Towards A New Journalism

I started this blog almost a year ago because so little of value was being written on the subject of drugs, but I haven’t yet outlined exactly what problems hamper drug journalism today or how they can be improved upon. In the hopes of promoting more intelligent writing in this field, I’d like to expound upon the theory of journalism which informs the writings on this blog.

Some problems are immediately obvious: the reporting on drugs is lazy and dishonest. That major newspapers in Australia can print headlines with phrases like ‘LSD overdose’ when it has been well established for well over half a century that people don’t overdose on single doses of LSD is problematic in the extreme. Such a headline fails to pass the most rudimentary fact check. That nearly every publication in Australia persisted in referring to a substance with an established name, reputation, and data, 25i-NBOMe, as “synthetic LSD” for well over a year is a dereliction of the most basic duties a journalist can be said to have. In these ways, and more, journalists in this country (and in every other country) are failing to meet the bare minimum standard anybody could expect of them. But I am not writing this to demand the bare minimum, I’m writing this to demand a standard of journalism that goes above and beyond that bare minimum.

The real root of the deficit is that most writers are unconcerned with questions like what journalism is, what its role should be, and all the complexities these questions entail. Should we be content merely to report facts without comment and allow the reader to make up their own mind? For example, if the number of meth labs being raided is increasing, should we report that fact and leave it at that? If a man is arrested for importing drugs, should we dutifully trumpet “NSW Police arrest man on suspicion of importing cocaine,” or should we take a moral stance on this action?

They call it the Drug War, and that is exactly what it is. It is being fought with military equipment, and the casualties now number in the millions. Is it not about time for journalists to once again become voices of morality? I for one am not a Dictaphone for facts or a distributor for the statements of officials. I write as a friend and ally of drug users everywhere; as a friend and ally of a demographic upon whom the institutions of political power in our society have explicitly declared war with the tacit approval of the populations of every developed country on this planet. My position then, like the position of so many great journalists in the history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, is anti-war. I write for peace. I agitate unapologetically for a cessation of hostilities. If a journalist writes about the drug war as anything but a disturbed onlooker they had better have a damned good reason, and impartiality will not cut it. Impartiality in the face of great evil is tantamount to support for the status quo, and who will seriously defend that status quo?

But that is not the extent of the journalism I wish to see. I will not say that the new journalism of the Drug War need merely be anti-drug war. That’s not the only problem.

I contend that it is the role of journalists to inform, and on that front the present journalism is an abject failure. To write with expertise on a subject requires expert knowledge, and the issue of drugs, and the drug war, are above all else multidisciplinary. The competent journalist of the drug war must, then, be a student of relevant disciplines. They needn’t be an expert in all of the relevant fields, but they should be aware of what the experts in these fields are saying.

The drug issue involves psychopharmacology. I do not believe it is possible to write intelligently about, say, 25i-NBOMe without a cursory knowledge of its psychopharmacology. And yet, few of the plethora of articles which appeared during the “synthetic LSD” hype made much, if any, mention of the drug’s effects. Little examination was given to its safety profile, which is quite a poor safety profile indeed, except to say that it can kill. How does it kill? Toxicity. How does this compare to other drugs of a similar nature? LSD, for example, is non-toxic and, consequently, does not kill.

It involves economics. Intelligent writing on 25i-NBOMe, to its credit, made much of the fact that 25i-NBOMe was remarkably cheap, but no examination was given to why it could be so cheaply manufactured. And ultimately, the economic perspective of 25i-NBOMe leads inexorably to the conclusion that its price (economics) and its similarity to LSD (psychopharmacology) combined to create a significant incentive for dangerous profiteering in the form of fraud – buying the cheap and dangerous substance and selling it at the price of and in the guise of the more expensive and not-at-all dangerous substance (economics again).

It involves both philosophy (why do people take LSD?) and sociology (why do people take heroin?).

It involves neuropsychology. It is impossible to write intelligently about addiction in any way (‘Addiction on the rise,’ say) without understanding what modern neuropsychology and particularly developmental neurobiology have taught us about addiction. Specifically, they have taught us that addiction arises largely out of abuse and isolation, which begins to paint a vivid portrait of the addict population – they are victims, in the first instance, and having turned to drugs are being victimized again. How many papers have you read that in?

It involves history. Every mother whose child dies from a heroin overdose is happy to contribute to the demonization of opioid drugs, and every major newspaper is happy to dutifully print it, but nobody bothers to ask how the tears of the poppy went from being Gods Own Medicine in the terminology of medicine men, carried ashore to the very first colony of the New World by none other than the Puritans, to being a symbol of dread.

