Why Are Psychedelics Illegal?

Tao Lin
36 min readJul 19, 2018


From Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change

On March 1, 2016, in the morning, I rode an elevator to the eleventh floor of a building in Chinatown and sat in a surprisingly high-ceilinged — for being so far up in the sky — courtroom with sixty to eighty people. Two grand juries, we learned, would be selected that day. Those not chosen could go home; the rest would begin their service. The 60 to 70 percent of us, it seemed by a show of hands, who’d deferred thrice could not, it was explained, get out of jury duty again; if our name was called, we had to say “serve” and go sit with the other chosen ones. Using a hand-operated, lottery-seeming, plastic ball filled with folded paper, a man called out forty-six names in an impressively subtle, game-show-like voice that amused me and others in, I felt, a calming manner. With twenty-two other people who lived in Manhattan, I was selected for a “special narcotics” grand jury, which meant we’d hear mostly only drug cases.

I’d deferred three times in two years and now — thirteen days after I began writing this book — had been selected to serve on a rare, drug-focused grand jury. I viewed this coincidence as a gift for my drug-focused book to absorb.

We rode the elevator down, crossed the street into another building, rode an elevator up, entered a small courtroom, and sat where we’d sit the rest of the day and for nine more days. I was stoned, not abnormally, on baked cannabis. We received the 2015 edition of Grand Juror’s Handbook, which said only 29,000, or around 5 percent, of the 574,000 jurors in New York in 2005 were grand jurors; the rest were trial jurors. We watched videos that seemed, to me, surreal and sometimes surprisingly funny. I began, after around an hour, falling briefly asleep. Others seemed to also struggle, in the large, soft seats, to stay awake. After a lunch break, we watched more videos. Four times during this second session of videos, I laughed uncontrollably for seconds while no one else was laughing but seemingly without attracting attention — probably because my laughter was quiet and involved little to no movement. After the videos, there was time to hear a case.

We learned from two officers that they’d bought drugs from someone — the accused person — while undercover, working on a team that did this regularly. Then it was time to vote.

For each charge, we’d vote to indict or dismiss. According to our handbooks, people couldn’t be brought to trial for a felony unless they’d been “indicted by a grand jury.” We voted to indict weapon and cocaine charges but not a charge for marijuana. Then we voted on if we wanted to deliberate. More than eleven raised their hands, so the deliberation began:

Someone in back asked why we dismissed marijuana but indicted “a dinky pocketknife.” He spoke in a manner that seemed designed to influence jurors to also dismiss the weapon charge but which, I felt, could be interpreted to mean he felt we should not have dismissed the marijuana charge.

The juror to my left, either having the latter interpretation or just taking the opportunity to defend marijuana, said because marijuana — the court’s name for cannabis — had never killed anyone. One or two others spoke — we acknowledged that, obviously, we should have deliberated before voting — and then the deliberation, and day 1, ended.

The words “marihuana” and “marijuana” became popular in the 1930s, when newspapers published headlines like, in 1933, “Murder Weed Found Up and Down Coast — Deadly Marihuana Dope Plant Ready for Harvest That Means Enslavement of California Children,” and when Henry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which was founded in 1930 when cannabis had been banned in twenty-four states, “depicted marijuana as a sinister substance that made Mexican and African American men lust after white women,” wrote Martin A. Lee in Smoke Signals (2012). Anslinger avoided the word “cannabis” because few people “knew that marijuana, the weed that some blacks and Chicanos were smoking, was merely a weaker version of the concentrated cannabis medicines that everyone had been taking since childhood,” wrote Lee. In 1937, when cannabis—from the Greek kánnabis, a word at least 2,500 years old—was banned in thirty-five states, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, making possession illegal federally. At the congressional hearing for the act, which he co-drafted, Anslinger said these sentences:

  • This drug is as old as civilization itself.
  • We seem to have adopted the Mexican terminology, and we call it marihuana, which means good feeling.
  • In India it is sold over the counter to the addicts, direct, and there it is known as “bhang” and “ganja.”
  • It is impossible to say what the effect will be on any individual.
  • Not long ago we found a fifteen-year-old boy going insane because, the doctor told the enforcement officers, he thought the boy was smoking marihuana cigarettes.
  • Last year the state of Pennsylvania destroyed two hundred thousand pounds.
  • We have always pointed the finger of scorn at China, and now marihuana is being smuggled out to China, by sailors.
  • It makes very fine cordage, and this legislation exempts the mature stalk when it is grown for hemp purposes.

Anslinger — who was head of the FBN until retiring in 1962, six years before the FBN merged with the BDAC to form the BNDD , which in 1973 merged with the ODALE to become the DEA — continued being both informative and inaccurate in material submitted for the public record of the hearing, writing, among other sentences:

  • The plant was known by the Greeks as “nepenthe” and was lauded in the immortal Odyssey of Homer.
  • In the argot of the underworld it has colloquial, colorful names such as “reefer,” “muggles,” “Indian hay,” “hot hay,” and “weed.”
  • Its use frequently leads to insanity.

The term “420” originated “among California teenagers in the 1970s,” wrote Chris Duvall in Cannabis (2015), which was published in the UK. Duvall described the “internationally important” codeword as “the number ‘420’ — pronounced ‘four-twenty’, and including the time ‘4:20’ and the American-style date ‘4/20.’” He wrote: “Even the authorities take notice: on 20 April 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reiterated its view that drug Cannabis is medically useless.”

On day 2, we heard six or seven cases. Each case began with the judge and his assistant leaving the room; a stenographer entering and sitting at a typewriter with large, rubber buttons; and a prosecutor entering and saying the name of the accused person, the charges, the witnesses, and if we’d see any evidence, like photos and/or videos, then leaving and returning with the first witness. In one of the cases we heard that morning — which I share as a representative case — the prosecutor left and returned with a police officer, who seemed to be in his late twenties. Juror 2, our “foreperson,” asked if the officer swore to tell the truth, “so help you God.” He did. He sat in the booth.

