Last week, an Alaska Airlines pilot took psychedelic mushrooms. About 48 hours later, he nearly brought down a plane full of people and is now facing over ten years in jail.
This story, highlighting the dangers of psychedelics, is making international headlines. The click-bait headlines are plentiful, but the entirety of this story points to a complex dichotomy between ideology and ethics in the psychedelic industry.
A Pilot’s Adverse Reaction to Psychedelics
On October 22, an off-duty Alaska Airlines Pilot was flying home from Oregon in the jumpseat of the cockpit when he attempted to shut off the engines. He reportedly went for the emergency shut-off handles after proclaiming: “I am Not Okay.”
Joseph David Emerson had never had an issue in his 20 years as a commercial pilot. Neighbors described the husband and father of two as ‘friendly and upbeat.” But, after the loss of a friend, he began struggling with depression. During a trip to Oregon, he consumed magic mushrooms. It is unclear at this time what the set and setting of his trip was— something that has a huge effect on the outcome of a psychedelic experience.
After taking the mushrooms, Emerson reportedly stayed awake for 40 hours. Though mushrooms are stimulating, their effects only last about 4-6 hours. So, it is difficult to blame the drug for the extended time without sleep.
About two days after the trip, Joseph Emerson was riding home in the jumpseat of the cockpit— where he is allowed to fly for free as a pilot of Alaska Airlines. After saying, “I am not okay,” he attempted to shut down the engines of the plane. The pilots on duty were able to stop him from executing his goal. He later attempted to open the emergency exit, but flight attendants thwarted that attempt as well. The plane eventually made an emergency landing, and Emerson was arrested. The pilot now faces criminal charges of attempted murder and over ten years in prison.
There has been a lot of speculation as to what caused him to do this. Some articles claim that it was because he was tripping on magic mushrooms at the time, though we know that is not the case since their effects do not last for 48 hours. Many psychedelic advocates insist that it had nothing to do with the mushrooms and was a result of underlying mental health issues. It is impossible to say for sure, but that isn’t the important point of discussion here.
No matter the origin of this event, the negative PR for psychedelics is going to affect public opinion on these drugs. This story is making headlines, and not just in the US. The story has spread around the world, and many articles warn of the dangers of using psychedelics. This could have implications for the many legalization efforts that are currently underway.
Trouble for the Psychedelic Industry
Dozens of headlines citing magic mushrooms as the cause of this near-tragedy have been splashed across the internet in the past week. Some articles even question whether this will halt California’s ongoing efforts to decriminalize psychedelics like Oregon and Colorado have.
Though Emerson did take the mushrooms in Oregon, it is unclear whether it was part of the State’s legal access program to psilocybin. But that is irrelevant. Psychedelics have been tied to this event, and it has people spooked.
News about psychedelics has been so broadly positive these past few years that the industry seems to have forgotten the thin ice that it stands on. In Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind, he covers the fact that this reemerging industry is incredibly sensitive to bad press due to the negative history of psychedelics. This is true now more than ever when psychedelics are becoming increasingly accepted by the mainstream.
Psychedelic advocates were quick to write off this incident as a result of mental health issues that had nothing to do with the magic mushrooms. While that is a possibility, it is also known that psychedelics can have negative effects. Media has been eager to avoid covering these adverse events because of the negative light that they would cast on these potentially life-saving drugs. This narrow thinking is what could get the modern psychedelic movement in trouble.
Adverse events that occur when psychedelics are used incorrectly will not topple the psychedelic movement. However, pretending that adverse effects don’t exist— when they clearly do— could. Psychedelics are powerful tools that do have the potential for harm. These risks can be mitigated with the use of educated facilitators and/or access to resources for people who suffer from “bad trips.” Although, the truth is that there is always potential for risk, and that shouldn’t be a deal breaker for psychedelics.
There is no magic solution to problems that works perfectly 100% of the time. Psychedelics certainly aren’t the first drug to ever overcome this statistic. Nevertheless, the media has painted a picture of this cure-all treatment. This event is a crucial reminder not to overlook the potential risks associated with psychedelic substances.
The incident involving the Alaska Airlines pilot has put the spotlight on the psychedelic industry and the need for a balanced perspective. While some argue that his actions were solely a result of underlying mental health issues, it’s essential to acknowledge that psychedelics, like any potent substances, can have adverse effects, especially when used without proper guidance and in the wrong context.
This incident has generated significant negative press for psychedelics, potentially impacting public opinion and even the ongoing efforts to decriminalize these substances in various states. It serves as a stark reminder that the psychedelic industry should not ignore or downplay the potential risks associated with these powerful substances— doing so will make it more challenging to defend psychedelics in situations like this.
To move forward responsibly, it’s crucial to promote safe and informed psychedelic experiences. This includes emphasizing the importance of proper set and setting, having knowledgeable facilitators, and offering resources for those who may encounter challenging experiences during their trips. While psychedelics offer great therapeutic potential, they are not a one-size-fits-all solution and must be approached with a comprehensive understanding of both their benefits and potential risks.
The Alaska Airlines pilot’s alarming incident serves as a wake-up call for the psychedelic community and industry. It highlights the need for a balanced and transparent conversation around the responsible use of psychedelics to ensure their potential benefits can be realized while minimizing potential harm. Ignoring or denying the risks associated with these substances could ultimately hinder the progress of this promising field.