The Culture Is the Poison: Why Psychedelics Are Dangerous Medicine in a Neoliberal Society

The Culture Is the Poison: Why Psychedelics Are Dangerous Medicine in a Neoliberal Society


In the last decade, an entirely new kind of human has taken over the psychedelic scene. They could be not be more different from those I encountered when I took part in a clinical trial ten years ago at Johns Hopkins and from the movement’s primogenitors: María Sabina Magdalena García (the Mazatec curandera who unwittingly provided psilocybin mushrooms to businessman and CIA asset R. Gordon Wasson in 1955), Timothy Leary, Alexander and Ann Shulgin, and Walter Pahnke, to name a few.

The work of bespectacled and sincere—if biased—academics like Roland Griffiths, who was the Principal Investigator of the clinical trial in which I took part, has been engulfed and overtaken by a group of neoliberal profiteers who could not have demonstrated less commitment to social welfare, the common good, and civil society if they’d rolled in on tanks and thrown those asking for help with their life issues into pits.

Christian Angermayer, a German investor, founder of the investment firm ATAI Life Sciences, is emblematic of these so-called “entrepreneurs,” predatory male creatures who have emerged in the last few years, fueled with cash and obsessed with the goal of dominating the psychedelic world.

Angermayer’s psychedelic origin tale goes like this: he “discovered” magic mushrooms while on a cruise with friends on a yacht in the Caribbean. In another version, he went to the Netherlands to a retreat and tripped in nature. There’s a version about Malta. Or was it Papua New Guinea? With each new version of his story, he’s reassured his audience he ingested the drug in waters or time zones that made his activity entirely legal, preparing his audience for his own version of the new reality: he and he alone would dictate the future of psychedelics. And it would be pharmaceutical.

His insights were typical of the grandiose crew taking over the psychedelic space. Rather than envision how he could help humanity at a calamitous time, Angermayer’s epiphany consisted of a singular vision of himself making a killing medicalizing psilocybin and marketing it at a premium as a medical treatment for depression. He himself, he protested, never suffered from depression. He was a clear-eyed capitalist, merely pursuing a hot business opportunity in a world that values this skill above human life itself.

Since his fateful first trip, Angermayer has become the world’s largest psychedelic pharma investor. The company he’s staked his future on is Compass Pathways, now a publicly traded pharmaceutical company based in Britain, which is in the business of cornering the market on medical psilocybin through various insalubrious yet creative methods and deals, such as patenting psilocybin, a naturally occurring substance which has been in use for several thousand years, and attempting to patent elements of the therapeutic process itself: the layout of the therapeutic chamber, when and how the guide touches the patient during the sessions, and so on.

Angermayer displayed his loose relationship with both facts and truth as well as his utter contempt for the humanity of anyone who is not part of his privileged neoliberal ilk in the many tweets he issued during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the most telling was a tweet of 18 March, 2020, in which he protested against a complete lockdown to forestall further life-threatening disease transmission. He wrote “To go on with complete shut down for more than 2 wks is absurd and violating any civil rights we fought for.”

As one of the new poster boys for psychedelic capitalism, he appears confused about what civil rights are, and who is entitled to them. To him, workers are nothing more than disposable, vulgar plebians who must toil away to enrich him in the midst of the ravages of the worst pandemic since the arrival of HIV/AIDS. To suggest they have either civil or human rights themselves would no doubt come as a surprise to him.

“The idea that we must prioritize ‘economic health’ over public health ignores the reality that, under late stage capitalism, ‘economic health’ is actually code for elite prosperity, which does not translate into greater individual or societal health,” wrote editors of the web site Psymposia in a post from April, 2020.

What was it psychedelics were supposed to do for people? Oh yes, demonstrate the true meaning of life, open our hearts with compassion for others and reveal the unity of all living beings. Wasn’t that it?

Here’s the rub: one of the most glaring dangers of psychedelics is their tendency to amplify existing personality traits including grandiosity (or Machiavellianism) and narcissism. Where traditional societies once selected leaders from among those with the most life-affirming and alliance-building personality traits such as agreeableness and conscientiousness, over the last forty years or so, the rise of neoliberalism has created the perfect climate for the growth of dark factor traits such as greed, sadism, narcissism, psychopathy, and grandiosity.

