What is the place of drug use in spiritual exploration? And what role has the government played in this practice? Many have shown signs of increasing suspicion over the relationship between the pursuit of drug-induced mystical experience and government efforts to control our consciousness and the extent of our knowledge. Indeed, such a relationship exists, and the legal status of a drug often depends on its potentially liberating hallucinatory properties.
On one hand, many local governments in North America have eased restrictions on the use of “softer” Schedule I drugs, such as marijuana, or even outright legalized them. While cannabis dispensaries were shut down in the United States under George W. Bush, reports The Economist, they have since re-opened under the Obama administration, although Obama’s drug tsar, Gil Kerlikowske, has sought to remove himself from suggestions of cannabis legalization. Moreover, according to the same article, fourteen U.S. states have decriminalized both medical and recreational marijuana, and others are showing signs of moving in the same direction: Seattle Mayor-elect Mike McGinn, who has previously disclosed his own marijuana use, has expressed support for its legalization in Washington State. However, while marijuana apparently alters mood and emotions as well as everyday perception of the environment, it is not certain that it alters perceptions to create the profound mystical experiences other Schedule I drugs, such as mescaline and psilocybin, seem to create. With respect to marijuana, at least, the subjective, personal exploration of consciousness and reality seems to be increasingly easier, even in the infamously drug-fearing United States.
On the other hand, this is not necessarily the case for those drugs which do seem to help induce mystical experience. The U.S. federal government, in its efforts to implement the nearly forty year-old Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, has all but outlawed “hallucinogens” such as mescaline and dimethyltriptamine (DMT, which is produced naturally in small amounts in the pineal gland) making an exception for use in religious ritual only—and only among traditional users of certain ethnic groups. As journalist Barbara Bradley Hagerty notes while attending a Navajo peyote rite in Fingerprints of God: the Search for the Science of Spirituality, “[o]nly peyote and ayahuasca used in Native American religious ceremonies are permitted” (p. 105). It appears that by grandfathering in the very few traditional communities that had already been using these drugs, the federal government has ensured extremely strict impediments to the drug-induced pursuit of spiritual knowledge in the general population.
But why shouldn’t other religious and ethnic groups have access to this altered state of consciousness? Even more, why should drug-induced mystical experience be limited to organized religious ritual? For those who wish to avoid organized religion and follow a personal path, the federal government once again closes off any avenue to the experience. Such a stance forces these individuals to be absorbed into religions where their spiritual independence is crowded out by authoritative doctrine; of course, this is not as much of a problem in a universal church, where doctrine is minimal and egalitarian participation the norm. Still, even most of these organizations are barred from facilitating the experience.
As Barbara Ehrenreich argues in Chapter One of her book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, ritual trance brought about an understanding of a greater force, even if just tribal unity, among tribe-members who faced threats from predators; such tribal cohesion broke apart, she argues in the second chapter, with the rise of military élites which depended on hierarchical stratification within the group. As she and Hagerty’s Navajo ceremonies show, substance-induced ecstasy may simply constitute another, primevally human form of communion—not unlike the wine-infused orgies in honor of Bacchus—a sacrament which confers some manner of blessing as well as unity with the divine, in which shaman becomes priest, and wine, hallucinogen.
Governments seem to understand which drugs contribute to profound, mind-altering experiences of the transcendent, and they seem to show a bias towards proscribing those that do. As long as we organize or commune in religious ritual, government restriction on the use of drugs to induce mystical experiences threatens to become an impingement on religious freedom, and as long as individuals seek personal experiences of the divine, it threatens their freedom to practice spirituality privately.