Sex and psychedelics are two of the most powerful tools available for facilitating healing and spiritual growth.
“Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”
– William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
I was nineteen years old when I found myself battling deep anxiety and depression, leading to years of cocaine, speed and then ketamine addiction. I was also struggling to find a healthy expression of sexuality in a patriarchal and objectifying world. My response was to find sugar daddies who would at least benefit me materially in exchange, compensating for my own dissociated relationship to sex. I was, seemingly, on a path to self-destruction. But falling headlong into addiction and maneuvering through often fraught casual encounters turned out to be two of the most important things I ever did – because along the way I stumbled upon the hidden healing and spiritual potential of sex and (psychedelic) drugs.
Over the next five years, sex and drugs switched roles in my life: the poisons became medicine.
Sex and drugs are powerfully tied together in the American imagination: through hedonism, scandal, taboo, stigma and crime. Perhaps not coincidentally, they are also two of the most powerful, immediate, accessible, and universal ways to experience “altered” states of consciousness. In my experience, it is precisely because they lead to these other states of consciousness, the very states western society often associates with escapism and even madness, that they are such profound tools for healing.
In order to achieve these altered states, the final requirement is surrender: a surrender of the ego, whether through orgasm (la petite mort) or an ego-death experience on psychedelics. “Surrender” is often a dirty word in our control freak and victory-obsessed culture. Perhaps this surrender, this loss of control, is what’s really so subversive about sex and drugs.
In surrendering to the unconscious, or to something greater than our egoic selves, one finds knowledge and ways of knowing that subvert the dominant western paradigm. Psychedelics in high doses have consistently been shown to facilitate peak spiritual or mystical experiences, in studies from the 1960s as well as recent research at Johns Hopkins University. There is a similar potential for peak experiences during sex. It is possible during orgasm to find oneself and one’s lover melding into one being, to experience visions, shapeshifting, a dissolving of the ego or a meeting with “God.” Dr. Jenny Wade’s research on what she terms “transcendent sex” shows that approximately 1 in 8 Americans will experience something like this spontaneously during sex, whether or not they ever share it with their partners.
How Sex and Drugs Help Us Reconnect
The notion of healing with sex and psychedelics shouldn’t really be surprising. Both psychedelic and sexual experience can enhance sensory perception, facilitate reconnection to emotions and memories, reestablish the sense of connection between self and other, and leave deep impressions from states of expanded consciousness. In his book Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner describes the “sensory gating channels,” the scientific “doors of perception,” that control how much sensory input reaches awareness. Seratonergic psychedelics, such as DMT (the active ingredient in ayahuasca), psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic” mushrooms), LSD, mescaline, and bufotenin, all reduce gating activity of the thalamus and other gating parts of the brain. Similarly, “frequent sex stimulates the formation of new neurons in neural networks, irrespective of the type or age of the organism. Sensory gating channels open more widely, cognition improves, functionality increases.” Sex and psychedelics both open these sensory gating channels, allowing more information to reach consciousness – in a state commonly referred to as “altered.”
Sex and psychedelics hold strong potential for healing trauma. In The Birth of Pleasure, psychologist Carol Gilligan defines trauma as “the shock to the psyche that leads to disassociation: our ability to separate ourselves from parts of ourselves, to create a split within ourselves so that we can know and also not know what we know, feel and yet not feel our feelings.” Sex and psychedelics have the potential to heal because they can help us to reassociate. It was through sexual and psychedelic ritual that I began to reawaken to a deeper sense of self and a more profound connection to the world around me.
It was my psychedelic explorations that provided crucial insight into my addictive tendencies, allowing me to heal patterns that I now recognize as stemming from deep-seated anxiety and dissociation. Healing my own addiction made me realize just how much is missing from society’s current understanding of addiction as a whole. I believe it is time to redefine addiction, as Bruce K. Alexander does in his book, The Globalization of Addiction: “Addiction is neither a disease nor a moral failure, but a narrowly focused lifestyle that functions as a meager substitute for people who desperately lack psychosocial integration.” This reconceptualization shifts the focus away from the symptoms (particular drugs or habits) to the social dislocation and emotional pain that is at the root of all compulsive and self-destructive behavior.
There are, perhaps, infinite paths to healing and spiritual connection. However, at a time when all life on this planet is threatened by an ecological crisis humankind itself has created, born of compulsive consumption and disconnection from the natural world, time is of the essence. I believe there is a need to consciously catalyze new mindsets and perspectives as quickly as possible – through states that leave one with a profound sense of the interconnectivity of all life, of the illusion of the “I.” Practices like breathwork and meditation can take years to develop before leading to full-blown mystical states. I know from experience what effective and efficient tools sex and psychedelics can be for catalyzing paradigm shifts overnight.
But they are just that: tools. One’s mileage may vary based on intention, mindset, ritual, setting, and how the experience is integrated afterwards. A sexual encounter can be a short-lived and forgettable mutual masturbation session – or an intentional encounter with the divine. An LSD trip can be an excuse to watch Disney movies stoned – or the six hours that forever changed one’s understanding of the nature of the universe. It was a subtle change in my awareness and intention that made the difference between my use of sex and drugs as agents of numbing and escape and agents of change and growth.
Today, partly because of the very illicit nature of sex and drugs in American culture, few are available to teach one how to use these tools. I myself had to stumble my way down this path, lacking role models or any formal guidance. In another culture or time things might have been different. Other societies have established legitimate roles for the ones who would facilitate connection to the collective and divine, using psychedelic plants and sexual experience.
The View from the Ancients
When one takes a longer view back through human history, modern western society appears to be the aberration. Practically every other culture has had carefully prescribed ways of altering consciousness, often through the use of psychoactive plants or sexual ritual. Those involving plant medicines or sexuality were often the most sacred rites, used to heal and connect to the divine. This is true even in ancient Greece, cradle of western civilization. Participants in the mysteries of Eleusis, the most important of all Greek religious cults, included Aristotle and Plato. The greater of these mysteries involved drinking the kykeon, a psychoactive brew most likely made from ergot, from which LSD is derived. Indigenous cultures around the world use psychoactive plant sacraments, from psilocybin mushrooms to iboga, ayahuasca to peyote. The Tantric tradition holds sexual intercourse as a sacred rite, called maithuna. Early Taoist sects performed sexual intercourse as spiritual practice, called HeQi (“joining energy”).
Today, living post-sexual revolution and in an era of increasing acceptance of some forms of drug-taking, American culture is rife with sex and drug references. Sex and drugs are “fun.” But sacred sexuality scholar Georg Feuerstein argues in Sacred Sexuality: The Erotic Spirit in the World’s Great Religions that today’s “obsession with fun betrays an absence of pleasure or happiness” and that “beneath our hunt for fun or fleeting pleasure there lies buried a deep desire to realize our ecstatic potential.” Like Feuerstein, I believe that “sacred sex, which is the experience of ecstasy, is the real sexual revolution.”
A revolution in American drug use would be welcome as well, responding to the deep desire for rites of initiation and transcendence that underlies the urge for fun and escape. From ancient times, socially sanctioned and supervised use of what is today called a “drug,” but which was then considered a “sacrament,” would often be introduced in the transition from childhood to adulthood. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that in a culture that is missing these rites of initiation, the teenage instinct to just “get fucked up” (or alter one’s consciousness) prevails. But without any instruction, guidance or context, one is left shooting (up) in the dark.
Sacred is not a word often associated with sex or drugs in American culture today, but perhaps that’s exactly the problem. As sex and drugs are brought out from the shadowy underbelly of American society and into conscious awareness, as their stigma is removed, maybe the puritanical and repressive roots of this country will finally be overthrown – allowing once more for ways of knowing and understanding that were nearly exterminated along with the indigenous peoples who once populated this land.
Spiritual Tourism is Not the Answer
Sex and drug education, teaching harm reduction, is just the tip of the iceberg. New studies on the importance of intimate touch as well as the healing possible using psychedelic medicine seem to be emerging weekly. Why not think consciously about roles for teachers and guides to facilitate these explorations?
The potential for sex workers to function as healers is vast and not unprecedented historically, possibly dating back to temple prostitution in ancient times. Even today, sex surrogates, “neo-tantrikas” and other sex workers are actively doing this work. It was my own sexual journey that led me to research older forms of sacred sex and temple prostitution as well as to investigate the incredibly human (but often untold) stories of client-provider relations in the sex industry today. My own experiences have confirmed that there is always potential for healing when two people get truly naked with each other. This healing can take place in any intimate context – but sexual teachers, healers and facilitators are needed to facilitate a societal shift away from superficial and disconnected pornographic representations and back to something more genuine, embodied and profound.
Psychedelic facilitators have existed throughout time as well, from indigenous healers and spirit workers to underground psychedelic therapists and medical professionals continuing this ancient work. As psychedelics such as LSD, MDMA, and psilocybin continue to gain acceptance within modern medicine as powerful and effective treatments for everything from anxiety and OCD to PTSD and depression, there will be a need to further develop and expand this role.
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel in the attempt to build these new western traditions. There is much to learn from other cultures and times, ancient techniques for going into transcendent states, psychedelic states, states of erotic trance. But even this re-learning process is fraught as the western appropriation of “shamanistic” and other traditions such as ayahuasca and tantra – seemingly with the best of intentions – risks perpetuating old colonial patterns of “borrowing” knowledge and resources from indigenous and other peoples, while giving back little in return. Decolonizing our spiritual practices is surely as important as (and perhaps fundamental to) decolonizing our bodies and the earth. Respectful cultural exchanges with other traditions can provide inspiration for new ways of doing things – but it will take slow, organic work from within existing western paradigms to grow the traditions that will make lasting social change.
