– I love this Pope. The first one in my life that I can really stand up and applaud.
– Bravo for sticking it to the GOP folks who wave their religion around like it is a justification for greed.
– We need a better world, one that goes beyond power and greed as the prime movers, and that’s what the Pope is talking about. And, predictably, they are not going to like it.
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Conservative politicians have cited faith in shaping politics but are running from pope’s climate change teachings
WASHINGTON — Pope Francis is expected to take a provocative stance on global climate change Thursday, releasing an encyclical — a teaching letter addressed to Catholic bishops — that not only affirms the reality of man-made warming but issues a moral call for changes in lifestyle, consumption and policy to stave off environmental disaster.
That puts Republican lawmakers in the United States, many of whom outright deny that human activity has contributed to the warming of the earth, in an awkward position. Many of those conservative politicians, after all, have often cited their deeply held religious convictions as informing their political beliefs.
“I think it’s easy for Republicans to dismiss Greenpeace and other people who they see as tree-hugging leftists,” said John Gehring, the Catholic program director of Faith in Public Life, a religious advocacy group in Washington, D.C. “It’s much harder for them to brush off one of the greatest moral leaders of the world.”
“The pope is doing something that will make a lot of people very uncomfortable because he’s challenging a status quo that the richest and most powerful benefit from,” he added. “The Exxons of the world are not going to love this encyclical. The Koch brothers are not going to be sending it out as Christmas card. While the pope is a bridge builder, this is a provocative document that is meant to wake us up.”
Some prominent Republicans have already pre-emptively countered Francis’ message, arguing ahead of the official release of the encyclical that a religious leader has no place crafting public policy.
Bush, who converted to Catholicism 20 years ago, has nevertheless taken a different view for most of his public life, speaking occasionally on how his faith has played a role in shaping his policy views. His religion is believed to have played a pivotal role in his decision as Florida governor to prolong the life of Terri Schiavo, a brain-dead woman embroiled in a right-to-die battle that gained national attention.
Rick Santorum, another 2016 presidential contender and a devout Catholic, has similarly said his faith informs his staunch opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. But when asked about the pope wading into the climate change debate earlier this month by a radio host, Santorum answered, “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science. I think that we are probably better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.”
Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, yet another prominent Catholic in politics, has thus far not weighed in on Francis’ encyclical. But earlier this year Boehner held the standard Republican line that climate change regulations kill U.S. jobs and that he would leave it to scientists to debate the facts.
Richard Cizik, a former top lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals who was castigated by Christian conservative activists after he became a believer in climate change science, was baffled by comments dismissing the pope from the realm of politics.
“It’s not only disdainful. It fails to appreciate political decisions are at heart moral decisions. They know that too,” he said. “It’s time for everyone to pause and reflect and not just respond politically to what the encyclical says but, first and foremost, personally.”
Bob Inglis, a former Republican South Carolina congressman, was voted out of office in 2010 shortly after making remarks regarding the need to address climate change. He believes the tension between Catholic teachings and Catholic politicians’ current positions can be a positive development for those hoping to break the partisan gridlock on the issue.
“There are a lot of Catholics who might have been critical of other Catholics who haven’t accepted the church’s teachings on abortion. They called them cafeteria Catholics,” said Inglis, now the executive director of RepublicEN, a group dedicated to conservative solutions for climate change. “Now the question is whether those same folks will become cafeteria Catholics and not accept the church’s teachings on climate change. The dissonance is going to be very constructive here. I hope what’s going to happen is that the encyclical is going to establish this as a moral question as well as a question of policy and economics.”
Other observers have noted the difficulty in defying hard political reality on climate change. The oil and gas industry, whose business interests lie in perpetuating the use of carbon-dioxide-releasing fossil fuels, contributed $18 million to congressional campaigns in the 2014 elections alone, the vast majority of that to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Climate change skeptics have continued to dig in on their positions. The Cornwall Alliance, a Christian conservative organization that claims climate change science is grossly exaggerated, said the arguments made in the encyclical are misguided.
“Pope Francis puts his moral authority as the leader of roughly 1.2 billion Catholics in jeopardy when he addresses technical scientific issues on which he has apparently only been given one side of what is a very vigorous scientific debate,” said Cornwall spokesman Calvin Beisner. “He will certainly have an influence on public opinion about this … I think he’s mistaken.”
Nonetheless, Cizik said, if people of faith across the country unite on the issue, Congress will ultimately follow.
“When faith communities unite, politicians listen,” he said. “It just seems to me now is an opportunity for those who have been wanting to make a change to come forward and boldly say so. People sometimes need a conversion. If you’re not going to change your mind every once in a while, you might as well be dead.”
– Most excellent article by, arguably, the most sincere and honest president during my lifetime. Too bad that the American electorate did’t think he had the right stuff but then they seem drawn to ‘strong leaders with easy to grasp sound-bite answers’ – much to the detriment of the country and the world.
– Bravo, Jimmy Carter!
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Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.
I HAVE been a practising Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.
This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.
At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.
The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.
In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.
The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in the West. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for society. An educated woman has healthier children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests what she earns in her family.
It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices – as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.
I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive areas to challenge. But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy – and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.
The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. We have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights and have recently published a statement that declares: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”
We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasise the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world’s major faiths share.
The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.
I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.
The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.
– Jimmy Carter was president of the United States from 1977 to 1981.
– This is a subject near and dear to my heart though I don’t typically talk a lot about it because these substances are still outlawed in much of the world.
– Do I think they can be harmful? Yes, absolutely. If people who just want to party or who have mental problems or unstable personalities take them – they can be a nightmare.
– Do I think they can be helpful? Yes, absolutely. If stable, mentally healthy people take them for reasons of self-inquiry, I think they are some of the most amazing substances on the planet. They can be positive life-changers.
– Check these associated articles out for other opinions: ➡ and ➡
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Research into psychedelics, shut down for decades, is now yielding exciting results.
On an April Monday in 2010, Patrick Mettes, a fifty-four-year-old television news director being treated for a cancer of the bile ducts, read an article on the front page of the Times that would change his death. His diagnosis had come three years earlier, shortly after his wife, Lisa, noticed that the whites of his eyes had turned yellow. By 2010, the cancer had spread to Patrick’s lungs and he was buckling under the weight of a debilitating chemotherapy regimen and the growing fear that he might not survive. The article, headlined “HALLUCINOGENS HAVE DOCTORS TUNING IN AGAIN,” mentioned clinical trials at several universities, including N.Y.U., in which psilocybin—the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms—was being administered to cancer patients in an effort to relieve their anxiety and “existential distress.” One of the researchers was quoted as saying that, under the influence of the hallucinogen, “individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states . . . and return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.” Patrick had never taken a psychedelic drug, but he immediately wanted to volunteer. Lisa was against the idea. “I didn’t want there to be an easy way out,” she recently told me. “I wanted him to fight.”
Patrick made the call anyway and, after filling out some forms and answering a long list of questions, was accepted into the trial. Since hallucinogens can sometimes bring to the surface latent psychological problems, researchers try to weed out volunteers at high risk by asking questions about drug use and whether there is a family history of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. After the screening, Mettes was assigned to a therapist named Anthony Bossis, a bearded, bearish psychologist in his mid-fifties, with a specialty in palliative care. Bossis is a co-principal investigator for the N.Y.U. trial.
After four meetings with Bossis, Mettes was scheduled for two dosings—one of them an “active” placebo (in this case, a high dose of niacin, which can produce a tingling sensation), and the other a pill containing the psilocybin. Both sessions, Mettes was told, would take place in a room decorated to look more like a living room than like a medical office, with a comfortable couch, landscape paintings on the wall, and, on the shelves, books of art and mythology, along with various aboriginal and spiritual tchotchkes, including a Buddha and a glazed ceramic mushroom. During each session, which would last the better part of a day, Mettes would lie on the couch wearing an eye mask and listening through headphones to a carefully curated playlist—Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Pat Metheny, Ravi Shankar. Bossis and a second therapist would be there throughout, saying little but being available to help should he run into any trouble.
I met Bossis last year in the N.Y.U. treatment room, along with his colleague Stephen Ross, an associate professor of psychiatry at N.Y.U.’s medical school, who directs the ongoing psilocybin trials. Ross, who is in his forties, was dressed in a suit and could pass for a banker. He is also the director of the substance-abuse division at Bellevue, and he told me that he had known little about psychedelics—drugs that produce radical changes in consciousness, including hallucinations—until a colleague happened to mention that, in the nineteen-sixties, LSD had been used successfully to treat alcoholics. Ross did some research and was astounded at what he found.
“I felt a little like an archeologist unearthing a completely buried body of knowledge,” he said. Beginning in the nineteen-fifties, psychedelics had been used to treat a wide variety of conditions, including alcoholism and end-of-life anxiety. The American Psychiatric Association held meetings centered on LSD. “Some of the best minds in psychiatry had seriously studied these compounds in therapeutic models, with government funding,” Ross said.
Between 1953 and 1973, the federal government spent four million dollars to fund a hundred and sixteen studies of LSD, involving more than seventeen hundred subjects. (These figures don’t include classified research.) Through the mid-nineteen-sixties, psilocybin and LSD were legal and remarkably easy to obtain. Sandoz, the Swiss chemical company where, in 1938, Albert Hofmann first synthesized LSD, gave away large quantities of Delysid—LSD—to any researcher who requested it, in the hope that someone would discover a marketable application. Psychedelics were tested on alcoholics, people struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depressives, autistic children, schizophrenics, terminal cancer patients, and convicts, as well as on perfectly healthy artists and scientists (to study creativity) and divinity students (to study spirituality). The results reported were frequently positive. But many of the studies were, by modern standards, poorly designed and seldom well controlled, if at all. When there were controls, it was difficult to blind the researchers—that is, hide from them which volunteers had taken the actual drug. (This remains a problem.)
By the mid-nineteen-sixties, LSD had escaped from the laboratory and swept through the counterculture. In 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act and put most psychedelics on Schedule 1, prohibiting their use for any purpose. Research soon came to a halt, and what had been learned was all but erased from the field of psychiatry. “By the time I got to medical school, no one even talked about it,” Ross said.