It involves politics. Who benefits from prohibition? Why do laws take so long to adjust to new evidence, if indeed they ever do?

It involves, most controversially, the subjective experience of being human. How does the heroin or meth user live? How do they feel? How do they feel about the drug war? What does it feel like to take LSD? How do those who have done so think about the experience, about how it fits into the context of their lives? How has it changed their view of society? What happens to the children of those nameless multitudes hauled out of their beds in the depths of night and thrown into cages? When a teenager dies from their drug use, the mother’s views are sought immediately, but when a father is dragged to prison nobody asks how the child feels. It is worthwhile to paint the many stories which arise both from drug use and from the drug war, as vividly and accurately as the English language can be made to do so, so that we might have a better understanding of the human constituents of this god awful situation, and that we might, through long suffering, inspire an iota of empathy in the docile public who support the manufacture of their circumstance.

With notable exceptions, the journalism of the drug war lacks balls, depth, and breadth. To borrow a phrase from Vonnegut, journalism has been cut off from “the underground rivers that [connect] it to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans…” It is “content with being a splash pool three feet across, four inches deep, chlorinated, and painted blue.”

In Defence of Heroin

Heroin is without a doubt the most hated and feared substance in our society. And alcohol, conversely, is the friendly face of licit Australian drug culture. It may come as a surprise, then, that there isn’t really that great a distinction between these substances – that heroin use can be precisely as safe and as morally valid as alcohol use and that we have as much (or as little) reason to hate either of these drugs. I don’t expect you to take my word for it, of course, I’m going to demonstrate this point for point.

The first and most obvious argument that will be made for the far superior evil of heroin is that it is addictive. First of all, we must understand what is actually meant by a substance being addictive. No substance causes addiction, but a percentage of the users of any drug are liable to become addicted. Meaning that the addiction is caused primarily by the life-experience and resultant neurobiology of the individual, and not by the drug. This is why some people (those with the neurobiology which underlies addiction) become addicted and some do not. You can read about this in far greater detail in the brilliant scientist Bruce Alexander’s report to the Canadian parliament, or the physician Gabor Mate’s excellent book on addiction, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. However, even presuming that the drugs themselves were responsible for addiction, there is little to distinguish alcohol from heroin. In 2012, 52.5% of Americans reported drinking alcohol, and about 8% are alcoholics. That’s about 1 in 5. Whereas it is estimated that about 23% of people who use heroin become addicted. That’s about 1 in 4. Hardly the kind of difference that would justify murdering the merchants of the latter and giving your children a flute of the former on New Year’s Eve.

The next, I suppose, must be that heroin kills. Well, so does alcohol: 4% of all deaths (6% of male deaths, 9% of deaths among people aged 15-29) are attributable to alcohol. Aside from which, we must obviously account for the fact that heroin is a black market substance and therefore its users are subject to the hazards attendant to navigating a black market. To understand how a safe and legal market for heroin might affect this, we can look to Switzerland’s trial of heroin maintenance for long-term addicts who had proven resistant to treatment. The results, as summarized in Dr. Mate’s book, were as follows:

  • “Fitness for work improved considerably: permanent employment nearly doubled.
  • The patients housing situations rapidly improved and stabilized (in particular, there was no homelessness).
  • There was no fatal overdose due to prescribed substances.
  • There were no notable disturbances in local neighbourhoods.
  • There were significant economic benefits in terms of savings per patient-day, owing to marked reductions in legal and health costs.
  • Among participants there was a marked decrease in crime of all kinds, from shoplifting to drug dealing – in the case of hard drugs from 46.9 percent to 8.2 percent.
  • Overall, offenses dropped by 68 percent. According to the Central Criminal Register, the number of convictions dropped by 80 percent among addicts enrolled in the program.”

In addition, there can be little practical education about a substance as systematically demonized as heroin. We can hardly tell people how to use heroin safely whilst hysterically maintaining that using heroin is the worst, lowest thing a human being can do. Most opioid overdoses are attributable to combining substances – people who use heroin in conjunction with alcohol or benzodiazepines are far more likely to overdose, and proper education to that effect could greatly reduce the number of deaths.

Next, some will argue, children born to heroin users are damaged and addicted to heroin. It will suffice to ask if they’ve heard of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which affects a large number of live births. Still not seeing a particularly clear distinction.