The prosecutor asked him questions and we learned that he’d bought three “twists” of crack from the accused person, who we knew only by name. The prosecutor’s job was to mediate our interactions with the witnesses, who, it seemed, could only respond to questions. The prosecutor asked if we had further questions. We didn’t.

The second witness — the first’s commanding officer — was called. We learned from him that the first witness had brought him drugs, which he’d confirmed via field test was crack cocaine, which he’d vouchered, after which he’d filled out a form, which we saw projected on a screen. The prosecutor asked the officer to explain how the test worked and he did.

The prosecutor asked if we had questions. At least two jurors, including me, raised their hands. The prosecutor walked to Juror 12, who asked the prosecutor — in, as we’d been instructed, a quiet voice — to ask the officer if he’d tested all three twists. The prosecutor returned to the podium, asked the question. The officer said he’d tested only one. The prosecutor looked at Juror 12, who raised his hand. The prosecutor walked to him, conferred quietly, returned to the podium, asked why. The officer said there was no reason why — they just did it that way. I laughed a little.

The prosecutor walked to me, Juror 5.

“How did he learn of the defendant?” I said quietly.

The prosecutor seemed confused.

“How did he learn of the defendant?”

After a second, the prosecutor said, “Right,” returned to the podium, and asked the officer how he learned of the accused person. When the accused person was brought to him by the first witness in handcuffs, answered the officer. The prosecutor looked at me, walked to me, leaned toward me. I asked how the first officer, who bought the drugs, learned of the accused person. I was curious. Poor minorities seemed more likely to be targeted than, say, college students living in dorms.

In “Legalize It All,” a “report” in the April 2016 issue of Harper’s, Dan Baum shared something the Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs under Richard Nixon told him in 1994: “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.”

The courtroom

“He isn’t going to be able to tell you that,” said the prosecutor.

I laughed in an unself-conscious, jolly-sounding manner. “Oh, right,” I said smiling. People continued to seem unbothered by my laughter. What to me was increased laughter just brought me up, I felt, to the level of a normally — or somewhat above-averagely — good-humored, not-grim person. Cannabis did this to me, for which I was grateful.

Two more jurors asked questions, then the witness, prosecutor, and stenographer left and we voted on if we wanted to deliberate. Fewer than twelve did, so we moved on to the crack-selling charge. Fifteen voted to indict. Due to the seating arrangement, all twenty-two other jurors could see my vote, but I could see only six other votes — unless I turned around, which I didn’t except once or twice slightly, allowing me to see eight or nine votes — and all were to indict. Fifteen exceeded eleven, so the person who’d allegedly sold crack and was currently in a cell, where he could be held for forty-five days, would now go on trial to learn his punishment.

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 differentiated “drugs, substances, or chemicals” — or “drugs” — into five schedules. Drugs with psychedelic — or, in the government’s terminology, “hallucinogenic” — effects were Schedule I, which meant they had “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” The DEA formed in 1973, under Nixon, to enforce the act. Of the six examples of Schedule I drugs on the DEA’s website in 2017 —

heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana (cannabis), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), methaqualone, and peyote

— three were psychedelic (LSD, cannabis, peyote), two were plants (cannabis, peyote), at least four and arguably all had medical use, and only one (methaqualone) was made by corporations but not since 1985 due to hundreds of deaths. By listing three psychedelics and avoiding more than one representative from any other class of drug, the DEA seemed to strongly convey that psychedelics were the most useless and destructive class of drugs, which has been the opposite of my experience. None of the DEA’s examples of Schedule IV drugs (“low potential for abuse and low risk of dependence”) was psychedelic, growable, or natural; all were sold by corporations —

Xanax, Soma, Darvon, Darvocet, Valium, Ativan, Talwin, Ambien, Tramadol

— and the DEA refrained from including any chemical names, sharing only the selling-and-advertising-optimized, capitalized brand names. The DEA listed nine examples, as if to squeeze in more for promotional purposes. Seven were opioids or benzodiazepines — two of the three classes of drugs with, I feel based on experience, the most potential for self-destruction and highest risk of dependence (the third being amphetamines, which are Schedule II), an opinion supported by statistics: In 2016, the New York Times reported there were 43,982 drug overdose deaths in 2013 — none from psilocybin, DMT, salvia, LSD, or cannabis — including 22,767 from prescription drugs, with 16,235 and 6,973 involving opioids and benzodiazepines.

“I don’t live there, no,” I emailed my mom at 6:04 a.m. on day 3, which was March 3. I’d been waking early to work on this book’s first three chapters. “I just go to a courtroom on the 6th floor each day from 10 a.m. to around 4:20 p.m. We have a 1-hour lunch break and 3–4 other breaks.” I told my mom I was “voting ‘no’ for every case” because I felt it was “a waste of time and money to pursue these drug cases” and that, whenever the drug was marijuana, a “slight majority” of jurors voted “no.”

At around 11:00 a.m. that day, we heard our only non-drug case, which had our only non-officer witness — a low-level college-employee. We learned a student had paid off his student loans in three transfers over two or three months totaling around $140,000 from the college itself back to the loan company, five years earlier. The witness didn’t know how this was achieved but assured us the flaw in the system allowing the felony had been fixed.

We seemed bolder with this case than the drug cases because, I think, for most jurors it probably seemed offensive, unseemly, or incomprehensible — or like it might appear so to others — to question officers when it was officers against drug dealers. We asked six or seven questions, which wasn’t enough to learn where the accused person was currently. In custody? Enjoying life with a college degree thinking he’d gotten away with it? Thirteen jurors voted to indict.

A major reason psychedelics are illegal seems to be because of the increasing influence, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, of corporations, which are existentially required to increase both revenue and profits in a reliable, competitive, continual manner because their sole function is to grow in value so that their stockholders will own more valuable stock.

