Guns and Drugs: A psychedelic club's coming revolution
On a dry yellow pasture of land in northeast Colorado, near Wyoming, there's a gun range, where, on a recent Saturday, the usual crowd of cowboys, farmers and other regular folks shoot rifles into mounds of dirt. Jackie Glynn, a churchgoing Greeley resident, who is 40 years old, is teaching her two sons, 6 and 8, how to shoot .22's. Lounging near a large Ford pickup truck, watching the shooting, is the Tait family, also of Greeley. Larry Tait, 57, is a truck driver and a self-proclaimed "redneck." Sandy Tait, 62, his sister-in-law, is an accomplished shooter.
Then arrives a group of students on a kind of field trip. School field trips to the gun range aren't that unusual in Colorado. But this one is.
Twelve young men spill from Honda Civics and Ford pickup trucks. They're a strange mix: teens and grown men, military and hippie, grisled and baby-faced. One wears fatigues, another wears a t-shirt with Albert Einstein exhaling the whole universe. For food, one club member brings a Lunchable. Another brings a military MRE. Another, a turkey sandwich in an empty bag from a cannabis dispensary. During idle moments, the students trade stories about how smoking DMT turned them into pacifists and LSD helped them ace a math class. All the members say they are not tripping today, although one member mumbles, "I wish I'd microdosed for this."
This is the CU Boulder Psychedelic Club, one of the fastest growing student clubs in the world, and one of the most interesting groups in the relatively small sphere of psychedelic drugs. This strange trip to the gun range shows why they're so fascinating. They're calling it their own 'War on Drugs.'
The Taits and the Glynns watch as the Psychedelic Club goes about their business.
[Photo: Army vet James Casey leads the Psychedelic Club, including here at the gun range.]
They haul from their vehicles a small arsenal: two AK47s, an AR15, three Glocks, a Sig Sauer, a .308, a .22, a Mosin Nagant and about 1000 rounds. They go on loading full metal jacket bullets into 30 round magazines.
They've also brought unusual targets: pretty balloons, which they fill with bright rainbow paint. They smear the paint on their hands and faces and laugh.
They take those neon hands and bring over to the range a grip of drugs: six or eight bags overflowing with the trim of cannabis sativa. Yeah — cannabis is that plentiful in Colorado now, and people care that little about it. They also bring white powder and mushrooms that look like cocaine and magic mushrooms — but are really flour and crimini.
They set the stash on posts on the range.
[Photo: Club member Dillon Oakes staples cannabis to a target.]
Then, the members take a few AKs and AR15s — two deadly guns sometimes aimed at drug users — and they go BLAMABLAMACRAMABLAM!! And the (fake) cocaine poofs into white clouds. The (non-magic) mushrooms are chopped into pieces. The real marijuana gets pin-cushioned. They whoop and holler and high-five.
It’s all noise for no reason, senseless destruction of useful things — just like the real War on Drugs. The Psychedelic Club is holding this field trip so they can make that point, and so that club members know how to shoot a gun — and, let's face it, because they want attention. These aren't quiet psychedelic users. They roar.
When the cannabis leaves go flying along with spent silver shells, the tweenage kid in the next stall lets his .22 drop, and a confused look comes over his face. Jackie Glynn's kids stare. Marijuana ads are everywhere in Colorado. Glynn has told her kids not to use. "It alters your perception and judgment in a bad way," she tells them. It hasn't even occurred to her to talk to them about psychedelics. Who takes psychedelics anymore? When Glynn hears a club member say the word "psychedelics," she seems glad her kids are wearing earplugs.
The Taits, the "redneck" family near the pickup truck, chuckle at the unorthodox shooting stance of the skinny 18-year-old CU student with shaggy hair and a pink shirt with trippy colors; the Glock in his hands looks like it might knock him over. "I've got a more macho stance than him," laughs Sandy.
She's then told that this student, Max Wenzel, 18, is a member of the CU Psychedelic Club, Sandy changes her tone. Not since the '70s has she known anyone who's used psychedelics. She's heard the stories: psychedelics make you insane, murderous, suicidal. And now here she is, about as far from civilization and police and medics as it's possible to be, with the Psychedelic Club, armed to the teeth. She says: "I hope to God none of these guys are on something right now. Or I'll be hiding in the pickup truck."
In fact, at least four Psychedelic Club members here are ex-military. They can shoot lights out. One of them is James Casey, club president. This War on Drugs was his idea.
The Psychedelic Club has as its concrete goal of "spreading perspective," removing the stigma associated with psychedelics by fostering communities and clubs, and to take psychedelics mainstream. While there have been groups throughout the world that have quietly advocated for psychedelics for decades, from scientific organizations like MAPS to harm reduction teams like DanceSafe, these groups have a tendency to talk to each other within the bubbles of Boulder, Santa Cruz and Barcelona. The Psychedelic Club wants to take psychedelics out of their usual habitats out to the prairie, the churchyard and the Main Streets, to scare older ladies like Sandy Tait, shock kiddos like the Glynns, and generally shake things up.
