At the closing session of the last Drug Policy Alliance Reform conference, I asked the audience to go home and tell people about where they had been, what they’d learned, and further, to out themselves as “responsible drug using adults.” This encouragement was well received, (and tweeted) just as it was at a MAPS' Psychedelic Science a few years back when I, like Dr. Devenot in her essay, likened our crusade for cognitive liberty to that of the fight for gay rights. I quoted Harvey Milk, who said:
“Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, then every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.”
Harvey Milk made it clear that “rights are won only by those who make their voices heard.”
We need to out ourselves because we need to stand up and be counted. You can’t expect to get equal rights unless you push for them, and you can’t push for them without first standing up and being “out.” But what about Milk’s idea that you’ll feel better if you come out of the closet? How would it be to unburden yourself, to freely and fully share that part of you that is so often hidden? As a psychiatrist, I have to admit, Harvey’s probably onto something with this idea. As difficult as it would be, I imagine it’d also be liberating to not have to hide anymore.
Guilt and shame are potent emotions that drive a lot of our behavior, not only out of sight from others, but to a large degree out of our own sight. We compartmentalize these places not only from others, but from ourselves. We don’t want to dwell too long in a place that is often labeled and judged as unhealthy.
This is one of the paradoxes of psychedelics. They don’t necessarily deserve the same shame as other drugs. Many other drugs are numbing, allowing us to avoid looking in the mirror or at the reality of our surroundings.
But most of us know that the average psychedelic experience has you under your own microscope at times, and then again at other times, you are sensing a macro of your whole life’s trajectory. Suffice to say, you are not in a state of denial during peak experiences. You are inundated with cosmic truths, and many of us accept them wide-eyed and grateful.
Psychedelic drugs have a long legacy of helping to change addictive patterns and bring about cessation of self-destructive drug use. LSD was used to treat alcoholism in the ’50s, and today, psychedelics like ayahuasca and ibogaine are assisting many in moderating or discontinuing their use of opiates or alcohol. NYU is studying psilocybin to treat alcoholism, and Hopkins has had incredible results using it to help people quit 20-year cigarette habits.
The latest Facebook feeds suggest that cannabis (which my husband Jeremy calls “the people’s psychedelic”) can reduce a dependence on opioid pain medications. This is a true harm reduction technique, substituting a less toxic, addictive, and deadly drug in order to reduce health risks. One of the most important aspects of harm reduction is moderation. Letting go of binary standards like zero tolerance opens up a world of possibilities for healthier behavior.
But you can’t moderate what is hidden. You must bring the behavior out of the shadows. Nothing grows without light. The easiest way for my daughter and son to learn about moderation is to see me model healthy, moderated behavior. If they notice I take a few sips of wine at our dinner table and don’t chug-a-lug, they get a sense of what alcohol drinking can look like.
Most parents I know are hiding their pot smoking from their kids, and in turn, their kids are hiding their pot smoking from their parents. So neither benefits from the knowledge or experience of the other. And both are burdened with shame. More importantly, because the drug behavior (and resultant intoxication) has to be hidden, there is an extra adrenaline charge that is added. This increases the addictive aspect of the experience. Our nation’s drug policy is turning us into junkies.
Maintaining an addiction means constant upkeep of the web of lies and secrecy that enables it. Some of the pleasure and adrenaline charge associated with the addiction is from the “duping delight” of thinking you're getting over on someone – you’re stoned and they don’t know it; you’ve poured vodka in your drink when no one's looking; you’ve clandestinely swallowed a pill. Sometimes the basis of the behavior is the pull away from intimacy and into isolation via deception.
This is one reason why 12-step groups are helpful. Those rooms are full of love, support, and a sense of community, via honesty. When people stop using their anesthesia of choice and start expressing their feelings, personal and spiritual growth can begin, and that’s where the real healing happens.
Hiding from your shadow self is senseless. Trying to disengage from the pain of relationships, and life in general, will lead to a disease of disconnection. We all have feelings of deficiency that bring us shame. The problem is that our coping strategies end up bringing us more psychic pain. And our nation’s drug policies end up bringing us more shame.
Not all the stigma associated with psychedelic use stems from our nation’s drug policies. Some of it comes from cultural perceptions. I do think that the current wave of “ayahuasca tourism” will probably make inroads into the acceptability of psychedelic explorations and that social media has spread the messages of harm reduction and the tremendous need for medicinal cannabis (whether for children with Dravet syndrome or veterans with PTSD). But unfortunately, there is precious little modeling of healthy behavior around drug use in popular culture. We are still treated to scenes of intellectually incapacitated trippers whose revelations can’t be trusted (Ben Stiller taking ayahuasca in While We’re Young) or a never-ending string of couch potatoes smoking pot and losing all motivation and relevance.
Some of us, myself included, may not fully out ourselves and our personal drug-taking behavior. However, perhaps by simply posting and sharing our beliefs about the ability of certain drugs to assist in exploration, growth, and mental and physical health maintenance, we are doing our part to move the conversation forward.
Julie Holland, MD is an American psychopharmacologist, psychiatrist, and author. She is the author of Moody Bitches: The Truth About the Drugs You're Taking, the Sleep You're Missing, the Sex You're Not Having, and What's Really Making You Crazy, The Pot Book: A Complete Guide to Cannabis, and Ecstasy: The Complete Guide: A Comprehensive Look at the Risks and Benefits of MDMA.