How psychedelic drugs are used as a tool of state violence

There is a long, racist history of psychedelic drugs being used to repress — and oppress

Published August 1, 2020 2:00PM (EDT)

Riot Police | Medicine Vial (Getty Images/Salon)
Riot Police | Medicine Vial (Getty Images/Salon)

In August, 2019, Michael Pollan spoke about the promise of psychedelic therapy to a receptive audience at the American Psychological Association Convention. Pollan was coming off of a very successful year: The New York Times called his book one of the best of 2018, and his lecture marked the culmination of a public discussion that has helped to bring psychedelic therapy to mainstream consciousness.

Then, just a few weeks later, Elijah McLain, a young black man, was killed by police after being involuntarily administered ketamine. A psychedelic substance with powerful dissociative effects, ketamine has been promoted as a template for psychedelic therapy and is also increasingly used as a tranquilizer by police departments that are attempting to avoid the liability of firearms and tasers.

McLain's case marks but one example in a long and significant history of psychedelics and cannabis being used as tools of state violence, a racist history that has been glossed over by Pollan and many others promoting the psychedelic research renaissance.

The strategic architecture behind this renaissance has been, in large part, built on alliances with military and law enforcement at various levels. Behind the optic appeals to national pride and the realities of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by veterans and first responders, organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and their supporters have expressed the hope that these kinds of treatments will ultimately lead to solutions for structural problems within society, leading us out of the darkness of everything from religious conflict to climate change.

For a movement grounded in science this is a highly suspect leap of faith with no historical or scientific basis, and Elijah McLain's case is just one horrific example of the opposite. By branding the psychedelic renaissance as a kind of archaic revival of the ancient uses of plant medicine sacraments into modern society, advocates have been able to kaleidoscope over the history of psychedelic drugs as tools of state violence, which is well documented and historically continuous.

The Vikings, whose homeland was depleted of natural resources, used psychedelics to inspire a colonial war of aggression to solidify and feed the state back home. The Viking Berserker warriors, known for their veracity and viciousness, and from which the word berserk is derived, would appear en masse, naked for battle except for the carcass of an animal, covered in blood and in a murderous trance. That trance, most historians agree, was psychedelic-induced. They would thrust themselves after the enemy and kill using whatever method or tool was available to spare, the rock in their hands or their teeth, literally gnawing on their opponent's body. Scholars debate about whether it was Amanita muscaria or Amanita pantherina mushrooms that were a key component of inducing that trance, but regardless, using the psychedelic state was a way to comport the mind and body of the warrior into a war like frenzy. The intention was not only to kill, but to dominate as viciously as possible and to tower over the psyche so as to leave the subjected incapacitated by fear.


Similar stories of the use of Amanita muscaria and other mushrooms in wartime exist across time and across culture, including amongst the Tartars, who created a mixture of cannabis and the mushroom. In 1814, during the war between Sweden and Norway, the Varmland regimen used Amanita muscaria and was described as rabid, foaming, and vicious. In 1945, Soviet soldiers supposedly used them during one particularly brutal battle in Hungary. Although there are other examples of wartime uses of psychedelics, including in indigenous cultures, we're focusing here on examples of state violence.

The English word "assassin" comes down to us from the highly mythologized Nizari Isma'ili State, a religious order in the 11th century Islamic world. The meaning of the word comes from the group's nickname, the Assassins, and the reputation of the order's small inner circle that was employed to carry out espionage and assassinations of key political figures. They were famous for their fanatical bravery, never attempting to escape once they committed to a mission, a cultish determination that is thought to have been bred in part by Nazari chiefs' administration of hashish both as a tool for mental control and motivation.

While the Pentagon was spending billion on the drug war in Central and South America, Rick Doblin, the founder and executive director of MAPS, went to meet officials with the Department of Defense to discuss his interest in developing MDMA and cannabis to treat PTSD. It was reported that these "unlikely partners" were a sign that attitudes on drugs were "changing, and quick."

Yet this seemingly unlikely alliance was neither extraordinary or revolutionary. Although MDMA, a psychostimulant, has distinct effects, it is structurally very similar to other amphetamines. They also have overlapping physiological and psychological effects. In one study, some subjects had a difficult time distinguishing between MDMA and methamphetamine, and the researchers found that some of the differences in phenomenology could be a result of the strong social bias around each substance.

The use of various amphetamines within military operations has a history that extends as far back as their medical use. They found applications by both sides in World War II, a use that was threefold. Firstly, they helped to reduce fatigue and appetite, a use that was continued in the US Air Force until 2017. Secondly, it was used to relieve the crippling psychic and emotional pain of depersonalization caused by killing, something that directly reflects current interest in treating conflict-related trauma. And thirdly, in Germany, amphetamines were used by the general population, saturating the lives of everyone from factory workers to housewives. It is understated to what extent substance use has historically defined both active conflicts and wartime culture, on and off the battlefield.

The encouragement of microdosing amphetamine to increase stamina and kill efficiency is one of the first known and reported benefits of microdosing. Now a fad that the popular media reports amongst everyone from Silicon Valley executives to soccer moms, many suggest that microdosing psychedelics can help to produce a state of flow, increasing cognitive and emotional efficiency. Unsurprisingly, the military is showing enthusiastic interest, with recent publications such as in the Marine Corp Gazette celebrating FDA trials and the potential for microdosing to increase soldiers' efficiency in battle. This and the therapeutic potential of PTSD treatment have a better chance of keeping a shell-shocked soldier in active duty, a soldier who, depending on job and rank, represents tens of thousands or even millions of dollars in investment.