Corporations have existed for only around 450 years or 0.16 percent of the time since Homo sapiens evolved. I learned about them as a child because the first two medical laser companies my dad founded went public, or became corporations, when I was in elementary and high school, in 1991 and 1999, and because my parents became obsessed with the stock market when I was a child and for years I’d been interested also, reading penny stock message boards and investing my parents’ money. Publicly owned companies — the term I prefer because it puts the blame more accurately on everyone — either grow or quickly shrink and vanish. They don’t grow to a certain size and begin diverting profits to workers and to carefully ensuring they aren’t harming the planet, their customers, and future and unsuspecting lifeforms — not because they’re evil, or because they don’t want to, but because this option isn’t available to them as it is for privately owned companies. Publicly owned companies can survive only by constantly growing and so their only choice is to automatically and mindlessly — through the decisions of boards of people representing the stockholders, or investors, who decentrally own the company — slough off CEOs, CFOs, and other employees who aren’t helping the stock price significantly increase, meaning that opposing employees of corporations, or supporting one corporation over another, has no effect on the metaphysical entity called “corporations.”

The pharmaceutical drug industry — whose ten largest companies, all publicly owned, earned around $440 billion in revenue in 2014, when global revenue of legal drugs exceeded $1 trillion for the first time — would lose probably tens to, eventually, hundreds of billions of dollars annually if psychedelics became legal, because hundreds of millions of people could then cheaply and effectively and sustainably, instead of expensively, ineffectively, toxically, and fatally, relieve and/or treat depression, anxiety, addiction, pain, inflammation, insomnia, nausea, thanatophobia, epilepsy, cancer, asthma, dementia, arthritis, fibromyalgia, autoimmune disorders, cluster headaches, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, Tourette, and other problems with cannabis, psilocybin, DMT, salvia, LSD, mescaline, and ibogaine, as users of psychedelics have known or suspected for millennia, aboriginals have known for tens to hundreds of millennia, and science has begun to confirm since the fifties in two main waves of research, the second beginning in 2006 at Johns Hopkins and New York University.

By day 4, we were, on many charges, not getting enough votes to either indict or dismiss. Fewer of us were raising our hands to indict cannabis, weapons (mostly knives), paraphernalia (scales, plastic baggies), and possession charges. Since most cases also involved cocaine, crack, and/or heroin — which we seemed to view as obviously unforgivable — our dismissals were relatively insubstantial, punishment-wise, for each accused person. Selling — or having and intending to sell — up to 28 grams of “a mixture containing crack” was punishable, for example, by up to twenty years in jail and $1 million, I learned online. In the courtroom, we weren’t told punishments because that was for the trial jury to decide. Our job was to indict or dismiss. With each charge, we first voted to indict; if fewer than twelve raised their hands, we voted to dismiss. If fewer than twelve raised their hands, the charge remained undefined and the prosecutor could ask us to vote again later or bring the case to another grand jury.

Another reason psychedelics have been globally illegal for almost five decades is, I feel, because most people, not surprisingly, believe they are, in addition to pointless and frivolous, very dangerous. McKenna stressed the remarkably benign nature of the substances he promoted — sometimes by comparison to alcohol, cigarettes, sugar, cocaine, caffeine, and even MDMA and ketamine, which he observed hadn’t been user-tested for millennia. He specifically advocated natural substances — psilocybin, DMT, salvia, cannabis, ayahuasca — he’d determined to be safe in the short- and long-term. In “Psychedelics Before and After History” (1987), he shared “three tests to apply to a compound that you’re thinking of ingesting.”

  • Does it come from a plant or fungus? (“Plants are also biological systems like us, they cannot produce truly alien compounds.”)
  • Does it have a history of shamanic usage? (“If a compound is toxic, triggers psychosis, is mutagenic, or induces tumors, it will have been dropped long ago by human groups who experiment with these things.”)
  • Does it have an affinity to brain chemistry? (“If you take a drug and the next day you feel lousy, and the next day you sort of feel okay, that’s not a very good drug; that’s an insult to the physical brain.”)

He said it was “probably okay to go ahead” if a drug passed at least two tests. “This is a task of a lifetime, so you want compounds which are extremely effective in delivering the noetic experience, the plunge into the tremendum, but you also want to be able to race again another day,” he said. Yet his New York Times obituary, published in 2000, was able to say he advocated “substances that many experts consider highly dangerous.” Three paragraphs later, after quoting a fragment of praise from Jerry Garcia, calling McKenna “the only person who has made a serious effort to objectify the psychedelic experience,” the obituary referenced experts again — “But experts on drug treatment attacked Mr. McKenna for popularizing dangerous substances” — and quoted a letter by Judy Corman, vice president of a drug treatment center:

Surely the fact that Terence McKenna says that the psilocybin mushroom “is the megaphone used by an alien, intergalactic Other to communicate with mankind” is enough for us to wonder if taking LSD has done something to his mental faculties.

Corman’s letter, which the New York Times had published on May 9, 1993, misleadingly quoted not McKenna himself but, I learned, a May 2, 1993, New York Times profile of McKenna that said, “One thing he argues is that the psilocybin mushroom, Stropharia cubensis, is no ordinary life form, no lowly fungus, but in fact the megaphone used by an alien, intergalactic Other to communicate with mankind.” Corman’s letter cited multiple deaths of athletes from cocaine and argued, “Whether it’s LSD, marijuana, cocaine or heroin, the message from The Times should clearly be that drug abuse is dangerous.”

On day 5, when we heard no cases, a juror asked me if I was the writer Tao Lin. As part of me considered if there was a way I could say no, I said yes. She, a woman in her thirties, Juror 11, said her sister was a fan of my writing. She asked if I was going to write about my jury experience. I said I wrote, in some way, in notes or books, about almost everything I did, so probably yes. I said I felt the student who paid off his student loans with his college’s money shouldn’t have been punished, and she laughed. I felt comfortable saying this because I’d noticed that she and Juror 12 were the two most question-asking jurors — the two most involved and unautomatic in their judgments and who most wanted, it seemed, to deliberate.

