The prison industrial complex is a powerful force within the United States, lobbying for more prisons, stricter laws, and mandatory minimums, leading to an epidemic of mass incarceration even as crime rates sit at historic lows. Many argue that the emotional appeal to protect the children really had the effect of instigating violence and instability in communities around the country, especially when incarceration for drug possession became enough to separate parents and children for years.

It is well documented that the War on Drugs has disproportionately affected the impoverished, particularly communities of color. These observations were vindicated in March 2016 when a quote from former Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman appeared as a cover story for Harper magazine:

“‘You want to know what this was really all about,’ Ehrlichman, who died in 1999, said, referring to Nixon’s declaration of war on drugs. ‘The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.’”

In addition to being an undeniable confession of targeting communities of color, this also serves as an insight into the War on Drugs as a tactic to disrupt the counterculture, including the psychedelic community.

When the War on Drugs began, much of the psychedelic counterculture went underground, and as countless psychedelic therapists continued to illegally treat their patients, many were determined to make psychedelics a legal therapeutic tool for healthcare professionals.

Research slowed considerably after LSD was made illegal, and then again when all psychedelics were relegated to Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. After a decades-long endeavor, psychedelic researchers have resurfaced in mainstream culture presenting FDA-approved scientific data on psychedelic medicine as promising treatment options for some of the most difficult to treat conditions, specifically those that manifest from trauma. The collective data of all psychedelic research, within the U.S. and internationally, have reported consistently significant effects in the treatment of a variety of conditions.

Ibogaine, an entheogen derived from a West African bush that has been used ceremoniously by indigenous peoples for millennia, has been cited by several researchers in multiple journals as a powerful tool for fighting addiction. Ibogaine has a greater effect on the brains of those who have used opiates or amphetamines. It literally interrupts the brain’s production of dopamine when morphine receptors are activated, effectively disconnecting opiate use from the physical high, while also mediating the debilitating physical symptoms of opiate withdrawal.

Cassidy, a 37-year-old female, spent 19 years severely addicted to opioids and had only maintained sobriety for a maximum of three months while undergoing methadone treatment.

Then, in 2016, she participated in a treatment study using the new-to-the-West drug, ibogaine. After the four-day trip, she had kicked her addiction, successfully avoiding remission for the duration of the 18-month study.

In an interview with Psychedelic Times, Kevin Franciotti, a journalist and recent presenter at Psychedelic Science 2017, recalled his experience as a participant in a study researching the anti-addictive properties of ibogaine. He argued that due to its ability to mediate the physical symptoms of heroin withdrawal, ibogaine is “one of the most compassionate treatments” available for heroin detox.

Ketamine has also shown great promise treating addiction, with detoxified heroin addicts who received a psychedelic dose of ketamine reporting less intense cravings, improved emotional well-being, and abstinence from heroin use for the length of the two-year study.

Ketamine has also shown promise treating cocaine dependency, alcoholism, and severe depression, a condition correlated with addictive behavior. Ketamine is prescribed off-label by psychiatrists as emergency treatment for patients with acute impulses to harm themselves, and higher doses have been used to mediate treatment-resistant depression. This off-label use of ketamine has made mainstream headlines in NPR and other outlets over the past few years as research studies have been published supporting anecdotal evidence of ketamine users who have experienced relief from depression and addiction.


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Ayahuasca has long been recognized for its ability to treat addiction, and ayahuasca treatment centers boast lower relapse rates than traditional addiction centers.

In 2013, a MAPS-funded study published in Current Drug Reviews concluded that among a sample of members of Brazil’s União do Vegetal, ayahuasca drinkers showed statistically higher rates of addiction recovery due to increased mindfulness and connection to other people. There have even been several incidents of ayahuasca being used for cancer treatment, adding to the psychedelic therapy theory that physical ailments are often manifestations of psychological distress.

Decades of peer-reviewed psychological and sociological research have consistently concluded that trauma is the root of many psychological disorders, addiction, physical ailments, and criminal behavior. The narratives of maladjusted individuals, such as those who struggle with severe addiction, often include abusive and neglectful caregivers, desperate poverty, lack of opportunity, and absence of functional adult role models.

A study of 470 substance abuse patients concluded that a full 80 percent of female participants and 70 percent of male participants had experienced sexual abuse and physical violence, with childhood abuse an even stronger correlate with adult substance abuse.

When we begin to recognize even the darkest of human behavior as manifestations of trauma and generational cycles of abuse and neglect, it becomes clear that society’s practice of ostracizing, isolating, and punishing maladjusted people (often beginning in childhood) perpetuates the problem rather than helps it.

Punishment uses unfavorable consequences to discourage a particular behavior, but in reality, society’s system of incarceration has perpetuated cycles of generational trauma, poverty, and stigma.

As psychedelic research goes mainstream, more people are being exposed to the idea of problematic behavior as a symptom of trauma—a symptom that can often be effectively remedied from a place of empathy, with or without psychedelic medicine. This aspect of psychedelic medicine has the potential to ignite a paradigm shift within our culture because it enables us to reframe complex social problems as manifestations of trauma while presenting evermore evidence of the efficacy of psychedelic therapy for these particular problems.

By encouraging this culture of empathy, we can create a society that promotes healing rather than punishment, and integration rather than isolation.

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