It's working. In just two years, the small but loud and visible Psychedelic Club has spread across the country, as 15 chapters have sprouted up, from hippies in New Mexico to psychiatrists in Chicago.
Out here on the gun range, the club members joke that they are the extremists of the War on Drugs, the Army of the Tripping; the Forces of the Bright White Light.
[Photo: The Boulder Psychedelic Club. We would list their names, but not all of them want their names on the Internet.]
"But all this war/guns/fighting talk is just metaphoric, right, guys?" asks a reporter who dislikes violence.
"We aren't starting an armed rebellion against the DEA," says club founder Nick Morris. "We're all about doing everything peacefully."
Vice president James Gould stares out at the lonely prairie, where cattle groom each other. There is a silence. One nudges its tongue under the tail of another. And Gould says, "Damn, that cow was just eating ass," and, after a short silence, everyone breaks up laughing.
IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT THE DRUGS
Which drugs are psychedelic? Psychedelics include cannabis, mushrooms, LSD, ayahuasca/DMT, and an alphabet soup of chemicals — 2C-B, 5-Meo-DMT, and more. Basically: anything a dreadlocked white dude might take at a String Cheese show. Hippie drugs.
Which drugs are not psychedelics? Cocaine, heroin, meth, stimulants, benzos, and more. Basically: anything that feels good, but usually ends in a pale, skinny dude stealing twenties from his mom's purse. Party drugs.
Boulder in particular has a love affair with psychedelics; local first responders and police know which canyons hippies like to do mushrooms in, and seem to turn a blind eye; half the town has a story about the amazing windowpane acid that helped them feel the Life Force that connects them to pachamama and the four winds, and so the convo about psychedelics is all very fuzzy, warm, self-reinforcing and, ultimately, non-threatening.
The Psychedelic Club might have gone along like that, too, if not for James Casey. When Nick Morris started the first Psychedelic Club meeting, two plus years ago, it was under a tree. About 10 people showed up. Everyone was asked to state their name and their spirit animal. James Casey groaned inwardly. Spirit animal? What normal person has a freaking spirit animal? He approached Morris. Casey said, "Hey man, I've been in the army, I know how to talk to all kinds of people. Let me help."
Now, meetings attract 30 to 50 people. Sometimes, there are 100. It's said that only the CU Ski and Snowboard Club has higher attendance. The club gets between $500 and $1,000 annually from the university. It uses it for flyers, stickers and t-shirts, educational materials like drug information cards on various psychedelic substances and snacks for the meetings.
The Psychedelic Clubs of Colorado meet on Mondays in the evening. Denver meets in a bar. Boulder meets on the CU campus in a regular classroom with a big chalk blackboard and an AV setup. A class learning Japanese can be heard prattling on in the classroom next door.
At 6 p.m., James Casey will shout the meeting to order. Casey has a buzz cut and big, tattooed, arms, and talks with a big old fat dip in his mouth. Instantly the room comes to order. He'll have newbies stand up and state their name and answer one question about themselves — although never about their spirit animal. At the first meeting this year, the question was, 'What one word comes to mind when you think about psychedelics?' The answers were all over the place: "freedom," "change," "music," "being." When one guy answered, "Honestly, terror," the room burst into applause.
Club members are more likely to be computer geeks than zonked-out hippies. They are typically nice, smart, ambitious, and get good grades — when they aren't spending hours on Internet forums talking about drugs.
At some meetings, a student will give a well-researched, well-sourced, scientifically-minded presentation, on, say, how LSD connects the two brain hemispheres, how ayahuasca is better for depression than Prozac and mushrooms better for anxiety than Xanax. If you were a professor, you would either expel these students or give them A's — depending on how you feel about students giving reports while barefoot.
To many members, psychedelics are so important because of the less objectively quantifiable aspects, the ones they've felt. They think these are more than medicines; they are chemical Rosetta Stones that let you read parts of your brain, and parts of the universe, you can't read any other way. They let you understand art or music better and quicker than an MFA, and get you closer to a god and nature than nature itself. The members didn't arrive at these bold claims mainly by reading books: they shoved handfuls of molecules into their bodies and watched what happened. Their experiments suggest to them that psychedelics are gifts, a special kind of fire, now guarded by powerful forces, and that they are the modern Prometheus.
