Psychedelics from ancient times to America: following a tale of two histories

By Rudi Anna

The psychedelic DTOM flag. (©2015-2017 Stephen Richard Barlow)

The history of psychedelics in the United States, particularly with LSD, is in fact two parallel histories: one of them is a multifaceted “counter” subculture involving millions of people. The other has taken place in science and academia and has involved a comparatively very small number of scientists, study participants and psychiatric patients.

Combine these parallels and it places in stark relief this psychological conflict that pits civil liberties against state-sponsored control.

Most of classical history, the roots of Western civilization dating back to the Babylonians, is a story of domination, brutality, and excess. Struggling through those burdens is a testimony to the psychological conflict that pits civil liberties against state-sponsored control.

Much of this struggle as Donald Kagan, a historian and classicist at Yale University, explains in his book, “Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy,” can be understood in the rivalry between the ancient Greek cities of Athens and Sparta:

“These two city states held dramatically different political and social ideologies, and thus the war between them became an epic throw down between champions of opposing cultural ideals.”

Athens was the home of democracy. Sparta was a brutal militaristic regime.

“Spartans feared any personal freedoms might encourage their slaves to rise against them, so they actively prohibited attempts at individuality. This included any mind-altering substances, be it books, art, or drugs,” said Kagan.

Free speech and drug use were commonplace in Athens, where neither was looked upon as an oddity, vice, or social ill. Athenians preached moderation, but they also believed that citizens should be able to see the negative effects of overindulgence for themselves.

“The world’s first democracy embraced the use of mind-altering drugs without the need to attached some sort of stigma to them,” said Dr. David Hill, author of “The Chemical Muse” and several publications in the academic journal, Pharmacy in History. “The only laws in ancient Athens and drug use involved their use of weapons. As long as nobody got poisoned, they could use any drug or substance as they desired.”

In ancient times, Hill explained, narcotics and the like were entirely different “things” in antiquity. When Westerners hear the words drug, he said, they think of a substance, something to inject, snort, or smoke. They think of something that can be regulated, criminalized and banned.

“Drugs for an ancient Greek were just plants or plant parts. An aspirin was a millennium and a half away,” said Hill, going on to list popular drugs from the past like rose oil, pine resin, and juice of the daffodil root, items that were considered part of the natural world. It wasn’t a question of moral or immoral. “Instead of Pfizer, they had Mother Nature,” Hill continued.

“They were just a part of nature. In fact, the Greeks taught that intoxication merely brought out the elemental aspects of an individual’s native personality,” he said.

Recognizing that Westerners, the beneficiaries of classical civilization, view drugs in an entirely different light than the civilizations that produced the ideals upon which our society is now based could have positive outcomes.

The free and unrestricted use of narcotics and psychedelic drugs is the greatest example of personal freedom that was recognized in antiquity but has since been aggressively curtailed.

Only since the advent of prohibition and temperance movements has the Western world made it illegal to grow or consume any specific plant. The ancients would have thought it ridiculous to outlaw any process found in nature itself.

A TIMELINE – Psychedelics in America

To best understand society’s relationship with psychedelic drugs through the present day, it may help to chart key events throughout time which helped shape the relationship between psychoactive compounds and their critics and consumers.

Altered States: World Wide Appeal

Since ancient Mixtec people shared the first magic mushroom trips in southern Mexico, to the drug-induced “Mysteries” celebrated in ancient Greece, to Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann accidentally discovering LSD’s psych-active properties in 1943, a plethora of books, news articles, film documentaries, academic papers and conferences about psychedelics have seen the light of day.

Add to that numerous artistic expressions – artworks, designs, films – that feature references to LSD or acid. It is fair to say that interest in psychedelics has been sweeping.

However, most of its activity took place in the 20th century. One may even get the impression that acid and its ilk represent a historical phenomenon and barely exists today.

“But nothing could be further from the truth,” said Paul Austin, founder of The Third Wave, a social networking and resource hub for people interested in psychedelics for practical, measured use for specific purposes. “In fact, the past 15 years have seen many important developments in connection with LSD.”

“When Hofmann died in 2008, his discovery had affected millions of people worldwide,” said Austin. “LSD especially took on a life of its own early on, and during his lifetime, Hofmann saw how the drug he discovered was adopted by scientists and academics, followed by various subcultures including the hippie counterculture, the Deadhead scene and parts of rave culture.”

Besides a cornucopia of vibrant LSD subcultures, Hofmann lived to see how psychedelics, through the strenuous efforts of advocacy and research organizations such as the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, Beckley Foundation and Heffter Research Institute, were beginning to find their way back to science.

Even if LSD seemed like yesterday’s drug at the start of the new millennium, Austin, along with many psychedelic advocates and enthusiasts like him, believed it was clear that by the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, Hofmann’s psychedelic potion still had quite a following.

The first post 20th-century evidence of that was the appearance of a 2006 conference in Basel celebrating the Swiss scientist, titled: “LSD: Problem Child and Wonder Drug: International Symposium on the Occasion of the 100th Birthday of Albert Hofmann.”  The three-day conference attracted over 2,000 visitors from 37 countries.

Over 80 experts delivered talks about LSD, and besides Hofmann himself, the speaker list included most of the who’s who of contemporary psychedelia.

On April 19, 2017, MAPS hosted Psychedelic Science 2017, a six-day international conference that featured workshops, and a free and expansive marketplace for people to connect with the psychedelic science community. Scientists, doctors, therapists, students, educators, policymakers, artists, and others from around the world came together to share and discover recently completed and ongoing research into the risks and benefits of psychedelics and medical marijuana.

If anything, events like these are proof enough that psychedelic drugs have survived into the 21st century.


About Rudi Anna 3 Articles
Rudi Anna is a freelance writer living in Boston, Massachusetts.