The clinical trials at N.Y.U.—a second one, using psilocybin to treat alcohol addiction, is now getting under way—are part of a renaissance of psychedelic research taking place at several universities in the United States, including Johns Hopkins, the Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center, and the University of New Mexico, as well as at Imperial College, in London, and the University of Zurich. As the drug war subsides, scientists are eager to reconsider the therapeutic potential of these drugs, beginning with psilocybin. (Last month The Lancet, the United Kingdom’s most prominent medical journal, published a guest editorial in support of such research.) The effects of psilocybin resemble those of LSD, but, as one researcher explained, “it carries none of the political and cultural baggage of those three letters.” LSD is also stronger and longer-lasting in its effects, and is considered more likely to produce adverse reactions. Researchers are using or planning to use psilocybin not only to treat anxiety, addiction (to smoking and alcohol), and depression but also to study the neurobiology of mystical experience, which the drug, at high doses, can reliably occasion. Forty years after the Nixon Administration effectively shut down most psychedelic research, the government is gingerly allowing a small number of scientists to resume working with these powerful and still somewhat mysterious molecules.
As I chatted with Tony Bossis and Stephen Ross in the treatment room at N.Y.U., their excitement about the results was evident. According to Ross, cancer patients receiving just a single dose of psilocybin experienced immediate and dramatic reductions in anxiety and depression, improvements that were sustained for at least six months. The data are still being analyzed and have not yet been submitted to a journal for peer review, but the researchers expect to publish later this year.
“I thought the first ten or twenty people were plants—that they must be faking it,” Ross told me. “They were saying things like ‘I understand love is the most powerful force on the planet,’ or ‘I had an encounter with my cancer, this black cloud of smoke.’ People who had been palpably scared of death—they lost their fear. The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding. We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field.”
I was surprised to hear such unguarded enthusiasm from a scientist, and a substance-abuse specialist, about a street drug that, since 1970, has been classified by the government as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. But the support for renewed research on psychedelics is widespread among medical experts. “I’m personally biased in favor of these type of studies,” Thomas R. Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health (N.I.M.H.) and a neuroscientist, told me. “If it proves useful to people who are really suffering, we should look at it. Just because it is a psychedelic doesn’t disqualify it in our eyes.” Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), emphasized that “it is important to remind people that experimenting with drugs of abuse outside a research setting can produce serious harms.”
Many researchers I spoke with described their findings with excitement, some using words like “mind-blowing.” Bossis said, “People don’t realize how few tools we have in psychiatry to address existential distress. Xanax isn’t the answer. So how can we not explore this, if it can recalibrate how we die?”
Herbert D. Kleber, a psychiatrist and the director of the substance-abuse division at the Columbia University–N.Y. State Psychiatric Institute, who is one of the nation’s leading experts on drug abuse, struck a cautionary note. “The whole area of research is fascinating,” he said. “But it’s important to remember that the sample sizes are small.” He also stressed the risk of adverse effects and the importance of “having guides in the room, since you can have a good experience or a frightful one.” But he added, referring to the N.Y.U. and Johns Hopkins research, “These studies are being carried out by very well trained and dedicated therapists who know what they’re doing. The question is, is it ready for prime time?”
The idea of giving a psychedelic drug to the dying was conceived by a novelist: Aldous Huxley. In 1953, Humphry Osmond, an English psychiatrist, introduced Huxley to mescaline, an experience he chronicled in “The Doors of Perception,” in 1954. (Osmond coined the word “psychedelic,” which means “mind-manifesting,” in a 1957 letter to Huxley.) Huxley proposed a research project involving the “administration of LSD to terminal cancer cases, in the hope that it would make dying a more spiritual, less strictly physiological process.” Huxley had his wife inject him with the drug on his deathbed; he died at sixty-nine, of laryngeal cancer, on November 22, 1963.
Psilocybin mushrooms first came to the attention of Western medicine (and popular culture) in a fifteen-page 1957 Life article by an amateur mycologist—and a vice-president of J. P. Morgan in New York—named R. Gordon Wasson. In 1955, after years spent chasing down reports of the clandestine use of magic mushrooms among indigenous Mexicans, Wasson was introduced to them by María Sabina, a curandera—a healer, or shaman—in southern Mexico. Wasson’s awed first-person account of his psychedelic journey during a nocturnal mushroom ceremony inspired several scientists, including Timothy Leary, a well-regarded psychologist doing personality research at Harvard, to take up the study of psilocybin. After trying magic mushrooms in Cuernavaca, in 1960, Leary conceived the Harvard Psilocybin Project, to study the therapeutic potential of hallucinogens. His involvement with LSD came a few years later.
In the wake of Wasson’s research, Albert Hofmann experimented with magic mushrooms in 1957. “Thirty minutes after my taking the mushrooms, the exterior world began to undergo a strange transformation,” he wrote. “Everything assumed a Mexican character.” Hofmann proceeded to identify, isolate, and then synthesize the active ingredient, psilocybin, the compound being used in the current research.
Perhaps the most influential and rigorous of these early studies was the Good Friday experiment, conducted in 1962 by Walter Pahnke, a psychiatrist and minister working on a Ph.D. dissertation under Leary at Harvard. In a double-blind experiment, twenty divinity students received a capsule of white powder right before a Good Friday service at Marsh Chapel, on the Boston University campus; ten contained psilocybin, ten an active placebo (nicotinic acid). Eight of the ten students receiving psilocybin reported a mystical experience, while only one in the control group experienced a feeling of “sacredness” and a “sense of peace.” (Telling the subjects apart was not difficult, rendering the double-blind a somewhat hollow conceit: those on the placebo sat sedately in their pews while the others lay down or wandered around the chapel, muttering things like “God is everywhere” and “Oh, the glory!”) Pahnke concluded that the experiences of eight who received the psilocybin were “indistinguishable from, if not identical with,” the classic mystical experiences reported in the literature by William James, Walter Stace, and others.
In 1991, Rick Doblin, the director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), published a follow-up study, in which he tracked down all but one of the divinity students who received psilocybin at Marsh Chapel and interviewed seven of them. They all reported that the experience had shaped their lives and work in profound and enduring ways. But Doblin found flaws in Pahnke’s published account: he had failed to mention that several subjects struggled with acute anxiety during their experience. One had to be restrained and given Thorazine, a powerful antipsychotic, after he ran from the chapel and headed down Commonwealth Avenue, convinced that he had been chosen to announce that the Messiah had arrived.
The first wave of research into psychedelics was doomed by an excessive exuberance about their potential. For people working with these remarkable molecules, it was difficult not to conclude that they were suddenly in possession of news with the power to change the world—a psychedelic gospel. They found it hard to justify confining these drugs to the laboratory or using them only for the benefit of the sick. It didn’t take long for once respectable scientists such as Leary to grow impatient with the rigmarole of objective science. He came to see science as just another societal “game,” a conventional box it was time to blow up—along with all the others.
Was the suppression of psychedelic research inevitable? Stanislav Grof, a Czech-born psychiatrist who used LSD extensively in his practice in the nineteen-sixties, believes that psychedelics “loosed the Dionysian element” on America, posing a threat to the country’s Puritan values that was bound to be repulsed. (He thinks the same thing could happen again.) Roland Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, points out that ours is not the first culture to feel threatened by psychedelics: the reason Gordon Wasson had to rediscover magic mushrooms in Mexico was that the Spanish had suppressed them so thoroughly, deeming them dangerous instruments of paganism.
“There is such a sense of authority that comes out of the primary mystical experience that it can be threatening to existing hierarchical structures,” Griffiths told me when we met in his office last spring. “We ended up demonizing these compounds. Can you think of another area of science regarded as so dangerous and taboo that all research gets shut down for decades? It’s unprecedented in modern science.”
Early in 2006, Tony Bossis, Stephen Ross, and Jeffrey Guss, a psychiatrist and N.Y.U. colleague, began meeting after work on Friday afternoons to read up on and discuss the scientific literature on psychedelics. They called themselves the P.R.G., or Psychedelic Reading Group, but within a few months the “R” in P.R.G. had come to stand for “Research.” They had decided to try to start an experimental trial at N.Y.U., using psilocybin alongside therapy to treat anxiety in cancer patients. The obstacles to such a trial were formidable: Would the F.D.A. and the D.E.A. grant permission to use the drug? Would N.Y.U.’s Institutional Review Board, charged with protecting experimental subjects, allow them to administer a psychedelic to cancer patients? Then, in July of 2006, the journal Psychopharmacology published a landmark article by Roland Griffiths, et al., titled “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.”
“We all rushed in with Roland’s article,” Bossis recalls. “It solidified our confidence that we could do this work. Johns Hopkins had shown it could be done safely.” The article also gave Ross the ammunition he needed to persuade a skeptical I.R.B. “The fact that psychedelic research was being done at Hopkins—considered the premier medical center in the country—made it easier to get it approved here. It was an amazing study, with such an elegant design. And it opened up the field.” (Even so, psychedelic research remains tightly regulated and closely scrutinized. The N.Y.U. trial could not begin until Ross obtained approvals first from the F.D.A., then from N.Y.U.’s Oncology Review Board, and then from the I.R.B., the Bellevue Research Review Committee, the Bluestone Center for Clinical Research, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, and, finally, the Drug Enforcement Administration, which must grant the license to use a Schedule 1 substance.)
Griffiths’s double-blind study reprised the work done by Pahnke in the nineteen-sixties, but with considerably more scientific rigor. Thirty-six volunteers, none of whom had ever taken a hallucinogen, received a pill containing either psilocybin or an active placebo (methylphenidate, or Ritalin); in a subsequent session the pills were reversed. “When administered under supportive conditions,” the paper concluded, “psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.” Participants ranked these experiences as among the most meaningful in their lives, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. Two-thirds of the participants rated the psilocybin session among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives; a third ranked it at the top. Fourteen months later, these ratings had slipped only slightly.
Furthermore, the “completeness” of the mystical experience closely tracked the improvements reported in personal well-being, life satisfaction, and “positive behavior change” measured two months and then fourteen months after the session. (The researchers relied on both self-assessments and the assessments of co-workers, friends, and family.) The authors determined the completeness of a mystical experience using two questionnaires, including the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire, which is based in part on William James’s writing in “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” The questionnaire measures feelings of unity, sacredness, ineffability, peace and joy, as well as the impression of having transcended space and time and the “noetic sense” that the experience has disclosed some objective truth about reality. A “complete” mystical experience is one that exhibits all six characteristics. Griffiths believes that the long-term effectiveness of the drug is due to its ability to occasion such a transformative experience, but not by changing the brain’s long-term chemistry, as a conventional psychiatric drug like Prozac does.