Like anybody playing with fire, The CU Psychedelic Club has sometimes gotten burned, and faced the wrath of the authorities — which is to say, the higher-ups at CU-Boulder. When the club first started, they were doing incredibly edgy stuff with their money. They were facilitating "trip sitting" workshops to teach students how to "hold space." They bought drug testing kits that test the identity of the substance. (Which, for example, showed that over 80 percent of the MDMA sold at CU was actually meth.) After an article in Rooster Magazine brought these two things to light, the CU administration decided this looked too much like the club was promoting drug use, and squashed them.
Now, the clubs are constantly couching things in legalistic language. James Casey is careful to say before most meetings: "The Psychedelic Club does not condone or condemn the use of illegal drugs. We spread perspective so the general public can make a conscious, educated decision about them." But he says this in the flattest, least convincing tone you've ever heard. As Casey puts it: "You can't say drugs are awesome — but, come on, drugs are awesome."
They believe they are riding the third wave and final of psychedelics: the first was the ancient use of mushrooms and ayahuasca. The second was in the '60s. There is some evidence that more people do psychedelics now than ever before. "This is global," Casey tells the club. "This is bigger than any of ya'll." They are a whole new generation determined to turn on, tune in and drop in, every Monday at 6 p.m — unless, of course, it's Spring Break or Christmas, in which case the revolution takes a holiday.
And what's going to stop them? The law? The wider world's overwhelming disapproval? Big pharma? Or will nothing stop them? Powered by the Internet, which gives them both access to psychedelics and a place to discuss them, are they on the road to bringing psychedelics back from the dead?
THE VARIETIES OF PSYCHEDELIC EXPERIENCE
Each of the 15 Psychedelic Club branches are different.
North Dakota, for example, is a harsher climate than Colorado in every sense of the word. College student Will Beaton is the leader there.
"We grew up with a lot of kids at my high school who died from drug overdoses, opiates and meth," says Beaton. "Everybody knows someone who's been arrested and spent a weekend in jail for having a joint in their pocket. So everybody around here is kind of in a freaked out position." The North Dakota club focuses on toning down the War on Drugs; reducing penalties, stopping the use of coerced informants, and helping addicts get treatment. "In Boulder you can talk about the amazing thoughts you can have if you're on mushrooms. They can walk around saying 'We're the Psychedelic Club' and it's no big deal. If we go too far here men with assault rifles will bust into my kitchen an arrest me. I can list a dozen houses that that has happened to. Here we talk about how we can have fewer kids buried in the cemetery across from the liquor store."
Likewise, The Psychedelic Club in Albuquerque is soft and fuzzy. In the home of native spirituality, new-age wisdom and a live-and-let-live attitude, the club tends to talk about the more esoteric and spiritual drugs like peyote and ayahuasca, says club leader Amy Stoker, 38, a social worker. They might spend their time gently coaching a 20-year-old through her magic mushroom "integration."
The Psychedelic Club of Chicago is academic. In the home of some of the world's finest institutions, meetings are full of grown-up mental health professionals: there will be seven psychiatrists and five to ten therapists. They sit around reading research papers.
"We were all taught in medical school the propaganda that was taught to everyone else, that these substances will make you psychotic, that they will cause irreparable chromosomal damage, and they'll make you jump out windows," says Dr. Matt Brown, 35, a child and adolescent psychiatrist specializing in OCD and eating disorders — and the leader of the Chicago club. "All of that stuff has been debunked."
Dr. Brown has personally felt their power. He took a trip to the Amazon for a 10-day retreat for ayahuasca once — a psychedelic that's like loading the universe into a cannon and firing it at your brain, according to those that have taken it. That solidified his view that psychedelics aren't poisons, they're miracle cures, the most important medicines psychiatry has ever had.
"We've been looking at mental health conditions as long term chronic conditions, and I think these are solvable problems," Dr. Brown says. "This will make people very uncomfortable, and potentially disrupt what we think of mental health care."
So far, he hasn't been kicked out of the medical community; in fact, colleagues are interested in what he has to say. But he thinks there may eventually be pushback.
"This is likely to make the majority of psychopharmacology not needed, so that has huge implications for the pharmaceutical industry," Dr. Brown says. "The tools will change, and those that don't adapt will feel left out and very angry."
THE POWER OF STORY
This third wave of psychedelics we're in might end badly, the way the second wave did, with mass incarceration. But, for now, certain club members have an air of invulnerability, like you see in deeply religious people who walk across hot coals. One club member has written, on his DMT pipe, "This machine kills fascists."
James Casey especially has a moral force in his jutted-out jaw and in his personal story. See, Casey, 24, is a former Army combat medic. In Afghanistan, Casey saw things: bad things. When kids get shot in the head, he says, their eyes vibrate. He saw bones sticking out of legs, an injured dude choking on his own teeth. Dead people with air trapped into stomachs who seemed to breathe when he moved them. All of this piled up, and Casey came home deeply shaken. He says he was a "scary guy," punching out the air vents in his car and hitting his dog, once choking her until her eyes rolled back in her head.