I wish finally to point out that addiction is symptomatic of great suffering. I hope this knowledge, combined with a little empathy, might lead us to a more nuanced understanding of drug use. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’m going to reprint what I’ve already written about this:

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. 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.

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 re-evaluate 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.”

Heroin is a Myth!

I don’t mean that diamorphine, the substance to which the word ‘heroin’ ostensibly refers, doesn’t exist. I mean that there are two heroins: the heroin of pharmacology, and the heroin of mythos; and that the relation between the two is dubious. The average adult has never used heroin, does not understand its pharmacological action, cannot even conceive of its effect, and his understanding of its epidemiology is based entirely on hysterical hearsay. Heroin is, to this person, a notion, an allusion – an invention of mind, based loosely on what he (incorrectly) imagines diamorphine to be. I can only conclude that the jumbled, elusory, and frequently contradictory haze of ideas and feelings which constitute the heroin of mythos cannot properly be considered to have any authentic relation to the heroin of pharmacology, much less be considered a valid part of the same singular concept. This ‘heroin’ does not exist. Hell, just look at the mythos woven by those even with intimate experience of the drug.

I have a confession to make: I like to read trashy drug literature. This can really be a damaging habit, and I believe the only way to inoculate yourself against the obvious pitfalls of this vice is to be a critical reader of trashy drug literature. Take William S. Burroughs as an example: Burroughs gave us a snapshot of obscure subcultures in pivotal times and places, but the value of his theory of addiction is such that pawning it would yield scarcely enough cash for a hit. Reading Burroughs is fine, but you need to understand that he’s full of shit.

The first thing to be aware of is that literature, like all media, has an in-built bias towards the exceptional. Nobody really wants to read the memoir of somebody who tried heroin a few times and then moved on with their life, but such people exist in droves. It is estimated that only about 23% of people who try heroin become dependent…and I’d wager, further, that this 23% account for 100% of the literature. Pop autobiographies with subheadings like ‘a year in the life of a shattered rock star’ are read far and wide, but you’re unlikely to find ‘Memoirs of a Moderate and Occasional Opium User’ in stores anytime soon. This is not conducive to a robust understanding of the phenomenon of heroin use in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Neither is the sense of seniority that tends to follow from intimate experience with a subject. The heroin addict has personally experienced heroin addiction – what can anyone else possibly tell them about it? This attitude is hardly unique to heroin addicts: In my work in the harm reduction community, I’ve frequently explained categorical facts to drug users only to be rebuffed on the basis of experience. “Don’t take tramadol while on SSRI antidepressants? What are you talking about? I’ll have you know I’ve been taking opiates for a decade, kid.” People need to understand that there is only so much you can learn about a substance by shoving it in your nose, mouth, or asshole. The heroin addict has a special knowledge of the subject, undoubtedly, but they are not the fountain of all wisdom. Their special knowledge mostly pertains either to the cultures surrounding heroin use and addiction or to the subjective experience of heroin use and addiction. There is much more to know.

What this all is conducive to is the myth-making which has come to characterize the literature of heroin, often achieved simply by choice in tense. You’ll find, if you read much of this literature, that the heroin diarist often recounts their personal experience in the present and general tenses, rather than the past and personal. Generally, they do not say “when I first used heroin, I was hooked,” but “when you first use heroin you are hooked.” Their experience, it would seem to follow, is not only timeless but universal. Except it usually isn’t. The statement of conjecture as categorical fact is a constant presence in such literature.

This is demonstrated well by a passage from Michael Clunes ‘White Out’:

“In Baltimore they call cops ‘knockers.’ We had to watch out for the knockers. Cops dressed like junkies. Undercovers. They were hard to spot. I asked everyone I knew about their favorite way of detecting knockers. It was a survey.

‘So how can you tell a knocker?’ I’d ask.

‘It’s easy,’ Funboy said. ‘Knockers’re black. But the dope boys got it twisted. That’s why some spots won’t serve white fiends.’

‘It’s easy,’ Tony said. ‘Knockers are always white. That’s why we don’t serve white boys. Except you, Funboy. And you.’

‘It’s tricky,’ Henry said, ‘but I got the trick. Knockers always look you right in the eyes. Their eyes knock into yours. It’s why they’re called knockers.’

‘Knockers don’t look at dope right,’ Dom said. ‘They look at it the way you might look at a beer. Or at Henry.’

‘Knockers drive Toyota’s,’ Todd said.

