David Nickles

David Nickles

David Nickles is an underground researcher, moderator for the DMT-Nexus community, and glassblower. He has offered cultural commentary on psychedelics and radical politics and participated in numerous harm reduction efforts.
David Nickles

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The most powerful, widespread, and influential components of society (dominant culture) present existential threats to the future of humanity (see: climate change and nuclear war). While this may sound hyperbolic, understanding dominant culture not as an abstract concept, but as the real-world effects of its components (capitalism, industrial civilization, White supremacy, patriarchy, etc.) exposes the litany of atrocities that creates the foundation for the sociopolitical order many view as the “default” state of the world.

Simultaneously, many biomedical psychedelic research efforts appear to utilize and/or support some of the most destructive aspects of dominant culture.

Psychedelics have been hailed as agents of personal, social, and political change, if not outright panaceas for humanity’s ills, since the earliest days of individual self-experimentation within the context of industrial civilization. However, this experimentation has failed to usher in most of the beautiful imaginings heralded by psychedelic visionaries. Instead, the broader “psychedelic community” has generated an increasingly commodified psychedelic landscape. Simultaneously, many biomedical psychedelic research efforts appear to utilize and/or support some of the most destructive aspects of dominant culture.

it appears that most psychedelic culture is reproducing the ills of dominant culture

Despite vibrant histories of psychedelic use that facilitated cogent social critiques and material alternatives to dominant culture, contemporary psychedelic communities within industrial contexts largely eschew radical social critiques or action. In fact, for all the talk of sustainability, paradigm shifts, and activism, it appears that most psychedelic culture is reproducing the ills of dominant culture, rather than meaningfully challenging or deconstructing these systems.

This research requires collaborating with some of the most violent, destructive, and traumatizing components of the American State, such as the Department of Defense

Currently, some of the most visible psychedelic research is promoted by the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), and deals with utilizing MDMA for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in military veterans. This research requires collaborating with some of the most violent, destructive, and traumatizing components of the American State, such as the Department of Defense (responsible for millions of deaths since 2001, and the world’s largest polluter) and the Department of Health and Human Services (which facilitates the incarceration of migrant families and children, family separations, child abuse, and force medication of children). But these are simply the “necessary evils” that must be engaged with in order to achieve the medicalization of psychedelics and psychedelic legitimacy, or so we’re told.

MDMA for PTSD won’t put an end to war. We must address the systemic causes of militarism and enlistment, photo by CrimethInc

In this context, there are two significant aspects of American militarism that bear consideration. First, most army enlistees who commit suicide have never been deployed. Not only does this raise alarming questions about the dynamics of the Army and its training programs, but it also suggests that the Army is hemorrhaging money training soldiers who never perform their duties. The second major consideration is the expanding use of drones for “extrajudicial” killings and the increasing reports of PTSD among drone operators, who find themselves “going literally from combat to cul-de-sac in a short drive,” as they fly sorties during working hours while otherwise living “normal” lives.

what does it mean when treating traumas results not in the cessation of cycles of violence, but rather in the increased operational efficacy of some of the most traumatizing systems in existence?

Enlistee suicides and drone operator traumas highlight real-world arguments for the military’s use of MDMA in PTSD maintenance therapies. Rick Doblin’s acknowledgement of secret military research utilizing MDMA indicates the military’s belief in these therapeutic approaches. Whether MDMA is an effective maintenance therapy for suicidal enlistees, drone operators, or other active duty troops remains to be seen. However, the restored functionality of military operatives presents a significant threat to the physical safety and mental wellbeing of global populations. After all, the US is viewed as the greatest threat to world peace by the rest of the world. So, what does it mean when treating traumas results not in the cessation of cycles of violence, but rather in the increased operational efficacy of some of the most traumatizing systems in existence? What does it mean for global populations if the US convinces its citizenry that military interventions are more justifiable because MDMA can heal the potential traumas of those deployed?

This isn’t to say that people suffering from PTSD shouldn’t have access to whatever therapies might improve their conditions. Rather, it emphasizes the lack of discussion about the effects of psychedelic medicalization on the efficacy of the Military Industrial Complex. It feels important to note that this omission with regards to systemic issues doesn’t just occur with regards to military applications, but with the deployment of “psychedelic medicines” at large.

We live in atomized societies; ravaged by war, resource extraction, industrial manufacturing, and other systems that have resulted in some of the most intense social alienation and ecocide that this planet has ever seen. If we don’t fundamentally restructure the world we live in, the most appealing medical application of psychedelics may be as maintenance therapies. It’s not for nothing that, with the recent emergence of COMPASS Pathways, Huxley’s “soma” has been on the tip of many tongues.

COMPASS is a venture-capital-backed for-profit psychedelic life sciences company that has ties to numerous pharmaceutical companies, regulatory agencies, and industry advocacy groups

COMPASS is a venture-capital-backed for-profit psychedelic life sciences company that has ties to numerous pharmaceutical companies, regulatory agencies, and industry advocacy groups. Initially, COMPASS was a non-profit organization that espoused interest in establishing a psychedelic hospice center on the Isle of Man and solicited help from numerous psychedelic researchers. However, after engaging those researchers and receiving invaluable insight and knowledge, COMPASS announced that they were pivoting to a for-profit approach, focusing on treatment-resistant depression. Additionally, Peter Thiel is one of COMPASS’ notable investors. Thiel, who decried women voting, the existence of social safety nets, and democracy. Thiel, who’s behind the Palantir surveillance software; technology used to target countless immigrants and drug users.

