The Criminalisation of Psychedelics is an Affront to Cognitive Liberty

Sam Woolfe
10 min readMay 15, 2023

Cognitive liberty refers to the right or freedom of an individual to determine their own mental processes, cognition, and consciousness. Champions of this right argue that is an extension of, and really the fundamental basis of, the right to freedom of thought. Sovereignty over our minds and bodies is a basic freedom that all individuals desire, and deserve. When someone, or some law, impinges upon that right — preventing another person from deciding to alter their consciousness as they wish (assuming no one else is harmed) — this is a form of unjustified power, control, and invasiveness. When we have to be worried about changing our consciousness because of the threat of punishment, this tells us we cannot be trusted with, or do not deserve, mental self-determination, autonomy, and privacy. It is patronising paternalism, and it entails many losses.

The criminalisation of psychedelics is an affront to cognitive liberty and one of the most egregious examples of the violation of this basic right. This is for several reasons, which I aim to describe in this post, but in a nutshell, we can say that psychedelic compounds are unique in their capacity to liberate thought and generate multiple, novel modes of thought, and so to criminalise them is to stifle cognitive liberty in a highly unique way. Before delving into this critique of criminalising psychedelics, and the myriad harms to cognitive liberty that follow from this, I first want to examine the concept of cognitive liberty in a bit more detail.

Unpacking the Concept of Cognitive Liberty

The neuroethicist Dr Wrye Sententia and legal theorist Richard Glen Boire — who are founders of the non-profit Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics (CCLE) — coined the term ‘cognitive liberty’, which they define as “the right of each individual to think independently and autonomously, to use the full power of his or her mind, and to engage in multiple modes of thought.” (See Boire’s four-part essay on the concept.) The right to use drugs is subsumed under the broader right of cognitive liberty, and this topic, particularly relating to psychedelic use, has received much attention in the essays and articles from the CCLE. Their website states, “As those who know our work are aware, the genesis of “cognitive liberty” was in psychedelic experience, and we believe that its application to psychedelics remains valid and sound.”

In a 2004 paper published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Sententia outlines cognitive liberty in the form of two basic principles:

  1. As long as their behavior does not endanger others, individuals should not be compelled against their will to use technologies that directly interact with the brain or be forced to take certain psychoactive drugs.
  2. As long as they do not subsequently engage in behavior that harms others, individuals should not be prohibited from, or criminalized for, using new mind-enhancing drugs and technologies

This mirrors Timothy Leary’s ‘Two Commandments for the Molecular Age’, found in his 1968 book The Politics of Ecstasy:

  1. Thou shalt not alter the consciousness of thy fellow man.
  2. Thou shalt not prevent thy fellow man from altering his own consciousness.

Cognitive liberty, therefore, is conceptualised in both negative and positive terms, involving negative and positive obligations: to refrain from non-consensually interfering with an individual’s consciousness and to allow individuals to self-determine the contents of their consciousness. In the context of psychedelic use, the negative obligation would have various consequences, such as it being wrong to dose someone without their consent or deliberately mislead someone about the drug they’re taking (e.g. in terms of what the substance is or its dose, effects, and risks), while the positive obligation would make it immoral to punish someone for changing their thought processes, perceptions, and emotional states through the use of mind-altering drugs.

Cognitive liberty is not synonymous with freedom of thought. The latter concerns itself with an individual’s freedom to think whatever they want, while the former relates to an individual’s freedom to think however they want. So while varieties of opinions and beliefs are protected by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the modes or methods of altering consciousness and cognition are not. In fact, no international human rights treaty recognises cognitive liberty as a human right. Proponents of cognitive liberty, such as organisations like the CCLE, believe this is mistaken.

The right to freedom of thought is understood to be incomplete if it does not cover the right to determine’s one’s mental state. To limit states of consciousness is to limit the thoughts one is capable of having — types of thoughts that can enrich well-being (although this does not mean that individuals should also be denied the liberty to alter their consciousness if this carries a risk of emotional distress).