That night, in my room, to amuse myself, I imagined Juror 11 was a CIA agent. I also spent minutes thinking about my “CIA novel,” a novel about an autobiographical writer who suspects various people of working for the CIA, which I enjoyed fantasizing about writing. At this point, on March 7, 2016, I was aware the CIA had a history of using undercover agents. I’d read MKUltra’s Wikipedia page and parts of other writing on it, but not entire books or government documents. Months later, when, over eight months, I researched MKUltra for this book, I discovered a CIA–LSD–suicide–homicide thread that supported McKenna’s argument that psychedelics are illegal not because the government wants to protect us from us, but because they catalyze intellectual dissent.

On December 22, 1974, the New York Times reported that the CIA had conducted “a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation during the Nixon Administration against the antiwar movement and other dissent groups.” The government created two committees and a commission to investigate. And so, in the summer of 1975, people learned of Project MKUltra, which had existed under various names from 1950 to 1972, involved more than thirty institutions, and included tests in which, to research “behavior modification,” LSD and other drugs were used on unwitting non-volunteers in a manner targeting “all social levels, high and low, native Americans and foreign” — or, by design, everyone — with no medical screening, follow-up, or even record-keeping. In spring 1977, more information became public, revealing that actually at least eighty institutions, including forty-four universities and twelve hospitals/clinics, had been involved. In subproject 3, one of 149 subprojects, the CIA paid George H. White, who worked for the Anslinger-headed FBN, $40,000 a year to test LSD on random civilians. White set up “safe houses,” as the CIA called them, in Greenwich Village, where he secretly dosed people with LSD, and San Francisco, where he paid prostitutes to secretly dose customers with LSD while he watched via two-way mirror.

“Other experiments were equally offensive,” said Senator Edward M. Kennedy in his opening remarks to the Senate hearing on MKUltra on August 3, 1977. “For example, heroin addicts were enticed into participating in LSD experiments in order to get a reward — heroin.” Kennedy said, however, that “Perhaps most disturbing of all was the fact that the extent of experimentation on human subjects was unknown. The records of all these activities were destroyed in January 1973, at the instruction of then CIA director Richard Helms.” Kennedy, admirably, if futilely, stressed that, still: “The best safeguard against abuses in the future is a complete public account of the abuses of the past.”

LSD testing on unwitting non-volunteers had not, I learned, been limited to the CIA. Appendix A of the public transcript of the three-hour, five-minute hearing, at which only men spoke, was a novella-length report titled “Testing and Use of Chemical and Biological Agents by the Intelligence Community.” The report described eight classified projects, including two by the Army. In Project Derby Hat, the Army interrogated seven people in the Far East on LSD, including, in 1962, a “suspected Asian espionage agent” who received 6 micrograms per kilogram or, if he weighed 140 pounds, around 2.5 tabs of LSD at 10:35 a.m., was “assisted to the interrogation table,” according to the Army’s “trip report” — a term used four times in the report, the first time in quotation marks — at 12:20 p.m., and interrogated until 3:30 a.m.

Like the hearing itself — in which seven current and former CIA employees were questioned, including Stansfield Turner, who said, “Let me emphasize that the MKULTRA events are twelve to twenty-five years in the past,” and had been head of the CIA for only five months and was separated from Richard Helms by three heads — I found the Senate report darkly comical. The two sentences in the report that eventually most attracted my attention were from a quote of a “lengthy staff study” published by the Army in 1959. The study analyzed data from LSD tests on more than a thousand Army soldiers since 1955 and concluded, quoted the Senate report:

There has not been a single case of residual ill effect. Study of the prolific scientific literature on LSD-25 and personal communication between US Army Chemical Corps personnel and other researchers in this field have failed to disclose an authenticated instance of irreversible change being produced in normal humans by the drug.

This impressive finding on the safety of LSD, expressed in an internal Army text, has been supported by my personal experience as an emotionally unstable person with various mental problems who has enjoyed LSD¹ at least eighty times since 2010 with only, I feel, positive, sanity-promoting effects. But in 1977, LSD had been a Schedule 1 drug for seven years. The Senate report commented on this disagreement between the Army and the government by arguing that the Army’s conclusion had been based on incomplete data, because in 1959 they’d been unaware of “the circumstances surrounding Dr. Olson’s death” — that Army scientist Frank Olson’s 1953 death had been caused “at least in part,” said the report, by LSD.

On day 6, we again heard no cases. In the waiting room, we napped and did things on our phones and computers, which we were encouraged to bring. We learned the other jury selected on day 1 was in a courtroom one room from our waiting room, which they sometimes entered to use our microwave. We theorized prosecutors had determined that, with our decreased indictment rate, it had become smarter — if the goal was to efficiently elicit indictments — to try the other jury first.

