic Society in London. “Nationally and globally, we have indigenous roots where people have taken psychedelics as part of their attempts to understand their existence and the nature of reality. Many cultures have shamans. Psychedelics are considered powerful deconditioning agents, so that’s very transformative and revolutionary to our consciousness.
“One experience of psychedelics has apparently changed attitudes towards nature and the earth, which is so important right now. It has a big effect of dissolving our ego, or at least reducing it, helping us to interconnect.”
Back on stage, a third speaker, Dan, spoke about the origins of acid house and ecstasy in the Thatcher era, and how this changed the people who experienced it. “Look at the politics of being in a field with 10,000 people,” he said, “and almost every conversation starts with things like: ‘I’ve never told anyone this in my life, man, but …’”
Tying rave culture to the eco-warrior and anti-globalisation protest movements, he added: “It’s our minds that are our last chances. You can spend all your life doing demos and dropping banners … we end up on page three of the Guardian. If there’s cops, it will be on page two – and that’s not going to do anything. It’s actually ideas that are going to change the world. It’s totally changing the way we answer that question, which is: what the fuck did we come here for?”
John’s journey through psychedelics had led him to look deep inside himself, to dispense with his impulse to judge, and to realise his love for a close friend. He said: “For me, if I look back a year ago, I really thought that I might never fall in love. And now I am. And so, I was thinking about psychedelics being mind-manifesting, but I really feel they’re heart-manifesting. They give the heart a place to hear its voice.”
The names of interviewees have been changed at their request.
guardian.co.uk &169; Guardian News & Media Limited 2010