Give Me Cognitive Liberty

BY Salim Muwakkil

Email this article to a friend

The failure of the drug war is so spectacular that irrational motives must be driving it.

Psychoactive drugs offer access to varied states of consciousness; restriction of this access is a fundamental form of repression. Consequently, the “war on drugs” is not just a campaign against the use of certain substances; it’s also an attack on “cognitive liberty,” or the right to control individual consciousness.

This argument has a libertarian pedigree, but there is a growing movement, concerned with expanded consciousness and cognitive liberty, that has adopted and adapted it.

“The so-called war on drugs is not a war on pills, powder, plants and potions,” argues Richard Glen Boire, founder and executive director of the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (CCLE) in the Summer 2000 edition of the group’s Journal of Cognitive Liberties, in what amounted to a manifesto for the group. Instead, he writes, “it is a war on mental states–a war on consciousness itself–how much, what sort we are permitted to experience, and who gets to control it.”

Established in early 2000 as a “nonprofit law, policy and public education center,” the CCLE was formed to advance the argument that true intellectual freedom includes control of one’s own awareness. The group defines cognitive liberty as “the right of each individual to think independently and autonomously, to use the full spectrum of his or her mind, and to engage in multiple modes of thought.”

By labeling this civil rights battle a “war on drugs,” Boire argues, the government is trying “to redirect attention away from what lies at ground zero of the war–each individual’s fundamental right to control his or her own consciousness.”

One of the most significant aspects of this war, he suggests, is the demonization of “entheogenic” (which means generating the divine within) substances thought to facilitate sacred experiences.

“Archaeological evidence suggests that humans have communed with visionary plants and potions for thousands of years,” he writes. “Peyote, for example, has been used for over 10,000 years. Mushrooms, of the Genus Psilocybe, were used to produce visionary states at least as early as 4,000 B.C.”

Many in the cognitive liberty camp connect the use of “entheogens” to “shamanistic” practices of the many indigenous peoples colonized by Europeans since the beginning of the 15th century. These practices reportedly provided direct access to sacred experiences, and threatened the clerical authority of the conquering powers. Thus, an attitude was born that not only criminalized but also demonized entheogens. This attitude has seeped into larger society, and now taints all substances that alter consciousness.

The drug war incorporates this irrational bias. In fact, that sub-rosa agenda helps explain why America’s drug warriors fail to heed evidence that their prohibitionist crusade has failed.

Not only have our antidrug policies not produced a drug-free society, they have endangered civil liberties, nourished a bullet-riddled underground economy and earned the United States the title of the world’s largest jailer. These policies have generated global cartels of drug dealers, inflamed racial animosities at home and diverted untold resources from productive social investments.

Even on its own terms, the drug war has been a flop; illicit drugs are more available and less expensive than before the war’s declaration.

The failure of this war is so spectacular, irrational motives must be driving it, says Boire. And he is on point with a growing movement of Americans. The contemporary trend–some have labeled it the “neo-shaman” movement–is a new wrinkle on the so-called New Age movement, with some psychedelics and ’60s movement politics thrown in.

Included in their number are more than the “usual suspects” of graying hippies, New Agers and assorted bohemians. One of the groups leading the charge is the Council on Spiritual Practices, founded by Robert Jesse, a former vice president of the software company Oracle. Jesse’s group focuses on evoking “primary religious experiences” and believes many things can trigger these transcendent states, including fasting, meditation, prayer, yoga and entheogenic drugs.

The United States acknowledged the legitimacy of these substances in 1995 when Congress amended the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to allow the Native American Church the sacramental use of peyote in all 50 states. Devotees believe peyote allows the faithful to contact God without the need of an intermediary.

Governments, not just organized religions, fear that kind of independence, say advocates of cognitive liberty. But criminalizing people who use outlawed substances for spiritual exploration is a much bigger crime, they argue.

Even in my current, sober state of consciousness, their arguments make a lot of sense.

Support Progressive Journalism

Donations from readers like you make up a full third of our annual income—that's how critical our end-of-year fundraising drives are. If you want to continue to read independent, progressive journalism in 2019 and beyond, we hope you'll consider chipping in whatever you can today.

For a limited time, anyone who makes a donation of $5 or more to In These Times will get a free copy of Verso's best-selling 2019 Radical Diary and Weekly Planner.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago's historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.

View Comments