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What Can the Chemical Hold?: The Politics of Efficacy in the Psychedelic Renaissance

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Abstract

Drawing from ethnographic research with psychedelic therapists and researchers, this article explores political tensions between two sources of efficacy within psychedelic therapy: the self and the chemical. At times researchers and therapists emphasize the specificity of chemical effects in relationship to the neurobiology of particular diagnoses. And at other times they foreground the self as the true source of an experience which is not tied to that same biochemistry. Anthropologists have long emphasized that efficacy is a historically and socially embedded category and practice. Those conversations have new valence in light of recent theorization of the chemicals as material-semiotic structures shaped by their experimental contexts. This article argues that while the empirical claims embedded in these two efficacies can and do mutually include each other, a fundamental political tension remains between the efficacious ends envisioned by each. As clinical trials develop these drugs as therapeutic agents, they do so through linking the specific effects of the chemical to particular diagnostic populations, which may enfranchise these chemicals, but not all their efficacies.

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Notes

  1. These scholars reflected on the multiple dimensions of efficacy as part of a comparative project. This literature often used a tripartite structure which broke efficacy into procedure or ritual, process or experience, and outcome (Csordas 1988).

  2. Two main schools of thought emerged during this time: psycholytic psychedelic therapy and psychedelic-peak therapy. Psychedelic-peak therapy utilized relatively large doses of psychedelics in order to induce a transcendental or mystical state of consciousness. In contrast, psycholytic therapy, influenced by Freudian models of the psyche, utilized lower more frequent doses of psychedelics to allow a patient to enter a dreamlike state in which material from the unconscious could surface (Passie 1997; Pahnke 1967)

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Funding

This study was funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation (Doctoral Dissertation Grant) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (T32HG010030-02).

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Correspondence to Katherine Hendy.

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Hendy, K. What Can the Chemical Hold?: The Politics of Efficacy in the Psychedelic Renaissance. Cult Med Psychiatry 46, 322–343 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-021-09708-7

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