‘Knockers have white teeth,’ Fathead said. ‘Don’t shoot till you see the whites of their teeth.’

‘Knockers mostly snort dope, they never shoot it,’ Funboy said.

‘If you ask a knocker if he a knocker, a real knocker gotta tell you,’ the teenage dealer said looking at me. ‘You a knocker, motherfucker?’

To be fair, this is a problem with drug culture in general, not just heroin. Everybody’s an expert, and they’ll all tell you something different. On any given topic, too.

And not only do the 23% of people who become dependent on heroin account for 100% of the literature, I’d venture a guess that the selection bias is worse still. I would conjecture that among that 23%, the type who actually goes and writes a book about it is especially prone to romanticism and literary flare. Thus opium becomes “a panacea for all human woes,” and “the secret of happiness…at once discovered,” in the romantic prose of de Quincey. Thus heroin becomes “the end of desire,” “the end of wanting,” “the end of fear,” in the phraseology of Clune.

So heroin is romanticized from both sides. Everybody raises it on a pedestal, of some description – it is either panacea or a harbinger of doom. Popular estimations of heroin are scattered on the extreme ends of a spectrum. The truth is more banal. It is an opioid drug. It is highly pleasurable. It is not ‘addictive’ in the sense of inducing addiction, but a minority of it’s users are liable to become addicted. It is, ultimately, just a drug: it has associated pleasures and pitfalls, none of which live up to the romanticism of its disciples or opponents. It’s not that special. Stop embellishing.

Regarding Miranda Devine and the advocates of Harm Maximisation

The Daily Telegraph has just published perhaps the stupidest article to be written on the topic of drugs this year; an article by a totally illiberal and ill-informed hack by the name of Miranda Devine; a woman with absolutely no regard for scientific or medical understandings of drug use and, as a result, no credible regard for the welfare of people like Georgina Bartter, whose untimely death she is using as a prop for her anti-drug crusade. Allow me to take her article apart piece by piece.

She begins, of course, by chiding those who would try to discuss ways of minimizing drug-related deaths in the wake of well publicized drug-related deaths, before preceding to do just exactly that..

Next, she lazily smears an advocate of legalisation, regaling us with the tale of how Anna Wood’s parents refused to join his campaign for legalization, opting instead to tour schools to spread their message about the danger of illegal drugs. Did you catch that? Illegal drugs are dangerous, so don’t legalize them. Is anyone besides the pharmacologically illiterate Miranda Devine unclear on what makes MDMA dangerous in an unregulated market? It isn’t the substance itself. Pure MDMA is actually very difficult to overdose on[2]. It’s the adulterants and frauds which render taking purported “MDMA” dangerous[3]. This is an established fact: a small dose of MDMA (even a LARGE dose of MDMA) will not kill you.

She touts John Howard’s ‘Tough on Drugs’ approach.. What ‘Tough on Drugs’ meant in the language of John Howard was a total abandonment of pragmatism and harm reduction[4]. For example, he personally intervened to prevent a scientific trial of prescription heroin for long-term addicts, a strategy which principally reduces disease, crime, and misery[5]. He passionately opposed other efforts to reduce disease, crime, and misery, such as safe injection facilities, which, again, is a strategy which has repeatedly been vindicated [6].

She decries children being “taught that alcohol is just another drug,” in spite of the obvious fact that alcohol is a drug, and -at least according to David Nutt and the panel of experts he assembled in 2010- by far the most harmful, at that. She decries that they are taught “the harm minimisation doctrine that alcohol is worse [I think we just established that it was], or at least as bad as illicit drugs and, hey, if you must “use”, here’s how to do it safely. The message was loud and clear.”[7]

Finally, she offers her solution: zero-tolerance. That is, no tolerance of people like Georgina Bartter. Harass and arrest them where we find them, and let them fend for themselves when we can’t. Do not indulge their legitimate desire to be high; let them die navigating a black market rather than consider that 150mg of MDMA might have produced a beautiful and memorable experience for a bright girl, as opposed to convulsions and ultimately death.

Prohibition killed Georgina Bartter, and hacks like Miranda Devine respond by insisting we ramp up our militant repression of her and her kind all the while masquerading as the voice of concern for drug users. Her hysterical opposition to harm minimization belies the essence of her position: harm maximisation. She is a fraud of the most dangerous kind: it is because of her brand of hackery that a young girl is dead, and she dare accuse me of using her death as a propaganda tool? I am demanding an end to the policy which just took a life, which has taken literally millions of lives to date, and which will continue to take lives until the likes of Miranda Devine summon the moral and intellectual courage to withdraw their heads from their asses.

