Why Are Psychedelics Illegal?

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Why Are Psychedelics Illegal?

Terence McKenna viewed cannabis, psilocybin, DMT, LSD, and other psychedelics as “catalysts of intellectual dissent.” He wrote in The Archaic Revival (1991) that his assumption about psychedelics had always been that they were illegal “not because it troubles anyone that you have visions” but because “there is something about them that casts doubts on the validity of reality.” This makes it difficult, McKenna observed, for societies—even democratic and especially “dominator” societies—to accept them, and we happen to live in a global “dominator” society.

McKenna often used the words “partnership” and “dominator” to refer to types of societies and relationships. Riane Eisler, whose work McKenna often praised, coined these terms. In The Archaic Revival, McKenna wrote:

Recently Riane Eisler in her important revisioning of history, The Chalice and the Blade, has advanced the important notion of “partnership” models of society being in competition and oppressed by “dominator” forms of social organization. These latter are hierarchical, paternalistic, materialistic, and male dominated. Her position is that it is the tension between these two forms of social organization and the overexpression of the dominator model that is responsible for our alienation. I am in complete agreement with Eisler’s view.

To better understand why, in McKenna’s view, psychedelics are illegal, it may be helpful to examine why the world today operates on a dominator instead of a partnership model, and what exactly these terms mean. To do this, we’ll examine Eisler’s work, which (like much of McKenna’s work, I think) exposed egregiously overlooked and deliberately suppressed aspects of history and nature. In her book The Chalice and the Blade, Eisler argued that for the majority of at least the past ~32,000 years, humans lived in partnership societies, within a global partnership culture—a way of life that is almost unimaginable today.

The Chalice and the Blade (1987) by Riane Eisler

Eisler introduced the terms partnership and dominator via her Cultural Transformation theory, which proposed that “underlying the great surface diversity of human culture are two basic models of society.” In (1) the dominator model, half of humanity is ranked over the other half. Because this bias involves “the most fundamental difference in our species, between male and female,” it then becomes the basis for all other relationships (and, I think, probably even experiences). In (2) the partnership model, diversity isn’t equated with inferiority or superiority; instead of “ranking,” there’s what Eisler called “linking.”

In Eisler’s view, the dominator/partnership dichotomy is neither ideology-specific (both capitalism and communism can, and have, operated with dominator values) nor gender-specific—both women and men can, and do, embody dominator attitudes. McKenna praised this aspect of Eisler’s work in particular. He said in The Evolutionary Mind (1998):

I don’t see it as a male disease. I think everybody in this room has a far stronger ego than they need. The great thing that Riane Eisler, in her book The Chalice and the Blade, did for this discussion was to de-genderize the terminology. Instead of talking about patriarchy and all this, what we should be talking about is dominator versus partnership society.

While it’s often assumed that men have historically been the dominant, oppressive sex—which would potentially debunk Eisler’s gender-neutral theory—that is incorrect. Eisler showed that the dominator model that now exists globally, and which is arguably led by the United States, a country with 44 consecutive male presidents and vice presidents, is a recent development. From ~35000 BC (the earliest that “so-called Venus figurines,” as Eisler called them, have been dated) to ~5000 BC, humans exemplified the partnership model. There was neither patriarchy nor matriarchy. As McKenna wrote in Food of the Gods (1992):

Eisler used the archaeological record to argue that over vast areas and for many centuries the partnership societies of the ancient Middle East were without warfare and upheaval. Warfare and patriarchy arrived with the appearance of dominator values.

Evidence of this partnership way of life was discovered, among other places, at a site called Catal Huyuk in Anatolia. Excavations uncovered a period of time from ~7500 BC (at the time Eisler’s book was published excavations had only uncovered back to ~6500 BC) to ~5700 BC. The archeologists found “no glaring social inequalities,” a matrilineal and matrilocal social organization, and that “the divine family of Catal Huyuk” was represented in this order of importance: mother, daughter, son, father. More than 40 of the 139 rooms excavated between 1961 and 1963 seemed to have served as shrines; ”the religion of the Great Goddess appears to have been the single most prominent and important feature of life.” Eisler wrote:

It is also true that in Catal Huyuk and other Neolithic societies the anthropomorphic representations of the Goddess—the young Maid, the nature Mother, and the old Grandmother or Ancestress, all the way back to the original Creatrix, are, as the Greek philosopher Pythagoras later noted, projections of the various stages of the life of woman. Also suggesting a matrilineal and matrilocal social organization is that in Catal Huyuk the sleeping platform where the woman’s personal possessions and her bed or divan were located is always found in the same place, on the east side of the living quarters. That of the man shifts, and is also somewhat smaller.

Eisler added:

But despite such evidence of the preeminence of women in both religion and life, there are no indications of glaring inequality between women and men. Nor are there any signs that women subjugated or oppressed men.

Why, then, ~7000 years ago, when the dominator model came into existence, was it women—and not men—who were oppressed? The answer, Eisler showed, is in the observation that only women give birth. Prehistoric humans, noticing that new life entered the world exclusively from the female body—which then nourished and cared for that new life—apparently developed a religion/worldview that was centered around the worship of a female deity. Eisler used the word “worship” with the qualification that, “in prehistoric and, to a large extent, well into historic times, religion was life, and life was religion.” Women and men alike worshipped a female abstraction, which Eisler called the Goddess. This continued even after the development of agriculture and the creation of the first civilizations, ~10,000 years ago:

We find evidence of the deification of the female—who in her biological character gives birth and nourishment just as the earth does—in the three main centers for the origins of agriculture: Asia Minor and southeastern Europe, Thailand in Southeast Asia, and later on also Middle America.

