“It Was the Opportunity to Revitalise, Reimagine and Reshape Psychedelic Culture.”
Social activist Stephen Reid is exploring solutions to the meaning crisis with his organisation, the Psychedelic Society.
The first time Stephen Reid was offered a psychedelic drug, he only pretended to take it.
The year was 2011 and the place was Glastonbury Festival, the UKs biggest music festival and a bi-yearly celebrated cultural event. The Oxford and Bristol University graduate had been invited there along with some fellow tax justice activists to run an area of the festival. “I was so scared that I put the pill in my back pocket and followed my friends to the dance arena,” he says. “When half an hour later they seemed OK, and actually they were having a pretty good time, I decided to take it.”
“I’m a nerd, so when I get interested in something I get really interested.”
The pill contained 2CB, a synthetic psychedelic which was first developed in the 70s and once sold commercially as an aphrodisiac and legal alternative to MDMA (ecstasy). That evening, as elsewhere Coldplay played on the main stage, the physics graduate experienced what might, in a clinical setting, be classified as a ‘mystical experience’. “The most profound sensation was of unity and oneness.” he says, speaking from a slightly battered burgundy sofa in the Psychedelic Society co-working space in East London. “It was night time, and I sat looking at the sky thinking about how it had always bothered me about how big the universe is because no one would ever truly know what was out there. That night I had the feeling that we actually can know, in a way. Through the mind we can explore wherever we want.”
Having grown up in Croydon, South London, with a father who struggled with drug addiction and sometimes left needles lying around the house, Stephen had always been wary of drug use. However this one experience was powerful enough to encourage the then-25 year old to reevaluate what he had previously believed. “I’m a nerd, so when I get interested in something I get really interested,” he says. “I started reading everything I could about psychoactive experiences and seeking out more opportunities to experiment.” At the same time he was heavily involved in tax activism, working at the New Economics Foundation as a network organiser and campaigning with activist group UK Uncut. A video on the Guardian website shows him crashing a ‘tax-planning’ gala dinner with the aim of exposing tax avoidance.
As a social activist and new-born ‘psychonaut’ - someone who uses drugs and other altered states of consciousness to explore the human condition - Stephen began to be interested in what psychologist John Vervaeke has coined the ‘crisis of meaning’ in contemporary society. “I came to believe that a powerful reason why we don’t have policies like Universal Basic Income, or other things which would give people a great deal of freedom in how to live their lives, is that the idea of this freedom is actually quite overwhelming,” he says. “What would I do if I didn’t have to work? I don’t think many people are confident in the answer to that question." On a more personal level, having experienced the death of both his parents within months of each other when he was just 20 years old, he decided early on that he wanted to do something meaningful with his life. “I just thought OK this is your one life, and you might as well live it in a way which feels like it's doing something good for the world."
“It felt important that there was a social, cultural and activist expression of this new psychedelic movement.”
Stephen had paid close attention to a new wave of research coming out of a small psychedelic research group at Imperial College London, headed by Robin Carhartt Harris. Early results had indicated that psychedelics might be a promising treatment for mental health disorders, with 80% of patients reporting significantly improved wellbeing or life satisfaction for up to six months after just one dose. Noticing this gap between his own experience, law and science, Stephen came up with the idea for a psychedelic organisation which would aim to increase public understanding of psychedelics and push for changes in policy and law. The underlying principle of the society, he says, was a belief that the conscious use of psychedelics could help to create a ‘more compassionate and joyful world’ but the idea had a lukewarm reception from his activist friends. “Many of them thought I’d lost it,” he says with an impish grin.
The Psychedelic Society had an opening party in at London’s Conway Hall, with eminent psychedelic scientist David Nutt and the then-executive director of 38 Degrees, David Babbs, as speakers. Despite this, there was still a sense that people weren't taking psychedelics that seriously. “The first piece of coverage we had was in VICE and the photos make it look very hippy - colourful hats and so on - it was like they were saying that until you get your shit together, we are going to take the piss out of you.” After the opening Stephen went about constructing a brand identity which consciously moved away from the trippy visuals of the 60s and 70s. “It felt important that there was a social, cultural and activist expression of this new psychedelic movement,” he says. “It was the opportunity to revitalise, reimagine and reshape psychedelic culture.”