Corporate culture and the neoliberal economic and political policies that have swept both the United States and the United Kingdom since the late 1970s value these traits above all others, adding fuel to an already out-of-control cultural and sociological conflagration. We see the results of it everywhere: from rising poverty and homelessness, to illiteracy, to violent crime, to environmental degradation, to the climate catastrophe.

Add psychedelics to the dark factor trait explosion, and these once hallowed and sacred substances become vehicles of endangerment—not for the persons who have ingested them, but for everyone else. An extreme example of this effect was Charles Manson, a hallucinogenic drug user and criminal cult leader whose followers carried out several high-profile murders in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. The most notable was the murder of Sharon Tate, the wife of Roman Polanski.

Angermayer learned the same lesson as all those others whose grandiosity and egotism were amplified by the psychedelic experience—a frighteningly common occurrence among privileged Caucasian males. And there’s no moderating force stopping him: no ritual process, no ethical backbone, no religious heritage, no built-in shame, no complex and interdependent community that creates social norms and expectations about the common good. He’s the embodiment of late-stage capitalism, of the coming fascist machine and its total disregard for life, human or otherwise. Imagine someone such as he understanding with humility and compassion that community well-being is more important than whether he makes a million bucks today. Or any day. Imagine a neoliberal operating without ego.

The Psychology of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism and narcissism have been on an interlaced upsurge in western culture since the end of WWII, and especially since the 1970s. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this trend correlates with the suspension of military conscription in the Western, educated, industrial, rich, and (supposedly) democratic world, which broadly speaking includes the United States, western Europe and Britain.

The last day of the U.S. draft was June 30, 1973. The book The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch was published in 1978.

Although believing in the necessity of going out and killing a perceived enemy does not make a better human out of anyone, one of the most important features of military service is the highly ritualized process of basic training that fosters cohort identity among (primarily) young men. It’s an initiation rite. Using forced austerity and pushing the limits of physical and psychic endurance, basic training, my former husband, a Vietnam War veteran, once said—I paraphrase—teaches any snot-nosed asshole of a kid with an attitude what is important so that he’ll never forget it as long as he lives. Every soldier learned—some for the first time in their lives—he was responsible for his buddies’ survival. Your platoon mate dies, it’s on you.

Does the absence of a culturally mandated initiation explain the explosion of narcissism among Western males over the last fifty years?

Psychiatrist Dr Charles Grob and medical anthropologist Dr Marlene Dobkin de Rios studied initiation rites practiced in three non-Western cultural traditions. All three used hallucinogenic drugs as accelerants to entry into a divine trance state. The most important feature among all three was the creation of an intense, several-day ritual process within a cultural milieu where young people learned to sublimate their individual needs and drives to those of the greater community. They write:

“These states were created to heighten learning and create a bonding among members of the cohort group…. so that individual psychic needs would be subsumed to the needs of the social group. This was done to ensure survival. Cohort identity might be fostered by the austerities and painful consciousness changes that accompanied genital mutilation, sleeplessness and beatings – a sort of aboriginal boot camp—where one would share and identify with one’s cohorts upon whom survival success might often depend.”

Extraction of psychedelics from the ritual process has dissociated them from the idea of community, connectedness, responsibility, and continuity that defined psychedelic drug use during the 1960s and 1970s.

This sideways slide away from any consideration of the common good is typical of neoliberal psychology, according to a paper published in the Journal of Social Issues. The authors list the characteristics of neoliberal psychology, which I paraphrase here:

  1. A radical abstraction of the self from place and time—that is, history—as well as from social and material context, including choices about creation and dissolution of both individual and community ties;
  2. The invention of the entrepreneurial self; that is, the cultivation of an externalized [ego-driven] self to create and extend a marketable brand;
  3. A commitment to growth, which includes freedom from obligations, expectations and norms, and an emphasis on self-expansion and personal fulfillment;
  4. Control of affect; that is, suppression of feelings and control of emotions, substituting high arousal positive affect (excitement, optimism, enthusiasm) as an index of health and morality key to success.

That these same tendencies form much of the psychological makeup of psychedelic drug users comes as no surprise.