[Photo: Club president James Casey teaches members how to shoot.]
It's hard for Casey to even admit he has PTSD, because in the army, that's often viewed as being weak. But it's important that Casey treat his PTSD: he has a wife and a 2-year-old kid.
Casey had tried every treatment the government offered — medication and therapy, hypnosis and exposure therapy. He felt like he was in a cave, trying to get out, but didn't have any light. But it was a club drug that saved him. He treated his PTSD with MDMA. It changed his life. MDMA lit the way. Research is establishing this as the most effective treatment for PTSD. Casey did it legally, as part of a scientific study.
MDMA-psychotherapy is on track to become legal for everyone in 2022.
Now, Casey will hold the dog he used to beat, and say how sorry he is for what he did to her. That is a good story. And what heartless bureaucrat could deny a combat vet a medicine that makes him love his dog?
Still, being so outspoken, does Casey worry about any consequences? Casey doesn't hesitate to say "no."
"I'm not a child, you don't have to protect me from myself," Casey says. "When I joined the military, I raised my right hand to defend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and that includes the right to think."
He says this in a study room at CU. Casey studies molecular, cellular and developmental biology. Nearby, students hunch over chemistry books and don't look up, even when Casey spits out words like "fuck" and "LSD." This is CU Boulder, after all.
Casey continues, on a roll: "Everything we eat, drink and put in our bodies affects the way we think. So the guy that smokes a joint in his backyard or the girl who takes acid at a music festival or the guy who shoots up heroin in his apartment or the guy that drinks coffee every morning just to wake up, all that stuff affects the way they think. So my question is this: do you have a right to think, or do you have to seek permission from the state in order to think a certain way? That's the question I have the freedom of speech to talk about, and I'm not going to compromise on that for fear of getting in trouble or worrying about the consequences."
"Besides," Casey says, "I think if I got arrested that would just prove my point."
[Photo: Dillon Oakes and James Casey.]
A NEW HOPE
Like any other army, the most powerful weapon the Psychedelic Club has isn't their guns or their drugs — it's stories like Casey's, and if you hang around them long enough, you hear more than enough killer stories to fill up a bandolier, or a nuclear submarine.
Students tell how they fell in love on MDMA. They changed majors on acid. After his parents' painful divorce, mushrooms let Zane Bader feel emotion for the first time in more than ten years. He told his parents about it, and, even though he was scared they'd disown him, now they're tighter than ever. He founded the Psychedelic Club in Georgia. It's strange and scary, he says, to have your name connected to the word "psychedelic" when you live in Georgia. But Zane endures it; he has big hopes for the future. "All it takes is a couple people to stand up, and a couple more people stand up, and before too long we'll have a couple hundred thousand people standing up," Zane says.
James Casey, too, is an outrageous optimist. At the gun range on the eastern plains, he and the other club members take around a camera and interview the cowboys, farmers and others at the range about whether they think psychedelics should be legal. True to the free spirit of Colorado, almost all say they should be legal. Psychedelics are like guns, many say: they can be safe and useful if used responsibly.
Casey gets pumped up by all the support.
"Can you imagine what change we could make if we got the Second Amendment people on our side?" Casey asks. What needs to happen now is that psychedelics need to come out of their cocoons and out into the world. Just like today, here at the gun range.
Even the Taits, the conservative family from Greeley, say they're glad the hippies in the Psychedelic Club came out to be exposed to guns. Unlike most Boulderites, the Taits see guns as positive things, and people should take a closer look at things they don't understand, the Taits say. Asked if they'd ever attend a Psychedelic Club meeting, they all scoff, "Heck, no."
On the range, students keep blasting guns and exploding cannabis. One of the club's instructors, a 26-year-old ex-military guy who didn't want his name used, says the club members shot pretty well, all things considered. They listened and were safe. He didn't notice anyone shooting at invisible neon spiders, anyway, or the imaginary tracers in their own heads.
When the club runs out of bullets — but not enthusiasm or fake drugs — they bring to an end their own War on Drugs, the Psychedelic Club's loudest adventure so far, and their official announcement to the rest of world that they're not confining themselves to Boulder, they aren't just another student club, and they aren't messing around. They get in their cars and drive away. One of those cars holds a glow-in-the-dark tiara. Another, guns.
Such is the contradiction of the Psychedelic Club, which doesn't care if you're a little bit afraid.
[Cover Photo: Psychedelic Club members, from left, Max Wenzel, Jason Nguyen and Richard "Buz" Lee at a shooting range on Colorado's eastern plains, showing off the pistols they shoot with, their hands covered with the paint they used to fill targets. All photos by Reilly Capps]