Lessons on Psychedelic Evangelism from the UK Counterculture of the 60s
The 1960s counterculture movement kept a radical root for drug policy reform that would benefit the current movement for psychedelic drug law reform. Source: Shutterstock
At a recent activism event advocating for the medical utility of psychedelic drugs, I heard a member of a psychedelic treatment facilitator’s management team end an otherwise optimistic discussion with a warning: “be realistic about psychedelics, don’t be an evangelist”.
Statements like these are common in the narrative surrounding the re-emergence of psychedelic therapy and allude to a wider concern within the movement, where psychedelic researchers who seek to make a science-based legitimate case for psychedelics distance themselves from any associations to their recreational use, or any self-experimentation. Psychedelic researchers today are weary of a parallel re-emergence of interest in recreational use, where resurgent legal scrutiny could lead to another clampdown on psychedelic research and therapy.
Cautions such as these represent a veiled critique of the 1960s counterculture, the first and perhaps infamous incarnation of interest in recreational psychedelic drug use in the West. The psychedelic evangelism of the counterculture is seen to be responsible for the well documented moral outcry against this class of drugs, and the subsequent criminalisation of such compounds that haunts the legacy of the movement.
Robin Carhartt-Harris, a leading neuropsychopharmacologist in British psychedelic research based at Imperial College London, emblematises this critique. Speaking about the American psychedelic revolution led by Timothy Leary and guided by his infamous slogan ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’, Robin Carhartt-Harris, a leading neuropsychopharmacologist in British psychedelic research based at Imperial College London, calls the 1960s psychedelic counterculture something “other than scientific research”, and that it ultimately “turned off the legitimate scientific research”.
This sentiment is understandable given the current environment in which psychedelic therapy exists, one that is still dominated by moralistic perspectives on illegal drug use. Despite this, my conviction is that distancing ourselves from the drug zeitgeist of the 60s will prevent us from learning important lessons from that period, as well as perspectives that we ought to keep in mind. What follows is a sketch of these points with a focus on the British incarnation of the 60s counterculture.
Front cover of Oz magazine, no. 31. Bottom right text reads: He drives a Maserati. She's a professional model. The boy is the son of the art editor of Time magazine. Some revolution! Source.
“Civilization is suicidal, it must be destroyed”
The British incarnation of countercultural protest reached its height between 1965 and 1967. It mobilised disaffected middle-class youths, most notably in London’s boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea. This eclectic group of colourful youths were concerned with the creation of an alternative society and as such, had their own institutions. Youths would digest the movement’s ideas through its ‘underground press’, the most famous newspapers of which being the International Times and Oz. Members would attend countercultural nightclubs, such as UFO, robed in psychedelic clothing, to listen to psychedelic bands, illustrated by psychedelic lightshows.
Importantly, the movement had its own ideology which centred on the use of psychedelic drugs as a reaction against a modern life of perceived excessive consumerism, materialism, and rationalism. The counterculture’ members were the post-war baby boom generation, the product of a less scarce age borne from the end of wartime rationing, larger ownership of appliances, cars, living through an explosion of fashion.
For proponents of the counterculture, the new superficial, material, and scientific progress they lived through came at the expense of subjective fulfilment, the inner self and deeper meaning. As summarised by Jeff Nutall, the iconic English writer for (and of) the countercultural movement, “the current technological/commercial/industrial/rational civilization is suicidal, it must be destroyed”.
It is within this context of a broader critique of the emergent consumer society that the counterculture used psychedelic drugs to undo its alienating effect. Referring specifically to the work of Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzger, Nutall describes how psychedelic drugs could be used to “[break] the deadlock of our destructive sickness, our loss of wonderment”.
The 60s exhibited a moment of truly radical politics, dreamed and envisioned through the aid of recreational drug use. This contrasts with the politics of psychedelic therapy today, which is confined to the goal of legalising clinical psychedelic therapy and research. The broader use of psychedelics, and the impact it could have on society, has been lost. In a society that arguably has only become more materialistic, consumeristic, and rational since the 60s, perhaps we could all do with a revival of these arguments.
Keeping the renaissance radical
For the counterculture, protecting the rights of people who use drugs recreationally was seen as a social justice concern just as valid as other movements of the time. It was common for the countercultural press to cover discussions on drug policy reform and critiques on drug busts, covered alongside pieces on the ecological movement, student protests, racial justice actions, and anti-war coalitions. It was a cause whose members suffered similar levels of systemic violence.
While some progress has been made in many of these movements since the 1960s, drug laws in the UK remain as draconian now as they were then. The memory of the counterculture reminds us that people who use drugs are a population abandoned in their social justice struggle. This insight helps us understand that people who use drugs will continue to be criminalised and victimised by the state if others in position of power do not advocate for their rights. This is only possible when the history and memory of recreational drug use is incorporated into the political consciousness of the present-day movement, rather than erased.
Among other reasons, the decline of the counterculture, particularly post-1968, stemmed from its commercialisation. The popularity of many of its institutions, particularly the UFO Club, led to the development of a broader ‘soft’ psychedelic culture, less wedded to its radical politics. For example, UFO was followed by successor clubs like the Electric Garden, Middle Earth and Happening 44; these were largely commercial endeavours that cast off its previously countercultural politics. The countercultural press, once dominated by activism and discussion, was increasingly flooded with advertising to remain afloat.
The process and implications of commercialisation is pertinent to the movement today, which increasingly collaborates with venture capital partners, investment banks and big pharmaceutical companies. The jury is still out in terms of the implications of ‘psychedelic capitalism’ and the “psychedelic trojan horse” argument, which states that progress in the this space must be spearheaded by integrating it with the finance and the pharmaceutical industry. Keeping the psychedelic evangelism of the 60s at heart reminds us of the inherent mistrust towards overt consumerism, materialism, and rationalism in society. These are important roots to remember as more money enters the industry, and increasingly influences how it will legally exist.
This piece is not to condemn psychedelic therapy, nor to romanticise the 60s counterculture. Providing therapy for those who most need it is a noble cause. The point is simply that ‘doing’ the psychedelic renaissance correctly involves acknowledging the value of recreational drug use, as well as integrating drug policy reform within a wider set of social and racial struggles. This is not only to recognise the history of the substances and the people that advocated for their use, but
Erasing psychedelic evangelism and those early proponents from its history is to risk erasing its radical roots. The countercultural movement rejected the restriction of liberties over one’s consciousness, and defended that recreational drug use was a very valid response to the pressures of a modern life. It furthermore connected the struggle for legal drug use to other equally legitimate social, economic and racial struggles of the time, which are increasingly omitted by psychedelic therapy advocates.
Alongside their therapeutic use, the history, and the radical nature of drug policy reform, must remain central to the psychedelic renaissance.