[1] In pharmacology, the ‘LD50’ of a drug is the dose at which 50% of test subjects succumb to toxicity. This varies from animal to animal, but even the lower findings for MDMA are around 50mg per kilogram of body weight. We know that legally manufactured and distributed MDMA would be pure. Let’s say for the sake of argument it would be distributed in 100mg pills: what this means is that “1.5 pills” would not kill anybody over 3kg, eg. “1.5 pills” of legal MDMA would never kill anybody.

[2] Harm reduction organization Bunk Police have an excellent guide to reducing the risk of dubious and often dangerous chemicals, which you can read here. In addition, they helpfully list common adulterants, which include MDPV (LD50 unknown; reported deaths numerous [in contrast to pure MDMA]),

[3] She goes on to explicitly denounce harm reduction, from which we might make the logical inference that she favours harm maximization, as she does in practice if not principle, but we’ll get to that.

[4] Such methods have been vindicated repeatedly. Here are the results of an analogous trial undertaken in Switzerland in the 1990’s, as summarized in Dr. Gabor Mate’s book:

  • Fitness for work improved considerably: permanent employment more than doubled.

  • The patients’ housing situations rapidly improved and stabalized (in particular, there was no homelessness).

  • There were no notable disturbances in local neighbourhoods.

  • There were significant economic benefits in terms of savings per patient-day, owing to marked reductions in legal and health costs.

  • Among participants there was a marked decrease in crime of all kinds, from shoplifting to drug dealing – in the case of hard drugs, from 49.6% to 8.2%.

  • Overall, offenses dropped by 68 percent. According to the Central Criminal Register, the number of convictions dropped by 80 percent among addicts enrolled in the program.

Sadly, the Howard government had as little regard for evidence as Miranda, and addicts suffered greatly as a result.

[5] The Canadian Medical Association Journal reports on Canada’s Insite: “Vancouver’s safer injecting facility has been associated with an array of community and public health benefits without evidence of adverse impacts.” There is no shortage of similar reports; the assessment of such programs is overwhelmingly positive.

[6] “Hey, if you have to fuck, here’s how to do it safely: wear a condom.” Does she advocate a return to abstinence only sex-education as well? Does she see the correlation between her approach to drugs in the West and the Catholic Church’s approach to sex in the developing world, namely that they both encourage the proliferation of disease in the name of the clearly impossible pursuit of abstinence?

Breaking: Ordinary People Use Recreational Drugs

It’s high time we were honest with ourselves about the kind of people who use drugs and why. Every time a teenager dies at the hands of our prohibitionist policies, newspapers rush to make excuses for their drug use, as though excuses needed to be made. They were peer-pressured, or misinformed, or in the case of Australia’s most recent high profile drug death, it was simply “out of character.” Apparently it is never the case that they are intelligent human beings who made an informed choice about how to live their lives. The popular understanding of drug use and drug users is a farce, and people like Georgina Bartter must be explained away to preserve it..

Her parents say MDMA use was out of character for one reason: cognitive dissonance. She did not correspond to the popular image of a drug user, so it must have been an anomaly; it had to have been ‘out of character’ for she was not possessed of the derogatory character we’ve erroneously ascribed to drug users.

She is demonstrative of a confronting fact: this image, this ascribed character, is dead WRONG. We’ve been slapped in the face for five decades with emotionally confronting images: the heroin addict in the gutter, the toothless smile of the meth abuser. Georgina is a necessary antidote: she is an intellectually confronting image: a kind, intelligent, sensible and respectable young lady who decided some MDMA would improve her night. She is no anomaly; this is precisely the character of hundreds of thousands of young people across the planet who have reached, are reaching, or will reach the same decision. This, in the final analysis, is one of the many faces of recreational drug use.

This is a self-perpetuating taboo. The recreational drug user is spurned on the basis of a lazy caricature: the emaciated, alley-dwelling scum bag. The general population holds a view of the recreational drug user that is wildly off base, and it is because of this view that those who use drugs do not do so openly; and it is, in the ultimate irony, because they do not do so openly that the general population is allowed to hold this view. It is time the general population saw one of the real faces of recreational drug use: Georgina Bartter.

Drug users are not some terrifying ‘Other’, John Q Citizen; they are your sons and daughters. Face this fact like adults, you intellectual cowards. Stop burying the reality of drug use under self-serving lies. Stop using phrases like ‘out of character’ to pretend people like Georgina are anomalies – they are not.

