Neuronal News: Gen Z, are we in a psychedelic renaissance or dark age?

A watercolor painting of red psychedelic mushrooms on a black background.
(Andrea Zheng • The Student Life)

Gen Z has set off historic records for hallucinogenic use. Relevant experts attribute this popularity partly to the resurgence of scientific interest in their medicinal use, with psychedelic therapy having been successfully incorporated into treatment for an almost countless number of mental conditions. Such interest exists at the 5Cs: today, Feb. 10, there is a “Psychedelics & Neuroscience” talk by a Pomona alum who now works as a “psychedelic guide.” And last year, Claremont McKenna College had one of their alums, who now directs an entire psychedelic research center, speak about their career. 

But while this resurgence has been widely heralded as a renaissance, several issues come along with the institutionalization of psychedelics, such as harm to Indigenous communities, complaints of sexual violence and the consequences of the industrialization of psychedelics. If left unmentioned by Gen Z — especially when psychedelic use is high among our generation and the 5Cs churn out alums who go on to become psychedelic researchers — this storm halts the coming of any real renaissance. 

So, a psychedelic dark age may be more accurate. Or, it may be that the age never ended. These issues have existed since the first American psychedelic craze. 

One TSL columnist wrote about famous intellectual Michel Foucault’s first-time acid trip in Death Valley, California (accompanied by a Claremont professor!) in 1975. Foucault was among many cultural icons to do LSD, but it is his story that is relevant to ours today.

Foucault consistently referred to the Death Valley trip as a seminal experience responsible for a political rebirth. But as this Barnard College professor specializing in continental philosophy notes, some academics criticize this rebirth for having inspired a particular cultural shift.

As explained in an article from the Guardian, “beginning in the late 60s, political change would be reframed as a struggle against oneself, against our ‘inner enemy’. … the ‘fascist within.’”

The result, according to the authors, being that the “shift made the self just another market to conquer, with self-help coaches, new age gurus, energy healers, food counselors, alternative therapists and lifestyle brands all trying to profit off of this turn inwards.”

The Barnard professor only mentions this indictment of Foucault because he believes it places undue blame (and I agree), but the answer to the debate is irrelevant. For, the cultural shift happened regardless — at least, that is the historical stance that I have in common with the professor — and the current psychedelic renaissance must be understood within that context. 

When venture capitalist firms endorse psychedelics as a “panacea” and companies advertise psychedelic use with the slogan “Cultural Awakening Through Personal Transformation,”  it seems indeed the way psychedelics are marketed fits them into the politics of “therapeutic sensibility.”

Of course, just because a firm states that their goals align with the social good does not mean that the goal is insincere. But some suspicion is warranted when it comes to the booming psychedelic industry. After all, a psychedelic industry is a bit of an oxymoron when anti-capitalist fantasies were baked into the 1960s counterculture movement responsible for popularizing psychedelics in the United States.

Moreover, a group of psychiatrists detailed for the American Psychiatric Association’s news service how it is private investment, above all, that “is fueling the process of commercialization to the point that practice is leaping far ahead of research.”

And while I prefer to avoid attributing the causes of complex economic issues to singular terms (like “capitalism” or “communism”) that ignore the wide variances in their intellectual history, I do agree in principle with Guardian columnist Belén Fernández. 

“[It] is mind-bending that the very capitalist system that is responsible for generating vast alienation and mental strife should now be in the business of rectifying the situation … [it] is predicated on egregious socioeconomic inequality and the tyranny of the rich — hardly an arrangement that discourages depression and anxiety,” she writes

Moreover, Fernández is one of several who have detailed how the extraction of resources for the pharmaceutical production of psychedelics has caused environmental and social destruction within Indigenous communities in North and South America. (Read an excellent series on the issue here and another example here.) 

But, what she did not touch on is, as what one writer describes, a “rising movement within the psychedelic community is voicing concern that the emerging industry is poised to repeat colonial patterns that have appropriated Indigenous knowledge.”

But at the same time, despite a common narrative purported by the aforementioned psychedelic business on their “About” page — that “indigenous communities around the globe” used psychedelics for healing since ancient times — there is no empirical support that this took place on a large scale. 

Anthropologist Manvir Singh writes a damning narrative for VICE Magazine how “much of what underlies it is a seductive mixture of flimsy archaeological evidence, outdated anthropological approaches and economically convenient ideology.” It is what some have called Indigenous washing — a marketing strategy, which heralds back to a hundreds-year-long history of, as the Jim Crow Museum describes, invoking “Native associations with herbs and plants to sell medicinal concoctions.”

There is also an oversight problem within psychedelic therapy. Many so-called psychedelic guides lack any relevant professional accreditions, which has resulted in — the words of one investigative report — allegations of sexual abuse being “not unusual within the field of psychedelic therapy, and the risks are widely known among practitioners.” In fact, an entire podcast — Cover Story from the New York Magazine — is devoted to detailing the entire, extensive history of these allegations. 

Sound scientific studies showing the virtues of psychedelics should not be ignored, nor should recreational users necessarily stop. However, these issues demand our full attention, as Gen Z and in Claremont, in psychedelic discourse.  

Hannah Frasure PO ’24 often sits around pretending to be The Thinker is a philosophy major who began as a neuroscience major. 

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