A follow-up study by Katherine MacLean, a psychologist in Griffiths’s lab, found that the psilocybin experience also had a positive and lasting effect on the personality of most participants. This is a striking result, since the conventional wisdom in psychology holds that personality is usually fixed by age thirty and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change. But more than a year after their psilocybin sessions volunteers who had had the most complete mystical experiences showed significant increases in their “openness,” one of the five domains that psychologists look at in assessing personality traits. (The others are conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.) Openness, which encompasses aesthetic appreciation, imagination, and tolerance of others’ viewpoints, is a good predictor of creativity.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘mind-blowing,’ ” Griffiths told me, “but, as a scientific phenomenon, if you can create conditions in which seventy per cent of people will say they have had one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives? To a scientist, that’s just incredible.”
The revival of psychedelic research today owes much to the respectability of its new advocates. At sixty-eight, Roland Griffiths, who was trained as a behaviorist and holds senior appointments in psychiatry and neuroscience at Hopkins, is one of the nation’s leading drug-addiction researchers. More than six feet tall, he is rail-thin and stands bolt upright; the only undisciplined thing about him is a thatch of white hair so dense that it appears to have held his comb to a draw. His long, productive relationship with NIDA has resulted in some three hundred and fifty papers, with titles such as “Reduction of Heroin Self-Administration in Baboons by Manipulation of Behavioral and Pharmacological Conditions.” Tom Insel, the director of the N.I.M.H., described Griffiths as “a very careful, thoughtful scientist” with “a reputation for meticulous data analysis. So it’s fascinating that he’s now involved in an area that other people might view as pushing the edge.”
Griffiths’s career took an unexpected turn in the nineteen-nineties after two serendipitous introductions. The first came when a friend introduced him to Siddha Yoga, in 1994. He told me that meditation acquainted him with “something way, way beyond a material world view that I can’t really talk to my colleagues about, because it involves metaphors or assumptions that I’m really uncomfortable with as a scientist.” He began entertaining “fanciful thoughts” of quitting science and going to India.
In 1996, an old friend and colleague named Charles R. (Bob) Schuster, recently retired as the head of NIDA, suggested that Griffiths talk to Robert Jesse, a young man he’d recently met at Esalen, the retreat center in Big Sur, California. Jesse was neither a medical professional nor a scientist; he was a computer guy, a vice-president at Oracle, who had made it his mission to revive the science of psychedelics, as a tool not so much of medicine as of spirituality. He had organized a gathering of researchers and religious figures to discuss the spiritual and therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs and how they might be rehabilitated.
When the history of second-wave psychedelic research is written, Bob Jesse will be remembered as one of two scientific outsiders who worked for years, mostly behind the scenes, to get it off the ground. (The other is Rick Doblin, the founder of MAPS.) While on leave from Oracle, Jesse established a nonprofit called the Council on Spiritual Practices, with the aim of “making direct experience of the sacred more available to more people.” (He prefers the term “entheogen,” or “God-facilitating,” to “psychedelic.”) In 1996, the C.S.P. organized the historic gathering at Esalen. Many of the fifteen in attendance were “psychedelic elders,” researchers such as James Fadiman and Willis Harman, both of whom had done early psychedelic research while at Stanford, and religious figures like Huston Smith, the scholar of comparative religion. But Jesse wisely decided to invite an outsider as well: Bob Schuster, a drug-abuse expert who had served in two Republican Administrations. By the end of the meeting, the Esalen group had decided on a plan: “to get aboveboard, unassailable research done, at an institution with investigators beyond reproach,” and, ideally, “do this without any promise of clinical treatment.” Jesse was ultimately less interested in people’s mental disorders than in their spiritual well-being—in using entheogens for what he calls “the betterment of well people.”
Shortly after the Esalen meeting, Bob Schuster (who died in 2011) phoned Jesse to tell him about his old friend Roland Griffiths, whom he described as “the investigator beyond reproach” Jesse was looking for. Jesse flew to Baltimore to meet Griffiths, inaugurating a series of conversations and meetings about meditation and spirituality that eventually drew Griffiths into psychedelic research and would culminate, a few years later, in the 2006 paper in Psychopharmacology.
The significance of the 2006 paper went far beyond its findings. The journal invited several prominent drug researchers and neuroscientists to comment on the study, and all of them treated it as a convincing case for further research. Herbert Kleber, of Columbia, applauded the paper and acknowledged that “major therapeutic possibilities” could result from further psychedelic research studies, some of which “merit N.I.H. support.” Solomon Snyder, the Hopkins neuroscientist who, in the nineteen-seventies, discovered the brain’s opioid receptors, summarized what Griffiths had achieved for the field: “The ability of these researchers to conduct a double-blind, well-controlled study tells us that clinical research with psychedelic drugs need not be so risky as to be off-limits to most investigators.”
Roland Griffiths and Bob Jesse had opened a door that had been tightly shut for more than three decades. Charles Grob, at U.C.L.A., was the first to step through it, winning F.D.A. approval for a Phase I pilot study to assess the safety, dosing, and efficacy of psilocybin in the treatment of anxiety in cancer patients. Next came the Phase II trials, just concluded at both Hopkins and N.Y.U., involving higher doses and larger groups (twenty-nine at N.Y.U.; fifty-six at Hopkins)—including Patrick Mettes and about a dozen other cancer patients in New York and Baltimore whom I recently interviewed.
Since 2006, Griffiths’s lab has conducted a pilot study on the potential of psilocybin to treat smoking addiction, the results of which were published last November in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. The sample is tiny—fifteen smokers—but the success rate is striking. Twelve subjects, all of whom had tried to quit multiple times, using various methods, were verified as abstinent six months after treatment, a success rate of eighty per cent. (Currently, the leading cessation treatment is nicotine-replacement therapy; a recent review article in the BMJ—formerly the British Medical Journal—reported that the treatment helped smokers remain abstinent for six months in less than seven per cent of cases.) In the Hopkins study, subjects underwent two or three psilocybin sessions and a course of cognitive-behavioral therapy to help them deal with cravings. The psychedelic experience seems to allow many subjects to reframe, and then break, a lifelong habit. “Smoking seemed irrelevant, so I stopped,” one subject told me. The volunteers who reported a more complete mystical experience had greater success in breaking the habit. A larger, Phase II trial comparing psilocybin to nicotine replacement (both in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy) is getting under way at Hopkins.
“We desperately need a new treatment approach for addiction,” Herbert Kleber told me. “Done in the right hands—and I stress that, because the whole psychedelic area attracts people who often think that they know the truth before doing the science—this could be a very useful one.”
Thus far, criticism of psychedelic research has been limited. Last summer, Florian Holsboer, the director of the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, in Munich, told Science, “You can’t give patients some substance just because it has an antidepressant effect on top of many other effects. That’s too dangerous.” Nora Volkow, of NIDA, wrote me in an e-mail that “the main concern we have at NIDA in relation to this work is that the public will walk away with the message that psilocybin is a safe drug to use. In fact, its adverse effects are well known, although not completely predictable.” She added, “Progress has been made in decreasing use of hallucinogens, particularly in young people. We would not want to see that trend altered.”
The recreational use of psychedelics is famously associated with instances of psychosis, flashback, and suicide. But these adverse effects have not surfaced in the trials of drugs at N.Y.U. and Johns Hopkins. After nearly five hundred administrations of psilocybin, the researchers have reported no serious negative effects. This is perhaps less surprising than it sounds, since volunteers are self-selected, carefully screened and prepared for the experience, and are then guided through it by therapists well trained to manage the episodes of fear and anxiety that many volunteers do report. Apart from the molecules involved, a psychedelic therapy session and a recreational psychedelic experience have very little in common.
The lab at Hopkins is currently conducting a study of particular interest to Griffiths: examining the effect of psilocybin on long-term meditators. The study plans to use fMRI—functional magnetic-resonance imaging—to study the brains of forty meditators before, during, and after they have taken psilocybin, to measure changes in brain activity and connectivity and to see what these “trained contemplatives can tell us about the experience.” Griffiths’s lab is also launching a study in collaboration with N.Y.U. that will give the drug to religious professionals in a number of faiths to see how the experience might contribute to their work. “I feel like a kid in a candy shop,” Griffiths told me. “There are so many directions to take this research. It’s a Rip Van Winkle effect—after three decades of no research, we’re rubbing the sleep from our eyes.”
“Ineffability” is a hallmark of the mystical experience. Many struggle to describe the bizarre events going on in their minds during a guided psychedelic journey without sounding like either a New Age guru or a lunatic. The available vocabulary isn’t always up to the task of recounting an experience that seemingly can take someone out of body, across vast stretches of time and space, and include face-to-face encounters with divinities and demons and previews of their own death.
Volunteers in the N.Y.U. psilocybin trial were required to write a narrative of their experience soon after the treatment, and Patrick Mettes, having worked in journalism, took the assignment seriously. His wife, Lisa, said that, after his Friday session, he worked all weekend to make sense of the experience and write it down.
When Mettes arrived at the treatment room, at First Avenue and Twenty-fifth Street, Tony Bossis and Krystallia Kalliontzi, his guides, greeted him, reviewed the day’s plan, and, at 9 A.M., presented him with a small chalice containing the pill. None of them knew whether it contained psilocybin or the placebo. Asked to state his intention, Mettes said that he wanted to learn to cope better with the anxiety and the fear that he felt about his cancer. As the researchers had suggested, he’d brought a few photographs along—of Lisa and him on their wedding day, and of their dog, Arlo—and placed them around the room.
At nine-thirty, Mettes lay down on the couch, put on the headphones and eye mask, and fell silent. In his account, he likened the start of the journey to the launch of a space shuttle, “a physically violent and rather clunky liftoff which eventually gave way to the blissful serenity of weightlessness.”
Several of the volunteers I interviewed reported feeling intense fear and anxiety before giving themselves up to the experience, as the guides encourage them to do. The guides work from a set of “flight instructions” prepared by Bill Richards, a Baltimore psychologist who worked with Stanislav Grof during the nineteen-seventies and now trains a new generation of psychedelic therapists. The document is a summary of the experience accumulated from managing thousands of psychedelic sessions—and countless bad trips—during the nineteen-sixties, whether these took place in therapeutic settings or in the bad-trip tent at Woodstock.
