Shane Mauss: Is the End of the Drug War Inevitable?

Comedian Shane Mauss on the democratization of mushrooms, LSD, cannabis, DMT, and ketamine


"I never pictured a world where marijuana would be anywhere close to legal, and it's mind-blowing to me that mushrooms are being decriminalized everywhere," says Shane Mauss, a comedian who tours the country discussing his psychedelic experiences. For the 2018 documentary Psychonautics, he consumed a wide variety of substances on camera, from ayahuasca to LSD to ketamine to DMT, a smokable drug known to provoke especially strong hallucinations in which users sometimes encounter cartoonish "entities." Mauss also hosts a science podcast called Here We Are, where he shares his thoughts about the mainstreaming of psychedelic drugs, the surprising pace of legalization efforts, and the role that podcaster Joe Rogan and other public figures play in normalizing psychedelics.

In June, Reason's Nick Gillespie caught up with Mauss at the Psychedelic Science 2023 conference in Denver. Attended by a reported 13,000 people, the conference was organized by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a nonprofit that is in the final stages of gaining Food and Drug Administration approval for the use of MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD.

Reason: What does the psychedelic renaissance mean 
to you?

Mauss: I don't know what the psychedelic renaissance means to me. I can tell you that as someone who was born in 1980 and experienced much of the Reagan-era "just say no to drugs," early '90s PSAs, the frying egg and this-is-your-brain-on-drugs stuff, I never pictured a world where marijuana would be anywhere close to legal, and it's mind-blowing to me that mushrooms are being decriminalized everywhere.

Even when I started my science podcast eight years ago, the [only] organization even attempting to jump through all of the regulatory hoops to just test psychedelics in any way at all was MAPS, which was much smaller even eight years ago. And now there's Johns Hopkins and Stanford and a zillion universities are getting into it.

What do you think changed?

I don't know if this is just what progress looks like and it's inevitable? I know I didn't see this coming. Maybe the war on drugs was such a horrible policy in the first place that it was never going to last.

What do you like about psychedelics?

Psychedelics just changed my life. I did them as kind of a goof when I was a teenager, to be a rebel or whatever. I had smoked weed and laughed about it and thought it was great, but psychedelics were something more meaningful for me. I always had pretty serious depression issues from the age of 10 years old, and [psychedelics] were something that really helped with that. Mushrooms were my all-time favorite, my go-to for a very, very long time. And I think if it weren't for DMT, I probably wouldn't have a science podcast. I was always interested in how the mind worked.

Can you describe your experience with DMT?

I was raised in a strict religious household. I didn't fit into that. I was always an atheist, especially in my younger years. I was a very angry, bitter atheist. To have a DMT experience, it seems like you're talking with entities or in some other world. Or is this the afterlife? Or is this some other dimension? That is the subjective feeling of a lot of experiences. It made me go: "How could I perceive something like that?" By the end of it, I actually don't think I was in some other dimension. I think it was in my brain.

So then the question is, how would a brain make a perception that is so different from this conscious experience? It just got me really digging into how the subconscious mind works in neuroscience, and it was incredibly impactful for me over and over again. I started doing ketamine a few years ago and other than falling and scraping my face, it's been nothing but really interesting. [Gestures at red marks on his face.] This looks much worse than it is.

If anyone watches my documentary Psychonautics, they'll see I think I have a balanced take on psychedelics. I have a lot of inherent disclaimers. You can look at this face and go: "Well, maybe I should pause before doing ketamine outside of a nightclub so I don't fall over."

What are the parts of the psychedelic community that you like the most?

I did psychedelics alone for a very long time until I started experimenting with doing a psychedelics show. I think 2015 was when I first started doing a few of those. Once I started meeting the people that would come out to a psychedelic comedy show, they weren't the cliché—burned-out, dreadlocked hair, and their only hygiene was a sound bath—type. It was never like that. Sometimes I'd have like one table of burnouts, a bunch of clichés, but you would just meet the most interesting, intelligent people.

I've been doing science shows for years, and it can be tough sledding sometimes, getting people to have the attention span to listen to jokes about biology. I remember the very first time that I did a show about psychedelics, the engagement was overwhelming. Afterward, there was a line of people. I've been a successful comedian since 2004 and I've been on Late Night and everything else. If you do a psychedelic comedy show, there is a line of people that has a million questions and they're meeting each other in line and connecting. The psychedelic community is just so inquisitive and so open.

What are the parts of the psychedelic community you find objectionable?

