The monumental Paideia schedule dominated the GCC Lobby from January 18th until the first day of classes, directing knowledge-seekers to an exhaustive list of educational and recreational opportunities. One of the week’s events, however, appeared nowhere on the list.
On January 24th, the Friday of Paideia, alumnus Richard Milsom led an unofficial, unsanctioned “Entheogenesis Seminar” in the Student Union. Participants discussed legal issues surrounding psychoactive drugs used for spiritual purposes, or entheogens. Conversation focused especially on the 2006 Supreme Court case UDV v. Gonzalez — in which the Court unanimously upheld a religious movement’s right to the sacramental use of ayahuasca, a Schedule I substance — and its implications for religious freedom and drug policy in America.
The Grail spoke to Mr. Milsom a week later about his past, his class, and his motives in holding it even though he had been denied permission by the Paideia czars.
TG: How did you first become involved with the subject of entheogens?
RM: I was involved with entheogens before I came to Reed. In the 1960s I’d been fascinated by religion as a haven for hypocrisy — but also as a place where people would stand up for their beliefs and have longstanding faith in causes. As I used to say to students while teaching religion and American studies, you cannot understand something like Martin Luther King’s movement without understanding the community he came out of and the impact that faith had on that community — both for organization and for shaping his beliefs. Of course we have to try to understand religion.
I should say — after Chicago, and after I worked with teenagers in Toronto, who were involved with various drugs, including psychedelics or what we now call entheogens — I came back to Oregon and was the executive director of the Oregon Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction. It was a citizens’ advocacy that had as its mission a public health approach to drugs that clearly had the potential to hurt people. (And anyone who doesn’t realize that drugs can hurt people is an idiot. But the laws that make them illegal are worse.) I also worked for an ecumenical group, where I was sort of the pagan-in-residence, doing advocacy about public health issues, including drugs. So my interests in civil liberties and in how to deal with alcohol and other drugs have been very longstanding. That’s why, when I heard about last year’s Paideia and the big censorship kerfuffle, I was interested.
TG: That was my next question — is that why you decided to teach the class? Because you’d heard about last year’s debate
RM: Yes. I’d taught a very similar Paideia class about eight years ago with no controversy. I thought this would also be relatively uncontroversial. I wasn’t planning to give out mushrooms, I was planning to talk about the legal context in which they are used and why important changes in the law should be understood. As well as a conversation from a history of religion perspective about how this stuff is not rare in human history. Not every religious movement in history has entheogens as part of its heritage, but many do — including the venerated Greeks! It should be talked about, it should be studied, it should be an object of inquiry.
TG: What was the reception from the Paideia czars when you initially proposed the class?
RM: Well, it took them a couple weeks, but eventually they emailed me back saying that they’d had a long conversation, had considered at length the possibility of such a course, and had decided that they “weren’t comfortable” with the subject being dealt with under Reed’s auspices. I never thought that comfort level was a deciding factor in whether or not something should be studied here. If that was the case, we’d have a very different set of theses being written.
I think there’s a story behind the story. It took me a while to figure out, but I think I know. You, I’m sure, know that someone tragically died here a few years ago. It’s been well reported that Colin Diver had a visit from state and federal law enforcement and was told, “you have to crack down,” Reed can no longer be a de facto the-laws-don’t-apply-here zone. Now, if that’s all we knew it would simply be an intriguing mystery. But I found an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that said that if you look at any grant of federal funds that any school in the United States receives, there’s a clause that says that the institution is going to make a very strong and good-faith effort to make illegal drug use not occur. Now, that’s a big club to hold over any school. Every single school in the country gets money from the federal government. It is huge. Now, I have a very strong suspicion that that was what was going on, and that probably had a lot to do with Kroger being hired. Now, Kroger is a very smart man. I don’t underestimate him, and I’m not trying to vilify him. But his record was: [stomp] we’re going to fight the drugs. Fine. It’s one thing to say the school’s not going to look the other way when people get stoned. But to translate that into, “we’re going to control what you can study, because we find it disturbing,” that is wrong.
TG: What do you say in response to the claims that classes on drug-related topics will hurt our reputation?
RM: A person might very reasonably think that these entheogens don’t really have all the properties ascribed to them. Fine. But you don’t have to win the validity argument to have the free exercise of religion in this country, and you certainly don’t have to in order to discuss it. This is a debate which should interest people here, because it’s not just about getting high and going to a Grateful Dead concert. It’s about what can be examined.