October 15, 2019
Review of When Plants Dreamby Ballard Quass
in the form of an open letter to author Daniel Pinchbeck:
Thanks for "When Plants Dream," Daniel. It presents an enjoyable and well-rounded introduction to ayahuasca and the many issues that surround its use. That said, however, I'm afraid that, like most Western authors these days, you write under the subconscious influence of a number of Drug War assumptions that are either flat-out wrong or, at best, mere half-truths. I think that this sometimes skews your conclusions or unnecessarily limits their application.
You imply when writing about cocaine that it has nothing but bad effects when used in Western society. This is Drug War dogma, of course, but why do we believe it? Why do we think that cocaine has no good uses in the West? How would we even know?
In a Drug War society, no one dares to write about the positive uses of cocaine, especially in newspapers (or in academia, for that matter) - and so we hush up the story of how cocaine helped Sigmund Freud achieve self-actualization (by "pushing him on" to enormous productivity) or stimulated insight in the Richard Feynmans of the world. But if all we're allowed to learn about cocaine is its negative effects, then we are being subject to a propaganda campaign in the West, not to objective scientific information. This is (or should be) very relevant to your book because these one-sided Drug War assumptions are what undergird and perpetuate the criminalization of desperately needed therapeutic plants such as ayahuasca.
But if indigenous people have used coca leaves advisedly for centuries (for visions, insight and/or mental focus), the obvious question is, why can't those benefits be transferred to the West? It may be that Westerners are just not mature enough to use the plant wisely.* But we should not make this assumption hastily in a country where we're only allowed to hear bad things about cocaine use -- and so Freud's use, for instance, is expunged from the psychology textbooks. This is a glaring omission for it keeps psychologists from confronting the $64,000 question: Why did Freud treat his patients based on theories and yet insist on improving his own life with cocaine? If Freud was having trouble getting out of bed, he did not turn to his own psychotherapy. He demanded the real politik of cocaine. Psychology ignores this fact and continues to insist that all psychological patients be treated according to the latest theory and that any use of a psychoactive plant is somehow a "cop-out" -- unless, of course, that plant is synthesized and packaged in such a way that Big Pharma gets its cut.
You're never too young to oppress your fellow Americans. Tell your kids about the FDWA, Future Drug Warriors of America. In our summer camps, we teach them how to kick down doors and throw elderly citizens and children on the ground while shouting at them and calling them scumbags for using Mother Nature's plants to gain psychological healing and insight.
*SPOILER ALERT: Of course, the real problem is capitalist exploitation. The profit motive, it turns out, has no place when it comes to encouraging the use of psychoactive plants.
Freud's hypocritical use of cocaine reminds me of the liberal who argues vehemently in favor of public schools but ultimately sends his or her own child to a private school. Theoretical benefits are all well and good, but at some point, success-oriented people demand REAL solutions.
Like virtually all other authors who write about psychedelic therapy, you fail to state one of the main arguments in favor of that new paradigm: namely, the fact that more than 1 in 8 Americans (1 in 4 women, according to psychiatrist Julie Holland) are currently addicted to modern antidepressants, which were never even trialed for long-term use, some of which are harder to quit than heroin. I myself am addicted to Effexor - which I'm told I can NEVER get off of. Indeed, that is the conclusion of my own psychiatrist. He told me that there is a 95% recidivism rate (according to the NIH itself) for those who attempt to quit Effexor. This is on par with heroin - but I have yet to read any author who is outraged on MY behalf. To the contrary, most authors on these topics are still lecturing me about the supposed "evils" of cocaine and opium, advice that I find laughable in its ignorance and/or hypocrisy.
(To add insult to injury, modern antidepressants are contraindicated for those taking psychedelics. So we have an as-yet unrecognized irony: psychedelics can cure many addictions, but they cannot be used to cure the great addiction of our time: the addiction to SSRI antidepressants.)
When it became clear several decades ago that SSRIs were addictive, psychiatrists merely made a virtue of necessity and began telling their patients that they had to "take their meds for life" (thereby absolving psychiatrists from lawsuits and putting them in the position of the scientific "good guy"). These are the medicines, Daniel, that were promoted based on the erroneous notion that they fixed a chemical imbalance in the brain, whereas subsequent research (see Robert Whitaker) revealed that SSRIs actually CAUSE the imbalances that they purport to fix.