For 3,000 years after humankind condensed into civilizations, people continued to worship the Goddess and live peacefully. Eisler observed that “practically all the material and social technologies fundamental to civilization were developed before the imposition of a dominator society,” meaning that war is evidently not, unlike “what a Pentagon theorist will hold,” necessary “for technological, and by implication, cultural advance.” Eisler called this “one of the best kept historical secrets.”

It wasn’t until ~5000 BC that the dominator model appeared in the form of “nomadic bands” from peripheral areas that attacked the preexisting civilizations, which were all partnership societies. Defense mechanisms like trenches and ramparts—previously nonexistent—gradually appeared. “These repeated incursions and ensuing culture shocks and population shifts were concentrated in three major thrusts,” wrote Eisler, calling these “Wave No. 1” (4300-4200 BC), “Wave No. 2” (3400-3200 BC), and “Wave No. 3” (3000-2900 BC). “At the core of the invaders’ system was the placing of higher value on the power that takes, rather than gives, life,” observed Eisler. As the dominators conquered, they also began to suppress the old way of living, which meant suppressing worship of the Goddess, which meant the marginalization of women in general. The Goddess, and women, Eisler claimed, “were reduced to male consorts or concubines. Gradually male dominance, warfare, and the enslavement of women and of gentler, more ‘effeminate’ men became the norm.” Eisler wrote:


The last partnership civilization was the Minoan civilization, which, Eisler observed, is usually not mentioned in courses on Western civilization. The precursor to the Minoans arrived on the island of Crete in ~6000 BC, bringing the worship of the Goddess with them. For ~4,000 years, the Minoan civilization thrived, showing “no signs of war” and “a rather equitable sharing of wealth.” They decorated their homes and public buildings with “an artistic tradition unique in the annals of civilization,” and had four scripts. In Minoan Crete, Eisler quoted a scholar in her book, “Wherever you turn, pillars and symbols remind one of the presence of the Great Goddess.” Based on her research, it seemed to Eisler that the mythical civilization of Atlantis, which Plato described in the 4rd century BC, was “actually the garbled folk memory, not of a lost Atlantic continent, but of the Minoan civilization of Crete.”

Minoan art focused on nature and did not depict glorifications of brutality or war.

By 1100 BC, Eisler wrote, “it was all over.” The dominator model, in the form of a patriarchy, had completely gained control. Women, previously equal to men for at least ~30,000 years, suddenly began to experience a lesser status. They were marginalized in Ancient Greece, whose democracy “excluded most of the population (giving no participation to women and slaves).” In Eisler’s view, “much of what was finest” in Ancient Greece—“the great love of art, the intense interest in the processes of nature, the rich and varied feminine as well as masculine mythical symbology”—could be “traced back to the earlier era” of Minoan Crete. Remnants of Goddess worship also survived into Ancient Greece, in the form of the many Greek Goddesses, but these were all subordinate to Zeus. Things deteriorated further until they reached a kind of culmination in the Bible, with the Old Testament explicitly proclaiming, Eisler observed, that “it is God’s will that woman be ruled by man.” Eisler wrote:

If we read the Bible as normative social literature, the absence of the Goddess is the single most important statement about the kind of social order that the men who over many centuries wrote and rewrote this religious document strove to establish and uphold.

The next ~2,000 years, until the present, can be seen as a gradual recovery—with increasingly dangerous setbacks, now that war involves massively destructive weapons—from the sudden infiltration of the dominator model, which has, since its appearance, been in a constant process of both consciously and unconsciously destroying and suppressing evidence of the original Goddess religion and its various revivifications throughout history.

Today, unless you’re a member of an indigenous tribe like the !Kung in southern Africa or Bambuti in Congo, you probably live firmly within the global dominator culture. Eisler wrote: “To us, after thousands of years of relentless indoctrination, this is simply reality, the way things are.” McKenna observed that, in dominator societies especially, people aren’t encouraged to question their behavior or why things are how they are—which is what psychedelics, among their other effects, reliably cause people to do. As McKenna said in 1987:

Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third story window. Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behavior and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.

On that thought, I encourage people to get stoned and read The Chalice and the Blade. Or get stoned and listen to “Man & Woman at the End of History,” a multi-day discussion led by Eisler and McKenna that was serialized on the radio in 1988. In the discussion, McKenna introduces the role of psychedelics into Eisler’s theory. Eisler, at one point, compares McKenna’s oratory style to fireworks: “You illuminate so many things so quickly then pass from one to another.” I’ll end this week with an example of this, from the same discussion:

We are now being told that we are in the midst of a tremendous political crisis that goes under the banner of “the drug problem.” But the drug problem is an addiction problem. And the addiction, in my mind, is the addiction of intelligence agencies to vast amounts of untraceable money. This is the addiction which drives the global drug problem. But of course it is true that there are chemical dependencies. And this is a very interesting thing about human beings. Something—and I’ll talk about this a bit more tomorrow—but something about our ability to be omnivorous, to eat all kinds of things, has lain us open to, perhaps manipulation is too strong a word, but certainly to evolutionarily selective pressures that are not ordinarily present. Most animals eat a few foods. Many animals eat only one food. Our ability to be omnivorous has exposed us—over the last four, five million years—to a vast number of mutagenic and synergistic compounds that may have been responsible for such things as the prolongation of adolescence in our species, the way in which lactation occurs.

Next week will begin three weeks of posts on three of Terence McKenna’s immediate family members. I’ll examine his brother Dennis McKenna’s memoir, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss: My Life with Terence McKenna (2012), whose Kickstarter raised $85,750 in 2011 despite featuring a precariously, comically half-assed (it seemed to me) video introduction. Then I’ll interview his daughter, Klea McKenna, and, the week after that, his son, Finn McKenna.

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Tao Lin
Tao is an Author for Vice.
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