Well, what shall we call them, those substances you ingest, inject, inhale, incorporate into the bodymind that then alter consciousness past the tipping point: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” We are in the country of alterities. This must be Oz, or one among many Oz’s. The multiverse hypotheses re-examined under direct experience.
First, in the 50’s and earlier, it was psychotomimetic, as the first model for understanding in our Enlightenmented Western disciplines was madness, and those who dealt with madness professionally—the psychiatrists—dominated the field. Hence hallucinogens, producers of the vivid—and feared—symptoms of madness: hallucinations. Psychotomimetic was the definition under which government mind-control experiments were done (at Chestnut Lodge, for instance) and has its own conspiratorial baggage.
The term psychedelic, famously coined by Humphrey Osmond in a letter to Aldous Huxley, means mind-manifesting. The term has become in part a cultural cliché, invoking the ghost of Uncle Tim in beads and Nehru shirt, tie-die shirts, and a general dirty-hippie vibe, and has been rejected by parts of the (psychedelic) community, especially in academic discourse, due to this counter-cultural baggage of recreational use.
In the 1990’s, Carl A. P. Ruck, Jeremy Bigwood, Danny Staples, Richard Evans Schultes, Jonathan Ott and R. Gordon Wasson coined the term entheogen, to emphasize the spiritual and mystical contexts of use and experiential realms opened by these substances. This was done in part to differentiate these experiences from the cultural connotations of psychedelic and hallucinogen, with their recreational and medical contexts. The Council on Spiritual Practices, “dedicated to making direct experience of the sacred more available to more people,” focuses on the entheogenic uses of psychoactive substances.
Nootropics seems promising to me, for the noetic experience—knowing in the deepest sense of the word—and the uses of psychedelics for creativity and problem-solving are landmarks of the psychedelic sphere. But nootropics currently refers to so-called smart drugs. The Wikipedia entry on nootropic steers clear of any mention of psychedelics, despite the centrality of the discussion of neurotransmitter effects.
Psychoactive is the most inclusive, least culturally “loaded”, and also least differentiated term in use as it covers any and all drugs that produce a subjectively “different” state of mind, not necessarily of the “not-Kansas” potency. This term is used for a full spectrum of drugs, including anti-depressants and anti-psychotics, but retains the flavor of the psychedelic in its uses.
Of course there’s drugs. According to Wikipedia, “A drug is any chemical or biological substance, synthetic or non-synthetic, that when taken into the organism’s body, will in some way alter the functions of that organism.” The cultural territory of drugs is bounded by Big Pharma on one one side and the War on Drugs on the other, with the Big Brother of black budget government mind control research prowling the perimeter. The word is rendered useless in an academic context unless one is firmly placed in a field such as pharmacology, law enforcement, or medical treatment of addiction. When the term drugs is used from those fields in reference to the psychedelics, they are painted in a relentlessly negative light.
So—we call them substances, not drugs. Materials, sometimes. Allies or plant teachers or guides or sacraments in shamanic or enthoegenic settings. If we call them drugs, it is privately, amongst the inner circles of trust of the underground and recreational communities.
In the politics of knowledge, which surround psychedelic research on all sides, the terms matter. More to be said on this in a future post, to be sure. I choose psychedelic as my main term to talk about this topic, though I reserve the right to use any of the other terms in their proper context. I like the etymology; mind-manifesting is a functional definition. On a personal note, as a child of the 60’s, psychedelic is the most authentic term I can be using. After all, I was there for the Real Scene(s) (or at least my corner of them, and there were many) before the cultural clichés. None of the terms encompass the protean nature of the experiences. Coining another new term does not seem productive, unless I someday figure out how to refer to the catalysis of consciousness that produces such profound changes, temporarily, and long-term, in lives and minds. If you want to engage the nomenclature problem, read a couple hundred trip reports on Erowid and come to grips with finding a word that can encompass them all. Better yet, perform the basic experiment of all psychedelic research–above and underground: Ingest a psychedelic substance. Observe what happens. Report. Try to make sense out of it. Repeat.