Individual and Collective Healing
There are vast new worlds to explore as the West re-approaches psychedelic plants and the healing potential of sexuality and intimate touch. “Altered” states can lead one into rich and fruitful dark places, if one is willing to go: ploughing the unconscious and bringing repressed emotions, memories and knowings into the light of the conscious mind. It is in the darkest psychedelic trips that I gained the most insight; it is the places that were most uncomfortable, the places I most wished to avoid, that had the most to offer. It was only possible to heal, however, because I was in safe and intentional spaces. The difference between a potentially scarring trip and a deeply nourishing one can be simply a matter of where, how and with whom it takes place.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at twenty years old and it was the conscious use of sex and drugs – not my doctor’s prescription – that helped move me through it. My journey from addiction and disembodiment to healing and reconnection taught me the importance of removing the taboos around sex and psychedelics and restoring them to their rightful place as healing and sacred.
Now it feels as if my own story is just a microcosm of the greater story of western civilization today. An estimated 23.1 million Americans need treatment for a problem related to illegal drugs and alcohol, and 18.2 million Americans are diagnosed with a form of mental illness every year. I would argue far more than that are suffering from other compulsions and ailments as a result of mass disconnection and social dislocation.
Indeed, all life on this planet is threatened by western culture’s dissociation, disembodiment and addiction to consuming – which has now brought us to a mass extinction event, an ecological mega-crisis. As the inventor of LSD Albert Hoffman writes in LSD, My Problem Child, “A concept of reality that separates self and the world has decisively determined the evolutionary course of European intellectual history.” It will take the rapid opening of humanity’s collective sensory gating channels, the correction of this fundamentally flawed paradigm, to change this course. Through the process of embracing the shadow, of re-associating and reconnecting, of finding healing and spiritual awareness, we can collectively shift away from the destructive path we are on. It is time to re-sacralize nature and the cosmos, to find our way back to reconnection and reintegration, to an understanding of the interconnectivity and intelligence of all life, before it’s too late. I believe the careful and intentional use of sex and psychedelics is our best hope for quickly catalyzing that change.
We have the right tools – if only we can learn to use them in time.
The story I want to share here is a little shocking – or at least it was to me. It makes one question the most basic assumptions commonly held about how rational science and modern medicine operate, to find out that a substance like ibogaine could go through all this scrutiny and still end up far from the hands of those who need it. Here is the story of how we almost cured addiction.
To begin I must introduce our main character: a little-known shrub native to Western Africa (mostly Gabon and Cameroon) called tabernanthe iboga. The legend has it that the pygmies first discovered the magical powers of the iboga root, which is powerfully hallucinogenic. The pygmies are said to have taught this knowledge to others, eventually becoming the practice of Bwiti, a spiritual tradition that revolves around the use of iboga. Bwiti belief is animistic, and iboga is used to contact the spirits and the ancestors as well as to heal the sick. Bwiti revolves around a three-day initiation in which the initiate consumes copious amounts of this revolting tasting bark. I should know, I was initiated into the Bwiti last year (but let’s save that for another post).
In Gabon, iboga is seen as a sacred medicine (the original word boghaga literally means “to care for”). Sometimes referred to as the “Holy Wood”, each community has a nganga (chief healer) who is responsible for leading ceremonies of initiation and other healing ceremonies. Iboga has been used as a sacrament by the Bwiti for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
In 1864 a French doctor is the first Westerner to discover the root and bring it to France, where a botanist names it Tabernanathe iboga H. bn (as is often done, he gave the plant his initials, because clearly he discovered it even though African people have been using it intentionally for eons).
But it’s not until 1901 that two French scientists extract the easiest alkaloid to produce from the plant and name it ibogaine. Ibogaine then goes through several manifestations as a prescription drug to combat fatigue in low doses under the name Lambarene, which remains on the market until ibogaine is eventually banned in the United States in the 1960’s.
In the meantime, secret CIA research is being done on various hallucinogens. It’s not long before scientists get the hunch that these substances may have an impact on opiate addiction. At the Federal Narcotics Hospital in Kentucky, Dr. Harris Isbell, a doctor working for the CIA, conducted experiments with LSD and ibogaine on African-American prisoners addicted to heroin. They use low doses however, where psychological effects are significant but not usually enough to interrupt addiction. The CIA would later neither confirm nor deny that they discovered the anti-addictive properties of ibogaine. In 1956, the researcher Jurg Schneider discovered that ibogaine amplifies the effects of opiates, allowing one to take half as much for the same effect. But this research is also kept under wraps until the 1980s.
In the 1960s, a few intrepid psychonautic explorers try ibogaine, at that time little known and in limited supply. It was also of interest to very few people, lacking the sensory attractions and kaleidoscope effects, and involving more physical side effects (such as intense nausea and vomiting). Even Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary weren’t interested, because it wasn’t euphoric like other psychedelics.
Finally, a young man named Howard Lotsof is offered ibogaine by a chemist friend, who says, “Try this, my friend, it’s a thirty-six hour trip!” Lotsof passes it on to another friend who calls him a week later to tell him that since he took it, he’s miraculously experienced zero cravings for any drug that had previously been part of his day-to-day experience.
And so it begins. Lotsof goes through the difficult process of procuring more ibogaine and organizes the first (informal) group trials. In the first group, five of the seven volunteers who are regular drug users stop all drug usage for six months following treatment. The other two go back to it. When Lotsof asks why, they reply, “Because we’re junkies. We like being junkies.” Here the importance of a strong desire to quit becomes clear. Ibogaine is an addiction interruptor, but it’s power is only as strong as your intention. But it can be powerful indeed, as Lotsof explains:
I don’t know if you know anything about heroin addiction, but one of the people that it worked on was a roommate of the other two that it didn’t work on. He was living with those guys for six months while they were shooting up every day, and he wasn’t using it. Now if you know anything about heroin addiction, you know how hard that is. So we knew we had something very unique here.
Minimizing withdrawals, even the heaviest heroin addicts find themselves clean and withdrawal free within a few days, sometimes overnight. Gone are not only the withdrawals, but the cravings as well. To a junkie, this seemed a true miracle drug.
Underground psychedelic psychotherapists such as Leo Zeff and Myron Stolaroff hear of ibogaine and begin using it in treatments, but outside of this work, ibogaine is practically unknown, as “King Heroin” takes over the culture. Even though it was never widely known or used and had practically no recreational potential, ibogaine would be swept into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act in 1968 along with all the other psychedelic drugs, meaning it was deemed to have no valid medical use or potential. In this time, going into the 1970s, ibogaine all but disappears. Howard Lotsof ends up in prison and then addicted to opiates again and, ibogaine now unavailable to him, has to struggle to get clean on his own this time.
In the meantime, by the early 1980s the use of cocaine, crack, and heroin skyrockets.
It’s in this context of the 1980s and 1990s that we finally see traction being made. Lotsof makes an ally in marijuana legalization activist and Yippie member Dana Beal. With Beal and Lotsof’s wife Nancy, Lotsof founds the Staten Island Project to secretly dispense ibogaine treatments. In one year, half the Yippies’ expenditures secretly go towards funding these treatments. This proves unsustainable and Lotsof ditches the project and moves on to focus on legalization and research.
Lotsof realizes he had to gain credibility in the scientific community. So he buries himself in the library, forms a non-profit corporation and files a patent for ibogaine. (This could be seen as a pretty cavalier case of cultural appropriation, as is too often the case – yet another case of a white man patenting the knowledge of indigenous peoples, even if in the name of a greater good.) Unfortunately Lotsof meets only indifference and skepticism at the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). Those who do take interest, like Dr. Doris Clouet, lose credibility and eventually their jobs. Such are the risks of working with stigmatized substances, regardless of the science behind them.
Large pharmaceutical laboratories show no interest either. Between the fact that ibogaine comes from a plant (so any patent can only be for its applications) and the fact that it is a Schedule I illegal substance, getting ibogaine to market would mean a lot of investment for a relatively small return. As an example, the official response from pharmaceutical company Ciba-Geigy was: “While the indication for narcotic addiction withdrawal is almost certainly worthwhile, it has not been identified as a strategic commitment for our company”. It’s strange to think of the ramifications of private medicine, of all the peoples’ lives that could have been saved or at least who could’ve benefited from ibogaine had it only been a more “strategic commitment” to private corporations.
The non-profit route seems to be a dead end. In 1986, Lotsof starts a private company offering shares and gets some investment this way. With this money, Lotsof finances the first International Conference on Ibogaine in 1987. He also flies to Gabon and convinces President Omar Bongo to give researchers enough iboga to do research (Bongo had previously deemed iboga to be a “strategic national heritage product” and made it illegal to export from Gabon).
The first human experiments with ibogaine were done in Holland, the only country at the time to have a real policy for the prevention of drug addiction. At the same time, research with Dr. Stanley Glick back in the U.S. shows that ibogaine will reduce self-administration of morphine in rats, which is very promising.
Ibogaine finally gets its chance in the post-Reagan AIDS era due to the growing call for harm reduction. Harm Reduction calls for prevention, safe sex, de-stigmatization of HIV positive people, the development of treatment, needle exchange, and for the therapeutic use of cannabis. ACT UP, a large direct action advocacy group, learns how to work the lobbying process and get the required media attention at the same time, gradually gaining some influence in the political sphere. Dana Beal joins their ranks, and those in the U.S. harm reduction struggle against AIDS now take on the ibogaine cause as well.
