Ep. 153: Psychedelic Exceptionalism

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Last year while I was working with Zendo at Burning Man, I got to hear Dr. Carl Hart talk about “psychedelic exceptionalism.” Essentially, he talked about some concerning language he’s noticed in psychedelic-focused conversations. These narratives are creating “psychedelic exceptionalism” that, in his opinion, perpetuate harmful narratives around stigmatized drugs like heroin, methamphetamine, and crack cocaine – and indirectly, the people who choose to use them. 


Psychedelic exceptionalism refers to the perspective that psychedelics are somehow better and more useful than other classes of drugs like opioids or stimulants. Especially when it comes to recreational use of these substances. 


Trust me, when I first heard him say that I was like… but… psychedelics ARE more beneficial! 


But after listening to him talk and speaking with him afterward, I realized that one of the main points of encouraging people to take a step back and try to have a different perspective is that ALL drugs are psychoactive. So it would be remiss to say that some are special and some are evil. Or that psychedelics get glorified while others have been demoralized since the War on Drugs. 


When we choose to think this way – that some drugs can be vilified (along with those who choose to use them) – we end up with harsher penalties and increased marginalization. That creates more separation between us as humans. 


For example, MDMA and methamphetamine have very similar chemical structures. Yet we have very different images of those drugs and the people who use them. 


And those who have a drug of choice that they want to encourage for medicinal reasons get nervous about being stigmatized with other drugs. 


Of course, all of this blew my mind at the time, but I think as a culture it would behoove many of us in modern industrialized society to get really curious about things. Sit in discomfort. Notice if we have resistance and where that is, and soften the edges a little and consider… What IF this were true? 


Dr. Hart goes on to emphasize that what’s important is that we do what’s right as a human being, for human beings. A humanitarian perspective. 


We all are doing the same thing – wanting to alter our consciousness to feel better and suffer less. Because life can be hard, and we all want to feel better. So if we judge some people who do that with one drug vs another, even if they don’t have much choice about what they have access to, we aren’t respecting other people’s humanity. 


Now, as a nurse and someone who has worked in rural and underserved areas, I have seen how horrific the opioid crisis can be. So how can someone say mushrooms aren’t any better than heroin or fentanyl? 


Dr. Hart says, “it’s not up to me to decide what drug people use. If they choose heroin over mushrooms, that’s their decision as autonomous adults.” Plus, if we’re talking about paranoia at large doses, mushrooms are more dangerous. 


And while opioids can produce a physical dependence more easily than mushrooms, alcohol can too. Yet the vast majority of people in the country don’t have a big problem with alcohol, and it’s legal. 


I love that in one interview with NPR, Dr. Hart says it’s always disturbed him when people identify themselves as a “psychedelic community.” That people are all taking some psychoactive substance for the same mind-altering reason, but then we draw a line with which drugs are better than others. 


One critique I’ve read about Dr. Hart’s views in a Harvard Law Blog wonders, if we toss all drugs together in one big basket… isn’t that a bit reductionist? Like psilocybin mushrooms have a relatively great safety profile and high potential as a therapeutic intervention. Especially in the context of the mental health challenges so many are facing today. 


On the other hand, we can’t completely ignore the harms of NOT addressing the decriminalization of non-psychedelic substances. The author agrees that the War on Drugs is “racist, ineffective, and draconian.” 


I encourage you to listen to the full episode to hear the examples I give on this, but the psychedelic decriminalization we’re seeing in multiple states can pave the way for larger drug reform that will address these disparities. 


The author of the blog goes on to talk about how we can reschedule controlled substances to help reduce stigmatization and allow for further research and uniform regulation for medical and – as appropriate – adult use purposes. 


Another interesting perspective, right? And I think, once again, I will likely find myself landing in the middle. Because I can see how both of these views overlap like a venn diagram… that mandorla… where no matter how much we’d feel safer on one side than the other, it’s the place most of humanity’s experience takes place – in the middle. 


What do you think? 


When you explore ehipassiko, the Buddhist concept of “come see for yourself,” what does your inner guru think of these ideas? 


And, if we can get out of our heads and into our heart (carrying the wise mind with us), what do you think would be the more compassionate approach for humanity? 


You will learn: 

// The definition of “psychedelic exceptionalism” 

// How we can look at the opioid crisis with a more humanitarian view 

// The potential benefits – and problems – with psychedelic exceptionalism 

// Whether decriminalizing psychedelics can really pave the way for larger drug reform 



// Episode 52: How to Live in Polarity 


// Episode 97: Psychedelics and Spiritual Practice 


// Episode 122: Come See for Yourself – Ehipassiko 


// Episode 152: Sensitivity and Addiction 


// Harvard Law’s Bill of Health, “The Myth of Psychedelic Exceptionalism.”  


// Interview in Psychedelics Today: “Psychedelic Exceptionalism and Reframing Drug Narratives: An Interview with Dr. Carl Hart 


// NPR Interview: “’Drug Use For Grown-Ups’ Serves As An Argument For Personal Choice 


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