The “same force that takes you deep within will, of its own impetus, return you safely to the everyday world,” the manual offers at one point. Guides are instructed to remind subjects that they’ll never be left alone and not to worry about their bodies while journeying, since the guides will keep an eye on them. If you feel like you’re “dying, melting, dissolving, exploding, going crazy etc.—go ahead,” embrace it: “Climb staircases, open doors, explore paths, fly over landscapes.” And if you confront anything frightening, “look the monster in the eye and move towards it. . . . Dig in your heels; ask, ‘What are you doing in my mind?’ Or, ‘What can I learn from you?’ Look for the darkest corner in the basement, and shine your light there.” This training may help explain why the darker experiences that sometimes accompany the recreational use of psychedelics have not surfaced in the N.Y.U. and Hopkins trials.
Early on, Mettes encountered his brother’s wife, Ruth, who died of cancer more than twenty years earlier, at forty-three. Ruth “acted as my tour guide,” he wrote, and “didn’t seem surprised to see me. She ‘wore’ her translucent body so I would know her.” Michelle Obama made an appearance. “The considerable feminine energy all around me made clear the idea that a mother, any mother, regardless of her shortcomings . . . could never NOT love her offspring. This was very powerful. I know I was crying.” He felt as if he were coming out of the womb, “being birthed again.”
Bossis noted that Mettes was crying and breathing heavily. Mettes said, “Birth and death is a lot of work,” and appeared to be convulsing. Then he reached out and clutched Kalliontzi’s hand while pulling his knees up and pushing, as if he were delivering a baby.
“Oh God,” he said, “it all makes sense now, so simple and beautiful.”
Around noon, Mettes asked to take a break. “It was getting too intense,” he wrote. They helped him to the bathroom. “Even the germs were beautiful, as was everything in our world and universe.” Afterward, he was reluctant to “go back in.” He wrote, “The work was considerable but I loved the sense of adventure.” He put on his eye mask and headphones and lay back down.
“From here on, love was the only consideration. It was and is the only purpose. Love seemed to emanate from a single point of light. And it vibrated.” He wrote that “no sensation, no image of beauty, nothing during my time on earth has felt as pure and joyful and glorious as the height of this journey.”
Then, at twelve-ten, he said something that Bossis jotted down: “O.K., we can all punch out now. I get it.”
He went on to take a tour of his lungs, where he “saw two spots.” They were “no big deal.” Mettes recalled, “I was being told (without words) not to worry about the cancer . . . it’s minor in the scheme of things . . . simply an imperfection of your humanity.”
Then he experienced what he called “a brief death.”
“I approached what appeared to be a very sharp, pointed piece of stainless steel. It had a razor blade quality to it. I continued up to the apex of this shiny metal object and as I arrived, I had a choice, to look or not look, over the edge and into the infinite abyss.” He stared into “the vastness of the universe,” hesitant but not frightened. “I wanted to go all in but felt that if I did, I would possibly leave my body permanently,” he wrote. But he “knew there was much more for me here.” Telling his guides about his choice, he explained that he was “not ready to jump off and leave Lisa.”
Around 3 P.M., it was over. “The transition from a state where I had no sense of time or space to the relative dullness of now, happened quickly. I had a headache.”
When Lisa arrived to take him home, Patrick “looked like he had run a race,” she recalled. “The color in his face was not good, he looked tired and sweaty, but he was fired up.” He told her he had touched the face of God.
Bossis was deeply moved by the session. “You’re in this room, but you’re in the presence of something large,” he recalled. “It’s humbling to sit there. It’s the most rewarding day of your career.”
Every guided psychedelic journey is different, but a few themes seem to recur. Several of the cancer patients I interviewed at N.Y.U. and Hopkins described an experience of either giving birth or being born. Many also described an encounter with their cancer that had the effect of diminishing its power over them. Dinah Bazer, a shy woman in her sixties who had been given a diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 2010, screamed at the black mass of fear she encountered while peering into her rib cage: “Fuck you, I won’t be eaten alive!” Since her session, she says, she has stopped worrying about a recurrence—one of the objectives of the trial.
Great secrets of the universe often become clear during the journey, such as “We are all one” or “Love is all that matters.” The usual ratio of wonder to banality in the adult mind is overturned, and such ideas acquire the force of revealed truth. The result is a kind of conversion experience, and the researchers believe that this is what is responsible for the therapeutic effect.
Subjects revelled in their sudden ability to travel seemingly at will through space and time, using it to visit Elizabethan England, the banks of the Ganges, or Wordsworthian scenes from their childhood. The impediment of a body is gone, as is one’s identity, yet, paradoxically, a perceiving and recording “I” still exists. Several volunteers used the metaphor of a camera being pulled back on the scene of their lives, to a point where matters that had once seemed daunting now appeared manageable—smoking, cancer, even death. Their accounts are reminiscent of the “overview effect” described by astronauts who have glimpsed the earth from a great distance, an experience that some of them say permanently altered their priorities. Roland Griffiths likens the therapeutic experience of psilocybin to a kind of “inverse P.T.S.D.”—“a discrete event that produces persisting positive changes in attitudes, moods, and behavior, and presumably in the brain.”
Death looms large in the journeys taken by the cancer patients. A woman I’ll call Deborah Ames, a breast-cancer survivor in her sixties (she asked not to be identified), described zipping through space as if in a video game until she arrived at the wall of a crematorium and realized, with a fright, “I’ve died and now I’m going to be cremated. The next thing I know, I’m below the ground in this gorgeous forest, deep woods, loamy and brown. There are roots all around me and I’m seeing the trees growing, and I’m part of them. It didn’t feel sad or happy, just natural, contented, peaceful. I wasn’t gone. I was part of the earth.” Several patients described edging up to the precipice of death and looking over to the other side. Tammy Burgess, given a diagnosis of ovarian cancer at fifty-five, found herself gazing across “the great plain of consciousness. It was very serene and beautiful. I felt alone but I could reach out and touch anyone I’d ever known. When my time came, that’s where my life would go once it left me and that was O.K.”
I was struck by how the descriptions of psychedelic journeys differed from the typical accounts of dreams. For one thing, most people’s recall of their journey is not just vivid but comprehensive, the narratives they reconstruct seamless and fully accessible, even years later. They don’t regard these narratives as “just a dream,” the evanescent products of fantasy or wish fulfillment, but, rather, as genuine and sturdy experiences. This is the “noetic” quality that students of mysticism often describe: the unmistakable sense that whatever has been learned or witnessed has the authority and the durability of objective truth. “You don’t get that on other drugs,” as Roland Griffiths points out; after the fact, we’re fully aware of, and often embarrassed by, the inauthenticity of the drug experience.
This might help explain why so many cancer patients in the trials reported that their fear of death had lifted or at least abated: they had stared directly at death and come to know something about it, in a kind of dress rehearsal. “A high-dose psychedelic experience is death practice,” Katherine MacLean, the former Hopkins psychologist, said. “You’re losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and that process can feel like dying.” And yet you don’t die; in fact, some volunteers become convinced by the experience that consciousness may somehow survive the death of their bodies.
In follow-up discussions with Bossis, Patrick Mettes spoke of his body and his cancer as a “type of illusion” and how there might be “something beyond this physical body.” It also became clear that, psychologically, at least, Mettes was doing remarkably well: he was meditating regularly, felt he had become better able to live in the present, and described loving his wife “even more.” In a session in March, two months after his journey, Bossis noted that Mettes “reports feeling the happiest in his life.”
How are we to judge the veracity of the insights gleaned during a psychedelic journey? It’s one thing to conclude that love is all that matters, but quite another to come away from a therapy convinced that “there is another reality” awaiting us after death, as one volunteer put it, or that there is more to the universe—and to consciousness—than a purely materialist world view would have us believe. Is psychedelic therapy simply foisting a comforting delusion on the sick and dying?
“That’s above my pay grade,” Bossis said, with a shrug, when I asked him. Bill Richards cited William James, who suggested that we judge the mystical experience not by its veracity, which is unknowable, but by its fruits: does it turn someone’s life in a positive direction?
Many researchers acknowledge that the power of suggestion may play a role when a drug like psilocybin is administered by medical professionals with legal and institutional sanction: under such conditions, the expectations of the therapist are much more likely to be fulfilled by the patient. (And bad trips are much less likely to occur.) But who cares, some argue, as long as it helps? David Nichols, an emeritus professor of pharmacology at Purdue University—and a founder, in 1993, of the Heffter Research Institute, a key funder of psychedelic research—put the pragmatic case most baldly in a recent interview with Science:“If it gives them peace, if it helps people to die peacefully with their friends and their family at their side, I don’t care if it’s real or an illusion.”
Roland Griffiths is willing to consider the challenge that the mystical experience poses to the prevailing scientific paradigm. He conceded that “authenticity is a scientific question not yet answered” and that all that scientists have to go by is what people tell them about their experiences. But he pointed out that the same is true for much more familiar mental phenomena.
“What about the miracle that we are conscious? Just think about that for a second, that we are aware we’re aware!” Insofar as I was on board for one miracle well beyond the reach of materialist science, Griffiths was suggesting, I should remain open to the possibility of others.
“I’m willing to hold that there’s a mystery here we don’t understand, that these experiences may or may not be ‘true,’ ” he said. “What’s exciting is to use the tools we have to explore and pick apart this mystery.”
Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to pick apart the scientific mystery of the psychedelic experience has been taking place in a lab based at Imperial College, in London. There a thirty-four-year-old neuroscientist named Robin Carhart-Harris has been injecting healthy volunteers with psilocybin and LSD and then using a variety of scanning tools—including fMRI and magnetoencephalography (MEG)—to observe what happens in their brains.
Carhart-Harris works in the laboratory of David Nutt, a prominent English psychopharmacologist. Nutt served as the drug-policy adviser to the Labour Government until 2011, when he was fired for arguing that psychedelic drugs should be rescheduled on the ground that they are safer than alcohol or tobacco and potentially invaluable to neuroscience. Carhart-Harris’s own path to neuroscience was an eccentric one. First, he took a graduate course in psychoanalysis—a field that few neuroscientists take seriously, regarding it less as a science than as a set of untestable beliefs. Carhart-Harris was fascinated by psychoanalytic theory but frustrated by the paucity of its tools for exploring what it deemed most important about the mind: the unconscious.
