How College “Psychedelic Clubs” are Changing the Conversation on Drugs

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“The first meeting we had, we were just nine people sitting in a circle under a tree,” James Casey told me. Casey, the current director of the Psychedelic Club at the University of Colorado, was sitting in a noisy Boulder coffeehouse recalling the club’s origins. Next to him sat Nick Morris, the club’s founder. “Nick suggested we go around and everyone say their name, and this other person says, ‘…and your spirit animal!’”

Morris and Casey traded glances and laughed. “I just cringed,” Casey recalled.

After the first meeting, Casey approached Nick. “This thing has a lot of potential,” Casey told the club’s founder. “We can really make something beautiful.”

That was two years ago, and the tone has changed quite a bit since. Today, they see about 40 heads per meeting.

We have a wide range of people,” said Morris. “We have people who know psychedelics down to their chemical structure. And we have some who only know what a psychedelic is—and that’s all they know. We get people who are really deep into psychedelic culture, and we get people who are 4.0 neuroscience majors.”

A few months ago I read about CU’s Psychedelic Club in a local student newspaper. The club’s name, a kind of throwback to the Timothy Leary era, intrigued me. I couldn’t shake the question: What would a Psychedelic Club meeting look like?

Morris invited me to come out and see for myself. I half expected to meet two guys with enough edge that said, “Hello, we made a drug club.” Instead, Morris and Casey perfectly blended into Boulder’s casual college scene. Both wore flannel shirts. The only concession to psychedelia was Casey’s Pink Panther baseball cap.

Once we found the bottom of our teas, Morris, Casey and I stepped outside into the watery slush left by the recent storm and made our way to the Environmental Design building where the club meets.

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University of Colorado, Boulder campus. (Ryan Dearth for Leafly)

• • •

The spirit of the room was relaxed and light. Students twisted in their seats, ate pizza, and chatted with their friends. Casey announced that they’d be having a low-key meeting today: writing or sharing poems, then electing a new slate of club leaders.

Students excitedly grabbed paper and let poetic meter spill onto it. For fifteen minutes, the only sounds in the room were pen scratching paper and computer keys clicking. One student volunteered to share his work. He stood, wearing a shirt that said “Legalize It.” He read a poem he had saved from a while back, written after a profound psychoactive experience.

His poem captured the anxiety felt as the clock counts down our years of life with a steady tick-tock – a sound that becomes ever more ominous when burned away at a 9-to-5 job.

The end of his poem was met with a single “Oh my god” from one impressed student, and a chorus of applause. Other students shared their work with an unusual openness. No one seemed to be intimidated by the performance that preceded their own. It was simply one person followed by another, each sharing their own perspective.

In the meeting’s waning minutes, three students shared their visions for the club’s coming year. The student who’d read the first poem unveiled plans to meet with faculty and legislators to design safer approaches and drug education for students who are curious, uninformed, or struggling.

And that’s where the Psychedelic Club’s real work begins.

Founders of the CU Psychadelic Club
CU Psychedelic Club founders James Casey and Nick Morris standing at a campus balcony before a club meeting. (Ryan Dearth for Leafly)

• • •

College cannabis clubs are nothing new; many have been around since the 70s. NORML counts at least 20 student chapters on college campuses around the country. Students for Sensible Drug Policy have over 4,000 cannabis activists at work today.

But psychedelic clubs are a little different. Though all support legal reform, these groups mainly focus on education, peer-to-peer information exchange, and harm reduction. Since the founding of CU’s club two years ago, fifteen clubs have sprouted across the country, from California to North Dakota to North Carolina. Each club grows organically, according to the desires of the members and the environment on campus.

Psychedelic Club chapter locations
Psychedelic Club is spreading across the US, with 15 chapters coast-to-coast. That number is constantly growing.

At first we wanted it to be mainly awareness-based, just educating the public,” said Morris, the CU club founder.

That quickly changed. Club members identified a need for harm reduction programs and evidence-based information about the psychedelics circulating around Boulder. “We eventually started doing substance testing for students as well as trip sitting,” Casey added.

The club’s testing work revealed some shocking results. Over 80 percent of the MDMA that club members analyzed turned out to be cut with methamphetamine.

“We can’t do that anymore, though,” said Casey. Despite the critically important information revealed by the tests, university officials couldn’t allow such direct interaction with drugs. If the club wanted to remain a CU-affiliated organization, the testing would have to stop. “So now we host psychedelic harm reduction workshops,” Casey said. “The Zendo Project, for example, will come out and do workshops for students and the community.” The Zendo Project is a psychedelic harm reduction organization based in Santa Cruz, California.

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• • •

The University of Colorado and its hometown of Boulder have a long history with cannabis and alternative culture. But college psychedelic clubs aren’t limited to expected outposts like Boulder and Berkeley.

The University of North Dakota, a campus of 15,000 students located in the conservative farm town of Grand Forks, is the unlikely birthplace of another psychedelic club. I asked Will Beaton, a senior at the University of North Dakota and president of the Grand Forks Psychedelic Club, how his club got started.