In a section titled “The Death of Dr. Frank Olson,” the Senate report then examined what it called “the most tragic result of the testing of LSD by the CIA.” On November 19, 1953, at a cabin in rural Maryland for a semi-annual “review and analysis conference,” Frank Olson unwittingly ingested 70 micrograms of LSD, which CIA employee Robert Lashbrook had put into a bottle of liquor. Of the ten people there — seven Army, three CIA — all but two, from the Army, were dosed. Around twenty minutes later, Sidney Gottlieb, head of MKUltra, informed the group they’d ingested LSD. The report quoted Gottlieb saying they became “boisterous and laughing” and “could not continue the meeting or engage in sensible conversation.” The report said, “Shortly after this experiment, Olson exhibited symptoms of paranoia and schizophrenia.” After multiple meetings with a doctor in New York City with LSD experience and CIA clearance, “it was agreed that Olson should be placed under regular psychiatric care at an institution closer to his home” in Maryland. The next night, eight days after being dosed, Olson was in a tenth-floor room in Hotel Statler, across the street from Penn Station, with Lashbrook; at around 2:30 a.m., he “crashed through the closed window blind and the closed window,” according to Lashbrook, who told police he didn’t know why Olson committed suicide.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the CIA explained that Olson, who specialized in the use of microorganisms in biological warfare, had killed himself for unknown reasons. After the world learned, briefly in 1975 via the Rockefeller Commission and in more depth in the 1977 hearing and its appended report, that LSD had been involved, Olson’s case was frequently, through the 1980s and 1990s, cited as an instance in which LSD led to psychosis and suicide, even in books reporting on the hellish details of MKUltra that the commission and hearing didn’t mention — like In the Sleep Room: The Story of the CIA Brainwashing Experiments in Canada (1988), which described people being put into “chemical sleep” for weeks, hearing the same statements up to five hundred thousand times from football helmets or speakered pillows in what was called “automated psychotherapy,” receiving unwitting injections of LSD, and undergoing amnesia-causing, electroshock-based “depatterning.” In the Sleep Room referred to Frank Olson twice, saying on page 29 that he’d “been slipped a dose of LSD” and “had freaked out and jumped from the tenth-floor window of a New York hotel several days later” and on page 214 calling him “the army scientist who died of a fall from a hotel window shortly after being dosed with LSD.”

As the world, for decades, associated LSD with insanity-caused suicide via the Frank Olson case, the 1977 Senate report’s quote of the 1959 Army study deeming LSD safe remained obscure, unpublicized, and seemingly almost totally forgotten. A Google search, on March 21, 2017, of “There has not been a single case of residual ill effect” returned forty results, and all were reproductions of the entire MKUltra hearing itself except for a paper — “Cluster Headache, Dreaming & Neurogenesis” — self-published in 2006 by Peter May, meaning the quote has been reproduced by a Googlable source of newspaper, magazine, journal, book, blog, or other media only one time in forty years. May’s paper, which argued for the use of psilocybin and other psychedelics to treat cluster headaches, included the Army quote with summaries of other studies that had found psychedelics to be relatively safe.

Researching Peter May, I found an article published by Nature Medicine in 2006 that quoted him saying cluster headaches felt “like someone is trying to pull your eye out.” The article called them “suicide headaches” and said many sufferers had found “illegal drugs are their only choice,” like May and, I knew, my friend Gian, who has ordered 5-MeO-DALT — a 42-atom compound created by Alexander Shulgin in 2004 that, being an analog of a Schedule I or II drug, can itself, under the Federal Analogue Act of 1986, be illegal — from the Czech Republic since 2015 to treat his cluster headaches. Unlike Gian, Peter May had no experience with psychedelics when, in 2002, after six months of research, he tried them for his cluster headaches — which he’d had since 1999 — and experienced immediate success, reported the Nature Medicine article, which said the condition affected around one in one thousand people, making it, based on the Army study, more common than LSD causing “residual ill effect” when used wittingly.

Researching Frank Olson, I learned that, in 1994, evidence began to emerge that he didn’t kill himself, though LSD may still have led to his death by inspiring him to speak out against an atrocity. That year, Eric Olson, who was nine when his dad died, had Frank Olson’s body exhumed and a second autopsy ordered. James Starrs, who led the autopsy, concluded the body was “rankly and starkly suggestive of homicide,” a finding absolving LSD from the death and so refuting the Senate report’s only argument for why the Army study had been wrong. In 2001, then, New York Times Magazine published an article reporting that Frank Olson’s wife, Alice, remembered him, in the days after being dosed, being “in the grip of an ethical dilemma” and “withdrawn but not remotely psychotic” and that months earlier Olson may have confided to a psychiatrist that he’d witnessed something terrible, possibly a terminal experiment. I learned from the article that in 1997 the CIA “inadvertently declassified” an assassin’s manual from the 1950s and that, from it, Eric Olson learned what the CIA seemed to have done to his dad — “dropped” him.

On day 7, we again heard no cases. During a long lunch break, I talked to Juror 12 on a bench outside Columbus Park. We recognized each other as he approached and he, a man in his sixties, sat. He was a playwright and had voted to dismiss around half the charges. I told him I was glad I hadn’t entered the courtroom ahead of everyone and sat in one of the three elevated seats that faced the other twenty jurors and unwittingly become a secretary, foreperson, or assistant foreperson. We discussed Juror 8 — who always voted to indict and never to deliberate and who seemed impatient when jurors asked questions — then he had a phone call from his daughter, who was meeting him nearby. After he left, I watched a squirrel unbury, unshell, and eat a peanut. That night, I noted that I was enjoying “suspecting both jurors who have talked to me to be working undercover for the CIA.”

“Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third-story window,” said McKenna in “Nature Is the Center of the Mandala” (1987). “Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behavior and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.” This was the reason he stressed most — and which can be viewed as underlying the other reasons discussed in this chapter — for why psychedelics are illegal. Because they’re “catalysts of intellectual dissent.” They make people question their behavior, other people’s behaviors, and why things are how they are, and they do this while putting one in a state of mind open to change, novelty, and historical revisionism. This makes it difficult, observed McKenna, for societies — even democratic and especially dominator ones — to accept them, much less praise them, and we happen to live in a global dominator society.

McKenna got the terms “partnership” and “dominator” from Riane Eisler, who in The Chalice and the Blade (1987) proposed that beneath the “surface diversity of human culture” are two models of society — not communist/capitalist, matriarchal/patriarchal, religious/secular, or aboriginal/modern, but partnership/dominator. In the dominator model, one gender is ranked over the other in a bias that influences all relationships because it involves “the most fundamental difference in our species.” In the partnership model, diversity, beginning with gender, isn’t equated with inferiority or superiority; instead of ranking, there’s “linking.” Eisler’s terms were deliberately gender-holistic — all humans can, and do, embody dominator values. The problem, she felt, was “not men as a sex” but the dominator model, in which “the Blade is idealized.” In The Chalice and the Blade, which she observed was unlike most studies of society because it considered all of human history, Eisler argued that the dominator model began only around 7,000 years ago.