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).

 

The Parable of Rat Park

The Parable

This is a cautionary tale about bad science and false interpretations.  

It begins in the 1960’s when scientists began experimenting on animals in an attempt to understand drug addiction in human beings. Study upon study conducted with caged rats seemed to demonstrate the irresistible properties of certain drugs. By the close of the eighties, more than 500 papers had been published describing the propensity of these animals to self-administer cocaine, sometimes to the point of death, and sometimes to the exclusion of food and other basic evolutionary drives. The implications for users of these drugs was surely dire.

This fit very neatly with what we ‘knew’ about addiction. We had seen, had we not, similar behaviour in humans – a tendency to disregard life for drugs. The danger of these drugs, we could only conclude, had been reaffirmed in a very big way.

Eventually, cracks begin appearing in this narrative. New facts began pointing to a new hypothesis, and a profoundly simple one at that – the conditions of the subjects had an enormous impact on the results of the experiments. For example, when fed adequately, rats tended to self-administer cocaine less; when starved or fed inadequately, as they often were, they tended to self-administer more. Rats reared in groups are less likely to self-administer than rats reared in isolation. And so on.

The incredible flaw in these experiments is that these conditions had no relation to their natural environment. It’s as though we’d bred and reared children, in isolation and darkness, poorly fed, far from loved, and discovered to our dismay that they developed mental illnesses. Who could have guessed? It’s as though we imprisoned and imposed great suffering on adults, then offered them heroin (nothing else, mind; no freedom, no source of entertainment, little food; just heroin) and were shocked to learn this powerful physical and emotional anaesthetic held an appeal to our outrageously mistreated subjects. Dr. Bruce Alexander has articulately explained that all these studies actually showed us is that self-administration of drugs is one way that caged animals “cope with the stress of social and sensory isolation.” That we can induce animals to abuse drugs by mistreating them. Now there is an insight we can run with. Dr. Gabor Mate adds that “emotional isolation, powerlessness, and stress are exactly the conditions that promote the neurobiology of addiction in human beings as well.”

It was based on these observations that Dr. Alexander’s ‘Rat Park’ came into being. He and his colleagues “built the most natural environment for rats that [they] could contrive in the laboratory.” It was “airy, spacious, with about 200 times the square footage of the standard laboratory cage. It was also scenic (with a peaceful British Columbia forest painted on the plywood walls), comfortable (with empty tins, wood scraps, and other desiderata strewn about on the floor), and sociable (with 16-20 rats of both sexes in residence at once).” A “short tunnel opening into Rat Park that was just large enough to accommodate one rat at a time” contained two dispensers – one of morphine solution, and the other an inert solution. What they found was that the subjects of Rat Park had very little interest in morphine. In fact “nothing [they] tried instilled a strong appetite for morphine or produced anything that looked like addiction in rats that were housed in a reasonably normal environment.” This was true even of rats which were already physically dependent on the drug.

This makes a lot of sense, given our modern understanding of addiction in humans. We have clearly observed that people under greater stress have a greater tendency towards drug addiction. This was demonstrated starkly during the Vietnam war, but few people took heed. In that war, a staggering twenty percent of the armed forces in Vietnam were addicted to heroin, barbiturates, amphetamines, or a combination of these drugs. The remission rate among these soldiers, upon returning to the United States, was ninety-five percent, a rate unheard of among the population of civilian addicts. It should have been very clear from this data that context is of monolithic importance to understanding drug use. Conscripted against their will and fighting a meaningless and brutal war against guerrilla’s, the GI’s of the Vietnam war were stressed to an inconceivable degree – that is why they used drugs. And that is why people still use drugs today. 

Properly understood, chronic drug addiction is a flight from suffering. The research is unequivocal on this point: most chronic drug addicts come from abusive homes. If you consider yourself a righteous person, a person of moral intuition, a fighter of a just cause, then this startling fact alone should have started something stirring inside of you. Surely we can find it in ourselves to care for the people these children grow to be. And yet, all too often we do not. Dr Mate, no stranger to human suffering himself, movingly writes: “We readily feel for a suffering child but cannot see the child in the adult who, his soul fragmented and isolated, hustles for survival a few blocks away from where we shop or work.”