COMPASS appears to be aimed at vertically integrating in order to control its supply chain from synthesis through therapy. Such control would allow it to deny access to other organizations through a variety of means. In fact, this has already occurred, as COMPASS signed an exclusivity deal with Onyx Pharmaceuticals, thereby blocking Usona (a non-profit company looking to develop psychedelic medicines) from using Onyx to manufacture Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) psilocybin; unheard of tactics in psychedelic research. Vertical integration and such denial of access are antithetical to The Statement on Open Science, which I explain in greater detail in my open letter, “Considerations on the Breach…

To stay stable, the economy must draw in more and more resources; colonizing everything, including psychedelics, photo by CrimethInc

If a company can afford to sell psilocybin interventions for $2000/year, yet lacks competition due to its vertically-integrated monopoly, it may sell such interventions for $8000/year

Vertical integration allows for the utilization of value-based pricing. Consider a hypothetical where current treatments for depression costs insurers $10,000/year. If a company can afford to sell psilocybin interventions for $2000/year, yet lacks competition due to its vertically-integrated monopoly, it may sell such interventions for $8000/year. The insurers will run the numbers, realize that psilocybin therapy is cheaper than traditional therapies, and agree to the pricing.

Unfortunately, the public has been left out of the equation entirely and suffers for it. We are the people paying insurance premiums. The premiums for therapies that cost $2000/year will unquestionably be lower than those that cost $8000/year. This privatization of benefits and socialization of costs is unsurprising; it’s a common practice within capitalism.

Additionally, thanks to COMPASS’ VC-backed, for-profit structure, we know that investors expect a return on their investment. This means that COMPASS will eventually attempt to sell itself to pay back its investors. As such, there is a significant likelihood that COMPASS and its intellectual property (including patents and exclusivity deals) will wind up being owned by a big pharmaceutical or larger life sciences company. Considering how pharmaceutical and life sciences companies wield their patents, the chilling effects on psychedelic science could be devastating.

There is no such thing as an “apolitical” approach to the medicalization of psychedelics; this work carries numerous sociopolitical implications. Regrettably, many researchers in this field appear to consider such implications “beyond the scope of their research,” despite the potentially massive social impacts. To those researchers, I would pose a simple question, “Were the sociopolitical implications of the atomic bomb beyond the scope of the researchers who were involved in the Manhattan Project? If so, why did those researchers repeatedly take political stances about the development and use of that new, awe-inspiring technology?”  Robust discourse (and action) is needed with regards to the non-medical ramifications of medicalization, lest we find ourselves looking back and lamenting the “unforeseeable” effects a few decades from now.

These “unforeseeable” effects are already unfolding in front of our eyes. Consider the recent publicity of LSD microdosing research, which follows years of exuberant articles promoting microdosing for creative problem-solving, with the goal of increasing productivity and profit margins. Recasting LSD as a catalyst for capitalist enterprise, rather than a boundary-dissolving threat to the established socioeconomic order, presents a fascinating and alarming example of the power of consumerist recuperation of psychedelic compounds and their applications within society.

Silicon Valley, along with its innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors, is predicated on ecological destruction and human exploitation; a fact that some of its most outspoken psychedelic enthusiasts neglect entirely. This absurd contradiction appears whenever another corporate CEO—who relies on extractive energy and ecological destruction, industrial production, and human exploitation to peddle their questionable wares—goes down to the Amazon, gets loaded on ethnobotanicals, and proclaims that sacred plants are “the medicine that might be able to bring the whole planet together.”

Though troubling, the merging of sanctioned psychedelic research with military and corporate cultures is hardly the only evidence of psychedelic communities reproducing the norms of dominant culture

Though troubling, the merging of sanctioned psychedelic research with military and corporate cultures is hardly the only evidence of psychedelic communities reproducing the norms of dominant culture. These tendencies are visible throughout less-formalized psychedelic communities as well. As psychedelics become increasingly mainstream, the components of “psychedelic lifestyles” are increasingly becoming chic new commodities in the global marketplace.

Consider the predatory practices of numerous for-profit retreat centers, such as Ayahuasca Healings and Ayahuasca International, as well as innumerable less-prominent organizations where there is evidence of price gouging, sexual assault, and generally unsafe practices. Furthermore, the practice of traveling to remote locations in search of “authentic” indigenous experiences smacks of cultural voyeurism, to say nothing of the hemispheric power imbalances and ongoing legacies of colonialism and imperialism.

A brief examination of dialogues within the broader “psychedelic community” evidences racism, sexism, classism, and authoritarian tendencies, as highlighted by attempts to identify and curb those tendencies.

A brief examination of dialogues within the broader “psychedelic community” evidences racism, sexism, classism, and authoritarian tendencies, as highlighted by attempts to identify and curb those tendencies. There are telling moments within community interactions, such as celebrity bioprospectors pointing fingers at projects they deem “insulting to indigenous native people” and sanctioned researchers pushing dubious religious theories, using their academic credentials and appeals to authority to bolster their assertions. See also pop-culture psychedelic authors asserting that “humanity has self-willed [the ecological crisis] to bring about our own transmutation…[to unlock] our latent psychic capacities,” or that “…corporate sociopaths (at Burning Man)…wearing pink tutus and picking up [trash]…” evidence the likelihood of a positive, unifying resolution to the current ecological crisis. And, speaking of Burning Man; the repeated glossing over of the inherent privilege and exclusivity of “transformative festivals” coupled with numerous instances of cultural appropriation, sexual assault, and hyperconsumerism presents a terrain that is, in many ways, nearly indistinguishable from any other form of commercial activity proffered up by dominant culture.

Art imitates life, as Burning Man imitates dominant culture, photo by shelmac

Considering that this is what the psychedelic terrain looks like, how could there be anything less than a “dire need” for systemic critique within psychedelic communities?


Note: 

This paper was presented at Cultural and Political Perspectives in Psychedelic Science, a symposium promoted by Chacruna and the East-West Psychology Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), San Francisco, August 18th and 19th, 2018.