Unfortunately, there are some huge stumbling blocks for ibogaine. Before scientists can conduct research on classified substances, they must get permission from both the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). Scheduled substances face a lot of stigma and ostracizing, and most respectable scientists don’t want to be associated with this kind of research.
To get around this, Lotsof has scientists from the US brought to observe treatments in Holland. One such example was Dr. Carlo Contoreggi, who worked for the Addiction Research Center (ARC) of NIDA. Dr. Contoreggi, who was used to working with addicts, was absolutely flabbergasted:
This tall, straight, athletic-looking guy walks in. No pallor. No trace of withdrawal. In fact, he’s radiating good health, looks like he’s been working out. There’s a bounce in his step, a twinkle in his eye. The thing is, I’m a clinician – an M.D., not a rat scientist. I knew we had nothing in development that could do that. It’s physically impossible in that timeframe.
Unfortunately this enthusiasm reaches the ears of ARC director Dr. Jerome Jaffee, a conservative and total adversary of ibogaine. He doesn’t want to hear anything about successful treatments. Jaffee actually threatens to send Contoreggi off to a different department if he continues his work examining ibogaine treatments before and after. Jaffee himself then goes on to undertake a study called “Ibogaine Doesn’t Work”, based on a single study of rats. These results contradict the findings of all previous studies on ibogaine.
Dr. Glick’s team of researchers do an ibogaine study at the same time, demonstrating the real effectiveness of ibogaine. Unfortunately this won’t be published until 1991, a year after Dr. Jaffee’s research is published, due to low funding. In the meantime, resistance at NIDA and the ARC starts to build.
Nevertheless, Lotsof and the ibogaine movement persevere. In 1990, the march to “Stop the Drug War” from Boston to Washington is a big success. Dhoruba Bin Wahad, ex-member of the Black Panther Party, is one of the speakers at the rally. A former political prisoner and hero with African American activisits, Bin Wahad adopts the ibogaine cause. He believes ibogaine is a weapon from Africa against the “genocide” (his term) inflicted upon his community by drugs – drugs that he claimed were distributed with the complicity of the CIA. It is through Bin Wahad’s outspokenness that many other African American activist groups join the ibogaine movement as well.
In June 1991, Lotsof makes contact with Dr. Deborah Mash at the University of Miami who wants to conduct clinical research on ibogaine. It just so happened she was married to a high-ranking Democrat who had Hillary Clinton’s ear. Clinton promises to do something about ibogaine once her husband takes office. Dr. Mash drafts a first phase of trials and receives FDA approval.
While ACT UP’s efforts manage to get ibogaine on NIDA’s list of “medications to be evaluated for the treatment of addiction”, NIDA simultaneously opposes any clinical trials and bans even pre- and post-treatment evaluations, saying they could be seen as tacit approval by NIDA. This would prove to be NIDA’s modus operandi, claiming to be working towards ibogaine research, but sabotaging it all the way.
A new study of forty treatments emerges from Holland. In the study, 25% of addicts gave up hard drugs for good after a single treatment. Another 25% found it worked to keep them sober at least a month. An additional 15% find that they are no longer interested in drugs after trying them again and are therefore clean after six months. This constitutes a 40% success rate. The other 35% are able to conquer their addiction with additional monthly ibogaine treatments in conjunction with Narcotics Anonymous programs. The total success rate then becomes 75%, an absolutely astounding result in the world of addiction.
ACT UP comes bearing this study as well as research from Dr. Glick’s team showing that ibogaine is not just a maintenance drug like methadone. In response, NIDA actually presents a plan for a phase of clinical trials within a year’s time. But first, the ibogaine team will have to redo the toxicity studies in rats. As Dr. Peter Hartsock later criticized, the strategy was basically to block ibogaine by endlessly prolonging trials on rats and hoping for a failure at that stage so that things would never move forward to human research.
Meanwhile more and more researchers take the initiative to work on ibogaine and more articles on ibogaine are published in 1992 than in all previous years combined. Lotsof comes back from Holland with the first HIV-positive patient treated with ibogaine. She had been addicted to heroin and methadone and was now totally clean. This earns ACT UP and ibogaine some good press.
Unfortunately, just as ibogaine reaches peak levels of media attention, two conflicting studies come out. Dr. Mark Molliner’s study showed that ibogaine was neurotoxic when injected into rats at 100 mg/kg. Of course the standard dose for anti-addiction treatment is 17 mg/kg and that dose is taken orally, but media reports don’t often go into that kind of nuance. Dr. Mash’s results on monkeys show no cerebral toxicity but unfortunately she was only able to conduct tests on three monkeys. Of course, the media latches onto the rat study, portraying ibogaine as a controversial and “dangerous” treatment for addiction.
In 1994 the biggest internal defender of ibogaine in ACT UP, Robert Rygor dies. Divisiveness reigns. The ibogaine cause seems to compete with that of needle exchanges. ACT UP also faces stigma from other organizations, which accuse it of being a front organization for legalizing marijuana and ibogaine. In the end, Rygor’s death marks the death of an ACT UP-supported ibogaine movement as well.
Meanwhile, things still look promising as NIDA meets with ibogaine experts in May 1994. All teams agree that at therapeutic doses, ibogaine is not neurotoxic. The FDA’s Doctor Curtis Wright is satisfied, saying, “It sounds to me you folks have a Phase I clinical trial”. NIDA makes all the proposals for detailed clinical trials but sets no dates. In fact, the trials would never take place.
The elections of 1994 bring unwanted change for the ibogaine crusaders, with Republicans pushing a tough line on drugs, bringing back the drug war of the Reagan era. The Democrats, under political pressure, follow suit, competing on who is the “toughest on drugs”.
The anti-ibogaine militants take advantage of this new atmosophere. A last official meeting on ibogaine takes place at NIDA. All ibogaine experts (including Mark Molliver whose study had originally found neurotoxicity in rats) agree that it is safe to move forward with ibogaine trials in humans. But Frank Vocci, the conservative associate director at NIDA, brings in external consultants who have never worked in this area. They, of course, say they do not believe any treatment can act to break addiction.
In the end, Vocci decides to stop everything, even the preclinical investigations. No more public funds will be invested, the death knell for ibogaine research. Vocci later justifies this saying that ibogaine opponents were more convincing. But in reality, the clinical trials were put aside due to pressure from the Republican pharmaceutical industry lobbyists. The FDA would take a more liberal approach and approve Dr. Mash’s research in Miami but in the end the FDA has no influence over NIDA and the requests of Mash’s team are denied.
All legitimate research with ibogaine has now ended, with this sharp right turn in U.S. drug policy. President Clinton is persuaded to crack down on marijuana use and his drug czar calls ibogaine “a dangerous and addictive hallucinogen, and a trick”.
Looking back at ibogaine’s failure, Agnés Paicheler notes that it was almost inevitable due to the number of obstacles in the way:
Arising out of African rituals similar to sorcery, promoted by former hippies, ex-junkies, and African American activisits, and erroneously labeled as a hallucinogen, ibogaine was laboring under a bad image, as much in terms of deserving to be taken seriously as from the standpoint of morality….Even among scientists, there are many who don’t want to even hear of ibogaine, quite simply because that would mean admitting that nonscientists, and on top of that actual drug users, had made an important discovery.
In the end, ibogaine was of no financial interest to anybody, and that’s mostly what this came down to. Political decision makers would have had to show enormous dedication to ibogaine to bring it through legalization as a prescription medicine through public sector funded research.
And that was never going to happen. Ibogaine is a dangerous competitior to the commercial sector from anti-addiction treatments. In fact the promoters of methadone were the first to block ibogaine’s development. Even certain scientists, whose entire careers were based on methadone, had fought ibogaine research.
There may be additional cultural factors at play as well. In this morally conservative country, addicts are seen as “guilty” and deserve to “pay” for their mistakes. It would almost be too soft a punishment, allowing addicts to just be “cured” – especially by taking a “hallucinogenic drug”. Indeed, it would make a mockery of our drug laws to have a schedule I drug turn out to be a lifesaver.
And so ibogaine waits in the wings, for modern medicine to approach it once more. Some, like Dimitri Mugianis, have worked illegally treating people with ibogaine within the United States (until he was caught, read coverage of his work in the New York Times and the Village Voice). Ibogaine clinics all over the world (in places like Mexico and Costa Rica, where it is legal) continue to treat addicts, but often at a steep price. It was through a legal iboga treatment center that this writer kicked her two-year ketamine addiction, and met many others who have kicked their habits as well. It’s not a magic bullet, the person has to be willing to do the work themselves to stay clean. But it’s a hope in a world where there isn’t much hope to be found.
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is currently funding two research studies looking at the long term impact and effectiveness of legal ibogaine treatments outside the US. No other legal research can take place in the US as things currently stand. And in the meantime, the majority of people suffering from addiction have never even heard of this miraculous addiction interrupter: iboga, the simple root bark of an African shrub.
The world may not actually be coming to an end, but the era of drug prohibition is, even as our politicians remain in denial.
Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana (not just medical marijuana) via ballot initiatives that came into effect this month. A perfect opportunity for Obama to liberalize drug laws without sticking his neck out, right? Nope, according to the New York Times the administration is weighing it’s legal options which vary from having federal prosecutors making examples of low-level marijuana users to filing lawsuits and cutting off the states’ federal grants. I suppose Obama is really determined not to be the first black president who legalized marijuana (especially after his stoner past was splashed across the papers). Don’t worry Mr. President, no hurry, there are only nearly a million Americans arrested for pot every year (and as a black man you very easily could have been one of them). It’s not like it’s a basic human rights violation or anything.