This mass addiction cries out for a remedy, and psychedelics are the obvious solution, since they provide self-insight, grow new neurons, and are non-addictive. (This compares favorably with SSRIs, which in my experience have been fiercely addictive, fog my mind, and conduce to long-term anhedonia.) By ignoring this politically correct addiction (as Drug Warriors dutifully do), your case for psychedelic therapy is far weaker than it need be. As you mention, there are, indeed, potential "down sides" to ayahuasca use, but these rare problems would be dwarfed if contrasted with the actual damage being done by SSRIs today.
This ignorance of the status quo is a feature of today's Drug War. The Drug Warrior has to hush up this legal addiction situation, lest we draw the obvious conclusion: that addiction is not bad, as long as the drugs in question are forthcoming. If that's true, why am I not allowed to use opium occasionally to increase my creativity and give me, as a chronic depressive, something to look forward to in life: namely, times of increased enjoyment of the world around me?
I think you correctly suspect the Judeo-Christian outlook of scorning psychoactive plant remedies, but your analysis here does not go far enough. The fact is that the original Drug Warrior was none other than the founder of the Catholic Church, Emperor Theodosius, who, in 392 CE, outlawed the psychedelic-fueled Eleusinian mysteries as a threat to Christianity. This ceremony had been ongoing annually for almost two-thousand years, and was reported by many attendees to be the highlight of their entire lives, in passages that could easily be mistaken for journal entries of an ayahuasca enthusiast. These entries speak of great revelations about the true nature of reality. But since such non-Christian revelation was anathema to the Emperor, he launched the Drug War to outlaw all insights that do not come from "the true religion," i.e. Christianity.
Thus we can see that today's Drug War is nothing but the enforcement of Christian Science with respect to mental states: the metaphysical idea (or belief) that it is somehow wrong to use substances to improve one's mental outlook. Of course, this Christian Science is hypocritical, in that it supports psychoactive therapies - even addictive ones - provided that they do not seem to render a user "high" - something that is anathema to the puritan sensibilities of the Christian Scientists.
This Christian Science approach to drug law is aided and abetted by modern materialists, who have a dogmatic disdain for consciousness itself and so refuse to countenance any therapeutic solution that cannot be reduced to so-called "natural causes." Thus the Drug War makes strange bedfellows indeed, as materialist atheists find common ground with intolerant Christians.
I hope these three examples have proven my thesis, Daniel: that even the most progressive writers on the subject of "drugs" are subconsciously biased by the erroneous beliefs of the Drug War and that this bias skews or limits the conclusions that they draw. In short, your case for ayahuasca therapy is compelling in itself, but it could win far more converts if you compared your proposal to the ugly nature of the addictive status quo.
Of course, this may be easier said than done. There is, after all, a "kids glove" attitude toward SSRIs based on decades of Big Pharma-financed proselytizing on their behalf. During this time, the APA has been in league with the pharmaceutical companies to make SSRIs look like lamb's milk on shows like Oprah and Today. The result has been the creation of an American myth, according to which these drugs "fix" a chemical imbalance. This is just plain false, but it apparently has been drilled into Americans so successfully via a full-court media press that few people dare acknowledge its falsehood today.
(The proof is extant: I am as depressed today as I was 40 years ago, after taking legal antidepressants every single day of my life. If modern antidepressants are some kind of silver bullet, my brain chemicals never got the memo.)
Viewed in this light, I guess it's little wonder that writers like yourself fail to point out this corrupt status quo, since it is so thoroughly believed by the public that it no doubt demands a separate book to address the issues in question.
At their best SSRIs make life livable - which would be fine if that's all we had. But why should we settle for an addictive drug that simply makes life bearable when we could use a non-addictive one that can truly make life worth living?
What we need, I believe, is to replace psychiatry with shamanism, but only in a world in which the shaman is allowed to learn about and use any plant in the world - rather than a handful of addictive drugs that enrich the Fortune 500 while limiting users both financially and emotionally.
I fear this won't happen, however, until Americans recognize the folly of outlawing Mother Nature in the first place.
PS When pushed, psychiatrists may claim that SSRIs and SNRIs are not addictive, that they only cause "chemical dependence." But there is little difference from the point of view of a user. If I stopped using Effexor, I would go through hell. Just see the online testimony describing the many horrific but futile attempts to get off the drug.
In Post-Drug War America, the psychiatric pill mill will be replaced by empathic shamanism, where pharmacologically savvy teacher-therapists will use any plants in the world that they see fit in order to help their client achieve self-actualization in life.