Criminals and Researchers: Perspectives on the Necessity of Underground Research

By David Nickles on Thursday, 27 February 2014, hits: 15890

Shortly after presenting on behalf of the DMT-Nexus at the Psychedemia conference at the University of Pennsylvania, in September 2012, I was interviewed by a Harvard Graduate student for a paper he was writing. The purpose of the interview was to discuss “the decision-making process related to pursuing psychedelic research.” By and large, it was a positive discussion that I hope was as enjoyable for him as it was for me.

During the interview, I was asked a question that I couldn’t get out of my head, even after the interview had finished. I was asked why I felt there was a need for underground psychedelic research. I found myself somewhat caught off guard by this question, as the need for psychedelic research has always seemed self-evident to me. Psychedelics challenge so much of what we are commonly told about the nature of the world around us, how could they not be deserving of research? At first glance, this need for psychedelic research, combined with the fact that these substances are currently criminalized, generates a de facto need for underground research. That is to say, if there’s a need for researching psychedelic compounds and these compounds have been criminalized, then becoming a criminal in order to research them seems to be a viable, or perhaps even necessary, route.

I do not deny that there is sanctioned research being done on psychedelics, nor do I deny that there are groundbreaking results coming out of sanctioned psychedelic research. However, the fact of the matter is that there is not “enough” psychedelic research being done, nor do I believe it is possible to ever pursue “enough” psychedelic research within the confines of sanctioned institutions set within a prohibitionist paradigm. Underground psychedelic research has pushed the envelope in many ways, at times going beyond the limits of sanctioned science in significant ways (examples range from extraction methodologies to phytochemical and ethnobotanical research, and beyond). These underground contributions to psychedelic science are indivisible from the broader context of psychedelic research, but are paradoxically dismissed by some (but certainly not all) sanctioned psychedelic researchers.

This was the essence of the answer that I presented in this interview. Even when the interviewer pushed back and said that psychedelic research was becoming more and more accepted, I reiterated that there is a myriad of underground research that surpasses the findings of currently sanctioned research. And that’s where I left it. To be honest, I was pretty happy with my response at the time. Although I could feel a nagging doubt at the back of my mind, trying to tell me I was forgetting something, I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly it was. It was not until I stepped into the shower later that day that what I had neglected to say slammed into my mind like a runaway freight train. I stood there, shocked at myself for my omission. How had I missed it?

The Privileged Position of Sanctioned Psychedelic Research

Why is there a need for underground psychedelic research? Because 1) not everyone has access to the privilege required to become a sanctioned psychedelic researcher and, 2) the institutions that facilitate sanctioned research have pre-existing agendas that limit the scope of psychedelic research. Yes, the fact that psychedelics are illegal lends itself to underground research. However, the reason why underground psychedelic research is a necessity is because the institutions required to legitimize psychedelic research are exclusive loci—points at which institutional politics and financial security intersect, providing the means for a select few to engage in psychedelic research without legal penalties looming over their heads. This is not to denounce the efforts of sanctioned psychedelic researchers, but to examine the assumptions behind the question, “Why is there a need for underground psychedelic research?”

This question assumes that: 1) sanctioned psychedelic research can examine all of the interesting or relevant questions, 2) becoming a sanctioned researcher is possible for anyone who is passionate about researching psychedelics, and 3) that institutions and researchers sanctioned to engage in psychedelic research should have a monopoly on such research. A cursory glance at the credentials of some of the leading names in the field of Psychedelic Research presents a laundry list of post-secondary degrees from a who’s who of the top academic institutions in the United States. Simply put, even if every person interested in Psychedelic Research had the desire to acquire legitimacy by attending these institutions, such a goal would be largely unattainable.

In the US, post-secondary education is inaccessible to all but those wealthy enough to bear its financial burden, or those brave enough to gamble on repaying mindboggling amounts of student loan debt. This is the result of a number of socioeconomic factors: 1) the ever-increasing financial costs of post-secondary education in the US, 2) rapidly growing economic inequality that rivals so-called “Third World” countries, 3) a job market where real wages and benefits have stagnated and declined since the mid-1960s, and 4) the transition from an unsustainable production-based economy to an unsustainable financial-product-based, so-called “service” economy. To pretend that post-secondary academic institutions are accessible to all is to ignore the stark realities of the society in which we live.


The Limited Scope of Institutionalized Research

There is also the fact that institutions have their own agendas and motivations. Alongside an increasing shift towards profit motives within academia, there are also widely accepted trends among various fields of research. The presence of such trends in academia is nothing new; warring schools of thought within academia are arguably as old as academia itself. However, these trends affect what can and cannot be brought into the ivory tower. When discussing a field of study as radically at odds with dominant culture as Psychedelic Research, the presence of these trends must not be overlooked. It is also worth noting that, increasingly, academia represents the privatization of knowledge. Underground researchers may have their own groupthink, but it is, at least, a different groupthink from sanctioned perspectives, and many groups of underground researchers present explicit disdain for the privatization of knowledge and seek to find ways to work against it.