On day 8, we heard one case and saw, in an undercover video, our first accused person — a black man selling cocaine to an undercover Hispanic officer in a Dunkin’ Donuts. I recorded most of this case as a Voice Memo. “So, if we’re ready to vote on the one charge, please raise your hand; okay, that’s everyone,” said our foreperson. The simplicity of our cases — officers buying or finding drugs — was not conducive to deliberation; in the fifteen to twenty cases we heard, we deliberated three or four times, briefly, with two to five people speaking, then stopped getting enough votes to deliberate. “So then on the charge of the criminal sale of a substance in the third degree, if you want to vote to indict, please raise your hand.” With twenty jurors looking at her, she counted the votes. “Okay, that’s fifteen.” Juror 1, our secretary, whose job also included taking attendance, wrote the voting result on paper, then left to tell the judge we’d finished voting. The judge entered and said, “All right, folks, we’re going to break for lunch until two thirty.”

At least 35,000 years ago, humans in Eurasia began to carve female figurines from bone, stone, and ivory. The oldest known example, the Venus of Hohle Fels, was found in Germany in 2009. Instead of a head, the fig-size, 35,000- to 40,000-year-old mammoth-tusk sculpture had a polished ring, probably indicating it had been suspended as a pendant. Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (1921–1994) estimated in her posthumous book The Living Goddesses (1999) that around three thousand female and genderlessly zoomorphic figurines had been found in the Upper Paleolithic, from 40,000 to 12,000 years ago, a period with no male figurines. Popular culture and most books and textbooks explain that they’re either, Eisler wrote, “an ancient analogue for today’s Playboy magazine” or “expressions of a primitive fertility cult.”

An example of the sex object interpretation is in “She’s Still a Pin-up after 35,000 Years,” an article on NBCNews.com that quoted archaeologist Paul Mellars, whose commentary on the sculpture was published in the issue of Nature announcing the discovery: “Paleolithic Playboy? We just don’t know how it was used at this point, but the object’s size meant it fit well in someone’s hand.” The pornography interpretation also occurs in Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) by Werner Herzog, who brought 3-D cameras into Chauvet Cave in France to film 30,000- to 32,000-year-old art. For insight into the cave’s only human representation — a bison-zoomorphized drawing of thighs and vulva — the documentary cut to the director of the cave’s research project, who showed a copy of a 27,000- to 30,000-year-old limestone figurine (with a characteristic hexagram of bulges around a pregnant belly) and said its bottom half resembled the drawing. Then his voice was muted and Herzog voice-over narrated, “There seems to have existed a visual convention extending all the way beyond Baywatch.” In 2010, I hadn’t consciously heard or suspected the existence of an ancient religion with a female God, so, though Herzog’s interpretation seemed unconvincing, I lacked a better explanation. I remember telling myself maybe the figurines really were sex objects.

Four years later, when I researched this topic for “Tao of Terence” — for a post in which I encouraged people to “get stoned and read The Chalice and the Blade” — I began to realize that people with busy, public, meaningful lives — embedded with families and tribes in densely symbiotic ecosystems, tending and harvesting and hunting and preparing food, monitoring the stars and seasons and other lifeforms — probably wouldn’t spend hours carving a tiny pendant to help them masturbate. Gimbutas, who wrote four books on the Goddess, observed that due to “modern cultural programming,” people associated “nakedness” with “sexual enticement” but that the female body symbolized many other functions, including “the procreative, nurturing, and life enhancing.”

As I read books by Eisler, Gimbutas, and others, I became convinced, as those authors argued, that the figurines symbolized the universe’s life-giving force by emphasizing the female body’s unique parts and abilities — and that, with other evidence, they suggested the existence of a widespread, cross-cultural, female-deitied religion that began in the Upper Paleolithic or earlier. One reason humans worshipped a female deity was probably, I learned, because only women give birth. Prehistoric humans, noticing that life emerged only from women — who alone nursed that life — naturally developed a worldview featuring this fact. In When God Was a Woman (1976), sculptress Merlin Stone (1931–2011) shared another reason why people, for tens of thousands of years, seemed to have worshipped female deities; citing studies of aboriginals by James Frazer, Jacquetta Hawkes, and others, Stone wrote that “as the earliest concepts of religion developed, they probably took the form of ancestor worship,” which meant mother worship because people had not connected sex and babies so did not know they had fathers.

After agriculture developed from 12,000 to 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, people there and beyond, from England to Pakistan, continued for at least three millennia, I learned, to create female figurines, though they now lived not nomadically but, as at Jericho, in stone-foundationed, mud-brick houses with thousands of others. It was during this Neolithic period, when gender equality was “the general norm,” wrote Eisler, that most of the technologies of civilization — farming, stockbreeding, pottery, ceramics, megalithic architecture, metallurgy, wheeled vehicles, textiles, writing — developed. Eisler, who was born in 1931 in Austria and fled the Nazi takeover of her country when she was a child, going to Cuba then the States, called this “one of the best kept historical secrets”: advancement doesn’t require war.