In the UK, researchers interviewed twenty magic mushroom users to ascertain their feelings about psychedelic drugs within their cultural context. They compared the subjects’ drug use to the way psychedelics were used in in the 1960s. The study found there were two overarching themes. The first placed the participants’ discussions squarely within neoliberal rhetoric. They characterised themselves as rational, risk-managing persons engaged in a form of “calculated hedonism that was legitimated as an act of personal freedom and consumer choice.” The second both celebrated and problematised a collective, connected “hippy” or “post-psychedelic” form of spirituality.

None of the subjects viewed their choice to use psychedelics as anything but an expression of free will. They were unable to imagine a world in which they considered the good of the collective as a primary superceding virtue that influenced how and in what way they made personal decisions about taking drugs, or doing anything else.

The União do Vegetal Church: Ayahuasca as Sacrament in a Modern Community

Despite the metastasis of neoliberal thought into most areas of contemporary life, a few institutions have quietly incorporated the psychedelic ritual tradition into a cultural and spiritual practice. The Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal (the Beneficent Center of the Union of the Plants) or UDV, is one of them. It was founded in Brazil in the early 1960s by José Gabriel de Costa, (Maestre Gabriel, as he came to be known), a rubber prospector working in the Amazon rain forest. Maestre Gabriel became acquainted with ayahuasca when he participated in ceremonies with the rubber-gathering indigenous and mestizo populations working along the Brazilian border between Bolivia and Peru.

In Brazil, the UDV church operated with little interference until 1985, when the constituent plants used in the ayahuasca brew, the bark of the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and the leaves of Psychotria viridis, a shrub that is a member of the Rubiaceae or coffee family, were added to the list of bannned drugs. The church filed suit against the government of Brazil, challenging the law. After an investigation, the Brazil federal drug council concluded hoasca-using church members were healthier and more productive in their communities than the average citizens.

In 1993, following the lifting of the ban, the UDV invited a multinational group of researchers to Brazil to study the psychological and biochemical effects of their tea. Having an objective, scientific study in hand could protect them, they reasoned, if the political winds were to shift once again.

The researchers recruited fifteen members of the UDV from a large group of volunteers in Manaus, all of whom had been ritually drinking ayahuasca for more than ten years. A control group of fifteen was also recruited.

Many of the subjects reported having been engaged in a variety of dysfunctional behaviors prior to joining the UDV. Eleven had been addicted to alcohol prior to joining. Many had criminal records. Several described themselves prior to joining the UDV church as impulsive, disrespectful, angry, aggressive, oppositional, rebellious, irresponsible, alienated, and unsuccessful.

Each subject described transformations in their lives as resulting from their experiences with the ritual use of ayahuasca within the context of the church. Many of them felt they underwent a life-changing perceptual transformation during their very first ceremony.

Among the most striking results, though, was the universal understanding of context in the efficacy of the sacramental use of hallucinogenic substances.

“They saw the hoasca as a catalyst in their psychological and moral evolution, but were quick to point out, however, that it was not the hoasca alone that was responsible, but rather taking the hoasca within the context of the UDV ritual structure. Several of the subjects were in fact quite critical of other Brazilian groups which utilize hoasca in less controlled and less focused settings. Subjects described the UDV as a ‘vessel’ that enables them to safely navigate the often turbulent states of consciousness induced by hoasca ingestion…. The subjects also emphasized the importance of ‘uniao,’ or union, of the plants and of the people.”

Of all the observations made by the UDV members who were interviewed, one in particular stood out: their comprehension of the dangers of drinking ayahuasca without the structure of the UDV. Without it, the experiences could be unpredictable, and lead to an inflated sense of self. This observation has been shown to be universally true. Within the Western neoliberal tradition, the inflated self is now out of control.

Perhaps psychedelics should be made available only to cultural groups that use them ceremonially and therapeutically, or to religious groups that use them as sacraments. They’re simply too dangerous in the hands of the neoliberal capitalist class. Providing psychedelics to men such as these is like handing a shiv to the person who intends to murder you.

Editor’s Note: This essay is excerpted from the author’s as-yet-unpublished book.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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Jorge Oliveira