The Place of Drugs in Modern Society

The failure of the drug war has been amply demonstrated. The libertarian position on drug policy is as well established: whatever your ethical stance on drugs, it isn’t the business of the government. Within this paradigm there are different social and moral philosophies, ranging from those who reject recreational drug use outright to those who extol the virtues of certain drugs. Conservative libertarians often say that social mores and institutions are perfectly capable of handling the issue: that is what this essay is about. My purpose is to move beyond the simple rejection of prohibition and vague allusions to civil institutions, and to begin thinking about how exactly a civil society should approach the thorny issue of drug use.

I believe, firstly, that we need to have a more open culture if we are going to develop effective and humane institutions. The taboo surrounding drug use simply must go. For example, heroin addiction is a fact of daily existence for a portion of every country in the world, today, and yet it remains something fundamentally ‘Other’ to the rest of society. It holds a position similar to the indescribable inhabitants of a H. P. Lovecraft novella. I think some good may come of shining a light on it. We need to be able to talk about drugs, and addiction – we need to be unafraid of heroin, and cocaine. Future generations are still going to use them, and we can’t expect them to do so responsibly if they feel that there is nobody they can safely ask about drug use.

My position, which I will justify shortly, is that we need to integrate drugs into our society. To understand what I mean, you need only to think of drugs which have already been integrated into the mainstream of western society, like alcohol and coffee. The café and coffee shop, pub and liquor store are institutions in our society. They dispense an addictive stimulant and intoxicating ethanol, respectively, and both form a significant part of our culture. It’s hardly absurd, then, to suggest that drugs other than caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol might contribute to our culture, or that the particular character of hashish, for example, might inspire kinder and more thoughtful cultural centers than those inspired by binge drinking and classic rock. In truth, other substances already have contributed to our society, and continue to do so. I will try to argue that if we allow the cultures which derive from illicit drug use, which (the cultures) have thrived for nearly a century, a legal and acknowledged space in our society, the associated harms may be greatly reduced and the well documented benefits facilitated.

And what might such a space look like? I suppose that would depend on the drugs and cultures in question. More importantly, I suppose that is the sole discretion of the people directly involved. I am an anarchist – I make no bones about my ideological stance here. I believe firmly that vices are not crimes, and that the freedom of association is indispensable to a free society. Drug users, all drug users, are entitled to free association not only for the safe consumption of drugs, but for the safe manufacture and distribution of drug as well, for if they have the right to use drugs they surely have the right to ensure the safety of the drugs they use.

While we have no right to dictate to others how they shall associate, we can make some suggestions and guesses based on past experiences. At times, open association amongst drug users and responsible medical professionals has been tolerated by the State – it is to the associations people formed in these brief interludes of freedom to which we should look first, in envisioning the institutions of the future.

Take psychedelic drugs as an example.

Perhaps the foremost expert on the therapeutic potential of LSD, Dr. Stanislav Grof, has written that the reasons for the use (and abuse) of psychedelic drugs “are extremely complex and can have very deep psychological roots.” He found that a great variety of people used psychedelic drugs, for various reasons, including “pleasure seekers trying to enhance their sensory experience for aesthetic, recreational and hedonistic reasons,” as well as “couples [using] joint psychedelic experiences to work through emotional problems within the dyad, improve the quality of their relationship, open new channels of communication, and explore various levels and dimensions of their sexual interaction.” In addition, “a not insignificant group of self-experimenters seem to be people with serious emotional problems for whom traditional psychotherapy is inaccessible, or who are disappointed by its inefficacy. They are desperately looking for therapeutic alternatives, and since responsible and professional LSD treatment is not available, they make attempts at self-therapy.” Perhaps more controversially, there exists “a large group of responsible and sophisticated intellectuals who see repeated psychedelic sessions as a unique opportunity for philosophical and spiritual search, comparable to the way offered by traditions such as Tibetan Vajrayana, Zen Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism, or different systems of yoga.”

I believe that not only are these reasons largely sensible and accessible, they are profoundly important: the enrichment of interpersonal relationships, and of artistic and aesthetic pursuits; the exploration of viable alternatives to traditional psychiatry; philosophical, spiritual, and personal development; these are, as Grof has written, “extremely serious and reflect the most fundamental needs of human beings – cravings for emotional well-being, spiritual fulfillment and a sense of meaning in life.” These are the ends that people seek – and LSD, for $10 or $15, is a potentially effective means. Acknowledging the validity of these ends, we can begin to help people navigate the means, and carve out a place in our culture for these phenomena. But before we move on to concrete suggestions about the place psychedelic drugs might, and perhaps should, occupy in our society, we should dwell briefly on the place they have held in the past and the place they hold today.