Andrew Sullivan makes it even more personal. “Mr. President, don’t even think about it” he writes. “The president wasn’t just once a pot-smoker, he was a very serious pothead. His own life and career prove that this substance is no more potentially damaging to a human being than alcohol, which is not only legal but marketed to us with abandon….the federal War on Marijuana is racist in its enforcement, ridiculous as a matter of science, outrageous in terms of personal liberty, and inimical to federalism.”
So what gives? It seems we have to break the taboo – the numbers are there, the support is there, but politicians don’t seem to have gotten the message. Which is exactly why “queen of consciousness” Lady Amanda Feilding’s Beckley Foundation has spearheaded a new global grassroots campaign in association with the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Virgin Unite, Avaaz and Sundog Pictures. Senseless or not, it’s still rare for politicians to speak openly on the failed war on drugs, and even more so to speak of liberalizing drug laws. (Well that is, until they’re out of office – and become supporters of campaigns like this one.)
“The Global Commission on Drug Policy, and initiatives like the Beckley Foundation’s Public Letter — signed by around 70 of the world’s most respected and influential figures, including 9 presidents, 12 Nobel Prizewinners, and celebrities like Yoko Ono, Noam Chomsky, Sting, Sean Parker and Sir Richard Branson — are rapidly making drug policy a subject that politicians can raise without the stigma that has traditionally accompanied any mention of the “d-word.”…
…The wave of reform is swelling, as President Pérez of Guatemala and President Santos of Colombia — both signatories of the Beckley Public Letter — have been joined by leaders from Ecuador, Bolivia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Argentina in calling for a new approach to the problem….
…And it is looking increasingly likely that drug policy will be the platform from which a united Latin America will once and for all establish its independence from its domineering northern neighbor on the world stage.”
Exciting times indeed. The new documentary film “Breaking the Taboo” is narrated by Morgan Freeman and features President Clinton and President Cater.
“In 1925, H. L. Mencken wrote an impassioned plea: “Prohibition has not only failed in its promises but actually created additional serious and disturbing social problems throughout society. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. There is not less crime, but more. … The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.”…
…Here we are, four decades after Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1971 and $1 trillion spent since then. What do we have to show for it? The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, with about 2.3 million behind bars. More than half a million of those people are incarcerated for a drug law violation. What a waste of young lives….
…In business, if one of our companies is failing, we take steps to identify and solve the problem. What we don’t do is continue failing strategies that cost huge sums of money and exacerbate the problem. Rather than continuing on the disastrous path of the war on drugs, we need to look at what works and what doesn’t in terms of real evidence and data.”
Here’s an idea:
For further evidence that the drug war is a joke, one only needs to look at last weeks headlines. HSBC signed off on a “record” financial settlement of $1.9 billion after admitting to laundering billions of dollars for Colombian and Mexican drug cartels as well as violating other important banking laws. No criminal prosecutions were pursued by the Justice Department.
As Matt Taibi put it, “If you’ve ever been arrested on a drug charge, if you’ve ever spent even a day in jail for having a stem of marijuana in your pocket or “drug paraphernalia” in your gym bag, Assistant Attorney General and longtime Bill Clinton pal Lanny Breuer has a message for you: Bite me.”
“By eschewing criminal prosecutions of major drug launderers on the grounds (the patently absurd grounds, incidentally) that their prosecution might imperil the world financial system, the government has now formalized the double standard.
They’re now saying that if you’re not an important cog in the global financial system, you can’t get away with anything, not even simple possession. You will be jailed and whatever cash they find on you they’ll seize on the spot, and convert into new cruisers or toys for your local SWAT team, which will be deployed to kick in the doors of houses where more such inessential economic cogs as you live. If you don’t have a systemically important job, in other words, the government’s position is that your assets may be used to finance your own political disenfranchisement.
On the other hand, if you are an important person, and you work for a big international bank, you won’t be prosecuted even if you launder nine billion dollars. Even if you actively collude with the people at the very top of the international narcotics trade, your punishment will be far smaller than that of the person at the very bottom of the world drug pyramid. You will be treated with more deference and sympathy than a junkie passing out on a subway car in Manhattan (using two seats of a subway car is a common prosecutable offense in this city). An international drug trafficker is a criminal and usually a murderer; the drug addict walking the street is one of his victims. But thanks to Breuer, we’re now in the business, officially, of jailing the victims and enabling the criminals.”
“By coincidence, on the very same day that the DOJ announced that HSBC would not be indicted for its multiple money-laundering felonies, the New York Times published a story featuring the harrowing story of an African-American single mother of three who was sentenced to life imprisonment at the age of 27 for a minor drug offense…
…As the NYT notes – and read her whole story to get the full flavor of it – this is commonplace for the poor and for minorities in the US justice system. Contrast that deeply oppressive, merciless punishment system with the full-scale immunity bestowed on HSBC – along with virtually every powerful and rich lawbreaking faction in America over the last decade – and that is the living, breathing two-tiered US justice system. How this glaringly disparate, and explicitly status-based, treatment under the criminal law does not produce serious social unrest is mystifying.”
So the “War on Drugs” doesn’t work. Now what?
How about understanding why people (especially young people) take drugs to begin with? “Drugs are taken for pleasure” says David Nutt in the Guardian. “Realize this and we can start to reduce harm”. Most people who take drugs are not addicts. To help us understand more about drug use, MixMag and the Guardian are asking volunteers to fill out the Global Drug Survey, the biggest independent survey of drug use patterns in the world.
But the reason we take drugs may be even more interesting. Ronald K. Siegel in his book “Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances”, argues that the instinct to pursue intoxication with plants, alcohol and other mind-altering substances is a fourth drive, after food, sleep and sex. This natural part of our biology creates an irrepressible demand for intoxicating substances. If this is true, the war on drugs is actually a war on biology – and even evolution. Drug-taking causes changes in thoughts and behavior that may create variations or mutations that drive evolution. Fancy that!
Whatever the reason, apparently “Everything We Thought We Knew About Drug Users Was Wrong”: “Would you believe that people who use drugs are, on average, more educated than the average citizen? Or that less than 10 percent are unemployed? Around the world, the mythology of the drug user – as a desperate, ill or uncontrollable person – has often influenced policies that were poorly informed about actual drug use.”
With seventeen states now implementing medical marijuana programs, a growing admission of the “War on Drugs” as a failure and over half of all Americans favoring legalizing marijuana, it feels like we’re at a kind of tipping point in the case for legalization. If rumors at GQ magazine are to be trusted, President Obama plans on tackling the drug war if elected to a second term. (Although it’s fair to be skeptical after Obama broke his campaign promise to leave state medical dispensaries alone, in fact coming down harder on them than Bush ever did. Read more about “Obama’s War on Pot” in Rolling Stone magazine.) Politics aside, sometimes a picture’s worth a thousand words. Here’s a graphic to show your conservative friends who might not be convinced yet:
The “Miami Zombie” or “Miami Cannibal” was the perfect headline to go viral, as it shocked people around the world. For those of you who somehow avoided the media blitz, a naked homeless man was shot and killed by Miami police after he was caught literally chewing off the face of another homeless man on a sidewalk near the MacArthur Causeway. The poor man’s face was unrecognizable by the time he was sent off to the hospital, you can see pictures of him pre-surgery and post-surgery (but please don’t click if you have a weak stomach.)
Finding out victim Ronald Poppo was an alumni of Stuyvesant High School in New York City (my alma mater) piqued my personal interest in the story. How does one go from Stuyvesant graduate to homeless in Miami and victim of a freak cannibal attack? More confirmation that attendance at a ‘prestigious’ school guarantees nothing.
Back to the story. From the very beginning, it was portrayed as a drug-related incident – adding another sensationalist layer to the headlines:
“Cops: New LSD May Be Behind Miami Cannibal Attack” – CBS News
“Apparently LSD Can Turn You Into a Face-Eating Zombie Now” – NY Magazine
[Armando] Aguilar, president for the Fraternal Order of Police, tells Banana Republican that Eugene exhibited signs he was high on LSD, as well as symptoms for “excited delirium,” a controversial syndrome that supposedly turns drug users (primarily cocaine enthusiasts) into raging and almost unstoppable incredible Hulks. “I’m going by similarities in other cases of excited delirium I’ve researched in the last couple of days,” Aguilar says.
Spoken like someone who’s definitely never taken psychedelics. Remember all those violent hippies in the 1960s?
The story quickly shifted over to ‘bath salts’, a legal high that commonly contains research chemicals mephedrone and MDPV. But the LSD angle still stuck.
“Miami man shot dead eating a man’s face may have been on LSD-like drug” the Guardian reports. Hilarity ensues as one reads the article:
A man shot dead by police as he ate the face of another man may have been under the influence of a potent LSD-like drug called bath salts, investigators believe.
Eugene was naked and Poppo was wearing only a shirt when police arrived, possibly a result of the delirium-inducing drug, which can have effects similar to cocaine and LSD. It can raise users’ body temperature significantly and make them feel they are burning up inside.
“When a person has taken all of his clothes off and become violent, it’s indicative of this excited delirium that’s caused by overdose of drugs,” Armando Aguilar, head of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police, told the city’s WSVN news. “What’s happening is, inside their body their organs are burning up alive.”
Paul Adams, an emergency room doctor, said that synthetic stimulant drugs such as bath salts, named for its powdery substance, can make users feel invincible and give them superhuman strength, but can also trigger aggression, extreme paranoia and hallucinations.
