“Opening the Doors to Perception”

Matthew P. Cavedon


This past Election Day saw a shift in the treatment of psychedelics, with voters in Oregon and the District of Columbia legalizing their use. This comes a year after Denver decriminalized them. Psychedelics’ ability to alter perceptions of reality – in ways that are often quasi- or explicitly religious – was one reason these initiatives drew support. American criminal laws had already accommodated certain religious uses of psychedelics. But the 2020 changes may usher in broader experimentation that will affect American religious experience more generally.

Psychedelics and religion share common ground and always have. The religious experience of ancient Greece with psychedelics is a key reason why commentator Andrew Sullivan endorsed their legalization:

[N]ew research suggests that this shift toward integrating psychedelics into a healthy,responsible life for Westerners may not be new at all. It would, in fact, be a return to a civilization that used these substances as a bulwark of social and personal peace. New literary investigations of ancient texts, new — and re-examined — archeological finds,and cutting edge bio-chemical technology that can detect and identify substances in long-buried artifacts, suggest that deploying psychedelics would, in fact, be a return to a Brave Old World we are only now rediscovering.

The most notable example he gives comes from the Temple of Eleusis near ancient Athens. The site hosted mysterious, once-in-a-lifetime rituals that left participants with radical new perspectives on reality. Wrote Cicero, “we have learned from them the fundamentals of life, and have grasped the basis not only for living with joy, but also for dying with a better hope.” Others summarized: “You died before you died and so didn’t die.” Archeology has shown that the ceremony centered on drinking a concoction made of alcohol, various herbs and spices, and ergot – a hallucinogenic fungus.

Other ancient societies used psychedelics in similar ways. The Eleusis recipe has been uncovered as far away as Spain. At Pompeii, traces have been found of a beverage made from “seeds of cannabis, opium, and hallucinogenic nightshades.” Drinkers of this brew claimed that imbibing made it so that “you saw past life and death, you became unafraid of your own mortality, you gained perspective and inner peace.” While Mr. Sullivan does not mention them, early Hindu texts similarly reference “soma,” a drink possibly composed with poppies and cannabis. Reads one ode to it: “Good fruit containing food not any intoxicating drink, we drink you / You are elixir of life, achieve physical strength or light of god, /achieve control over senses”.

The early Americas featured religious psychedelic use as well. Indigenous societies from Texas to Guatemala have long used plants to alter consciousness. These traditions have continued to the present, and they have had a direct impact on modern American criminal law through the case of Employment Division v. Smith. In the 1980s, two men were fired from their jobs at a drug rehabilitation program after using peyote in a ceremony of the Native American Church. By doing so, they had violated Oregon’s controlled substance laws, and so were denied unemployment benefits. They sued, claiming that the state had violated their right to freely exercise religion. The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the case. It upheld the firing, finding that religious freedom does not require governments to exempt religious practices from general laws. (This holding is controversial and the Court is revisiting it this term.)

Preparation of Ayahuasca, Province of Pastaza, Ecuador / Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0

The stage was set for a crackdown on the religious use of psychedelics. But then Congress and President Clinton intervened, enacting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) and American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments. These measures require the federal government to give wide leeway to religious practices — including psychedelic ceremonies. Soon, religious users of psychedelics raised RFRA to seek an exemption from controlled substances laws, and again wound up at the Supreme Court. The users in Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal followed an Amazonian religion whose main ceremony involves drinking a hallucinogenic tea, hoasca. The federal government seized three drums of the tea’s hallucinogen and threatened practitioners with criminal charges. But this time, applying RFRA, the Court protected the users.

This precedent means that the ceremonial psychedelic use discussed by Mr. Sullivan already enjoys some legal protection. RFRA holds back the federal government from banning it, and state laws analogous to RFRA may grant similar immunity.

Still, the recent referenda in Denver, Oregon, and D.C. may expand religious psychedelic use. The limited exemptions afforded by RFRAs usually require that psychedelics be taken as part of the rituals of a religious group. This leaves psychedelics confined to a few people who are either formal members of minor religious communities or can find ways to participate in their ceremonies. But are psychedelics only spiritually valuable for such people? Turning again to Mr. Sullivan:

A profound psychedelic experience can give a human being a new perspective, a sense of overpowering divine love, of the unimportance of death, and of the power unleashed by the love of others. It changes you because you cannot unsee the view from the mountaintop. It disappears from view in normal practical life, but your knowledge that it is there, that transcendence is possible, mitigates the jagged and ugly impulses of the primate mind.

Other aspects of spirituality, such as healing and creativity, can also be fostered by psychedelic use outside of an organized religious ceremony. According to one doctor published on a blog hosted by Scientific American, “For those with anxiety in the face of a new illness diagnosis, treatment with psychedelic medicine provided relief from anxiety, allowing patients the capacity to engage with their medical care with more presence and purpose.” As for the artistic use of psychedelics, it is so widespread that it has spawned its own genre.

American criminal law already makes narrow allowances for psychedelic use. But Denver, Oregon, and D.C. have opened the doors of perception to more people and more contexts. Entered into responsibly, the benefits for American spirituality could be profound. To close by once more quoting Mr. Sullivan:

The collapse in religious faith has exacerbated our lack of perspective, and made our divisions more intractable. Our online lives have become a source of acute anxiety and distraction. Our psychological dependence on consumerism, entertainment, and materialism has deepened the spiritual crisis. In this context, the psychedelic experience is a strange shortcut to serenity. And the more who have access to it — safe, responsible, moderated access — the more possibility we have that these wounds can heal and our civilization can endure and thrive.


Matthew P. Cavedon is a criminal defense attorney in Gainesville, GA. He graduated from Emory University in 2015 with a law degree and masters of theological studies.