There is a rich history of research into the potential application of these drugs both to alleviating human suffering, and to reaching a better understanding of the human brain. Before the eventual suppression of these activities in the early 1970’s, thousands of studies were conducted , and clinics for psychedelic therapy sprang up in England, Germany, France, Holland, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and several Scandinavian countries, . By 1965, more than two thousand specific scientific papers had been published, describing the treatment of up to 40,000 patients, with fairly commonplace success. It was tested on alcoholics in Canada with “remarkable results”, and was subsequently applied to “a wide range of diagnostic categories,” with numerous patients claiming these experiences were “more fruitful than years of psychoanalysis – at considerably less expense,” . One experiment aimed at using a psychedelic experience to reduce the rate of recidivism amongst prison inmates; only 25% of the test subjects ended up in jail again, compared to an average of 80%, .

Despite the outright suppression of this valuable research for much of the latter half of the 20th century, there has been a great resurgence in recent years. Currently research is being conducted in numerous areas: psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for subjects with “anxiety associated with end-of-life issues”; the efficacy of psilocybin in the treatment of OCD; LSD, LSA, and psilocybin in the treatment of cluster headaches; psilocybin as a catalyst for spiritual experience; MDMA in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; and ketamine and ibogaine in the treatment of alcoholism and opiate addiction, .

This all strikes me as remarkably important research. Just for starters, we are learning how to help people through the profoundly frightening and alien experience of dying. Surely there are very few more worthy fields of human endeavor.

The treatment of PTSD is perhaps equally vital considering that nearly 8 million people in the United States alone suffer from it (NIH), and 1 million more in Australia in any given year (Beyond Blue). In particular, 30% of the veterans of the Vietnam War, 10% of the veterans of ‘Desert Storm’, 11% of Afghanistan veterans, and 20% of Iraq veterans, suffer from PTSD. There is something especially poignant about the ‘love drug’ being used to treat the fallout of war. Have the counterculture and the establishment ever been placed so starkly in contrast? Could it be that a chemical rediscovered by an icon of the drug culture may be the savior of the emotional casualties of George Bush and Barack Obama’s wars?

The treatment of alcoholism and other drug addictions is also of particular value: alcoholism affects an estimated 140 million people, and opiate addiction many more.

I believe we have reached an understanding, by this point, that psychedelic drugs are not simply a problem, something to be solved by social mores against their use or by remonstrations. Their prohibition is not, as is arguably the case with heroin or desomorphine, exacerbating a social ill; it is, in fact, smothering a remedy to social ills. It is actively stifling scientific progress. As individuals, we are being denied the right to seek relief for our suffering, to better ourselves, and to grow. As a society, we are being denied knowledge itself, in a period of the most rapid scientific development in our history as a species. But I digress.

We see that psychedelic drugs have a valuable contribution to make to psychiatry, arguably our most important art. As Grof points out, there are already a large number of people self-administering psychedelic drugs in search of a solvent for their mental ills. These people surely stand only to gain from the existence of professional LSD psychotherapy, and similar treatments. This is one possible, and easy, integration. All that needs to be done is for the State to step out of the way and allow researchers to do what they do best.

I made another suggestion in my article on 25i-NBOMe that safe spaces for the use of psychedelic drugs might be a good idea and one which has precedents, in the form of highly successful programs to create safe injection facilities for IV drug users. “Put simply,” I wrote then, “teenagers use drugs. When they do so, they require the care and guidance of society. They simply cannot seek or receive this care or guidance when, as at present, they are forced to hide their use from society and to embark on these experiences alone.” I pointed to recent deaths under the present integration: “Consider that these youths, sometimes fifteen and sixteen years old, were without exception experimenting with these chemicals in secret, with only other inexperienced teenagers for guidance. They were, without exception, doing so in a culture in which a monolithic taboo surrounds the behavior they were engaging in, which they are understandably and profoundly hesitant to breach even when in need of medical attention. Is it any wonder they found themselves in such trouble when calling for help entails not only the threat of legal repercussions, but the loss of social standing and severe damage to their familial relations? Hence the need for safe spaces free from moral judgment or socio-legal repercussions. Would we rather they use drugs alone or in pairs, in their bedrooms, without having told anybody they’re doing so, while deathly afraid of telling anybody they’re doing so even in the event that an emergency arises? Or would we rather they have supervision from open-minded professionals, where psychological distress can be handled and medical attention sought at the first sign of physical danger? In short, do we think hidden cultures or open cultures have a greater tendency towards harm minimization?”