I did a 111-city psychedelic comedy tour that ended in 2017. It was the greatest tour of my life. I loved meeting people every show. I loved going to festivals. Then COVID happened. As someone who interviews virologists and epidemiologists, the insane, not just conspiracies, but anger and harassment that I saw anyone doing any kind of science face, it certainly opened my eyes to some of the problematic errors in thinking within the community, some of the magical thinking, and a lot of the grifting in the space. Granted, this is the internet and you're seeing the worst of the worst cases.

There's a lot of pretty dubious supplements and things like that are being peddled and treatments and telling people you can cure their cancer with coffee enemas and stuff like that.

Is Joe Rogan a purveyor of psychedelic misinformation?

Absolutely. I've been on Joe Rogan's show. I find him to be a good interviewer and a nice guy. And Alex Jones is one of his best friends. It's just his shtick: "Oh, did the aliens make the pyramids?" It's a little discouraging for someone who likes science [that when] I watch Animal Planet, Finding Bigfoot is the most popular show. Or when I try to watch the History Channel to learn something, Ancient Aliens is the most popular show on there.

On Joe Rogan's show, a way to get on there is to have some big controversial idea or something like that. I think that he ends up subjected to a lot of grifters and a lot of people that are telling him what he already wants to hear and dressing it up as some sciencey-sounding thing.

Do you think the psychedelic community is more open to conspiracist thinking or anti-science thinking?

I find the psychedelic community to be very intelligent. I would say that because of the nature of it being such an underground thing, I think it has drawn people that are unconventional, that maybe don't like authority as much, which is great. I think we should absolutely be questioning science and authorities and laws all of the time. I very much support that.

Sometimes it's like a race to see who can have the most far-out idea because there are a lot of creative people in the space, and you want to get attention for your ideas and advertise your ideas. Some of those more far-out ideas are sexier and more tantalizing than reality for some people. I think reality is very interesting. Some people think reality is very boring.

Are psychedelics becoming normalized in our culture?

I started comedy in 2004. I was like a typical late-night, short-joke, absurdist comedian. I've always been interested in psychedelics, so even back then I would sprinkle in a few psychedelic jokes here and there. I found that if I did a regular comedy club, I could do five minutes of psychedelic jokes and it would be funny. Usually they were goofy ones, like I ate too many mushrooms. And if I talked about them too much more than that, you would start getting funny looks.

I had all of these deals potentially in the works and ran into all sorts of barriers at Showtime and HBO not wanting to anymore. They didn't have a problem talking about drugs; they had a problem talking about potential benefits. It was talking about psychedelics as medicines that was very taboo to them. They wouldn't touch it. When Michael Pollan's book [How to Change Your Mind] came out, that was the first time there was a psychedelic book on the front of almost every bookstore in the country.Pollan's book opened the doors for others. And for all of my criticisms of people like Aaron Rodgers, or someone that might be peddling a bunch of anti-science nonsense, it's still awesome to have someone huge, like a [future] NFL Hall of Famer, praising psychedelics. There are pros and cons to it.

What do you think the benefits would be to society where psychedelic use is just normalized?

That's a really interesting question because I'm not exactly one of those people that's like, "If you just put LSD in the drinking water and everyone did LSD, the world would be peace and love." I've seen the negative effects of psychedelics. I've been to a psych ward twice myself. I know that psychedelics aren't perfect. The very things that can help some people's mental health can hurt others. I have mixed feelings on making everything legal, but the war on drugs is a horrible failure. I don't know what else there is to do but just get rid of the absurd laws around them.

It will make me nervous when people are doing psychedelics more and more willy-nilly because there's unexpected things. I mean, marijuana changed my life. I no longer like the stuff. But I had such a beautiful few-year run with marijuana. I loved it. I never saw marijuana being legalized. I was thrilled, even though it's no longer my cup of tea. Thrilled to see it go so legal and get so popular. My grandma, I think, did CBD. My God, I never saw that coming.

Are you worried about the psychedelic community as it becomes more mainstream?

I'm not about being the cool kid hipster about psychedelics. I'm thrilled to see more and more scientific organizations getting to be a part of it. I have more pause about some of the influencer community out there and some of the wellness community.

If you project 20–40 years into the future, where things have been psychedelicized, what's that world look like?

I think that people [will] have more options, even to just escape reality, responsibility, or whatever, even in more reckless use of things than just drinking their faces off every day. I think there's a correlation between younger people not drinking as much, and I think part of that has to do with marijuana and some of these other substances becoming more normalized. There [are] lots more alternatives for people. Even the lowest bar of that is less drunk driving, less alcoholism. I think there will be a lot of excitement for a while, and hopefully 40 years from now this will just be commonplace.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.