“It’s the new designer drug,” he told the Guardian. “It causes a state of excited delirium, raises the body temperature and causes irritability and confusion, which is heightened when combined with a lack of adequate hydration. You find yourself not making sense, and you don’t control your emotions or your actions.”
How a drug can have “effects similar to cocaine and LSD” is beyond me, as the two drugs have almost polar opposite effects on consciousness and behavior. And “their organs are burning up alive”? Who is this guy?
In fact, “bath salts” (as they are sold in the US) are another name for the legal high that caused a similar (although not quite as sensational) moral panic in the UK a few years ago: mephedrone (sold as “plant food” and commonly called “meow meow” or “mcat”.) A story based on rumor and police statements claiming that a fourteen year old girl had died due to mephedrone led to a swift ban at the end of 2009. Less than a year later the Guardian reported “Mephedrone found not guilty” as it turned out mephedrone was not involved in the incident at all. (Several additional incidents cited as reasons to ban mephedrone turned out to be hoaxes or unrelated to mephedrone as well.) If only newspapers bothered to fact-check against their own prior reporting mistakes before publishing…
Mephedrone’s pharmacology has hardly been studied but it is chemically related to the amphetamines. Users describe effects that suggest its actions are between those of amphetamine (speed) and MDMA (ecstasy); it activates, energises and makes them feel good but is relatively short-lasting. This has been known for years, so articles describing mephedrone as LSD-like should be completely unacceptable under any standard of journalism.
But it’s not. Why? Because unfortunately our media (and police) are about as educated on the effects of drugs and illicit substances as the rest of society. The group of illicit substances that we colloquially label “drugs” have a mind-blowingly vast range of effects on consciousness and often have nothing in common other than their illegality. Only in a society this ignorant could articles like this be published and syndicated again and again with little to no questioning. Not to mention the fact that whenever anyone does something crazy, LSD is the favored scapegoat. Ironic when the heavily over-prescribed (legal) anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, painkiller and ADHD medications all cause various levels of psychosis either in overdose or withdrawal. But the tripped out “Ritalin Cannibal” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
So that’s it, case closed. Mention “bath salts” to your average person, and it’s likely that the “Miami Cannibal” will be the first thing that comes to mind.
Except that yesterday the coroner’s report on attacker Rudy Eugene was released. Time Magazine reports “The Cannabis Cannibal? Miami Face-Eater Didn’t Take ‘Bath Salts’”. It was found that the only drug in his system was cannabis, confirming earlier reports where his girlfriend stated that he never took drugs other than marijuana. Bath salts were only ever part of this story as pure police and media speculation, based on a complete lack of knowledge as to what effects bath salts generally have on the user.
Inevitably of course, the true story will never get circulated even a fraction as widely as the original was. And so another urban legend is born. Now all there is to do is wait for the inevitable political backlash against bath salts, which remain legal in some states. Not for long!
The modern version of Santa Claus as we know him can largely be attributed to Coca Cola’s marketing executives. But where does this strange legend of a ruddy faced merry soul and his flying reindeer really come from?
The figure of Father Christmas evolved out of centuries of pagan traditions, whose elements were first officially cobbled together in the poem “Twas The Night Before Christmas” or “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” in the 1820s by author and professor Clement Clark Moore of Albany, New York. Although Christmas is a Christian holiday, most of the symbols and icons we associate with Christmas celebrations are actually derived from the shamanistic traditions of the tribal peoples of pre-Christian Northern Europe. (The word ‘shaman’ comes from Siberian Tungus word ‘Saman’, the name they give their spiritual healers.)
But first we need to introduce a new character into our Christmas tale, the amanita muscaria mushroom, otherwise known as ‘fly agaric’. The amanita muscaria often seen illustrated in magical fairytales, children’s storybooks, cartoons and of course, Christmas cards and ornaments. The little red and white mushroom or ‘toadstool’ has gained celebrity status over the years for good reason (little known that reason may be). When consumed, it evokes an intense psychedelic experience. Fly agaric is one of the most potent psychedelic mushrooms on the planet, containing the active ingredient muscimol.
Eating the amanita causes visions and altered states, which have been used by tribal peoples to gain insight and transcendental experiences. The hallucinations usually include sensations of size distortion and flying. One of the side effects of eating amanita muscaria is that one’s skin and facial features take on a flushed, ruddy glow (sound familiar?). Those who indulge in the magic fungus tend towards states of euphoric laughter. “Ho, ho, ho!”
Origin of the Phrase, “To Get Pissed”
The active ingredients of amanita muscaria are not metabolized by the body, and therefore remain active in urine. In fact, it is safer to drink the urine of one who has consumed the mushroom than to eat the mushroom directly, as many of the mushroom’s toxic compounds are processed and eliminated on the first pass through the body.
It was common practice among ancient people to recycle the potent effects of the mushroom by drinking each other’s urine. The mushroom’s ingredients can remain potent even after six passes through the human body. Some scholars argue that this is the origin of the phrase “to get pissed,” as this urine-drinking activity preceded alcohol by thousands of years. (For those not familiar with the expression, “getting pissed” is English slang for getting drunk.)
Someone who had eaten fly agaric may drink their own urine to prolong the state of hallucination, or offer it to others as a treat. Drinking the urine of one intoxicated by fly agaric has only a slightly less intoxicating effect than eating the fungus itself. Filip Johann von Strahlenberg, a Swedish prisoner of war in the early eighteenth century, reported seeing Koryak tribespeople outside huts where mushroom sessions were taking place, waiting for people to come out and urinate. When they did, the fresh piss was collected in wooden bowls and greedily gulped down. This method of ingestion was much less likely to cause the vomiting often associated with eating the mushroom itself.
How did ancient peoples gain this knowledge? Why, from the reindeer of course.
There are many indigenous peoples who used the amanita muscaria as their sacrament. Best documented are the Sami (Lapps) of northern Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia and the Tungusic and Koryak peoples of Siberia. All of these groups live in the Arctic Circle and are traditionally reindeer herders.
Reindeer were the sacred animals of these semi-nomadic people, as they were the source of food, shelter, clothing and other necessities. As it happens, the reindeer have a particular fondness for amanita muscaria, even seeking them out from underneath the snow. When they eat the mushrooms they become stupefied, staggering and prancing around while under the influence.
Reindeer also enjoy the urine of a human, especially one who has consumed the mushroom. Reindeer will seek out human urine to drink, and some tribesmen carry sealskin containers of their own collected piss, which they use to attract stray reindeer back into the herd.
When Georg Steller, and explorer, visited Kamchatka in 1739 he noted that reindeer were sometimes intoxicated. The Koryak people sometimes tie up the animals until their condition subsides and then kill them. All who eat the flesh become intoxicated. Jonathan Ott, an American author, suggested in 1976 that use of the fly agaric in the midwinter festivals of deepest Siberia may have inspired some of the imagery of Santa Claus.
The World Tree
These ancient peoples also share a belief in the idea of the World Tree. The World Tree was seen as a kind of cosmic axis onto which the planes of the universe are fixed. The roots of the World Tree stretch down into the underworld, its trunk is the “middle earth” of everyday existence, and its branches reach upwards into the heavenly realm.
Amanita muscaria grows only under certain types of trees, mostly firs and evergreens (Christmas trees) in a symbiotic non-parasitic relationship with the roots. The cap of the mushroom is the fruit of the larger mycelium beneath the soil which exists in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the tree. To ancient people, this mushroom was literally “the fruit of the tree.”
The North Star was also considered sacred, since all other stars in the sky revolved around its fixed point. They associated this “Pole Star” with the World Tree and the central axis of the universe. The top of the World Tree touched the North Star, and the spirit of the shaman would climb the metaphorical tree, thereby passing into the realm of the gods. Could this be the true meaning of the star on top of the modern Christmas tree, the reason that the super-shaman Santa makes his home at the North Pole?
The feeling of flying experienced on fly agaric easily accounts for the legends of shamanic journeys using winged reindeer to transport their riders up to the highest branches of the World Tree.
Some of these peoples lived in dwellings made of birch and reindeer hide, called “yurts.” Somewhat similar to a tee-pee, the yurt’s central smoke-hole (supported by a birch pole) can also be used as an entrance. The shamans of Siberia were responsible for bringing the mushrooms they collected from under the sacred evergreen trees to the houses of the the people on the winter solstice (a few days before our modern celebration of Christmas on December 25th). Sometimes dressing in the colors of the mushroom (red with white trim) and carrying a huge bag full of mushrooms that were picked and dried during the previous season, the shaman would go door to door to give the community the mushroom experience.
If the main door to the houses were snowed over (which they often were during the winter time), the shaman would enter the houses through the smoke-hole in the roof or the chimney. Climbing down the chimney-entrances, they would share out the mushroom’s gifts with those within.
The Amanita muscaria mushrooms are often dried before ceremonial consumption, reducing the mushroom’s toxicity while increasing its potency. Families would often hang them in socks around the fireplace to dry, ready to be shared on the morning of the solstice.
In the initiations of shamans in Buryatia, a tree will actually be erected inside the yurt. Sometimes the shaman literally climbs the tree, other times drumming at the base and only ascending with his spiritual being. As the shaman ascends the tree in his ecstatic state, he describes his journey to the upper world. To journey to this upper world requires the ability to fly, so the shamans often change themselves into birds or ride upon a flying deer or horse to make the journey. The magic flight of Santa Claus through the midwinter night sky is a superb expression of the basis of all shamanism – ecstasy, or the flight of the spirit.
