For smokers, the next cigarette starts as you are putting out the one you’re smoking. It’s not that you are chain-smoking, but rather that the cycle begins again. You have your nicotine fix, and the cravings are gone, but slowly, like a fog on a night-darkened street, they come creeping back up. Soon enough, you’re surrounded: the fog has slipped into your bones, and the only way to dispel the cold is to have another smoke. As you stub that one out, the cycle begins again.
That’s the nature of addiction: whether it’s chemical or cultural, addiction is always there, lurking and ready to be let back in. There is a certain cruel symmetry to its nature, and for the addict, a certain inevitability. That’s why some people are worried that for every positive action — the proven usage of psychedelic substances to treat addiction — there will be a negative reaction; in this case, the possibility that the psychedelics themselves will be addictive, and you’ll be trading one monster for the next. Understanding why this is a small possibility gets us to the nature of psychedelics, and of addiction itself.
Psychedelic Drugs Are Non-Addictive in the Traditional Sense
Psychedelic drugs, including ayahuasca, psilocybin, and LSD, are generally not considered to be addictive in the medical sense. That is, though they influence the mind directly, they don’t alter the chemistry of the brain. Other addictive substances do. Addiction is when a substance triggers a positive sensation in the limbic system, the network of nerves in the brain. The brain gets a “reward” for your actions. When that sensation fades, the brain starts to mimic what is essentially “hunger” for that sensation. While this doesn’t happen the first time you try a substance, the enjoyment of the feeling often leads people to trying it again and again, and then the brain starts to get used to it.
When this happens, the brain begins to demand more of it, but it also makes it harder to reach the stage where the hunger can be sated. What’s important to remember is that during this the brain is actively colonized by the addiction. It roars in and bulls itself around, making demands, and crowding out other pleasure, which is why so often addicts stop being interested in other activities. They only want — they only need — that reward to stop the craving.
That’s one of the reasons why psychedelic substances work so well in treating addiction, because they let a person break down their reality tunnels and take back control over their mind. But they do not have the same makeup as opiates, nicotine, or alcohol, or even intense and addictive activities like gambling or sex or danger. There is no shot to the limbic system, and so there isn’t a chemical addiction. But getting into why some people are addicted, and others aren’t, reveals the slight but real danger of psychedelic addictions.
The Cultural Roots of Addiction
In an essay for Medium, Derek Beres talks about how friends of his are as committed to a “psychedelic lifestyle” as the most devout religious fanatic is to their text. Everything in their lives revolved around it. Their personality, their activities, their conversation, and their goals became subsumed to something outside of their bodies and minds. In behavior, if not in chemistry, they were addicts
It’s important to understand this phenomenon from a cultural view, and to do that, it helps to take a look back at history and the long-standing false assumption that Native Americans are genetically predisposed to alcoholism. Missionaries, soldiers, and traders in the Great Lakes region during French colonization all spoke of indigenous people’s propensity toward alcoholism. They either thought it was a scourge or a great way to control the natives (or both). But no one seemed to ask the question of why? After all, they had been using mind-altering substances (including many of the drugs we use today) for centuries, and they had managed to build great cultures without falling into widespread addiction. It wasn’t just because much of what they used was non-addictive, although that played a role. It had to do with the destruction of their culture.
The famous “Rat Park” studies showed that addiction didn’t happen because people were addicts, even though that was the ideology that dominated our poor attempts at treatment. There was a reason why people would turn to substances, and as was the case with Huron, Iroquois, and others, a dislocation and sense of cultural drift played a huge role. There were many reasons why the use of narcotics exploded in the 1960s, but the tectonic cultural shifts played a huge role (instead of the other way around).
When a sense of self — in which culture and society plays a large role — is broken, it’s easy to look for a way to fix that. Many people turn to substances in an attempt to ward off what ails them, and that leads to addiction. It starts as cultural, but then becomes chemical.
In an interesting way, though, addiction doesn’t always have to be chemical. It can come from having any one thing define who you are, from having something essentially colonize your way of life. Think of the man who refuses to leave his house on Sunday because he has to watch every game, or the collector who won’t stop driving around the country until they have every issue of a comic book. Dr. Gabor Mate, renowned for treating addiction patients with ayahuasca, has spoken of his addiction to classical music. All of these “addictions” change the way a person interacts with the world.
That’s why it is important, when using psychedelics for therapy, to work with trained and compassionate professionals. Psychedelics can help open your mind, and free you from the curse of addiction, but you don’t want to replace one personality-thief with another. With care, and with help, they won’t, and instead can help you free yourself from the colonizers of your mind.