“If the only way we can access the unconscious mind is via dreams and free association, we aren’t going to get anywhere,” he said. “Surely there must be something else.” One day, he asked his seminar leader if that might be a drug. She was intrigued. He set off to search the library catalogue for “LSD and the Unconscious” and found “Realms of the Human Unconscious,” by Stanislav Grof. “I read the book cover to cover. That set the course for the rest of my young life.”
Carhart-Harris, who is slender and intense, with large pale-blue eyes that seldom blink, decided that he would use psychedelic drugs and modern brain-imaging techniques to put a foundation of hard science beneath psychoanalysis. “Freud said dreams were the royal road to the unconscious,” he said in our first interview. “LSD may turn out to be the superhighway.” Nutt agreed to let him follow this hunch in his lab. He ran bureaucratic interference and helped secure funding (from the Beckley Foundation, which supports psychedelic research).
When, in 2010, Carhart-Harris first began studying the brains of volunteers on psychedelics, neuroscientists assumed that the drugs somehow excited brain activity—hence the vivid hallucinations and powerful emotions that people report. But when Carhart-Harris looked at the results of the first set of fMRI scans—which pinpoint areas of brain activity by mapping local blood flow and oxygen consumption—he discovered that the drug appeared to substantially reduce brain activity in one particular region: the “default-mode network.”
The default-mode network was first described in 2001, in a landmark paper by Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at Washington University, in St. Louis, and it has since become the focus of much discussion in neuroscience. The network comprises a critical and centrally situated hub of brain activity that links parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper, older structures in the brain, such as the limbic system and the hippocampus.
The network, which consumes a significant portion of the brain’s energy, appears to be most active when we are least engaged in attending to the world or to a task. It lights up when we are daydreaming, removed from sensory processing, and engaging in higher-level “meta-cognitive” processes such as self-reflection, mental time travel, rumination, and “theory of mind”—the ability to attribute mental states to others. Carhart-Harris describes the default-mode network variously as the brain’s “orchestra conductor” or “corporate executive” or “capital city,” charged with managing and “holding the entire system together.” It is thought to be the physical counterpart of the autobiographical self, or ego.
“The brain is a hierarchical system,” Carhart-Harris said. “The highest-level parts”—such as the default-mode network—“have an inhibitory influence on the lower-level parts, like emotion and memory.” He discovered that blood flow and electrical activity in the default-mode network dropped off precipitously under the influence of psychedelics, a finding that may help to explain the loss of the sense of self that volunteers reported. (The biggest dropoffs in default-mode-network activity correlated with volunteers’ reports of ego dissolution.) Just before Carhart-Harris published his results, in a 2012 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a researcher at Yale named Judson Brewer, who was using fMRI to study the brains of experienced meditators, noticed that their default-mode networks had also been quieted relative to those of novice meditators. It appears that, with the ego temporarily out of commission, the boundaries between self and world, subject and object, all dissolve. These are hallmarks of the mystical experience.
If the default-mode network functions as the conductor of the symphony of brain activity, we might expect its temporary disappearance from the stage to lead to an increase in dissonance and mental disorder—as appears to happen during the psychedelic journey. Carhart-Harris has found evidence in scans of brain waves that, when the default-mode network shuts down, other brain regions “are let off the leash.” Mental contents hidden from view (or suppressed) during normal waking consciousness come to the fore: emotions, memories, wishes and fears. Regions that don’t ordinarily communicate directly with one another strike up conversations (neuroscientists sometimes call this “crosstalk”), often with bizarre results. Carhart-Harris thinks that hallucinations occur when the visual-processing centers of the brain, left to their own devices, become more susceptible to the influence of our beliefs and emotions.Carhart-Harris doesn’t romanticize psychedelics, and he has little patience for the sort of “magical thinking” and “metaphysics” they promote. In his view, the forms of consciousness that psychedelics unleash are regressions to a more “primitive style of cognition.” Following Freud, he says that the mystical experience—whatever its source—returns us to the psychological condition of the infant, who has yet to develop a sense of himself as a bounded individual. The pinnacle of human development is the achievement of the ego, which imposes order on the anarchy of a primitive mind buffeted by magical thinking. (The developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik has speculated that the way young children perceive the world has much in common with the psychedelic experience. As she puts it, “They’re basically tripping all the time.”) The psychoanalytic value of psychedelics, in his view, is that they allow us to bring the workings of the unconscious mind “into an observable space.”
In “The Doors of Perception,” Aldous Huxley concluded from his psychedelic experience that the conscious mind is less a window on reality than a furious editor of it. The mind is a “reducing valve,” he wrote, eliminating far more reality than it admits to our conscious awareness, lest we be overwhelmed. “What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive.” Psychedelics open the valve wide, removing the filter that hides much of reality, as well as dimensions of our own minds, from ordinary consciousness. Carhart-Harris has cited Huxley’s metaphor in some of his papers, likening the default-mode network to the reducing valve, but he does not agree that everything that comes through the opened doors of perception is necessarily real. The psychedelic experience, he suggests, can yield a lot of “fool’s gold.”
Nevertheless, Carhart-Harris believes that the psychedelic experience can help people by relaxing the grip of an overbearing ego and the rigid, habitual thinking it enforces. The human brain is perhaps the most complex system there is, and the emergence of a conscious self is its highest achievement. By adulthood, the mind has become very good at observing and testing reality and developing confident predictions about it that optimize our investments of energy (mental and otherwise) and therefore our survival. Much of what we think of as perceptions of the world are really educated guesses based on past experience (“That fractal pattern of little green bits in my visual field must be a tree”), and this kind of conventional thinking serves us well.
But only up to a point. In Carhart-Harris’s view, a steep price is paid for the achievement of order and ego in the adult mind. “We give up our emotional lability,” he told me, “our ability to be open to surprises, our ability to think flexibly, and our ability to value nature.” The sovereign ego can become a despot. This is perhaps most evident in depression, when the self turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades out reality. In “The Entropic Brain,” a paper published last year in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Carhart-Harris cites research indicating that this debilitating state, sometimes called “heavy self-consciousness,” may be the result of a “hyperactive” default-mode network. The lab recently received government funding to conduct a clinical study using psychedelics to treat depression.
Carhart-Harris believes that people suffering from other mental disorders characterized by excessively rigid patterns of thinking, such as addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder, could benefit from psychedelics, which “disrupt stereotyped patterns of thought and behavior.” In his view, all these disorders are, in a sense, ailments of the ego. He also thinks that this disruption could promote more creative thinking. It may be that some brains could benefit from a little less order.
Existential distress at the end of life bears many of the psychological hallmarks of a hyperactive default-mode network, including excessive self-reflection and an inability to jump the deepening grooves of negative thought. The ego, faced with the prospect of its own dissolution, becomes hypervigilant, withdrawing its investment in the world and other people. It is striking that a single psychedelic experience—an intervention that Carhart-Harris calls “shaking the snow globe”—should have the power to alter these patterns in a lasting way.
This appears to be the case for many of the patients in the clinical trial of psilocybin just concluded at Hopkins and N.Y.U. Patrick Mettes lived for seventeen months after his psilocybin journey, and, according to Lisa, he enjoyed many unexpected satisfactions in that time, along with a dawning acceptance of death.
“We still had our arguments,” Lisa recalled. “And we had a very trying summer,” as they endured a calamitous apartment renovation. But Patrick “had a sense of patience he had never had before, and with me he had real joy about things,” she said. “It was as if he had been relieved of the duty of caring about the details of life. Now it was about being with people, enjoying his sandwich and the walk on the promenade. It was as if we lived a lifetime in a year.”
After the psilocybin session, Mettes spent his good days walking around the city. “He would walk everywhere, try every restaurant for lunch, and tell me about all these great places he’d discovered. But his good days got fewer and fewer.” In March, 2012, he stopped chemo. “He didn’t want to die,” she said. “But I think he just decided that this is not how he wanted to live.”
In April, his lungs failing, Mettes wound up back in the hospital. “He gathered everyone together and said goodbye, and explained that this is how he wanted to die. He had a very conscious death.”
Mettes’s equanimity exerted a powerful influence on everyone around him, Lisa said, and his room in the palliative-care unit at Mt. Sinai became a center of gravity. “Everyone, the nurses and the doctors, wanted to hang out in our room—they just didn’t want to leave. Patrick would talk and talk. He put out so much love.” When Tony Bossis visited Mettes the week before he died, he was struck by Mettes’s serenity. “He was consoling me. He said his biggest sadness was leaving his wife. But he was not afraid.”
Lisa took a picture of Patrick a few days before he died, and when it popped open on my screen it momentarily took my breath away: a gaunt man in a hospital gown, an oxygen clip in his nose, but with shining blue eyes and a broad smile.
Lisa stayed with him in his hospital room night after night, the two of them often talking into the morning hours. “I feel like I have one foot in this world and one in the next,” he told her at one point. Lisa told me, “One of the last nights we were together, he said, ‘Honey, don’t push me. I’m finding my way.’ ”
Lisa hadn’t had a shower in days, and her brother encouraged her to go home for a few hours. Minutes before she returned, Patrick slipped away. “He wasn’t going to die as long as I was there,” she said. “My brother had told me, ‘You need to let him go.’ ”
Lisa said she feels indebted to the people running the N.Y.U. trial and is convinced that the psilocybin experience “allowed him to tap into his own deep resources. That, I think, is what these mind-altering drugs do.”
Despite the encouraging results from the N.Y.U. and Hopkins trials, much stands in the way of the routine use of psychedelic therapy. “We don’t die well in America,” Bossis recently said over lunch at a restaurant near the N.Y.U. medical center. “Ask people where they want to die, and they will tell you at home, with their loved ones. But most of us die in an I.C.U. The biggest taboo in American medicine is the conversation about death. To a doctor, it’s a defeat to let a patient go.” Bossis and several of his colleagues described the considerable difficulty they had recruiting patients from N.Y.U. ’s cancer center for the psilocybin trials. “I’m busy trying to keep my patients alive,” one oncologist told Gabrielle Agin-Liebes, the trial’s project manager. Only when reports of positive experiences began to filter back to the cancer center did nurses there—not doctors—begin to tell patients about the trial.