In Popular Culture
In Victorian times travelers returned with intriguing tales of the use of fly agaric by people in Siberia, Lapland, and other areas in the northern latitudes. One of the first was reported by the mycologist Mordecai Cooke, who mentioned the recycling of urine rich in muscimol in his A Plain and Easy Account of British Fungi (1862). Patrick Harding of Sheffield University points out that Cooke was a friend of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), the author of the fantastic children’s story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). “Almost certainly, this is the source of the episode in Alice where she eats the mushroom, where one side makes her grow very tall and the other very small,” Harding says. “This inability to judge size—macropsia—is one of the effects of fly agaric.” It is also interesting to note that, in central Europe, the fly agaric has been adopted as the symbol of chimney sweeps.
There are some historians, such as Ronald Hutton, who refute the connection between the amanita muscaria and the legend of Santa Claus. “The Santa Claus we know and love was invented by a New Yorker, it really is true,” Hutton says. “It was the work of Clement Clarke Moore, in New York City in 1822, who suddenly turned a medieval saint into a flying, reindeer-driving spirit of the Northern midwinter.” Moore brought that beloved Santa Claus to life in his poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” otherwise known as “The Night Before Christmas.”
From Wikipedia, “Hutton claims that reindeer spirits did not appear in Siberian mythology, shamans did not travel by sleigh, nor did they wear red and white or climb out of smoke holes in yurt roofs. Finally, American awareness of Siberian shamanism postdated the appearance of much of the folklore around Santa.”
But reindeer were very important in Siberian mythology, they even put antlers on their headdresses to symbolize the protective spirit of the reindeer. The Chuchki and Koryaks of Siberia do train reindeer to pull them on sledges. Hutton is right that shamans do not exclusively wear red and white, but this picture of a Kamchatkan (Northeast Siberian) shamaness with fly-agaric mushrooms proves this is a real phenomena. (Photo by Emanuel Salzman).
Whether or not the smoke hole was used as a second entrance to the yurt, the connection between the shaman and the smoke hole of the yurt is well documented. The dwelling of the shaman was easy to recognize due to the top of the tree placed inside poking through the smoke hole. During ceremony, the shaman would climb the tree to shamanize, calling deities and ancestor spirits from the top of the yurt.
Hutton’s final claim that awareness of Siberian shamanism came after the evolution of our Santa Claus is irrelevant. The date of the 25th of December, for example, is pagan in origin although for most of the last two thousand years most Christians were not aware of that fact. Traditions and ideas regularly evolve without public knowledge.
But don’t take my word for it. I leave you in the capable hands of the BBC. Merry Christmas!
As a child in school, I was fascinated by the fact that only a few generations back, it was considered normal for a person to own slaves, for women to be denied the vote, for gay sex to be a crime worthy of imprisonment. At the outset, it is almost inconceivable that good people could have bought into a belief system that condoned such things. The vast majority of people living back then must have been so normalized to this oppression that they couldn’t see past their social norms to the greater injustice of it all. In fact, some of most ‘enlightened’ thinkers and leaders would still have been blinded to their own racism, sexism, and bigotry – all the while seeing their society as the new pinnacle of progress.
Carrying on from that idea, it seems only logical that a few hundred years in the future, people will view our society in a completely different light as well. They will most likely see themselves as more advanced than us, just as we see ourselves now. What aspects of our culture are so ‘normal’ to us that we fail to recognize their unfairness or backwardness? What laws are on the books, what beliefs are commonly held, that form our society’s blind spots?
It was from this point of view that I entered into my study of sociology. Taboos have always fascinated me, and sex and drugs are certainly two of our society’s most common ones. But regardless of a society’s acceptance or nonacceptance of certain taboos, once the government becomes involved in legislating them we are looking at a human rights issue.
One could chart the progress of human rights as modern society came to recognize, one group at a time, that regardless of gender or race all humans are born with certain inalienable rights. Since then we’ve examined more closely issues of personal liberty. The sexual revolution, the invention of birth control, abortion rights, and the retraction of anti-sodomy laws all progressed the idea of the individual’s right to his or her own choices, as long as they do not interfere with the well-being of another.
Looking back to drug policy and the sex industry, both issues concern the rights of consenting adults to make these very choices.
The ‘War on Drugs’ and the laws that come with it are very recent inventions. A hundred years ago there was little or no regulation of any substances. As it stands now, the government allows you to alter your consciousness through the intake of any number of prescription drugs or substances like alcohol, nicotine or caffeine – but not through others like marijuana, magic mushrooms, coca leaves, or peyote cactus. This seems random at best, an attack on cognitive liberty at worst. In the scheme of human history drug prohibition is but a tiny blip. Possession or sale of illegal drugs (many of which were sacraments in religious rituals not so long ago) will now land you with a jail sentence and a criminal record.
Prostitution might be the ‘oldest business in the world’ but it wasn’t always demonized and stigmatized in the way it is today. In fact, similar to the use of certain hallucinogenic and narcotic plants, prostitution was seen as sacred in many societies of the past. The idea of the sacred whore might seem like an oxymoron from a modern Western point of view. Indeed many anthropologists object to the term ‘sacred prostitute’, even while admitting to the existence of priestesses devoted to a goddess who accepted payment donated to the temple in exchange for sex. If that’s not prostitution then I’m not sure what is. In those times, the priestess was seen as an incarnation of the great goddess. In her role as priestess she was a teacher of the mysteries, of the healing and restorative power of sexual energy. Maybe what we need to look at is why we have imbued the word ‘prostitute’ with such strong negative connotations that today our society cannot bear to associate the word with anything spiritual or positive.
There are some who will object to the idea that past (and often considered more ‘primitive’) civilizations’ acceptance of sacred drug use and prostitution should bear any weight in the argument to permit them today. So let’s look rationally at the crux of these issues and get past the initial reactions we’ve all been programmed to have when we hear words like ‘drugs’ and ‘prostitute’ in news headlines.
The idea that two consenting adults agreeing to exchange sex for money can be a crime (as it is in the US) is moralistic, and (ironically) out of step with the very principles of a capitalist system. Any number of goods and services are exchanged for money under capitalism, regardless of whether we’d prefer if those services were granted for free by loved ones instead (nursing, childcare, etc). Sex and companionship shouldn’t be any different. We can’t seem to get past the idea that prostitution is selling one’s ‘body’ ‘ or ‘self’ – as if selling manual labor that involves the rest of your body is somehow different from physical labor that can involve one’s genitals.
Yes, we can all agree that the seedier side of the sex industry needs a serious clean-up, that some horrible things like trafficking and coercion do occur (indeed these are the only times the media reports on the sex industry). But exploitation and trafficking are already illegal, we don’t need anti-prostitution laws to stop them. The simple act of prostitution doesn’t pose any inherent danger to society, unless of course the government is enforcing Judeo-Christian ‘morals’ as law. In which case, we should surely start imprisoning adulterers again too.
Most illegal drugs, whether cocaine (from the coca leaf) or magic mushrooms, originate as a plant in the natural world. In fact human use of mind-altering drugs originates from copying animals in the wild who sought out these plants, after witnessing the unusual effects they had on animal behavior. Some now argue that the desire to consume psychoactive plants is an evolutionary drive that is fundamental to all animals. How can it be illegal for a person to ingest a plant that grows naturally (often sprouting like weeds) on our planet?
A more mature discourse about illegal substances and prostitution will inevitably lead to a healthier culture around them.
Anti-prostitution laws are a reminder that our supposedly free society still has a heavy hangover from it’s Puritanical past. Perversely, we have no problem with someone paying two ‘actors’ to have (often unprotected) sex with each other on camera (pornography), but to pay someone to have sex off-camera is strictly prohibited. These laws make the lives of working girls more dangerous, leaving them in vulnerable situations and unable to go to law enforcement to report true crimes like rape, theft, or violence. They also dehumanize women in the sex industry, feeding exactly the stigma and belittlement that allows some men to justify abusing them (as in their eyes prostitutes don’t need to be treated with the same respect as a ‘normal’ women.)
As Terence McKenna once said, “If the words life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ don’t include the right to experiment with your own consciousness then the Declaration of Independence isn’t worth the hemp it was written on.”
So lets look again the next time we hear the local news report on a new ‘prostitution sting’ – in other words, the round-up of women who were only trying to make a living, who will now suffer public humiliation and criminal charges. Or when police brag of a huge ‘drug bust’ – imprisoning ‘dealers’ while doctors and pharmaceutical companies make their fortunes peddling legal heroin and speed in the form of prescription drugs.
Not only do these laws infringe on personal liberty, they also perpetuate a criminal underworld of gangs, pimps and violence. The harms often associated with illegal drugs and the sex industry are the product of the black market we ourselves create by forcing these activities underground.
So let it be our own children and grandchildren who gasp reading their history textbooks, incredulous at the idea that in the ‘old days’ people really thought it was okay to lock someone up for the crime of consuming a plant, or selling a sexual service.
When it comes to making policy decisions, science seems less and less popular these days. David Nutt was sacked as the UK government’s chief drugs advisor for publicly stating what science had already proven: that tobacco and alcohol are more harmful than marijuana, ecstasy and LSD.
Too often our society lets fear dictate how we deal with our children’s inevitable exposure to sex and drugs.
In an ideal world, teenagers would wait until they were more firmly settled psychologically before experimenting and making adult decisions about sex and drugs – due to the complications and risks that such decisions inevitably bring with them. However today’s reality is a culture where children are exposed to adult themes at younger and younger ages.
