Drugs Aren’t Bad; Platitudes Are.

You’ve probably heard the phrase in conversation: drugs are bad. This is ridiculous, and I will demonstrate very simply why so we can move on. Modern medicine is the learned application of drugs for the improvement and extension of human life. Modern medicine is great. Any questions? Cool. Drugs aren’t bad. Stop saying that. If we’re honest, drugs are good sometimes, and drugs are bad sometimes. Today I want to talk specifically about currently illicit drugs. Let me tell you a few ways that illicit drugs are unquestionably fantastic, before we wade into murkier territory.

First, lets talk about psychedelics. A lot of people take these substances. Maybe 32 million people in the US alone have taken LSD, for example. So why do people take these drugs? Obviously they hold some subjective value to a great deal of people.

According to Dr. Stanislav Grof, a pioneer of LSD psychotherapy, the reasons people take LSD are actually quite complicated and “can have deep psychological roots.” He identified several distinct groups of users. There are “pleasure seekers” who use them to “enhance sensory experience for aesthetic, recreational and hedonistic reasons.” There are couples who “use 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.” And finally, 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.”

Considering how sensationalized these drugs have become in our discourse, these reasons are really quite sensible and accessible: 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.”

And there is ample data to support the efficacy of psychedelic drugs for these purposes. In 2006, for example, erowid conducted a survey of some 35,000 users of LSD, specifically. Their testimony, I think, ought to give skeptics pause. They speak of realizations that life is a gift, of becoming less negative towards themselves and others, of becoming more open minded. They speak of being awakened to great beauty they had not perceived before. They speak most articulately of the processes of healing and catharsis enabled or initiated by LSD. All told, 53.4% answered that LSD had a positive effect on their life, 17.2% reported “a mix of positive and negative effects,” and only 3.4% reported a negative effect on their lives. It’s worth noting that this is the result of self-administration in an atmosphere of intense repression, and that a safe, legal space for informed psychedelic drug use could very well tip the scales more heavily in favour of positive outcomes than they already are.

Psychedelic drugs have also been applied in the more formal setting of psychiatrists offices and hospitals across the world, with equally remarkable results. Before the hammer finally dropped in the early 1970’s, thousands of studies were conducted (Grof, pp. 361), and clinics for psychedelic therapy sprang up in England, Germany, France, Holland, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and several Scandinavian countries, (Lee & Shlain, pp. 76). 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,” (pp. 77). In England, psychiatrists Humphrey Osmond and and Abram Hoffer used LSD to treat alcoholism, and had used it with around 2,000 patients, finding that between 40-45% had not relapsed after a year. In the US, 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%, (pp.97). Even after the outright suppression of this promising activity, some still explored their value, perhaps most notably with MDMA, such as a clinical study by Greer and Tolbert which concluded MDMA was “physically safe and was useful in insight-orientated psychotherapy, particularly to aid communication between people in emotional relationships.”

And 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, (Grof, pp. 361).

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 nearly 8 million people in the United States alone suffer from it, and 1 million more in Australia in any given year. 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 casualties 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.

Psychedelics are quite easy to argue the case for, but I started out with promises of murkier territory. What about some more controversial drugs?

There is, where psychiatry is concerned, the use of dexamphetamine (speed) to greatly improve the quality of life of people suffering from ADD and ADHD, which is surely a good thing. Further, in a more broadly medical context, there is the use of opioid drugs (much like heroin) to provide precious relief to sufferers from chronic pain. Even these drugs are a godsend, sometimes; it must be acknowledged. Getting murkier.

What about non-medical contexts? What about heroin and meth addicts, and so on?

Let me be clear: nobody thinks addiction is a good thing. The real question is whether it is causal or symptomatic. And the answer, quite emphatically, is that it is symptomatic. Addiction arises from a deeper cultural malaise; from dislocation, isolation, stress and abuse. The research is very clear on this point: most hard-core drug abusers come from abusive homes (R. Shanta et al). They are suffering deeply, and drugs offer them relief. What in essence this means is that drugs are rarely the problem. It is meaningless to condemn drug addiction while ignoring the profound injustices which invariably precede it. As Vincent Felitti (MD) has written, “dismissing addictions as ‘bad habits’ or ‘self-destructive behavior’ comfortably hides their functionality in the life of the addict.”  

People self-medicate sadness. Sadness is bad. That so many people lack any effective relief bar heroin is bad. Heroin itself? There are worse things. These self-medicated masses have been compared by Antonin Artaud to “unhappy escapees from hell…escapees destined eternally to reenact their escape.” What’s bad is the impetus for their flight, and not the propulsion. We’re missing the forest for the trees.

When we send soldiers to fight in meaningless wars, this is bad. When they watch their brothers and sisters in arms destroyed by falling bombs, this is bad. When they destroy other human beings themselves, and when they suffer tremendously under the resultant guilt, this is bad. When their PTSD flares up in every unfamiliar situation, this is bad. When heroin erases the suffering we’ve so laboriously heaped upon them, we must seriously consider the possibility that this is good. We should at least reevaluate how bad it really is.

As Artaud has also written: “So long as we have failed to eliminate any of the causes of human despair, we do not have the right to eliminate those means by which man tries to cleanse himself of despair.” Drugs aren’t bad. Stop saying that.   

Non-hyperlinked sources:

  1. Grof, LSD Psychotherapy (1980).
  2. Lee & B Shlain, Acid Dreams (1985).
    R. Shanta et al., “Childhood Abuse, Neglect, and Household Dysfunction and the Risk of Illicit Drug Use: The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study,” Pediatrics 111 (2003): 564-72.
  3. J. Felitti, “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Their Relationship to Adult Health, Well-being, and Social Functioning” (lecture at the Building Blocks for a Healthy Future Conference, Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, May 24, 2007).