“There are few young people here [at UND] who don’t know someone whose life has been impacted – or ended – by drug use,” Beaton said.“When I went to our first [club] meeting, I was expecting a bunch of stoners or something. But almost everyone there just knew someone who had overdosed and died. We were all there because we didn’t want to get another email saying a friend died.”

Beaton touched on an extraordinary fact of life for many high school students these days. He made it through high school without losing a friend or loved one to overdose – and that isn’t the norm. Beaton considered himself unusually lucky to be untouched by loss.

His luck did not last.

One month after his high school graduation, the body of Beaton’s friend was discovered in the grass outside his parents’ home.

Later that same week another friend, just 17 years old, died of overdose. The 17-year-old thought he and his brother were taking psilocybin chocolates. The overdose of another Beaton’s close friend would come soon after.

Autopsies would show that many of those deaths were caused by NBOMe – a research chemical that can only be differentiated from LSD through testing – and powdered fentanyl, a potent opioid that can have lethal effects even in small amounts.

“These substances are cheaper to produce than hallucinogens like LSD, but since their effects are somewhat similar, dealers often sell these extremely potent drugs as something safer and more marketable than what they really are,” Beaton said. “Often dealers themselves don’t know what they’re pushing.”

The same problem exists in Boulder, where NBOMe was detected in 40 percent of LSD samples tested by the CU Psychedelic Club.

• • •

UND's Merrifield Hall
University of North Dakota’s Merrifield Hall (Creative Commons)

The problem of overdose fatalities is so troubling that faculty members at some colleges are getting involved. Frank White, a sociology professor at the University of North Dakota, teaches a class called “Drugs and Society” that seeks to keep pace with the changing landscape of drug use, education, and policy in the United States.

“We grew up in a time where what you didn’t know couldn’t hurt you,” White said, harking back to his own upbringing. “Now what you don’t know can kill you.”

You won’t hear the words “Just Say No” in White’s class. The course is presented in a spirit of helping students and others prevent abuse and overdose. Discussions are leavened with analysis, psychology, and statistical logic – all fueled by the collective emotional undercurrent of students nationwide affected by drug and alcohol abuse.

White was more than aware of the Grand Forks Psychedelic Club. Club members have taken White’s class, and there seemed a natural bond between the professor and the student club leader. “Will should really be commended as a student who is making a difference,” White said. “He’s not advocating use, he’s advocating education.”

Still, with a name like “Psychedelic Club,” skeptics might wonder how the group would breed a smarter, safer generation. White said he wasn’t thrilled about the name, given the “emotional luggage of the ’60s.” But he warmed up to it over time.

“If you look at the word ‘psychedelic,’ it means mind-expanding or mind-examining,” White said, “And Will is doing that.”

The Boulder chapter, too, had initial reservations about using the word “psychedelic.” The founders ultimately concluded that “Drug Safety Club” just didn’t have the same boldness or attraction. After all, the club’s effectiveness is powered by the student community. It doesn’t work if students don’t show up.

“We’re missing an important segment that involves students and their perspectives and experiences,” White said, criticizing the teacher-to-pupil one-way dynamic in conventional drug education models. “Students listen to students. That’s one facet of the Psychedelic Club I’m really happy with.”

“To beat this drug problem, you need the teachers, the parents, the coaches, the ministry to make an effort, too,” White continued. “It’s got to be a collective effort, and I don’t see that happening yet.”

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Will Beaton was invited to Washington, DC’s Newseum to discuss the Psychedelic Club and its objectives relating to freedom of speech. (Photo courtesy of Will Beaton)

That’s part of Will Beaton’s plan – to expand outward, not just inward. At the end of 2016, Beaton flew out to Washington, DC to visit North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s office, local state legislators, and university and law enforcement officials, in an effort to reform the state’s confidential informant program. The infamous Andrew Sadek case still resonates deeply with the student community in the northern Plains states.

Beaton also organizes open mic events to get the Psychedelic Club’s message out between the sets and songs of musicians. Recently, comedian Shane Mauss invited Beaton up on stage during one of his performances to talk about the club’s efforts. Beaton was also interviewed by DC’s Newseum to discuss the club as it relates to freedom of speech. Sandbagger News, a student-formed media outlet whose video work has won the team travel opportunities and participation in political conferences, helps give their cause ever wider attention. 

As I listened to Beaton’s enthusiasm about the club’s future, it reminded me of the power a single individual has against what can sometimes seem like an impenetrable system.

“Don’t be afraid and think that you aren’t good enough to stand up for the rights of other people,” Beaton said. “Lots of people think they haven’t experienced enough tragedy or don’t know enough to raise their hand and join those who are standing up. You can’t be afraid to do that. You have to believe your voice matters.”

I reminded him that North Dakota, of all places, just legalized medical cannabis. He laughed and said, “Yes! If change can happen in North Dakota, it can happen to you.”

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