In America we teach abstinence-only education in the hope that by not teaching kids harm-minimizing techniques such as birth control and contraception, they will simply not have sex. Unfortunately, there is now concrete evidence that this doesn’t work. Studies show that, following a decade-long decline ‘U.S. teen pregnancy rates have increased as both births and abortions rise.’
As a teenager most of my friends’ parents were strong abolitionists. If any of them had found out their son or daughter were smoking the occasional joint or having sex, they would have permanently grounded them or even kicked them out of the house. Needless to say this didn’t stop them. So what can parents and teachers do to help teens mature into young adults who make responsible decisions?
Maybe if someone taught them how to minimize risks when imbibing mind-altering substances in the same way one learns about units when drinking alcohol. Maybe if schools taught about emotional and physical intimacy (and of course, contraception) alongside lessons on physiology and sex.
What passes for ‘sex education’ in America is, frankly, disgraceful. For over a quarter century, the federal government has supported abstinence-only education programs that censor information to youth. America still has the highest rate of teen pregnancies in the developed world, 1.5 times the teen pregnancy rate of Britain (the highest in Europe.)
The United States’ teen pregnancy rate is over five times that of the Netherlands, over four times that of Germany, and over three times that of France. The obvious explanation is that young people in the United States are significantly less likely to use contraception than youth in these European nations.
These statistics come as no surprise when you look at the number of programs that teach abstinence-only-until-marriage: an unrealistic, morality-based agenda that ignores the fact that virtually all Americans have sex before marriage (a fact that has been true since the 1950s). Amplify Your Voice, a sex-education and youth-education organization, has published several videos featuring animated bears discussing real abstinence-only lessons being taught in classrooms. Losing one’s virginity as a girl can be difficult enough, never mind with lessons like these at school:
The organization says the “chewed up candy” exercise is from AC Green’s Game Plan, an abstinence-only program endorsed by the former basketball star that is used in many public schools in Illinois. The “Spit in a Cup” exercise is from “Why Am I Tempted,” a program which received funding under President Obama’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative (TPPI) to be taught in schools in Florida.
These programs censor information about contraception and condoms while stigmatizing and shaming students who have already had sex. Never mind the fact that they discriminate against LGBT youth by at best ignoring them altogether – or worse, promoting homophobia by teaching students that homosexuality is deviant and immoral.
“Until recently the dominant approach was Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), a programme developed in Los Angeles in 1983 and quickly exported to the rest of America. Cops would arrive in schools, sometimes driving cars confiscated from drug-dealers, and tell 11- and 12-year-olds about the dangers of illicit substances. They drew little or no distinction between marijuana and methamphetamine. Teachers liked DARE because they felt uncomfortable tackling the topic themselves, and because they got a break. Parents liked it because they felt their children would listen to police officers. Unfortunately, they did not. ”
Studies are constantly conducted to see if drug education is effective in preventing drug use. Maybe researchers are asking the wrong question. Accepting that the urge to alter one’s consciousness is actually a universal human (and animal) drive, we should be looking at how that can be accomplished safely. If kids were taught about harm reduction, the potential for compulsive use and addiction, how to make sure you don’t exceed the correct dosage, etc. would we not stand a better chance of eliminating unnecessary deaths from drug abuse?
But of course when it comes to drugs, we’re even farther away from this ideal than we are with sex. For at least most people agree that it’s natural for teenagers to want to start experimenting sexually, whereas our society can’t seem to accept drug experimentation in adults, never mind teens.
This mindset, based on stigma, judgement, stereotypes, and puritanical denial of basic human urges, can do nothing but make the situation worse. Teens see the hypocrisy of adults drinking alcohol and then telling them not to ‘do drugs’. They see their friends getting stoned and not turning into junkies. They find out their parents once experimented too.
So it’s their turn to experiment – and that’s exactly what they do. During this naive experimentation kids consume impure substances purchased on the street, combine drugs that shouldn’t be mixed, overdose because they didn’t know how much they were taking. But who was there to teach them?
At the same time, young adults inevitably explore their sexuality, either with or without guidance from the adult world in regards to physical precautions that can be taken and the emotional implications of becoming intimate with another human being.
Parents’ strict prohibitionist attitudes backfire as they’re no longer on the list of people their kids can talk to about these new and sometimes overwhelming experiences. They lose touch with their own children. Their ability to retain influence and stay involved during this crucial time in young adulthood all but disappears.
At the end of the day, the problem is that the majority of adults are not comfortable with their own sexuality or history of drug-taking, and they’re certainly not comfortable imagining their kids doing the same thing they did when they were younger. If parents don’t start growing up themselves, why should they expect their kids to?
Yet another drug headline with ketamine in the news lately, after a recent study in Bristol (Mason, et al, 2010) found that some users are suffering long-term bladder damage – a few even needing their bladders replaced at the tender age of twenty.
A Class C drug in the UK (or Schedule III in the US), ketamine is not generally seen to be one of the more harmful illegal drugs. The evidence to date seemed to show ketamine to be a relatively safe drug when coming from pure, pharmaceutical grade vials. Originating as a liquid, ketamine is usually ‘cooked’ into a crystalline powder which can be snorted like cocaine, although heavier users prefer to use the liquid form for intramuscular injections, as would be given in a medical setting.
Ketamine is widely stereotyped as a ‘horse tranquilizer’. Actually ketamine is an anesthetic that has been used in both human and veterinary medicine since the 1960s (although less so in humans today due to some patients’ negative reactions to hallucinations or ’emergence reactions’ as the medical community calls them).
In much smaller (recreational) doses, ketamine can have paradoxical stimulatory and dissociative effects. Some users take small ‘bumps’ up the nose when out clubbing – others take a larger dose to find themselves in the famed ‘k-hole’, a dissociated state where one can have out-of-body and near-death experiences, or seemingly travel to other mystical and magical places.
While ketamine is generally associated with the dance and rave scene, at these higher doses ketamine is safest taken at home, in a familiar environment to offset the possible dangers of being in a dissociative state in public surroundings. Many taking ketamine fall into the ‘psychonaut‘ category, like this user in a UK study on ketamine use (Muetzelfeldt, et al, 2008), who stated that ketamine allowed “new ways of thinking and an understanding of the mind/body question which 3 years of a philosophy degree could not reach.”
There is some interesting potential for ketamine use in exploring consciousness and success has been documented using ketamine to treat alcoholism and depression. What doesn’t seem to be properly investigated is the extent to which ketamine is harmful to the body, and in what quantities it becomes so.
The most obvious danger of ketamine is of injuring oneself while in the dissociative state. This has been the downfall of several respected members of the psychonaut community such as D M Turner:
“On New Years Eve, 1996, the noted author and lay-psychedelic researcher known only by the pseudonym D.M. Turner drew a hot bath, injected himself with an unknown amount of ketamine, and settled in for the last trip of his life. When his body was found weeks later, the cause of death was determined to be natural causes. It is assumed that Mr. Turner lost consciouness at some point during the evening, slid under the water, and quietly drowned.”
Another tragic loss to the community was Marcia Moore, the heiress to the Sheraton Hotel fortune, a yoga teacher and world famous writer on astrology and ‘hypersentience’:
“Marcia Moore named what she perceived to be the ‘highest’ level of her experiences ‘the cosmic matrix’ or ‘cosmatrix’, the source from which everything was said to be derived. She noted that ketamine produced a ‘higher, clearer and more real trip’ than LSD, although some people just felt ‘disconcertingly whacked out’, and that ketamine produced fragmentation into subpersonalities, including her role as ‘priestess of the Goddess Ketamine’. ‘The Priestess’, aged 50, disappeared on a freezing winter’s night in January, 1979. Her bleached skeleton was found two years later. She had gone at night into a nearby forest, and frozen to death after injecting herself with all the ketamine she could find.”
Aside from the danger of unsupervised pyschonautic exploration, the overall health risks of ketamine cannot yet be quantified. The Bristol study was not large enough to extrapolate the correlation between ketamine use and bladder destruction for light recreational users, with some in the study reporting incredibly heavy use of more than two grams a day (and others refusing to report the extent of their use altogether). Indeed perhaps another unexplored aspect of ketamine use is its potential for addiction; while not physically addictive, there seems to be a high potential for compulsive use to become a serious issue (even for its most thoughtful and educated users, as seen with D M Turner, Marcia Moore, and John Lilly).
Reading through frequent ketamine users’ discussions and reports online, aside from the common bladder complaints, there is recurring talk of what have been mysteriously termed ‘k-cramps’ – a kind of severe gastric pain. As the 2008 UK study cited above states:
“The classification of ketamine-associated ulcerative cystitis has recently been established, however the etiology and treatments of ‘K-cramps’ are still unknown. Nevertheless, it seems to be a prevalent symptom which may represent a broader public health concern if the use of ketamine continues to increase.”
“Ketamine causes ulcers in high habitual dosing. There is little information on this on the internet but if you search just hard enough you will hear rumors of it. Well why isn’t this a known fact? Well one would have to take ketamine daily or semi daily at least to get this nasty side effect.
I was unfortunate enough to have this happen on 3 separate occasions. The first time on a cruise ship, resulting in collapsing on the deck screaming for my life, which resulted in a diagnosis of ‘gastritis’ and a double shot of morphine. The second time at home which kept me pent in bed in the fetal position a few days. The third time in the snow in the midst of a rock scramble/ice climb, which made for a difficult, cold, and dire crawl two miles to safety.