This idea has already been put into practice, to a limited extent, in the digital sphere – the last bastion of freedom, in the eyes of some. An organization called TripSit provides just such a safe space in virtual form on IRC, the internet’s oldest chat protocol. On their network, people on psychoactive substances can seek immediate help when in need – in the event, in clumsy popular parlance, of a ‘bad trip’, for example. They have helped literally thousands of people in such circumstances, and such circumstances are, by all accounts, profound and potentially life changing. Not only this, but they do their utmost to promote a culture of education, harm minimization, moderation, and thoughtfulness amongst the several hundred drug users who frequent their network and thousands more passers-by.

Their community stands a shining example of civil institutions for the mental, physical and social welfare of drug users – one not predicated on the disingenuous pretext that drug use is unequivocally bad. Firstly, they are prolific providers of potentially lifesaving information, and users can and do seek information on dosage, duration, effects, side-effects, advisability and so on, of a large variety of drugs. Secondly, they provide community, something to which all people deserve to belong, something which Kurt Vonnegut (my favorite humanist) considered as important to individual survival as food and medicine. Thirdly, they directly influence the character of youth culture and it’s relation to drugs. This is something which I suggested in my previous article could not be achieved whilst pigheadedly denying the benefits and pleasures of drugs, and promulgating abstinence. It is no surprise that an organization which acknowledges the value of psychedelic drugs has an easier time encouraging moderation and education and intelligence in the psychedelic community: primarily because, as I said, these encouragements are not made on the dishonest basis that ‘Drugs are Bad’.

Anyway, these are important functions our future civil institutions might serve: to influence the character of drug-using culture towards things which we think or know will result in happier and safer drug users, and to provide community and family to those who lack this basic necessity of modern existence.

The Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is the foremost advocate of research into the potential of psychedelic drugs, and of sober, scholarly study of these compounds. The Open Foundation in the Netherlands serves essentially the same function, as does the Beckley Foundation in England. They are helped in this mission by the likes of (who maintain an enormous database of both professional research and personal anecdotes),, ‘psychedemia’, and advocacy groups like the Drug Policy Alliance and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

I already mentioned TripSit. Dance Safe is another excellent organization, achieving very similar goals to TripSit, namely “harm reduction and popular education”, with the ultimate aim of “empower[ing] young people to make healthy, informed lifestyle choices.” They primarily work within, and influence the character of, the mass culture surrounding electronic music, and most famously popularized the tools to check pills for adulterants among club and festival goers. These two are the foremost institutions in this field, but others make contributions. The Psychedelic Society of San Fransisco, for example, works “to create safe spaces” and foster discussion.

I might mention cultural institutions of a different kind, for example the numerous psychedelic gatherings and festivals across Northern America and in places like England and Australia, or the institutions of psychedelic music, painting, and so on. We might argue over their value, but pretentious, dumb, or vacuous as these things can be, they make people happy – and they’re sometimes far from vacuous. There is nothing vapid about the Grateful Dead, or Huxley’s ‘Island’, in my opinion.

There is also, along these lines, the dance or electronic music culture. This has to be taken seriously as a cultural institution, by now – I who was born after it have wondered when I will die. A stupid question; it isn’t a fad; fads don’t last 30 years and more. More importantly, the character of this cultural institution, as I say, depends critically on the work of groups like Dance Safe.

I’ve blathered on for too long, and reached too many conclusions in the body to write an effective final paragraph now, but I might as well summarize a few of the things we might to do move in the direction of integration. The first, and most important I think, was to create a more open culture, in which it is okay for people to talk about drug use. This entails breaking down the taboo, and liberating the heroin or meth addict, and similar figures, from the realm of romanticism and half-imagined non-descript alleys, which I expect nobody in the 21st century still uses to sell drugs. The second, and perhaps easiest, was to develop institutions such a safe spaces for use, societies for intelligent discourse on the use and abuse of drugs, communities which provide support, love, and family to drug users, and so on. This entails influencing the character of drug culture, and youth culture, and the relationship of mainstream society to drugs. The hardest, I think, is liberating the process by which these chemicals are actually made, and thereby restoring full autonomy to the drug using public who are, at this unfortunate moment in history, simultaneously the subject of the cartels and gangs and the government. The drug user is being screwed relentlessly from all angles, and these steps are vital to his or her (or otherwise) liberation.


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