In Earliest Civilizations of the Near East (1965), James Mellaart (1925–2012) identified Çatalhöyük, where people lived from 9,400 to 7,500 years ago, as the most advanced culture and largest settlement, with up to eight thousand residents, of this period. From 1961 to 1963, Mellaart excavated an acre of the 33.5-acre main mound of the double mound of Çatalhöyük. He found matrilineal and matrilocal organization — the woman’s platform for sitting, working, and sleeping was always on the east side of the house, whereas the man’s shifted and was smaller — and that, based on stone-and-clay figurines, wall paintings, and other art, the city’s “principal deity” was “a goddess who is shown in her three aspects, as a young woman, a mother giving birth or as an old woman.” People probably had gained the concept of father — a stone plaque showed a couple embracing on the left and a child-holding woman on the right — and now also made male figurines (Mellaart found thirty-three female, eight male), but Goddess worship seemed to remain the most important practice. At least 40 of 139 buildings excavated were, in Mellaart’s view, shrines, including one with wall drawings of women birthing, which Gimbutas called “probably one of the most sacrosanct events in Neolithic religion,” and the rest were homes. Shrines, homes, and middens formed one accreting, doorless, streetless, leaderless, egalitarian city enterable only by ladder from each building’s different-elevationed roof.

The commonest motif in Çatalhöyükian art was the male cow or bull, which Mellaart interpreted in 1967 to represent “male power.” Gimbutas stressed throughout her work that, in the pre-dominator cultures of Anatolia and Europe, the bull was a Goddess symbol, conveying becoming and regeneration, because of the resemblance of its head-and-horns or bucranium to the uterus and Fallopian tubes. McKenna in Food of the Gods argued the cow and bull symbolized both the Goddess and the mushroom because Çatalhöyükians recognized the mushroom as “the physical connection” to the Goddess and, since it sprouted from cow dung, viewed it, like milk, as a product of cattle. Abandoned around 7,500 years ago for unknown reasons, with people possibly relocating to the island of Crete, maybe because they sensed the violence to come on the mainland, Çatalhöyük was the last civilization, theorized McKenna, that was continuously informed by “the gnosis of the boundary-dissolving plant hallucinogens.”

On day 9, a Friday, Juror 11 said bye to me because, she said, she wouldn’t be there Monday, the last day. This made sense, I felt, if she worked for the CIA; her expensive time was subject to reprioritization. Maybe she or her boss had determined I was closed off to a certain degree in terms of talkativeness — as I was during this time, being focused on my book — making me not a good investment in befriending, and then it took three days of paperwork to move her off the project. We heard no cases that day.

The dominator model, which previously existed in balanced and controlled form, emerged in a sustained, whole-society, assailing manner around 7,000 years ago, argued Eisler and Gimbutas and others. At this time, various groups of dominator-style people from the north, including the Kurgans in Europe, Luwians in Anatolia, and Hittites in the Fertile Crescent — called, as a group, Indo-Europeans — began to invade the Goddess-worshipping civilizations in the south, first in the Near East, then in Anatolia, and, spreading west over millennia, throughout Europe. They worshipped male deities, rode horses and war chariots, were hierarchic, patrilineal, patrilocal, and pastoral, and had lighter skin and were bigger than those in the south. They associated black with death, unlike the preexisting people in Europe and Anatolia — Old Europeans — who viewed black, wrote Gimbutas in The Language of the Goddess (1989), as “the color of fertility, the color of damp caves and rich soil, of the womb of the Goddess where life begins.”

In the Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations, which began 6,000 to 5,000 years ago and, wrote Eisler, “are celebrated in our high school and college textbooks as marking the beginnings of Western civilization,” people still worshipped female deities, but male deities began to dominate. Around the Eighteenth Dynasty, 3,570 years ago, when Egyptian women were no longer part of the religious clergy, some people in the Near East — where a supreme deity, known by many names, had already, for millennia, been “revered as Goddess — much as people think of God,” wrote Stone — began to worship a male deity named Yahweh, who, according to the Bible, told his laws to Moses, who wrote them down and gave them to the Levites, a Hebrew tribe. “Perhaps the most shocking laws of all were those that declared that a woman was to be stoned or burned to death for losing her virginity before marriage, a factor never mentioned in other law codes of the Near East,” wrote Stone, who observed that the Bible “purposely glossed over” the Goddess’s gender, calling her Elohim — “in the masculine gender, to be translated as god” — but that the Koran, the bible of Islam, did not: “Allah will not tolerate idolatry . . . the pagans pray to females.”

The Levites, tyrannically leading the other eleven Hebrew tribes, invaded Canaan — an area around the size and mirror-reversed shape of California — and instated their laws over the survivors of their rampage. “So Joshua massacred the population of the whole region — the hill country, the Negeb, the Shepelah, the watersheds,” according to the Bible. The laws targeted Goddess worship because in Goddess-worshipping societies, daughters inherited name, title, and property—and because, even though the concept of father had been known for millennia, women called qadishtu—“holy women”—continued to birth fatherless babies by living in temple-complexes where, coming and going as they desired, they had sex with various men. This was “probably the underlying reason for the resentment of the worship of the Goddess,” wrote Stone, who stressed that the sexism of the laws was political, not religious, having nothing to do with the mystery of life.

After the initial invasions from 7,000 to 4,800 years ago, the Goddess religion survived, in places, as the popular religion for millennia; it was not until the Levites and then the rise of Christianity that it was, in the first century, “finally suppressed and nearly forgotten.” For the next two millennia, Yahweh-based, anti-partnership ideas continued to spread in the form of the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, all-male clergies, and, among other memes, the Adam and Eve myth — in which Yahweh absurdly punished women with pain in childbirth and to be ruled by men. Around 350 years ago, the United States was founded “under God” and around 100 years ago, American women gained the right to vote. On November 8, 2016, at 7:30 p.m., the New York Times estimated Hillary Clinton had a more than 80 percent chance of becoming the president. By midnight, it was under 5 percent. The next morning, Donald Trump, embodying the dominator model arguably more than any previous candidate, was, in the lowest voter turnout since 1996, elected the forty-fifth consecutive male president of the United States, which, out of 196 countries and 5,000 aboriginal groups, had by far the largest military budget — triple the second-place country, China, which had four times the population.

Knowing this narrative, the past 4,800 years can be viewed as an inconsistent, unpredictable, many-threaded, unguaranteed but achievable recovery — instead of a hopeless continuation of a seemingly always cruel and violent human history, like I mostly suspected before learning all this — from the overexpression of the dominator model, which for 7,000 years has been erasing evidence and memory, across civilizations and continents, of the Goddess religion and its partnership way of life.