The use of drugs by the state is not limited to increasing effectiveness. The Nazis were early proponents and practitioners of experimentation for their potential as weapons of social control. Most notably and darkly, mescaline was administered to Jewish and Romani prisoners at Dachau. The CIA was so interested that after the war they recruited the same doctors as advisors, shielding them from war crime prosecution. The current psychedelic renaissance is historically embedded within this continuum. In cooperation with local police, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other representatives of state order, the CIA used the lessons that were learned in Dachau and applied them to torturing US citizens, most notably African-Americans, prisoners, and poor people. The use of not only psychedelic drugs, but psychedelic therapy as an implement to consolidate state power was established in these early years.

Between 1935 and 1975 the NIMH Addiction Research Center (ARC) in Lexington, Kentucky conducted numerous studies involving very high and prolonged doses of LSD, as well as experimentation with ibogaine on formerly opioid-addicted black inmates. One such study looked at LSD effects on black inmates who were offered heroin as a coercive incentive for their participation, compared to the effects on unincarcerated white people who were treated at the lead researcher's home in an environment designed to reduce anxiety. In the 1970s, the ARC program moved to Baltimore where it became the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Although this longstanding research program obviously violated research ethics laws, it has never been renounced by NIDA or any other major psychedelic research institution.

These illegal and immoral research methods were common practice within MKULTRA, the CIA's infamous "mind control" research program, which provided funding for ARC between 1957 and 1962. ARC was one of 80 institutions involved in the program, the intention of which was to learn how to break the psyche. Although much is made about the therapeutic benefits of ego death, this mental state was weaponized by the CIA, measured for its capacity to force compliance, crush dissent, and extract information. That experience of oneness and openness can bring about an apolitical view of history, where there are no good guys or bad guys.

Throughout their research, torturing unknowing civilians by high doses of LSD and by many other means, MKULTRA focused heavily on highly policed environments. Another famous example is the story of Whitey Bulger, a Boston-area crime boss who spent years as a federal fugitive. Years before that he was incarcerated in the Atlanta Penitentiary, where he and 18 other inmates were given high doses of LSD every day for over a year. He described feeling like he was going crazy, and in correspondence where he expanded on those experiences later in his life, he said, "I was in prison for committing a crime, but they committed a greater crime on me." After his release, he cooperated for more than a decade as an FBI informant, and was allowed to continue his black market activities — including selling drugs, extortion, racketeering and murder.

Between 2002 and 2010, MAPS conducted the first study on "war and terrorism-related PTSD" in Israel, a study that recruited participants in direct partnership with the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). An organization that Amnesty International describes with "widespread constitutional violations, discriminatory enforcement and culture of retaliation" for their treatment of Palestinians, this "chronic human rights violator" also provides the 'gold standard' of surveillance and crowd suppression training for thousands of American law enforcement officers every year, including the police force in Minneapolis where George Floyd was brutally murdered. This training was on display throughout the suppression of the recent Black Lives Matter protests.

MAPS has consistently prioritized the trauma suffered by purveyors of state violence in their research. Continuing this drug development agenda, from 2010 to 2016, MAPS conducted a Phase II pilot study treating the service-related trauma suffered by first responders, including police. During the same period, while the drug war raged and millions of Black and brown people languished in the penal colony of the USA, being killed by police became the leading cause of death for young Black men.

The state's interest in psychedelics has obviously grown out of its potential to extend the interests of both the military and prison industrial complex. Given this history, it is not surprising at all that MAPS and other organizations would seek to collaborate with the Pentagon or the IDF. Now, this history provides a very shadowy backdrop for MAPS' recent announcements of solidarity with Black Lives Matter. The obligatory statements of allegiance reflect the same hollow efforts put forth by brands such as Sprite and Nike. Yet it fails to acknowledge the deep-seated relationships that researchers have forged with purveyors of state violence and racism at home and abroad.

It is also no surprise that paralleling the rise of ketamine clinics across the United States, involuntary state-administered ketamine has been weaponized by police, in particular against Black people. Elijah McLain is just one example. His crime was, first, being a young Black man, but also being different. He was a sensitive young man who would volunteer to play violin for animals in the shelter. Had he born into, say, British aristocracy, we would describe him as eccentric. However, his body was Black, his behavior was different, and he was a threat. He was snuffed out with the help of one of the medicines that the psychedelic community has been advocating for and using as a model for future medicalization.

We are not so cynical that we do not endorse the use of psychedelics, or any other modality to relieve human suffering, including that of veterans or anyone who has been placed on the front lines of state violence. However, cynicism can certainly be justified while we watch psychedelic researchers distance themselves from the revolutionary progress of the 1960s, without distancing themselves from overtly racist and violent history of state-sponsored psychedelic research.

Where is the public outcry on the part of researchers regarding Elijah's murder, or the acknowledgement of other past, present crimes? What will be done about the certainty of future crimes as the legitimate uses of psychedelics are monopolized by state and corporate power?

By Jonathan Dickinson

Jonathan Dickinson is a counselor and consultant who has been working with ibogaine since 2009. He is the former director of the Global Ibogaine Therapy Alliance (GITA), and currently lives in Tijuana, Mexico, where he has a private practice called Ceiba Ibogaine Therapy

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By Dimitri Mugianis

Dimitri Mugianis has worked for nearly two decades with ibogaine and other psychedelics. He is known for his pioneering work with harm reduction modalities, as a writer, poet, musician, activist, and organizer with an anarchist critique of the psychedelic movement.

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Black Lives Matter Movement Commentary Elijah Mclain Ketamine Law Enforcement Psychedelic Drugs Racism