Additionally, there is, at least at present, a limit to what the institutions responsible for sanctioned psychedelic research will allow for when it comes to the scope of psychedelic research. Much of the current research deals with the utilization of psychedelics as “medicine,” or substances that can help people regain some sort of “functionality” that they have lost. This approach is visible in a myriad of studies, including but not limited to, MDMA for the treatment of PTSD, psilocybin for the treatment of depression in terminally-ill patients, psilocybin for the treatment of cluster headaches, ayahuasca or iboga for addiction treatment, and many others. This research is meritorious, but focusing solely on “psychedelics as medicine” risks falling into Puritanical notions of what qualifies as a “medicine” and what qualifies as a “drug.”

Psychedelics are far too important to be coopted by the false dichotomy of medicine vs drug, where mind-altering substances that are used for purposes other than to treat pathologies are viewed as illegitimate. Or, as we’ve seen with Cannabis, where scientists attempt to remove the psychoactive components of these substances, while preserving their medicinal effects. I would posit that in many cases, the psychoactive components are inextricably bound to the medicinal benefits observed by researchers.

This notion of using substances for the preservation of a fixed, “functional” whole, seems somewhat isolated to psychoactive substances. You can currently walk into a health and supplements store and purchase, over the counter, large quantities of compounds designed to enhance your bodily performance. However, the government has declared a litany of substances that can enhance physical and mental functions--but are also psychoactive--illegal, under the false premise that these compounds are hazardous to the health of people who ingest them. To quote Terrence McKenna’s alleged quoting of Timothy Leary, “LSD is a psychedelic drug which occasionally causes psychotic behavior in people who have not taken it.”


Expanding the Scope of Psychedelic Research

The point of this is to say that psychedelics go far beyond treating illness. Exploring psychedelics as medicines presents fascinating and truly beneficial research, but this is hardly the full story. Psychedelics present the ability for personal enrichment, ranging from neurogenesis to prolonged feelings of well-being and openness. Psychedelics also challenge many of the ontological models and assumptions we hold about the very nature of reality and existence. Limiting our research of psychedelics to the acute medicinal benefits in a disease-prevention/treatment model seems to neglect significant components of the effects of psychedelics. The medicinal approach is perhaps the easiest pill for FDA and IRB panels to swallow, but this is precisely why we need underground psychedelic research…At least as long as these substances are criminalized, and quite probably even after legalization.

Psychedelic research, both sanctioned and underground, is experiencing a major resurgence, and seems to be here to stay. An increasing body of scientific and anecdotal evidence documents the incredible potential of psychedelic compounds. It is my sincerest hope that we will see many of the prohibitionist barriers to psychedelic research crumble, allowing for both greater numbers of sanctioned researchers and a safer environment for non-sanctioned researchers to continue this important work. But, for the time being…

I am a criminal. I am a researcher. Won’t you join me?


+7 # Jamie 2014-02-27 04:55
Great article! I could not have articulated better my feelings on why underground research at this time is important. Since the days of the entheogen review there has been a lack of this type of home grown research and experimentation . The DMT nexus is the most established resource on DMT/tryptamine plants at present and it is because of people like you.
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+6 # Null24 2014-02-27 16:29
I agree with Jamie, that the DMT nexus is the forefront of research into this fascinating subject that holds so much promise for helping us as a society and individuals to reach our great potential.

(David Nickles:" I am a criminal. I am a researcher. Won’t you join me?") Yes, yes I will! Until the time when we don't have to hide in the shadows and discuss these beautiful things in un-hushed words, I will bear that appellation with pride. It is us, the explorers, the researchers, the folks using these methods of self-healing who are the vanguard of the wave of reason slowly making its way around the world.
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+5 # Metanoia 2014-02-27 23:43
As one who uses these substances primarily in a medicinal context, I still applaud the research into the myriad of other potential benefits. The point made about sanctioned psychedelic research is an astute one. Underground research is absolutely necessary. Thanks to the bravery of those willing to take on the legal risks, we can carry the knowledge further regardless of sanctions. A day will come when this type of research can be done without fear of imprisonment. At least let that be our hope.
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+3 # Tat 2014-02-28 16:56
As said above, this couldn't have been said any better. It's truly mindblowing to see where this underground research has blossomed, out into the world, especially that of academia. So much has changed and evolved within these past several years in regards to entheogens, I knew this would be coming, sooner than later.
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+1 # Entheogenerator 2014-03-03 21:12
I always find it very encouraging to hear this sort of thing from sanctioned psychedelic researchers. Thank you for sharing this wonderfully inspiring passage.

Also, Cyb's artwork depicting the mason jar full of "mysterious" dark-colored liquid has instantly become my new favorite piece of art, for the time being. I have wanted to create something similar for a very long time, but I have not had the necessary skills to do so. :-)
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+1 # Entheogenerator 2014-03-05 19:39
I apologize, for some reason when I first read this passage I could have sworn the author was listed as "David Nichols". Now looking at it again, I realize it is listed as "David Nickles" (a pseudonym, I assume). But the passage is still every bit as meaningful and inspirational.
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+1 # lupa2020 2014-03-20 21:49
Great article. Do you suggest guidelines to ensure quality control in underground psychedelic research? Perhaps you can recommend a network that helps underground researchers safely and intelligently carry out their investigations.
--Ottway Hammond
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+2 # David Nickles 2014-03-21 02:11

In my opinion, it depends what the nature of the research is. There are certain questions and explorations that seem to dictate stricter "quality control" than others. It also depends on the nature of the claim (if any) that the researcher is trying to make.

