If you were a teenager in 1967, Berkeley was the place to be. The Summer of Love was beaming with a newfound madness, and for Dennis McKenna, it was too tempting to resist. A trip to Berkeley meant mischief and, if lucky, a psychedelic experience.
When McKenna arrived in Berkeley, he managed to get both. After acquiring a few tabs of acid from a stranger in Tilden Park, he and his friend headed to the woods in hopes of peeking through the doors of perception. Here, their civil behavior would self-destruct to give way for a more primal, archaic wildness.
“We didn’t have what I would call a mystical experience,” he says. “It was more like an evolutionary regression. We literally became like apes in the woods.”
Although the experience wasn’t quite what he expected, it was revelatory for McKenna. Bouncing around like a little child in the open expanse of the woods and swinging from the branches of trees was, oddly enough, a clue that the ultimate answers to life could be hiding in the strange portals of the psychedelic experience.
When people hear McKenna’s name, they usually associate it with his older brother, Terrence. Renown for being “the intellectual’s Timothy Leary,” Terrence was a spokesman and advocate for psychedelics for many years, known as somewhat of an articulate rebel. His hypnotizing talks and poetic revelations swayed audiences of all kinds. However, though not in the spotlight like Terrence, McKenna has co-authored many books with him. He is the more scientific of the two, using facts more than stories in his work. Some of the most profound ideas talked about in True Hallucinations and The Invisible Landscape are a result of McKenna’s analysis, experiences and research.
As an ethnopharmacologist and research pharmacognosist, he has dedicated his life to the research of hallucinogens and psychedelics. He is also one of the founding directors of the Heffter Research Institute, a nonprofit organization investigating the therapeutic uses of psychedelic substances.
In his book, The Brothers Of The Screaming Abyss, Mckenna describes himself as a “big picture kind of guy.” Born in Paonia, Colorado, in 1950, at a young age, Dennis was not interested in the sort of questions that didn’t lead to an ultimate understanding of reality. While his peers were playing outside, he was reading Scientific American and taking notes on the Encyclopedia Brittanica in the local library. This sort of intellectual passion, along with his experiences on acid in Berkeley, eventually led Mckenna into the Amazonian jungle, where he’d test the limits of his own consciousness by experimenting with heavy doses of magic mushrooms and the Amazonian plant mixture, ayahuasca. After making this dive into the unknown, he has come back to share some of his wisdom.
Although psychedelic drugs are still categorized in Schedule 1 of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s illegal substances, McKenna says that they are still being widely used in secret.
“In our society at the moment, these drugs are finding their way back into society primarily along two channels: One is religious practice and the other is medical practice,” he says.
Some religious groups are actually permitted to use these substances legally.
According to McKenna, society is in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance. According to a recent study out of Johns Hopkins University and New York University, psilocybin — the active ingredient found in magic mushrooms — has been shown to radically improve the positivity of people who are terminally ill with cancer. New research from Johns Hopkins and the University of Alabama also suggests that people who have a history of taking psychedelic drugs are less prone to have suicidal thoughts and are more psychologically healthy.
But psychedelics still hold the stigma of the ’60s drug culture. Although a lot of great research with psychedelics was done in that time, it threatened the social order, McKenna says. As a result, the substances were unfairly banned.
“All of these things in the ’60s were pretty much prohibited in a very ill-considered way,” he says. “It was like lumping everything together and saying they’re all bad; they all cause altered states we don’t like. But of course prohibition doesn’t solve anything. They just went underground.”
After nearly 50 years, Mckenna thinks that we are only now discovering the benefits and uses of these substances.
“Here we are, almost coming to, say, 2020. That’ll be 50 years. We have only now figured out how to use them,” he says.
One of the hallucinogenic plants to praise for the psychedelic comeback is McKenna’s self-proclaimed plant teacher, ayahuasca. This indigenous Amazonian plant, known for its hallucinogenic and healing properties, is seeing increased popularity around the world. According to Mckenna, the widespread use of substances like these is a good thing because it will evolve consciousness at a more rapid rate.
“There are all kinds of communities now that are spontaneously appearing in the most unlikely places,” he says. “I think as people discover these plants, the plants themselves become a catalyst for this evolution of consciousness.”
As we approach another turning point in American history, Mckenna continues to advocate psychedelics, as they provide a constant reminder that we aren’t the ones in control.
“The big message from me is, with ayahuasca particularly: ‘Remember you monkeys are not running this show,’” he says. “We are not running this show. The plants, in fact, are running the show. And this is a good thing for us, because they are what is keeping life sustainable through photosynthesis.”
For McKenna, psychedelics are no longer simply a catalysts for the counter-culture consciousness. The substances are beginning to be accepted as medicines to heal the afflictions of the mind, and tools to discover the ineffable worlds that the mystics and ancient shamans have long been exploiting.