Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

News From the Psychedelic Front

The powers of chemical unreason are on the ascent in the nation’s capital.


Washington, DC, is an irrational city; its conspicuous sobriety and even dullness do not diminish its irrationality. The imperial capital is laid out on a supremely systematic grid that fosters some of the worst traffic conditions in the country; Los Angeles had to go out of its way to destroy its original planning to achieve the same levels of automotive misery. If you are lucky enough to be on foot, the madness within the system is no less evident. A walk from The American Conservative’s offices toward the White House features an amble down a little vestige of Connecticut Avenue between green spaces, past the Bombay Club and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This stretch is lined with young trees to alleviate a forbidding, unusually broad stretch of hot concrete. Look closer: They’re sweet gums, which, in their maturity, will drop spiny fruits all autumn, making the pleasant avenue a Highway of Death for the formally shod apparatchiks hustling to and fro. DC is a place where processes carry themselves forward without any regard for purpose or consequences. Things just happen.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the powers and principalities decided that what this nutty burg needs is to decriminalize psychedelics. A three-block walk from the TAC offices up Connecticut Avenue and down a side street (away from the White House, for those following along with map and pencil at home), your prowling columnist and his intrepid investigative sidekick may find a converted townhouse in which the purveyors of rare herbs and prescribed chemicals ply their trade. 


Not in a sub rosa way, either. Thanks to the Entheogenic Plant and Fungus Policy Act of 2020, a ballot initiative that met with the approval of three quarters of the voting citizens of the federal district, the Metropolitan Police are mandated not to enforce laws against LSD, magic mushrooms, ayahuasca, non-synthetic DMT, mescaline, and all that jazz so long as there are any other laws that need enforcing—the same mechanism that was used for DC’s 2014 decriminalization of cannabis. The cops have their hands full with the other leisure activities of the district’s unruly denizens, guaranteeing that the “porh&pc” can operate with the insolent openness of an Apple Store.

The Apple Store or something like it seems to be the inspiration for “Wellness Dreams Weed Dispensary LLC”; white plastic and glass surfaces dominate, accented with fake plants and art in a style that we’ll call Corporate Psychedelic. Floor displays are minimal; you order your rh&pc via an iPad at the counter. It’s all very Crate & Barrel, if Crate & Barrel reeked of cannabis and played shuddering modern rap instead of Regina Spektor. 

The spell of Obama-era retail interiors is broken by the staff, who seem undifferentiated from the porh&pc of the benighted era before the Entheogenic Plant and Fungus Policy Act of 2020. Your prowling columnist and his investigative sidekick were served by a visibly high man in a sweatshirt. Have you guys ever done mushrooms before? (Slightly shamefacedly: No.) Are you guys doing them together? (We don’t know.) People usually start with the Albino Penis Envy. (This, it turns out, is the name of a mushroom.) If you take it with people, make sure it’s people you feel good about, because if there’s anyone you, like, feel shady about, it could sour your trip. (Noted.) Much beyond this brief conversational decision tree, our guru’s comments became hazy and impressionistic. He told us Dream Wellness Weed Dispensary LLC, despite its name, sells a lot more mushrooms than weed. He told us the Albino Penis Envy was from California, he thinks, probably. (Does Gavin Newsom know this?) He told us to drink orange juice if the mushrooms turned our stomachs. He told us about the time he did DMT in the store. Who buys all this? “Like, veterans with, like, PSD [sic] and stuff.” (The other customers, while we were there, were two standard-issue 20-year-old wastoids and a guy in a button-down with one of those official corporate or government name tags.) We walked out with $60 worth of Albino Penis Envy, bundled in a paper bag with no information on it besides Dream Wellness Weed Dispensary LLC’s rainbow logo.

This all will end in tears. As with cannabis legalization, psychedelic legalization has relied on an equivocation between recreation and medication. (In DC, the mascot for the shrooms ballot measure was a young mother self-treating for postpartum depression.) Yet in the gap between the two, the normal structures of responsibility for either recreation or medication have been lost. If your bartender were drunk on the job, that would be a problem. If your doctor, psychiatrist, or pharmacist were to hand out controlled substances without any real instructions, that would also be a problem. If you didn’t know where those substances came from, that would be a problem, too. 

Drug legalization is, by my lights, a bad idea, but there are arguments to be made for it. None of those arguments involve downplaying the fact that these are potentially dangerous substances that, in the case of psychedelics, at least temporarily derange your senses and intellect. (There is a reason that the psychedelic tradition encourages some sort of supervision for your first trip, particularly with high-test stuff like DMT—a suggestion that was conspicuously lacking from our porh&pc’s advice). They aren’t candy, any more than liquor or Thorazine are. The question with every deregulatory policy is whether the industry and its customers can be responsible with the new freedoms acquired. Observations from the field are not encouraging.

I have a mortgage and three kids. I’m not going to start taking mushrooms at this point in my life. Your prowling columnist happily left the paper bag with his investigative sidekick. Isn’t envy a sin, anyway?