So, for example, researching the claim that "Harmala alkaloids are effective for treating depression and/or anxiety," requires a different level of 'qc' than researching the claim that "Users of harmala alkaloids report significant decrease in feelings of depression and/or anxiety," which requires a different level of 'qc' than researching the claim that "Harmala alkaloids significantly decrease my experiences of depression and/or anxiety," which requires a completely different level of 'qc' than "This procedure of alkaloid extraction guarantees maximum yield of harmala alkaloids from X source plant."

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+1 # David Nickles 2014-03-21 02:20
I think that peer review is entirely legitimate (even necessary) within an underground context. I think that people should share their information with the broader community so as to get constructive criticism and feedback.

At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I highly recommend the DMT-Nexus when it comes to "a network that helps underground researchers safely and intelligently carry out their investigations. " We have seen peer review on everything from extraction techniques, to blind/double blind experiments carried out in people's homes, to frameworks for unpacking and engaging with these experiences, and beyond.

In my opinion, one of the biggest follies that the underground can make is believing that we require sanctioned legitimacy in order to carry out meaningful, relevant work.

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+1 # David Nickles 2014-03-21 02:31
We're more than capable of generating hypotheses and testing them; refining our ideas and developing new frameworks of thought. We can (and must) inform ourselves and each other of basic safety precautions for engaging in psychedelic research, whether dealing with ingesting or extracting compounds. From there, I think the possibilities are endless.

Ask the questions you think are relevant and see where they take you. Find other knowledgeable people to review your ideas and research, especially if you are looking to make "hard" scientific claims (again, I'd suggest the Nexus or other communities of dedicated psychonauts as a starting place).

Ultimately, I think the onus is on all of us in psychedelic communities to ensure quality control in underground psychedelic research. Contribute thoughtfully and intentionally, call out things you question/doubt, and don't be afraid to make mistakes. We're all learning.
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+1 # lupa2020 2014-03-21 19:51
Thanks for your response. I agree that the underground can carry out meaningful, relevant work without "sanctioned legitimacy."

But I'd like to see more cooperation--fr om both sides--with the aboveground community. Specialized medical support, in particular, ought to be at least accessible to anyone willing to explore these compounds.

Red tape spooled out by IRBs also encourages necessary safety measures in planning an experiment. Along with many valid, thoughtfully planned, and respectful underground experiments, there are, unfortunately, heaps of haphazard and dangerous pseudo-experime nts. I agree that the onus rests on us in psychedelic communities. How can we self-regulate beyond a reprimand delivered over the internet? I'd also appreciate a referral to any groups that work at the underground/abo veground research interface.

I'll check out DMT-Nexus. I used to rely on Erowid, but that was six years ago. Catching up to do.
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+1 # David Nickles 2014-03-21 21:01
Specialized medical support would be nice to see, but I'm not sure this has to be done by those "above ground." Much as "street medics" have become more and more common at protests, and even offer trainings and certifications to share the relevant skills with other interested people, so too could psychonauts create their own medical support units. I'm not sure that expecting sanctioned specialized medical support is realistic within the context of Prohibition.

The IRB may provide mechanisms for ensuring safety, but human beings have been experimenting with psychoactive substances since well before the letters "IRB" even existed. I'm not sure that I buy into the idea of "pseudo-experim ents" or the need for imposing our ideas as of what is or is not acceptable to do, as long as the actions in question are not coercive and do not violate anyone's consent, autonomy, or cognitive liberty.

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+1 # David Nickles 2014-03-21 21:12
When it comes to regulation and the enforcement of communal norms, that is really up to the community in question. I would be very hesitant to proclaim universal regulations or tenets for use, as context is everything and I certainly can't foresee every possibility.

Psychedelics are tools that can be used in a myriad of ways. We can't control how people use them, we can only encourage mature and responsible use and do our best to mitigate harmful situations. As Prohibition has stunningly evidenced, this can't be done through legislation, but requires education and open and honest discussion. In my opinion, we self-regulate by giving people the tools to make responsible decisions, not by determining how best to reprimand "deviant" behavior.

How do you define "groups that work at the underground/abo veground research interface?" There are some that do it openly and some that are less open about it, given Prohibition. If you can elaborate, I will try to answer.
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+1 # lupa2020 2014-03-21 21:36
I appreciate the emphasis on providing quality information rather than penalties. As far as groups that work with both communities, I'm mostly interested in licensed medical teams that provide care to psychonauts--no t just in emergencies but for planned experiments.

Additionally, I'd like to look into any public organizations that emphasize cooperation between underground researchers and academic/govern ment/industry researchers. In both cases, I'd guess that their level of openness is on par with DMT-Nexus. Thanks
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