In the early days of the internet, a website emerged that became a pillar of contemporary drug culture. This was Erowid, which provided an encyclopedic trove of knowledge about Drugs—capitalized—in that pretty much everything and anything you could possibly need to know about any and all psychoactive substances (at least those that existed back then) appeared within their pages and forums. Dosages, risks, trip reports, and so on and so forth: it was all there. Erowid was instrumental in establishing the underground psychedelic community and culture of the past three decades—I relied heavily on it back in my turn-of-the-millennium teenage years—but as psychedelics break into the mainstream, that culture is changing.
Erowid had a table in the Psychedelic Sciences 2023 exhibit hall, nestled amidst a buzzing hive of psychedelic commerce. This hall—packed with sleek psychedelic startup branding, and bustling with well-dressed psychedelic entrepreneurs—provided a visible example of how the movement is evolving. Next door in the Deep Space room there was a sprawl of art installations that harkened back to psychedelics’ festival roots. The exhibit hall, however, was all business.
By the end of the week, Erowid founders who go by the names Earth and Fire, had sold nearly all of their merchandise and were happy with how the conference had gone, even if they had sore feet (an affliction common to almost all the attendees I spoke with). I chatted at length with Earth in the event’s final hours for an interview that spanned the rise of information technology, the evolution of the modern psychedelic movement, and his concerns about its commercialization and potential over-clinicalization and capitalization.
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The Times, They Are A’Changing
When Erowid first hit the scene, drug information access was sparse at best. The average young person got most of the dope via the typically-inaccurate propaganda of anti-drug programs like DARE or often equally misinformed word of mouth on the street. Erowid was instrumental in changing that, and since then, informative resources have exploded across the web.
“I’m very pleased with the fact there’s actually been an evolution in the amount of information available,” said Earth. “Even just Wikipedia, for example, but there are other groups. Psychedelic Weed—he does an amazing job—and there’s another website that tracks new drugs and dose and effects reports, and there are a lot of other websites that are great. And I think that the general access to information and portable data devices completely changed things. You didn’t used to have the ability to just reach into your pocket and look stuff up. In our space there’s been a huge evolution, but there’s a long way to go. The fact is that humans need to relearn how we relate to mind-changing technologies and drugs. It’s a pretty hard problem.”
“The Controlled Substances Act still does stupid sh*t and really just needs to be deleted and start over with a whole new idea.”
On the subject of hard problems, Earth does admit that he has some concerns about where the psychedelic movement is heading, particularly concerning how attempts to mainstream the industry could impact the culture surrounding it. On one hand, he’s all for greater access. On the other, he’s cautious about what that access will look like. Like many at Psychedelic Sciences 2023, he expressed mixed feelings toward the growing influence of commerce and a trend toward over-clinicalization.
“As far as the industry,” he said, “the bigger it grows… a friend just said that it’s been a bit of a change from an activist conference to a commercial conference. The trade show is a little overwhelming. I am both moved in a positive way and, you know, I have concerns. Big money changes things: interests and motivations. I mean, everybody’s gotta make rent. You’ve got to eat and you’ve got to live. But the startup kind of thing, the huge dollars are going into very, very specific avenues.
“That doesn’t say that we don’t believe in MDMA becoming a prescription drug—the idea that it’s not a prescription drug already is completely stupid. It’s ridiculous. I don’t want to underplay the amount of change that needs to happen. The Controlled Substances Act still does stupid sh*t and really just needs to be deleted and start over with a whole new idea. It’s a lot of work to get there, and MAPS and Rick [Doblin] and everybody working on that have been putting out tireless, huge amounts of effort and huge amounts of money, just to make something that obviously should be true. But that’s what it takes, right? Modern medicine is a highly regulated, highly administrative, heavy, expensive thing. So I’m excited that we’re where we’re at.”
But what happens, Earth worries, when the drugs expand beyond the underground culture that has cultivated them for so long?
“Because of our limited resources,” he explained, “Erowid has always targeted college-level, interested people. We mostly target drug geeks—people who self-identify as being the people who are going to go read in depth. They don’t find the simplest answer and walk away. So one of the things that I find strange about reading all the news stories—like daily or multiple daily stories about psychedelics, research papers, and news pieces about therapy… Like CNN recently had Anderson Cooper videotaping people taking mushrooms, and there was a story about the person who was running that, the psilocybin-offering therapist made the person running the show take mushrooms. That was a requirement. Like I’m not going to do this for you unless you have an experience yourselves. And… not everyone is suited to need the incredibly weird addition of LSD or psilocybin in their lives.”
An oft-spoken apprehension among therapy practitioners, for example, was that psychedelic therapy would end up entirely under the thumb of Big Pharma.
“What Erowid and our posse talk about is how 99.9% of the population of people who’ve ever taken LSD did so illegally. 99.9% of people who took LSD did so outside the therapeutic context. I don’t want to talk about the submarine people who just died, but those people chose to get into a thing and go to the bottom of the ocean, and that’s really, really dangerous. And I’m not saying that psychedelics are really, really dangerous, but they self-select. It’s not like the general population or the public is accidentally winding up the bottom of the ocean. It used to be that most of the time it wasn’t just accidental that people wound up taking LSD or an especially high dose of psilocybin. So I have concerns about people reading this news story about treating depression or whatever and then going out and seeking it with the idea in mind that it’s a simple therapy. Because it’s a weird f**king therapy.”
“I’m concerned about the over-clinicalization of it. Overall I’m not that worried about the big money thing going into the patents and all that. I find it a little distasteful. But most of the compounds that they’re patenting aren’t available now anyway. I found COMPASS’s patenting of psilocybin to be offensive, intellectually. But psilocybin grows itself—who cares if they patent the synthesis route? Whatever. It affects other clinical commercial groups that I don’t exactly care about.”
I encountered many conference-goers with similar concerns. An oft-spoken apprehension among therapy practitioners, for example, was that psychedelic therapy would end up entirely under the thumb of Big Pharma. And a smattering of enthusiasts—typically those dressed a bit outlandishly—expressed dismay at what I’m going to call the “squarification” of psychedelics: a cultural watering-down much akin to what happened with cannabis, as what was once revolutionary became something ordinary.
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The legalization of psychedelics will bring change. It will bring trade-offs: greater access to help more people in exchange for the loss of a once-distinct psychedelic cultural identity. In some cases, the movement might get to decide what is retained and what is given up, but to a large degree, changes like these are out of our hands. Evolution has no master.
And perhaps future generations won’t need the culture, benefiting as they will be from the drugs themselves. Now, perhaps more important than anything is that we “figure out how to teach the next generation how to make reasonable choices,” Earth said, “around things that are incredibly hard to make reasonable choices around.”
Yes, the times are a’changing, but to reference another classic from the psychedelic catalog, perhaps what’s most essential is that we teach our children well.
This material is not intended as a replacement or substitute for any legal or medical advice. Always consult a medical professional about your health needs. Psychedelics are widely illegal in the United States, and readers should always be informed about local, state, and federal regulations regarding psychedelics or other drugs.