Preventing Psychedelic Use Entails Limits to Cognitive Liberty

In the United Kingdom, in the case of R v Hardison, the defendant — Casey William Hardison, one of the most prolific clandestine psychedelic chemists — was charged with manufacturing DMT and LSD (both Class A drugs) under the Misuse Use of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA). He claimed his cognitive liberty was protected by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (which provides a right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion), arguing that “individual sovereignty over one’s interior environment constitutes the very core of what it means to be free”. Since psychedelics are an especially potent method for altering mental processes, prohibiting them under the MDA was, he said, opposed to Article 9. The judge, nonetheless, rejected his arguments, and he was given a 20-year prison sentence (he was released on 29 May 2013 after spending nine years in prison).

Hardison, it should be noted, has continued to fight for the protection of cognitive liberty, but he is averse to psychedelic exceptionalism; he is not arguing for the religious right to use psychedelics, and in an interview with journalist Troy Farah, he said “I don’t want to be a pharmaco-chauvinist and say, ‘Oh, my drugs are special, yours aren’t.’”)

While the judge of the Crown Court said that Hardison’s arguments were “misconceived”, this does not mean he is wrong to state that sovereignty over our experiences is a requirement for true freedom. To outlaw the cultivation, spread, and use of psychedelics is to place serious limits on human thought, conscience, and religion (or at least spirituality), and this comes at a great cost to human creativity, well-being, and flourishing.

Limits to Creativity

Firstly, psychedelics are known to be agents of creativity (some studies have found tripping can actually worsen creativity, earlier studies on psychedelics and creativity are unimpressive or methodologically flawed, and more recent studies have found that psychedelics can increase spontaneous creative insights, as well as novel thoughts and symbolic thinking, and may promote scientific creativity and insight). While the evidence on the link between psychedelics and creativity is somewhat mixed, it is clear that many people — including many high-profile artists and musicians — have found this link to be undeniable in their own lives. The desire and ability to think creatively are an aspect of cognitive liberty. The criminalisation of psychedelics has the effect of stifling many people’s creative potential, which is of benefit not just to the individual but potentially to many people who may benefit through certain artistic, scientific, and philosophical works.

Limits to Well-Being

Cognitive liberty is also linked to psychological well-being since our thoughts are linked to our emotions and behaviour, and if we are restricted in terms of our ability to self-determine our mental processes, then we subsequently lose out on possibilities to self-determine our emotional well-being. The clinical use of psychedelics is not the only domain in which these compounds can improve our mental health; non-clinical uses can certainly be therapeutic as well (not to mention more accessible, less expensive, and preferable for many people). By restricting the manufacturing, sale, and use of psychedelics, governments thereby stop people from exploring alternative modes of thought, attitude, perspective, belief, worldview, and self-conceptualisation that could contribute to less distress and more joy.

Moreover, let’s not forget that emotions fall under the umbrella concept of cognitive liberty since this freedom covers not just cognition but the contents of consciousness in general, which includes our emotional states. One of the (arguably main) reasons that psychedelics can substantially improve mental health is that they have the capacity to increase present-moment awareness, connection to negative emotions, emotional release and insight, and experiences of positive and prosocial emotions (such as empathy, compassion, kindness, gratitude, awe, and even existential joy).

Psychedelics offer people a novel way to alleviate negative emotions and can induce profoundly positive emotional states that are felt to be meaningful and enriching, and by criminalising psychedelics, then, the law works to deprive people of the fullness of human experience and the flourishing that can occur when we are able to explore the emotional dimension of our lives. Psychedelics can change personality traits too, most notably by decreasing neuroticism and increasing openness and extraversion, and the ability to enact such changes should be covered by the cognitive liberty principle as well (after all, personality traits affect our mental states). Additionally, these beneficial changes to emotions and personality can persist in the long term.