We also heard no cases on day 10, when I brought my computer for the first time. The other days, I’d hand-edited pages of this book and read others’ books. On days 3 and 4, I’d read LSD: My Problem Child (1980) by Albert Hofmann, who was born in 1906, created LSD from a compound (lysergic acid) made by ergot (fungi from the genus Claviceps) in 1938, answered “What general medical uses might LSD be marketed for in the future?” with “Very small doses, perhaps 25 micrograms, could be useful as a euphoriant or antidepressant” in 1976, and died in 2008. I’d used 0.3 grams of baked cannabis every day except day 8, when I used half an old, degraded tab of LSD, and day 10, when, on my way to Chinatown, at 9:53 a.m., I used the other half. On this dose, I felt more outgoing and curious, and less inflamed, than normal. Walking around on my lunch break, I enjoyed “remarkable mobility,” I typed in notes.rtf at 2:08 p.m., in my hips and legs. “Still feel lucid,” I typed at 4:56 p.m. in my room, where I worked on this book’s psilocybin chapter, researched inflammation, and, at 10:32 p.m., slept.

Besides cannabis, we’d heard only two cases with psychedelics — psilocybin and LSD. Both cases also involved heroin and/or cocaine and, unsurprisingly, we indicted all four drugs without deliberation. Cannabis, which can be almost as powerful as psilocybin and LSD when eaten, had been involved in almost every case. I was reminded of this prevalence when I read “Legalize It All,” which was published a month after jury duty; the report, subtitled “How to Win the War on Drugs,” quoted the director of the ACLU from 1978 to 2001 as saying that “the drug war couldn’t be sustained” if cannabis was legal because the “vanishingly small” use of other drugs couldn’t justify police and prison spending. Researching prison, I learned two countries had more than a million prisoners in 2015—the U.S. (2.15 million) and China (1.65 million).

It’s unknown how the dominator model became so out-of-control. Maybe the human species is so precariously balanced that a combination of seemingly small factors, like horse domestication, invoking military advantage and the desire to ride and be nomadic, tipped entire societies into dominator mode. And as societies abandoned the cross-gender reverence of women to worship the larger-so-better-at-war gender, things deteriorated further and the partnership model was forgotten. In Food of the Gods, McKenna argued the equilibrium was maintained by psychedelics and their connection to “the archetype of the Goddess and hence to the partnership style.”

One of the last places in Western society where psychedelics were regularly, if seldomly, used was Eleusis, where the most famous Mystery was practiced. In the Greco-Roman world, a Mystery was a religion in which “the individual was afforded an experience of personal communion with deity,” wrote Carl Ruck in Sacred Mushrooms of the Goddess (2006). The Eleusinian Mystery is theorized to have been practiced openly for millennia on Crete by the Minoans, a partnership civilization, or gylany, which may have been seeded from Çatalhöyük, before it began to be practiced semi-secretly on the mainland around 3,500 years ago — fifty years after Abraham, six hundred miles away, began promoting Yahweh, according to an estimate from When God Was a Woman. For 1,900 years, people in Athens who spoke Greek and had not killed anyone outside of war had the option to experience the Eleusinian Mysteries, whose Goddesses were Demeter and Persephone. Completing the Lesser Mystery in February allowed one to be an initiate, nineteen months later, in the Greater Mystery, which occurred over nine days in September, including a day walking fourteen miles from Athens to Eleusis and a night stoned on a drink called kykeon in a building called the telestêrion that, after multiple reconstructions, held thousands and which contained a small chamber that one initiate entered at a time.

Alaric the Visigoth destroyed the telestêrion in 396 AD, four years after a Christian Roman emperor deemed Christianity the official religion and closed the Eleusinian Mystery. Before the experience became illegal, Pythagoras, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and others went, drank kykeon, and published positive, awed thoughts on their trips. In The Road to Eleusis (1978), Wasson, Hofmann, and Ruck theorized kykeon contained an LSD-like compound made by ergot, which grows on rye, barley, and other grasses. Wasson quoted Aristides the Rhetor, calling the experience “new, astonishing, inaccessible to rational cognition.”

In May, when I was working on this book’s DMT chapter, I encountered a juror who I’d also seen in public in March, the night after jury duty ended, when, walking in opposite directions, we’d waved. He was the juror who, on day 1, from the back row, asked why we were indicting a dinky knife. This time we stopped to talk.

He said he forgot to tell me something last time. We’d been the only two, he said, who voted dismiss on every charge. As prologue, it seemed, to explaining why he’d voted to dismiss all, he said he’d “studied law and philosophy” and trailed off, looking at me. He asked how I felt about the experience. I said good, productive. As officers learned juries were dismissing cannabis felonies, they would become reluctant to try to prosecute them — to make the arrest, do the paperwork, go to Chinatown, sit on a witness stand — and as people in the cannabis trade learned juries weren’t indicting cannabis felonies, they’d become bolder in their investments and marketing, and eventually cannabis, barring being targeted by a billion- or trillion-dollar industry or organization, could become legal again; with cannabis, the entry psychedelic, legal, the others could follow. My votes supported this trend, so I felt productive.

We were in Washington Square Park. We discussed how, in the back row, he’d seen every vote. He said most jurors had seemed to try to vote with the majority and that gradually more had voted to dismiss cannabis charges. He was the only juror I’d encountered since jury duty ended; he seemed to want to talk a little more but didn’t, and we said bye.

  • For references/bibliography, go here.

[1] Disclaimer: Hamilton Morris has pointed out to me that blotters sold on the black market contain unknown doses of unknown compounds, so I may or may not have had LSD each time.



Tao Lin

I’m the author of Leave Society (2021), Trip (2018), Taipei (2013), other books. Visit my website at https://taolin.us.