Recruitment is only one of the many challenges facing a Phase III trial of psilocybin, which would involve hundreds of patients at multiple locations and cost millions of dollars. The University of Wisconsin and the University of California, Los Angeles, are making plans to participate in such a trial, but F.D.A. approval is not guaranteed. If the trial was successful, the government would be under pressure to reschedule psilocybin under the Controlled Substances Act, having recognized a medical use for the drug.
Also, it seems unlikely that the government would ever fund such a study. “The N.I.M.H. is not opposed to work with psychedelics, but I doubt we would make a major investment,” Tom Insel, the institute’s director, told me. He said that the N.I.M.H would need to see “a path to development” and suspects that “it would be very difficult to get a pharmaceutical company interested in developing this drug, since it cannot be patented.” It’s also unlikely that Big Pharma would have any interest in a drug that is administered only once or twice in the course of treatment. “There’s not a lot of money here when you can be cured with one session,” Bossis pointed out. Still, Bob Jesse and Rick Doblin are confident that they will find private money for a Phase III clinical trial, and several private funders I spoke to indicated that it would be forthcoming.
Many of the researchers and therapists I interviewed are confident that psychedelic therapy will eventually become routine. Katherine MacLean hopes someday to establish a “psychedelic hospice,” a retreat center where the dying and their loved ones can use psychedelics to help them all let go. “If we limit psychedelics just to the patient, we’re sticking with the old medical model,” she said. “But psychedelics are so much more radical than that. I get nervous when people say they should only be prescribed by a doctor.”
In MacLean’s thinking, one hears echoes of the excitement of the sixties about the potential of psychedelics to help a wide range of people, and the impatience with the cumbersome structures of medicine. It was precisely this exuberance about psychedelics, and the frustration with the slow pace of science, that helped fuel the backlash against them.
Still, “the betterment of well people,” to borrow a phrase of Bob Jesse’s, is very much on the minds of most of the researchers I interviewed, some of whom were more reluctant to discuss it on the record than institutional outsiders like Jesse and MacLean. For them, medical acceptance is a first step to a broader cultural acceptance. Jesse would like to see the drugs administered by skilled guides working in “longitudinal multigenerational contexts”—which, as he describes them, sound a lot like church communities. Others envisage a time when people seeking a psychedelic experience—whether for reasons of mental health or spiritual seeking or simple curiosity—could go to something like a “mental-health club,” as Julie Holland, a psychiatrist formerly at Bellevue, described it: “Sort of like a cross between a spa/retreat and a gym where people can experience psychedelics in a safe, supportive environment.” All spoke of the importance of well-trained guides (N.Y.U. has had a training program in psychedelic therapy since 2008, directed by Jeffrey Guss, a co-principal investigator for the psilocybin trials)* and the need to help people afterward “integrate” the powerful experiences they have had in order to render them truly useful. This is not something that happens when these drugs are used recreationally. Bossis paraphrases Huston Smith on this point: “A spiritual experience does not by itself make a spiritual life.”
When I asked Rick Doblin if he worries about another backlash, he suggested that the culture has made much progress since the nineteen-sixties. “That was a very different time,” he said. “People wouldn’t even talk about cancer or death then. Women were tranquillized to give birth; men weren’t allowed in the delivery room. Yoga and meditation were totally weird. Now mindfulness is mainstream and everyone does yoga, and there are birthing centers and hospices all over. We’ve integrated all these things into our culture. And now I think we’re ready to integrate psychedelics.” He also points out that many of the people in charge of our institutions today have personal experience with psychedelics and so feel less threatened by them.
Bossis would like to believe in Doblin’s sunny forecast, and he hopes that “the legacy of this work” will be the routine use of psychedelics in palliative care. But he also thinks that the medical use of psychedelics could easily run into resistance. “This culture has a fear of death, a fear of transcendence, and a fear of the unknown, all of which are embodied in this work.” Psychedelics may be too disruptive for our society and institutions ever to embrace them.
The first time I raised the idea of “the betterment of well people” with Roland Griffiths, he shifted in his chair and chose his words carefully. “Culturally, right now, that’s a dangerous idea to promote,” he said. And yet, as we talked, it became clear that he, too, feels that many of us stand to benefit from these molecules and, even more, from the spiritual experiences they can make available.
“We are all terminal,” Griffiths said. “We’re all dealing with death. This will be far too valuable to limit to sick people.”
– Here’s a story I love and it reminds me of another story I posted some time ago here. That one is about a different kind of Bank in North Dakota – another Red state.
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Republican Nebraska’s energy is all publicly owned or cooperative, writes Thomas M. Hanna, and prices are among America’s lowest, with great service standards and a strong commitment to renewables. Decentralised and locally accountable, this could be the model that replaces inefficient, unresponsive monopolies – both nationalised and corporate.
Around the world, people often assume that in the United States, home to a no-holds-barred version of ‘free market’ capitalism, private ownership operates more or less across the board.
There is, however, a rich and robust history and experience of public ownership throughout the country – often found in the least expected of places.
For instance, there is one state where every single resident and business receives electricity from a public or community-owned institution rather than a for-profit corporation.
It is not a famously liberal state like Vermont or Massachusetts. Rather, it is conservative Nebraska, with its two Republican Senators and two (out of three) Republican members of Congress, that has embraced the complete socialization of energy distribution.
The ‘red states’ – named after the color now given to states that vote Republican in elections – are often ‘red’ in more ways than one.
Public and cooperative ownership for good service, low prices
In Nebraska, 121 publicly-owned utilities, 10 cooperatives, and 30 public power districts provide electricity to a population of around 1.8 million people. Public and cooperative ownership keeps costs low for the state’s consumers.
Nebraskans pay one of the lowest rates for electricity in the nation and revenues are reinvested in infrastructure to ensure reliable and cheap service for years to come. “There are no stockholders, and thus no profit motive”, the Nebraska Power Association proudly proclaims.
“Our electric prices do not include a profit. That means Nebraska’s utilities can focus exclusively on keeping electric rates low and customer service high. Our customers, not big investors in New York and Chicago, own Nebraska’s utilities.”
Payments (in lieu of taxes) from the state’s publicly-owned utilities exceed $30 million a year and support a variety of social services throughout the state-including the public education system.
Nebraska has a long history of publicly-owned power systems dating back to the beginnings of electrification in the late 1800s. Initially, these co-existed with small private utilities. However, in the post-World War One era, large corporate electric holding companies backed by Wall Street banks entered the market and began taking over smaller private and municipal systems.
Using their financial and political power, these corporations dramatically consolidated the power industry in Nebraska and attempted to stop new cooperatives and publicly-owned utilities from forming. During this time more than one third of the state’s municipal utilities were sold to private corporations.
Tired of abusive corporate practices, in 1930 residents and advocates of publicly-owned utilities took a revenue bond financing proposal straight to the voters, bypassing the corporate influenced legislature which had previously failed to pass similar legislation.
It was approved overwhelmingly – signaling both popular support for publicly-owned utilities in the state and also the beginnings of their resurgence. Led by powerful Nebraska Senator George W. Norris – the driving force behind the publicly-owned Tennessee Valley Authority – a series of state and federal laws were passed including:
the state’s Enabling Act (1933) which allowed 15% of eligible voters in an area to petition for a decision on a publicly-owned utility;
the Public Utility Holding Company Act (1935) which forced the breakup and restructuring of corporate electricity monopolies;
and the Rural Electrification Act (1936) which provided financing for rural electricity projects.
By 1949, Nebraska had solidified its status as the first and only all-public power state.
Local democracy in action
Local control and the possibility for democratic participation are defining features of Nebraska’s publicly-owned electricity system. At the ground level, public utilities and cooperatives are run by publicly elected power district boards, cooperative boards, or elected city councils (often through appointed boards).
These bodies establish budgets, establish service standards and policies, and set prices. Regularly scheduled meetings of power boards and councils are open to public involvement and comment.
Should they so wish, every Nebraskan has the opportunity to become involved in the decision making of their local electricity provider.
One such example relates to the increasing use and proliferation of renewable energy facilities. While the state remains heavily reliant on coal and nuclear sources to provide low-cost energy to consumers, interest in renewable energy – primarily wind – has taken off in recent years.
In 2003, electricity consumers, many of whom drove more than 100 miles for the event, participated in an eight-hour deliberative polling survey for the Nebraska Public Power District (NPDD) – a public corporation owned by the state of Nebraska that supplies energy to 600,000 people via local publicly-owned utilities and cooperatives.
The topic at hand was the potential addition of more than 200 MW of wind energy by 2010. 96% of the participants supported the wind project, with 50% agreeing it was the right size and 36% wanting it expanded (compared to just 3% who wanted it reduced).
In addition to its other wind power facilities, in 2005 NPDD began operating the Ainsworth Wind Energy Facility, the nation’s second largest publicly-owned wind farm consisting of 36 turbines generating up to 59.5 MW of energy.
In 2011, the state’s energy plan acknowledged both that power generation from wind had doubled every two years since 2006 and that developing just 1 percent of the potential energy from wind in Nebraska would satisfy the state’s entire peak demand.
Moreover, public ownership of electricity generation and distribution in Nebraska is complemented by another seemingly socialist idea – planning. The Nebraska Power Review Board is a state agency that oversees the publicly-owned electricity system.
In addition to its regulatory functions-such as monitoring rate increases and arbitrating conflicts-the five person Review Board (appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the legislature with party, occupational, and term limit restrictions) “oversees the preparation and filing of a coordinated long-range power supply plan”, as well as the location and construction of new electricity generation facilities.
Decentralised and locally accountable
As demonstrated by Nebraska’s nearly 100 years of experience with a completely public and community-owned electricity system, American experimentation offers an interesting alternative to how public ownership has often been implemented in other parts of the world.
Describing the post-World War Two British public-ownership program, University of Glasgow professor Andrew Cumbers writes:
“The nationalization of the electricity, gas and other utilities resulted in the centralization of many activities that had formerly been locally or municipally owned and subject to a reasonable degree of local democratic control …
“Not only did this eviscerate important traditions of municipal socialism and more democratic forms of public ownership, but it also led to an increasing number of costly and unaccountable decisions (notably the decision to invest in nuclear power) by nationalized entities.”
Such experiences often reinforce the concern that public ownership of larger scale systems can lead to inefficiency, unaccountability, and bureaucracy. But Nebraska demonstrates that this does not necessarily have to be the case.