In an era when anyone can access information about anything online, the culture around psychedelics was bound to change. In June 2011 Gawker published a viral article about a mysterious underground website where users could use bitcoin to buy any substance they want and have it shipped straight to their door. When Silk Road was closed down in 2013 its founder Ross Ulbricht (also a physicist) was sentenced to life imprisonment, but new darknet marketplaces had already begun to emerge. As someone who counts coding websites as one of his hobbies, Stephen was an early adopter of bitcoin and it didn't take him long to figure out how to get into the darknet (he still has a list of marketplaces on his website). Much like the internet itself, the darknet is practically immune to extinction due to its encrypted and globalised nature. As soon as the security services close one darknet marketplace down, another opens up. In the space of a few years it’s become possible for hundreds and thousands of potential psychonauts, who would previously never been able to access psychedelic drugs, to buy them online and document their experiences on forums like Erowid and Reddit.
At the same time, an explosion of new scientific research coming out of the UK and US into the medicinal uses of psychedelics is gaining more and more attention as a potential solution to the mental health crisis. One of the aims of the Psychedelic Society, Stephen says, was to raise awareness around this ‘psychedelic renaissance’ so that people might be encouraged to look a little deeper into the cultural and social conditions behind it, rather than dismissing psychedelics as a past-time for criminals and hippies. A VICE article from 2018 explores this resurgence of psychedelic culture as a reaction to the fact that our lives are increasingly lived through a screen. Last year, New York Times bestselling author Michael Pollan catapulted psychedelics into the mainstream with his book How To Change Your Mind. “Things have moved on, are moving on,” says Stephen. “It’s no longer possible to just take some photos of hippies and say they’re just taking mushrooms like they’ve always done.”
“I think it’s important that we are open to things that might help us to make big changes in a relatively short time scale."
In 2016, Stephen partnered with Stefana Bosse - a fellow Oxford graduate who he had met through activism - to launch one of the world’s first legal psychedelic retreats in the Netherlands. To date these Experience Retreats have drawn over 600 people from all over the world to take psilocybin truffles in a supported and safe environment. More recently, the Psychedelic Society started a campaign calling on the UK Government to reschedule psilocybin so that it may be authorised for medical use. So far, the Psilocybin for Mental Health petition has received over 10,000 signatures including MPs from all major UK parties, but Stephen believes that the societal benefits of psychedelics extend well beyond mental health. Psychedelics have shown to be powerful facilitators of connection, and as more and more people ‘wake up’ to the realities of climate change, tools that help to address societal and political division could be a lifeline. “I think it’s important that we are open to things that might help us to make big changes in a relatively short time scale,” says Stephen.
In a recent article for Emerge, Dr Sam Gandy and Dr Rosalind Watts from the Imperial College Psychedelic Research Group explore the possibility of psychedelics as a tool for social change. “Contemporary scientific research is highlighting the capacity of psychedelics to facilitate connections between people, and the environment they are a part of,” they say. “As humanity faces a deepening ecological crisis, we urgently need tools that can facilitate connections, foster empathy and a shared sense of common purpose for protecting and restoring our world.”
Outside of psychedelics, Stephen is interested in mysticism and the occult, inspired by physicist David Bohm who famously said that science can never fully explain the world. “Bohm was the first person I found who built this bridge between quantum physics and mysticism at a time when I was starting to think there's something else here, but I'm not ready to pick up an Eckhart Tolle book - I'm still a scientist!" Stephen believes that the spiritual dimension of life is not in opposition to modern scientific theory, with both pointing to a worldview that emphasises the interconnectedness of everything. Last November he organised a ‘grief ritual' for the planet in London's Parliament Square as part of an Extinction Rebellion protest. “Without spirituality I’m not sure we’ll be able to make the profound progress that’s needed on the climate and ecological crisis," he says.
Tripping on magic mushrooms under the stars in order to think about your place in the universe might seem ‘hippy' or something only available to the privileged, but removing legal barriers to psychedelics in order to give more people the opportunity to find deeper meaning in their lives is something that Stephen sees as vital. “We can't just carry on doing the same stuff and hope it's going to be different," he says. “Something quite fundamental is not right, and I think we need a society where people are asking the deep questions about life. Maybe then we might actually be able to create a genuinely new economy and social system, compatible with the flourishing of life on Earth."
Words by Tarn Rodgers Johns
Tarn is the lead editor of Emerge. Raised in the UK and based in Berlin, she is driven by curiosity and an incessant but largely unsatisfied desire to get to the bottom of everything. She is interested in psychology, human creativity and the changing world around us.
Hana is a photographer and storyteller driven by the desire to tell powerful stories that empower people to create change within themselves and the world around them.