These insights hold a special relevance to us, today. Why? Because we have a child abuse problem in this country and it is getting worse. We are having two conversations in our political realm, confident that they are separate conversations. They are not. If you care about the health of the Australian family, if child abuse is an affront to your morality, then you should be fucking outraged by our drug policies. The criminalization of drug use, put simply, punishes people for having been abused in the first place and then turning to drugs. Is this the conservative response to the abuse of our children? Is it the liberal response? To send armed and uniformed men and women after them when, a few short years later, they seek desperately to self-medicate the fallout from this abuse? To condemn and to stigmatize these casualties of our profoundly ill society?

We are confronted with two horrific facts. Firstly, child abuse is on the rise. Secondly, hard experience and a wealth of data have taught us that many of these children will, in the coming years, turn to drugs. They will try, sometimes perilously, to navigate the marketplace we have left for them; for heroin, or methamphetamine, or any of the chemical tools which so effectively relieve their pain, if only for a few hours. If your inclination is to condemn drug users, to scorn them as fools, think hard about this fact. The next generation of drug addicts is at this very moment being forged under the condemning eyes and roving hands of mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts. Exhortations of family values take on a sickly hue in this light, and will until we bring our drug policy in line with our purported values.  

The lesson of Rat Park and the thoroughly flawed experiments which inspired it is that self-administration of drugs is a natural response to great pain or to exceptional circumstances. It is beyond meaningless to condemn this behaviour while ignoring the great injustices which invariably precede it. Once we understand that pain is the primary source of addictive behaviours in our society, two questions become fundamental to the treatment of this societal ailment. How am I causing pain, and how can I alleviate it?

 

Applying the Lesson

We cause pain in many ways. The two most clearly relevant here are our social attitudes and our drug policies.

If we have taken these lessons to heart, we can no longer permit ourselves the luxury of believing that social shaming, ostracization, or stigmatization offer any possibility of reducing problem drug use. They can only contribute to the isolation which is responsible in the first place.

Further, we cannot possibly be so naive as to think that caging people in isolation for long stretches of their lives can reduce their need for drugs, having seen that these conditions are precisely what underlies the neurobiology of drug addiction. Nor can we believe that taking mothers and fathers away from their children for victimless crimes is anything less than hard shove in the direction of drug addiction’ for their children. The so called ‘War on Drugs’ obviously takes a gigantic toll on users and society alike. We can hardly believe that navigating a black market, and all its attendant problems, is conducive to healing addiction.

And what about alleviating suffering? Most obvious are the corollaries of the two causes stated above.

1. We can stop stigmatizing drug users and addicts. We can treat them with respect and kindness, and accept them as they are. We should encourage recovery, of course, but we have to do our part to make recovery possible. Further, if they are unable or unwilling to stop using the drugs they are dependent on, we should love them any way in the hope (otherwise extinguished) that they may one day be in a position to do so.

2. We can end the ‘War on Drugs’, and thereby lift a monolithic burden from the backs of drug users, and we may be comforted by the knowledge that in doing so we greatly increase their odds of recovery. We can cease to chase, harass, abuse and traumatize already abused and traumatized human beings. We can cease to isolate already isolated human beings.

But there is more we can do. We can make this a nicer world to live in. Recall the Parable of Rat Park. In a very real way, people are prisoners of the socio-political reality we collectively create for them. This is particularly true of drug addicts. Our goal should be to change this environment, and to make it a little more liveable. What desiderata can we scatter about the present moment to make it a little more comfortable? What institutions can we build which might make drug addicts more fully a part of society, and might provide people with the basic necessities of existence, which include not only food, health and shelter but love, meaning, and a sense of belonging.

We mentioned the burden of prohibition. We might note, more specifically, that it forces users and addicts to navigate a hazardous and complicated black market for drugs, often at greatly inflated prices and dangerously low qualities. In doing so it exposes them to crime, disease, and misery; and often narrows their associations down to only other addicts, hobbling chances for recovery yet again. From this, a seemingly radical hypothesis arises: safe, legal, cheap (or free) access to drugs of dependence may greatly eliminate the burden we have attached to the simple act of acquiring a drug one is dependent on, and thus greatly increase their chance of recovery. I say ‘seemingly radical’, because this theory has been vindicated repeatedly. One example is Switzerland’s trial of heroin maintenance for chronic addicts which, by simply providing safe and easy access to a drug these addicts had been previously forced to hustle for by prohibition, achieved the following results, as summarized in Dr. Mate’s book:

  • “Fitness for work improved considerably: permanent employment more than doubled.
  • The patients’ housing situations rapidly improved and stabilized (in particular, there was no homelessness).
  • There was no fatal overdose due to prescribed substances.
  • There were no notable disturbances in local neighborhoods.
  • There were significant economic benefits in terms of savings per patient-day, owing to marked reductions in legal and health costs.
    Among participants there was a marked decrease in crime of all kinds, from shoplifting to drug dealing – in the case of hard drugs, from 49.9 percent to 8.2 percent.
  • Overall, offenses dropped by 68 percent. According to the Central Criminal Register, the number of convictions dropped by 80 percent among addicts enrolled in the program.”