In addition, outlawing psychedelics matters not just in terms of the freedom to lift us out of negative mental ruts and into healthier grooves of thinking; it also restricts the ability of healthy populations to add more joy to their lives. The recreational use of psychedelics is not necessarily trivial and irresponsible. Also valuable is the ability of psychedelics to enhance fun, humour, silliness, laughter, joy, sociability, friendships, romantic partnerships, sex, music appreciation, connection to nature, and dancing at a rave — and of course, these enhancements can lead to mental health benefits as well. However, cognitive liberty should be framed in terms of respecting the multitude of ways that people want to use psychedelics, rather than focusing on the strictly therapeutic uses of these compounds.

Limits to Philosophical Explorations

Limits on cognitive liberty through bans on psychedelics also limit philosophical explorations. The philosophy of psychedelics is a burgeoning area of philosophy, one which examines how these altered states of consciousness tie into metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind. Contemporary philosophers who are taking the psychedelic experience seriously include Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes at the University of Exeter and Chris Letheby at the University of Western Australia. And there is a long history of psychedelics influencing philosophical thought.

If people — and not just academic philosophers — are not free to alter their consciousness as they see fit, then they are not free to fully examine areas of philosophy such as the nature of consciousness, perception, time, matter, selfhood, meaning, values, the sublime (the mixture of fear and wonder), and the mystical (e.g. ultimate reality, the divine, and ineffability). Psychedelics raise questions about what ethical principles and issues matter and whether convincing experiences and insights elicited by these compounds are veridical.

Limits to Spirituality

Finally (and following on from my last point), bans on psychedelics restrict the ability of people to have spiritual experiences and to lead a religious/spiritual life. By this, I don’t mean to suggest that psychedelics are necessary for either: one can achieve altered states (legally) through yoga, meditation, breathwork, fasting, and sensory deprivation tanks; and the vast majority of religions and spiritual traditions don’t include the use of psychedelics — although the case of ayahuasca churches — União do Vegetal (UDV) and Santo Daime — and the Native American Church, or NAC (which uses peyote as a sacrament) are some exceptions.

UDV, Santo Daime, and the NAC have fought court cases granting them the legal right to use ayahuasca (in the case of UDV and Santo Daime) and peyote (in the case of the NAC) as religious sacraments, despite both these natural psychedelics being Schedule I substances, although, for the ayahuasca churches, this applies only to certain US states. These legal exceptions are afforded due to the principle of freedom of religion. But why does organised religion get a legal pass but spirituality doesn’t? An individual’s personal spirituality, or commitment to a particular spiritual tradition or to a syncretic form of spirituality, can be just as important in their life as an organised religion is to someone else.

There is no freedom of thought, conscience, and religion without freedom of spirituality, and, I argue, there is no cognitive liberty without freedom of spirituality. This means the liberty to induce spiritual experiences through whatever means someone chooses, including through the use of psychedelics. Many psychonauts also find that their altered states of consciousness lead them to — or help to clarify — certain religious, mystical, or philosophical traditions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Judaism, Christianity, Taoism, Stoicism, Paganism, the occult, and animism. Cognitive liberty encompasses spiritual experiences and beliefs, and psychedelics often reliably lead to and complement both (for example, researchers suggest that psychedelics and mindfulness are synergistic since the former can increase the latter). The types of spiritual experiences, beliefs, and related life changes brought on by psychedelic use are also associated with enhanced psychological well-being.

As we can see, there are various ways in which criminalising psychedelics thwarts cognitive liberty. To summarise: psychedelics can change our mental processes, cognition, and consciousness in diverse, profound, and therapeutic ways, and they do so easily and reliably. Some may view this as a lazy shortcut (to whatever positive place psychedelics take you), but this is only a way of dismissing, undermining, or diminishing the subjectively felt value and importance of the psychedelic experience. What matters is that psychedelics do actually alter our cognition in unique and fascinating ways, and criminalising them then is a clear affront to cognitive liberty — to the privacy of our minds: the sacred citadel that is our birthright.

Originally published at https://www.samwoolfe.com on May 15, 2023.

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Sam Woolfe

I'm a freelance writer, blogger, and author with interests in philosophy, ethics, psychology, and mental health. Website: www.samwoolfe.com