The principles of subsidiarity and local control can, in fact, be preserved through a networked mix of publicly-owned institutions at various scales without sacrificing efficiency or service quality. Of course, public ownership alone is not a fix-all solution.
It does, however, provide an opportunity for a community, a city, or even a whole region or nation to become actively involved in economic decision making on important matters affecting their lives, their environment, and their future.
– I’ve thought for sometime now that the U.S. military would eventually try to block access by soldiers to social commentary and criticism so that they would remain motivated if they are asked to go out and suppress social unrest in the U.S.
– To be fair, in this article they are suppressing a different kind of information. But the principle is the same and what we see here will be the thin edge of the wedge making its entry.
– The kind of unrest we’re talking about here is what will surface in the U.S. eventually, if the gap between the rich and poor keeps growing, if the weakening of the U.S. dollar keeps undermining the very fabric of people’s entire financial lives (even as the wealthy walk away with immense profits) and if the growing threats of climate change are not addressed and hundreds of thousands of people along the U.S. coastlines begin to find their lives, their futures and their properties vanishing beneath the rising waters.
The U.S. military is banning and blocking employees from visiting The Intercept in an apparent effort to censor news reports that contain leaked government secrets.
According to multiple military sources, a notice has been circulated to units within the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps warning staff that they are prohibited from reading stories published by The Intercept on the grounds that they may contain classified information. The ban appears to apply to all employees—including those with top-secret security clearance—and is aimed at preventing classified information from being viewed on unclassified computer networks, even if it is freely available on the internet. Similar military-wide bans have been directed against news outlets in the past after leaks of classified information.
A directive issued to military staff at one location last week, obtained by The Intercept, threatens that any employees caught viewing classified material in the public domain will face “long term security issues.” It suggests that the call to prohibit employees from viewing the website was made by senior officials over concerns about a “potential new leaker” of secret documents.
The directive states:
We have received information from our higher headquarters regarding a potential new leaker of classified information. Although no formal validation has occurred, we thought it prudent to warn all employees and subordinate commands. Please do not go to any website entitled “The Intercept” for it may very well contain classified material.
As a reminder to all personnel who have ever signed a non-disclosure agreement, we have an ongoing responsibility to protect classified material in all of its various forms. Viewing potentially classified material (even material already wrongfully released in the public domain) from unclassified equipment will cause you long term security issues. This is considered a security violation.
A military insider subject to the ban said that several employees expressed concerns after being told by commanders that it was “illegal and a violation of national security” to read publicly available news reports on The Intercept.
“Even though I have a top secret security clearance, I am still forbidden to read anything on the website,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject. “I find this very disturbing that they are threatening us and telling us what websites and news publishers we are allowed to read or not.”
– Here’s another news article, below, that reveals that the Pentagon is preparing for mass civil insurrection in the U.S. The combination of the information these two articles is interesting in it implications.
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Pentagon preparing for mass civil breakdown
Social science is being militarised to develop ‘operational tools’ to target peaceful activists and protest movements
A US Department of Defense (DoD) programme is funding universities to model the dynamics, risks and tipping points for large-scale civil unrest across the world, under the supervision of various agencies. The multi-million dollar program is designed to develop immediate and long-term “warfighter-relevant insights” for senior officials and decision makers in “the defense policy community,” and to inform policy implemented by “combatant commands.”
Launched in 2008 – the year of the global banking crisis – the DoD ‘Minerva Research Initiative’ partners with universities “to improve DoD’s basic understanding of the social, cultural, behavioral, and political forces that shape regions of the world of strategic importance to the US.”
Among the projects awarded for the period 2014-2017 is a Cornell University-led study managed by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research which aims to develop an empirical model “of the dynamics of social movement mobilisation and contagions.” The project will determine “the critical mass (tipping point)” of social contagians by studying their “digital traces” in the cases of “the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the 2011 Russian Duma elections, the 2012 Nigerian fuel subsidy crisis and the 2013 Gazi park protests in Turkey.”
Twitter posts and conversations will be examined “to identify individuals mobilised in a social contagion and when they become mobilised.”
Another project awarded this year to the University of Washington “seeks to uncover the conditions under which political movements aimed at large-scale political and economic change originate,” along with their “characteristics and consequences.” The project, managed by the US Army Research Office, focuses on “large-scale movements involving more than 1,000 participants in enduring activity,” and will cover 58 countries in total.
Iceland is also the best place to have a uterus, according to the folks at the World Economic Forum. The Global Gender Gap Report ranks countries based on where women have the most equal access to education and healthcare, and where they can participate most fully in the country’s political and economic life.
According to the 2013 report, Icelandic women pretty much have it all. Their sisters in Finland, Norway, and Sweden have it pretty good, too: those countries came in second, third and fourth, respectively. Denmark is not far behind at number seven.
The U.S. comes in at a dismal 23rd, which is a notch down from last year. At least we’re not Yemen, which is dead last out of 136 countries.
So how did a string of countries settled by Vikings become leaders in gender enlightenment? Bloodthirsty raiding parties don’t exactly sound like models of egalitarianism, and the early days weren’t pretty. Medieval Icelandic law prohibited women from bearing arms or even having short hair. Viking women could not be chiefs or judges, and they had to remain silent in assemblies. On the flip side, they could request a divorce and inherit property. But that’s not quite a blueprint for the world’s premier egalitarian society.
The change came with literacy, for one thing. Today almost everybody in Scandinavia can read, a legacy of the Reformation and early Christian missionaries, who were interested in teaching all citizens to read the Bible. Following a long period of turmoil, Nordic states also turned to literacy as a stabilizing force in the late 18th century. By 1842, Sweden had made education compulsory for both boys and girls.
Researchers have found that the more literate the society in general, the more egalitarian it is likely to be, and vice versa. But the literacy rate is very high in the U.S., too, so there must be something else going on in Scandinavia. Turns out that a whole smorgasbord of ingredients makes gender equality a high priority in Nordic countries.
Bhutan wants to be the first country to eliminate herbicides and pesticides from the food chain.
If there was ever a nation that could see the purpose behind organic, sustainable farming, it would be a nation that is composed mostly of farmers. Such a place does exist, and it soon may be the first nation to go 100% organic, paving the way for others to do the same on a global scale.
The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is known for a high level of citizen happiness, but it is doing something even more noteworthy in the near future. With Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley making a major announcement regarding the organic farming project at the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development which took place last month, the move has made national headlines. It’s called the National Organic Policy, and it is fueled by the simple concept that working ‘in harmony with nature’ will yield the most powerful results — all without sacrificing human health or the environment.
– An excellent article. I get discouraged at times by this world but there are still good people doing good work to try to improve our self-understanding and thus, the possibility that we can avoid shooting ourselves in the foot.
Here’s a fact that may not surprise you: the children of the rich perform better in school, on average, than children from middle-class or poor families. Students growing up in richer families have better grades and higher standardized test scores, on average, than poorer students; they also have higher rates of participation in extracurricular activities and school leadership positions, higher graduation rates and higher rates of college enrollment and completion.
Whether you think it deeply unjust, lamentable but inevitable, or obvious and unproblematic, this is hardly news. It is true in most societies and has been true in the United States for at least as long as we have thought to ask the question and had sufficient data to verify the answer.
What is news is that in the United States over the last few decades these differences in educational success between high- and lower-income students have grown substantially.
North Dakota is the very definition of a red state. It voted 58 percent to 39 percent for Romney over Obama, and its statehouse and senate have a total of 104 Republicans and only 47 Democrats. The Republican super-majority is so conservative it recently passed the nation’s most severe anti-abortion resolution – a measure that declares a fertilized human egg has the same right to life as a fully formed person.
But North Dakota is also red in another sense: it fully supports its state-owned Bank of North Dakota (BND), a socialist relic that exists nowhere else in America. Why is financial socialism still alive in North Dakota? Why haven’t the North Dakotan free-market crusaders slain it dead?
Because it works.
In 1919, the Non-Partisan League, a vibrant populist organization, won a majority in the legislature and voted the bank into existence. The goal was to free North Dakota farmers from impoverishing debt dependence on the big banks in the Twin Cities, Chicago and New York. More than 90 years later, this state-owned bank is thriving as it helps the state’s community banks, businesses, consumers and students obtain loans at reasonable rates. It also delivers a handsome profit to its owners—the 700,000 residents of North Dakota. In 2011, the BND provided more than $70 million to the state’s coffers. Extrapolate that profit-per-person to a big state like California and you’re looking at an extra $3.8 billion a year in state revenues that could be used to fund education and infrastructure.
One of America’s Best Kept Secrets
Each time we pay our state and local taxes—and all manner of fees—the state deposits those revenues in a bank. If you’re in any state but North Dakota, nearly all of these deposits end up in Wall Street’s too-big to-fail banks, because those banks are the only entities large enough to handle the load. The vast majority of the nation’s 7,000 community banks are too small to provide the array of cash management services that state and local governments require. We’re talking big bucks; at least $1 trillion of our local tax dollars find their way to Wall Street banks, according to Marc Armstrong, executive director of the Public Banking Institute.
So, not only are we, as taxpayers, on the hook for too-big-to-fail Wall Street banks, but we also end up giving our tax dollars to these same banks each and every time we pay a sales tax or property tax or buy a fishing license. In North Dakota, however, all that public revenue runs through its public state bank, which in turn reinvests in the state’s small businesses and public infrastructure via partnerships with 80 small community banks.
How the State Bank Creates Jobs
Banks are supposed to serve as intermediaries that turn our savings and checking deposits into productive loans to businesses and consumers. That’s how jobs are supported and created. But the BND, a state agency, goes one step further. Through its Partnership in Assisting Community Expansion, for example, it provides loans at below-market interest rates to businesses if and only if those businesses create at least one job for every $100,000 loaned. If the $1 trillion that now flows to Wall Street instead were deposited in public state banks in all 50 states using this same approach, up to 10 million new jobs could be created. That would effectively end our destructive unemployment crisis.
No Bailouts for the BND
Banking doesn’t have to be a casino. It doesn’t have to be designed to create gambling opportunities so bank traders and executives can make seven- and eight-figure salaries. As BND president Eric Hardmeyer said in a 2009 Mother Jones interview:
We’re a fairly conservative lot up here in the upper Midwest and we didn’t do any subprime lending and we have the ability to get into the derivatives markets and put on swaps and callers and caps and credit default swaps and just chose not to do it, really chose a Warren Buffett mentality—if we don’t understand it, we’re not going to jump into it. And so we’ve avoided all those pitfalls.