These facts imply that legal manufacture and sale of currently proscribed substances warrants consideration. At the very least, prescription of substances to people already dependent on them is clearly beneficial. The institutions at which addicts have safely and mercifully administered their drug of choice are immensely valuable. 

Along the same lines are needle exchanges, vociferously opposed by the United States, and by any country (most) upon which it can exert enough pressure. The principal effect of needle exchanges is to reduce misery and disease.

We should think, as well, about the institutions of civil society.

The voluntarily established and maintained harm reduction community (and service) I am on the volunteer staff of is one example of the kind of civil institutions with which our society might be more abundantly furnished if we liberalized our drug policies. It is called Tripsit. It’s aims are harm reduction and popular education, as well as 24-hour assistance to anybody having a difficult time on psychoactive substances. We have helped literally thousands of people, often at some of the most important moments of their lives. We maintain an environment among several hundred regular users, and thousands more passers by, wherein education and responsibility are held up as valuable. More importantly, our community gives people a sense of belonging, purpose, and empowerment.

A grander example is the Portland Hotel Society in Vancouver, Canada, the core mandate of which is to “provide domiciles for people who would otherwise be homeless,” as explained by Dr. Mate (referenced repeatedly above) who is the resident physician at the four hotels at which te PHS provides shelter to hundreds of societies most downtrodden members. What makes it unique, he says, is it’s principle of accepting people “as they are – no matter how dysfunctional, troubled, and troubling they may be.”

MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) does incredible work researching the potential application of psychedelic compounds to therapy, which has the potential to alleviate and unfathomable amount of suffering for a huge number of people by treating things like PTSD, anxiety relating to end of life in patients with chronic illness, depression, and even opiate and alcohol addiction. Primarily, their research is into psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, which has demonstrably immense value. At present, this kind of activity is still suppressed, as a rule. MAPS, and a handful of other organizations like it, are islands of freedom in a socio-political system characterized by repression and hysteria when it comes to drugs. We could allow this art to develop, and we may conceivably see responsible clinics for this treatment set up in major cities across the world in the coming decades, treating multitudes of depressed and traumatized human beings with, by all reports, unprecedented efficacy.

I know this suggestion won’t be popular with many people, but we can allow an open culture of drug use. We can allow people to create safe spaces for the consumption of drugs. Many people derive meaning and identity from various substances. If they wish to form communities, we should not stand in their way. Community is immensely valuable to people, and we should not be so arrogant as to decree that it will develop on our terms, or not at all. Better on their terms than not at all. There are obvious objections that will be raised, but they needn’t be refuted here. Suffice it to say that the answers lie in the Parable of Rat Park. I might mention cultural institutions of a different kind, for example the numerous psychedelic gatherings and festivals across the world, or the institutions of psychedelic music, and painting, and so on. We might argue about their value, but pretentious, dumb, or vacuous as these things can be, they make people happy – and they’re often far from vacuous. There is nothing vapid about the Grateful Dead, or Huxley’s ‘Island’ (or the kind of communities prescribed within), in my opinion.

It isn’t the addicts that need to change, but our society. Once we understand this, we can begin fruitfully to approach the issue of addiction and drug use by the construction and maintenance of institutions, and by the promotion of tolerance. This is just a few examples and suggestions of how this can be done, taken either from the imagination of one individual, or from the few institutions which have been allowed to flourish in an atmosphere characterized by intense repression and fanatical anti-drug dogma, of which there are dismally (though predictably) few. Allow the people in their multitudes freedom in deciding how they shall relate to drugs and to drug users, and they will invent more than I could possibly conceive or hope to cover here.

I'll be writing articles and essays on drugs, drug politics, and drug culture, because I don't believe many people are doing so intelligently or compassionately. Donations can be made in bitcoin, if you want to show support: 1FByUZu6UxJ8ThxYuRHLi7vRxXnRM7iATM