As state government employees, BND executives have no incentive to gamble their way toward enormous pay packages. As you can see, the top six BND officers earn a good living, but on Wall Street, cooks and chauffeurs earn more.
• Eric Hardmeyer, President and CEO: $232,500
• Bob Humann, Chief Lending Officer: $135,133
• Tim Porter, Chief Administrative Officer: $122,533
• Joe Herslip, Chief Business Officer: $105,000
• Lori Leingang, Chief Administrative Officer: $105,000
• Wally Erhardt, Director of Student Loans of North Dakota: $91,725
The very existence of a successful BND undermines Wall Street’s claim that in order to attract the best talent big banks need to offer enormous pay packages. Yet somehow, North Dakota is able to find the talent to run one of the soundest banks in the country? The BND is living proof that Wall Street’s rationale for sky-high executive pay is a self-serving fabrication.
Wall Street Is Gunning for Bank of North Dakota
As you can well imagine, our financial elites would love to see this successful (socialist!) bank disappear. Its salary structure and local investments makes a mockery of Wall Street’s casino banking system. But the bigger threat comes from the possible spread of this public banking concept to other states. Already, there are 20 or so state legislatures that are exploring state banks. Collectively, more public banks would pose an enormous threat to the $1 trillion in state and local bank deposits that now run through Wall Street.
But elite financiers also stand to lose much more. In the 49 states without a public bank, there’s no safe place to turn for loans to rebuild schools and finance other public infrastructure projects. That creates an enormous opportunity for Wall Street firms to hook localities on expensive bond programs—like capital appreciation bonds, which can lead to repayments equaling 10 times the original loan. Investment bankers and advisers also make enormous fees by selling expensive, high-risk financial schemes to state and local governments (read an investigative report here). But such schemes are useless in North Dakota where the state bank provides the capital the state needs for a fraction of the long-term costs.
Trade Agreements: Wall Street’s Weapon of Mass Destruction
Clearly, from Wall Street’s perspective, the North Dakota bank must go, and all other state efforts to replicate it must be thwarted. Wall Street’s stealth weapon may be lodged within the latest corporate trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which currently is being negotiated in secret. We already know that Wall Street is seeking to remove all tariff restrictions that prevent the U.S. financial services industry from doing business in countries like Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. The biggest banks also want the treaty to eliminate “non-tariff” barriers including regulations that create “unfair” competition with state-owned financial enterprises.
Depending on the final language, it is possible that the activities of the Bank of North Dakota could be ruled illegal because “foreign bankers could claim the BND stops them from lending to commercial banks throughout the state,” according to an analysis by Sam Knight in Truthout. How perfect for Wall Street: a foreign bank can be used as a shill to knock out the BND.
The Public Bank Movement
A small but highly dedicated group of financial writers, public finance experts and former bankers have formed the Public Bank Institute to spread the word. Working on a shoestring budget, its president Ellen Brown (author of Web of Debt), and its executive director Marc Armstrong have become the Johnny Appleseeds of public banking, hopping from state to state to encourage legislatures to explore state-owned banks.
The movement is gathering steam as it holds a major conference on June 2-4 at Dominican University in San Rafael, CA featuring such anti-Wall Street hell raisers as Matt Taibbi and Gar Alperowitz, along with Brigitte Jonsdottir, a member of the Icelandic parliament, and Ellen Brown.
Is America Up For This Fight?
Since the crash, the financial community has largely managed to wriggle off the hook. In fact, fatalism may be replacing activism as we sense that maybe Wall Street is simply too big and too powerful to change. After all, the big banks seem to own Washington, as too-big-to-fail banks are permitted to grow even larger and more invulnerable to prosecution and control.
But this new public banking movement could have legs, especially if it teams up with those fighting for a financial transaction tax (see National Nurses United.) Most Americans remain furious about how financial elites profited from the crisis—before, during and after—while the rest of us pick up the tab. Americans know deep down that Wall Street is the predator and we are the prey.
The state-owned and operated Bank of North Dakota proves that it doesn’t have to be that way. This is the time to fight for public state banking in a big way.
Twelve years ago, Portugal eliminated criminal penalties for drug users. Since then, those caught with small amounts of marijuana, cocaine or heroin go unindicted and possession is a misdemeanor on par with illegal parking. Experts are pleased with the results.
Before he got involved in the global war on drugs, João Goulão was a family physician with his own practice in Faro, on Portugal’s Algarve coast. Arriving in his small office in Lisbon, the 58-year-old tosses his jacket aside, leaving his shirt collar crooked. He looks a little tired from the many trips he’s taken lately — the world wants to know exactly how the experiment in Portugal is going. Goulão is no longer able to accept all the invitations he receives. He adds his latest piece of mail to the mountain of papers on his desk.
From this office, where the air conditioning stopped working this morning, Goulão keeps watch over one of the world’s largest experiments in drug policy.
One gram of heroin, two grams of cocaine, 25 grams of marijuana leaves or five grams of hashish: These are the drug quantities one can legally purchase and possess in Portugal, carrying them through the streets of Lisbon in a pants pocket, say, without fear of repercussion. MDMA — the active ingredient in ecstasy — and amphetamines — including speed and meth — can also be possessed in amounts up to one gram. That’s roughly enough of each of these drugs to last 10 days.
These are the amounts listed in a table appended to Portugal’s Law 30/2000. Goulão participated in creating this law, which has put his country at the forefront of experimental approaches to drug control. Portugal paved a new path when it decided to decriminalize drugs of all kinds.
“We figured perhaps this way we would be better able get things under control,” Goulão explains. “Criminalization certainly wasn’t working all that well.”
Much the Same as a Parking Violation
As part of its war on drugs, Portugal has stopped prosecuting users. The substances listed in the Law 30/2000 table are still illegal in Portugal — “Otherwise we would have gotten into trouble with the UN,” Goulão explains — but using these drugs is nothing more than a misdemeanor, much the same as a parking violation.
Why set the limits on these drugs at 10 days’ worth of use, though?
“Well, it’s a limit, which by its nature is arbitrary,” Goulão says. Now the head of Portugal’s national anti-drug program and an important figure in Portuguese health policy, he still talks like an easygoing family doctor. Arrayed on Goulão’s windowsill are photographs, including one of him with Richard Branson, the British billionaire and hot air balloon operator. Another shows Goulão with the king of Spain. Both these men have received personal briefings on Portugal’s new drug program from Goulão.
“At the point when we designed the law, we had hardly any data to draw on,” Goulão relates. “We weren’t the least bit certain this would work.”
The question at stake: How can a government keep its citizens from taking dangerous drugs? One way is to crack down on those who provide the drugs — the cartels, the middle men and the street dealers. Another approach is to focus on the customers — arresting them, trying them and imprisoning them. Legal prosecution — as both a control mechanism and a deterrent — is the chosen approach for most governments.
Giving Up on the Idea of a Drug-Free World
“It’s important that we prevent people from buying drugs, and taking drugs, using every method at our disposal,” says Manuel Pinto Coelho, 64, the last great opponent of Goulão’s experiment. Pinto Coelho wants his country to return to normalcy, in the form of the tough war on drugsthat much of the rest of the world conducts.
Pinto Coelho is a doctor too. He has run rehab centers and written books about addiction. Now he’s at odds with former colleagues and with “the system,” as he says.
His greatest concern is that his country has given up on the idea of a drug-free world. How, Pinto Coelho asks, is it possible to keep young people away from drugs, when everyone knows exactly how many pills can legally be carried around? He still believes deterrents are the best form of prevention and that cold turkey withdrawal is the best treatment method. He is also fighting the extensive methadone program Portugal began as part of its drug policy reform, which now provides tens of thousands of heroin addicts with this substitute drug.
These days, Pinto Coelho earns his living running diet clinics, but he spends his evenings writing letters and drafting presentations on his country’s “absurd drug experiment.” He travels to symposiums to warn the rest of the world of its dangers. At home in Portugal, his critical perspective has made him an outsider, but he says he’s been well received abroad. As if offering proof, he shows a fact sheet issued by the United States Office of National Drug Control Policy, a brief and skeptically worded report on the Portuguese experiment.
The Freedom that Overwhelmed the Country
When João Goulão wants to explain why it is Portugal in particular that came up with the idea to stop prosecuting drug users, he starts with the country’s Carnation Revolution.
In 1974, Portugal broke free from nearly 50 years of military dictatorship, a political shift symbolized by the carnations soldiers stuck in the muzzles of their rifles.”Suddenly, the drugs were there,” Goulão says, as Portuguese returning from the country’s overseas colonies brought marijuana with them. Goulão, too, says he smoked pot back then. He was in his early twenties and “drugs promised us freedom.”
But it was a freedom that soon overwhelmed the country. When Goulão established his doctor’s practice in Faro, he soon found himself approached by parents whose children were no longer just smoking joints, but had moved on to heroin. Sometimes the children came to him as well, and Goulão had no idea how to treat them. When the first state-run rehab clinic opened in Lisbon, Goulão attended a training course there.
At that point, he says, the heroin epidemic was just beginning.
In the 1980s, cheap heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan began flooding Europe. Portugal was not the only country affected, but Goulão says his nation was hit particularly hard, because people here had little idea how to handle drugs. “We were naïve,” he says.
The number of people taking illegal drugs in Portugal was low compared with other countries, but of those who did consume drugs, an unusually high number of them fell into the category that specialists in this field refer to as “problem drug users.”
From the pile of papers on his desk, Goulão unearths a copy of a speech he recently gave in Paris. Flipping through it, he finds the figure he’s looking for: 100,000. This is the number of severely drug-addicted people in Portugal at the height of the epidemic, in the mid-1990s. Portugal’s total population at the time was just under 10 million. The number of drug addicts who became infected with HIV was also considerably higher than in most other countries.
A drug slum formed in Lisbon, at the edge of a neighborhood known as Casal Ventoso. Here junkies slept in shacks or in the garbage, in extremely poor conditions. “They shot up on the street, and they died on the street,” Goulão says. Anyone in Portugal could observe this phenomenon — on TV, in newspaper pictures or even from the nearby highway.
“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in Love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to Love ourselves first, in all our glory and imperfections. If we cannot Love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to Love others or our potential to create, Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.” by John Lennon
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