From communication with 3 other habitual ketamine abusers this phenomena was familiar with all 3 and equally as gruesome. For the record all 3 consumed a minimum of 3-5 grams a week often more.
Now the physiology of it seems to be a disruption in the pH of the gall bladder causing an ungodly acid reflux. (literally feels like the acids going to eat clear through to your skin)
The way to end the agony is stop using ketamine till it subsides. It can take up to 3 days for it to go away with abstinence. Pink Bismuth (pepto bismol) was found to alleviate some of the pain, as did pain killers. Thought I would share as it took me nearly a year to figure it out, and found next to no information on the net about it.”
This is but one of dozens of reports of excruciating pain by ketamine users, accounts that can be found by googling ‘k-cramps’ and ‘ketamine’.
Once thought to be a ‘safe’ drug in terms of abuse due to the absence of physical dependence, ketamine is now known to be associated with bladder dysfunction when abused, but its effects on the gall bladder, liver and gastrointestinal system have been largely ignored.
The only two studies relevant to this phenomena I’ve been able to locate originate from Hong Kong, where ketamine has long been the party drug of choice. Those more medically inclined may find the following two studies of interest, certainly a place to start for UK and US investigation into this phenomena:
“In addition to urological problems, ketamine abusers may develop hepato-biliary toxicity manifested as recurrent epigastric pain, abnormal liver function, and biliary tree dilatation. The proposed mechanism for ketamine-induced cystitis is direct toxicity of ketamine metabolites on urinary tract mucosa. Because ketamine is metabolized in the liver and excreted in bile, mucosal toxicity has also been postulated as the cause of dilated bile ducts.”
The Daily Transmission does not believe any drugs should be illegal, but if one is to have a classification of drugs surely it should be based on relative harm. The UK has LSD and MDMA in Class A, cannabis in Class B, and ketamine in Class C. The US has cannabis, LSD, and MDMA as Schedule I, and ketamine as Schedule III.
David Nutt, the UK government’s former chief drugs advisor, was proposing reclassification of drugs such as MDMA, cannabis, and ketamine based on scientific evidence. Then he was sacked for being out of line with government policy. Which leaves us with politicians upholding the status quo at the expense of the health of the people.
I can’t see what kind of logic these categorizations are meant to be based on, but it would seem its time for a serious rethink (and some proper research) before more and more people find their way from the ‘K-hole’ to ‘K-Hell’.
Two very interesting stories making headlines in the past couple of days. One of the largest studies into the effects of MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, made popular in the form of ecstasy pills) to date has found that there is no evidence that the drug causes brain damage, and that it’s danger’s have been greatly exaggerated.
The Guardian article concludes with Professor John Halpern of Harvard Medical School saying “Ecstasy consumption is dangerous because illegally made pills often contain contaminants that can have harmful side-effects.”
Well that’s funny. You’d think the logical conclusion would be to regulate and legalize MDMA so no one had to suffer the consequences of illegal pill production. But changes to social norms come ever so slowly!
At the same time we read that UK deaths from liver disease have doubled in recent years, and that the total alcohol-related deaths are set to reach 250,000 by 2031 if the current trends continue. All that for a drug that encourages egotistical feelings of anger and belligerence rather than inducing human empathy, selflessness and understanding.
But we can accept that kind of harm to society from a drug like alcohol, just make sure you’re not taking any illegal drugs kids!
No better way to start off the new year than with a bit of good old-fashioned American hypocrisy.
The US has denied Bolivia’s request to the United Nations that it’s people be allowed their ancestral practice of chewing coca leaves. Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, was petitioning to amend the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs which currently makes criminals of those who maintain the coca tradition.
Not only is this stance hypocritical, as the US currently has exceptions to its own laws for native peoples within the US to use (otherwise illegal) psychoactive plants (ie. peyote) for religious purposes; it is blatantly denying the indigenous peoples of other countries their rights.
With many nations, including most of those in South America, having explicitly supported Bolivia’s proposal to the UN – it is the US that has blocked the way.
Maybe we should start by asking why the coca leaf was ever criminalized in the first place. Coca has been used ritually and medicinally by cultures of the Andes and Amazon for millennia. Archaeologists have found evidence that coca leaves were being chewed in Peru at least 8,000 years ago.
The coca leaf itself has many uses, whether cultural, medicinal or spiritual. As Morales rightly notes, coca leaf chewing “helps mitigate the sensation of hunger, offers energy during long days of labour and helps counter altitude sickness. Unlike nicotine or caffeine, it causes no harm to human health nor addiction or altered state, and it is effective in the struggle against obesity, a major problem in many modern societies.” Not to mention the fact that the coca leaf only contains 1% of the alkaloid used to make cocaine.
The US justifies its stance on the grounds that coca is the raw material for making cocaine. This would seem to imply that American policy should take precedent over native Bolivian culture, even in Bolivia.
All this as President Obama finally signs the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is meant to protect ‘cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.’ The US stance on this is discriminatory, given that coca use is so deeply rooted in the indigenous culture of the Andes.
“Wouldn’t you like to see a positive LSD story on the news? To base your decision on information rather than scare tactics and superstition? Perhaps? Wouldn’t that be interesting? Just for once?”
Well here’s your chance. Here are some people you may not have known were inspired by LSD:
• Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs called taking LSD “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.” To this end, Jobs said that Bill Gates would “be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once.”
• Many early computer pioneers took LSD for inspiration, such as Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse.
• Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize-winning father of modern genetics, was under the influence of LSD when he first deduced the double-helix structure of DNA nearly 50 years ago.
• Cary Grant (amongst many others in 1950s Hollywood) was treated with LSD by a psychiatrist in the 1950s, long before it was made illegal:
“All my life, I’ve been searching for peace of mind. I’d explored yoga and hypnotism and made several attempts at mysticism. Nothing really seemed to give me what I wanted until this treatment.”
“I have been born again. I have been through a psychiatric experience which has completely changed me. I was horrendous. I had to face things about myself which I never admitted, which I didn’t know were there. Now I know that I hurt every woman I ever loved. I was an utter fake, a self-opinionated bore, a know-all who knew very little. I found I was hiding behind all kinds of defenses, hypocrisies and vanities. I had to get rid of them layer by layer. The moment when your conscious meets your subconscious is a hell of a wrench. With me there came a day when I saw the light.”
Much to his friends’ surprise, Cary Grant began talking about his therapy in public, lamenting, “Oh those wasted years, why didn’t I do this sooner?”
• Kary Mullis, Nobel Prize winning American bio-chemist, told Albert Hoffman (the inventor of LSD) that LSD had helped him develop the polymerase chain reaction that helps amplify specific DNA sequences:
“Back in the 1960s and early ’70s I took plenty of LSD. A lot of people were doing that in Berkeley back then. And I found it to be a mind-opening experience. It was certainly much more important than any courses I ever took.”
Replying to his own postulate during an interview for BBC’s Psychedelic Science documentary, “What if I had not taken LSD ever; would I have still invented PCR?” He replied, “I don’t know. I doubt it. I seriously doubt it.”
• Aldous Huxley is well-known for writing ‘The Doors of Perception’, an account of his experiences with mescaline. But on his deathbed, unable to speak, Huxley made a written request to his wife for “LSD, 100 µg, intramuscular”. His wife duly obliged.
• “My trip led me to some epiphanies about who I was as a performer, what I wanted to do and how I needed to create my own opportunities.” – Adam Lambert, runner-up on American Idol told The Sun.
Since 1966, we’ve lived under worldwide LSD prohibition. Ken Kesey, author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” said “We thought that by this time that there would be LSD given in classes in college and you would study it and prepare for it.”
Kesey gets right to the crux of the issues surrounding psychedelics in that statement. As tools, drugs such as LSD can used responsibly or irresponsibly – lead to good trips or bad trips, healing or trauma. Lacking a scientific or spiritual guide, the recreational use of psychedelic substances without planning, respect, or forethought can lead to some pretty unpleasant experiences. Which makes it all the more frustrating that there has been a complete moratorium on scientific research using LSD for over forty years (recently broken by a small handful of scientists who have finally been given permission to research LSD with terminally ill cancer patients.)
Stanislav Grof, pioneering researcher into non-ordinary states of consciousness, remarked “Whether or not LSD research and therapy will return to society, the discoveries that psychedelics made possible have revolutionary implications for our understanding of the psyche, human nature, and the nature of reality.” Isn’t it about time we awoke from our cultural amnesia?
After a few weeks of tabloid headlines, unverified police reports and public outcry, mephedrone (the preferred legal high of 2009) was made illegal in the UK in April of this year. The ban includes other chemicals sold as ‘legal highs’ in the cathinones category, such as the less popular methylone, butylone, and ethylone. Mephedrone was later found ‘not guilty’ in any of the teenage deaths that triggered the public panic over it’s legality. It would seem that facts are rarely important in times of media-fueled hysteria. Never mind that the ban was put into place before any scientist had a chance to study mephedrone’s effects in a lab.
But online websites selling ‘research chemicals’ (‘RCs’) hardly missed a beat, quickly rounding up the next bunch of unknown chemical analogues (that have no history of human use) for sale. The jury’s still out: there’s naphyrone, MDAI, 5-IAI, the list goes on. 6-APB is a likely candidate with it’s new – and misleading – street name ‘Benzo Fury’. Not a ‘benzo’ (benzodiazepine, or ‘downer’) but rather an amphetamine-like ‘upper’, there’s no toxicology data available for this stimulant, which is growing in popularity on the club scene.
Forum discussions on websites such as Bluelight document the first human guinea pigs and their experiences with new chemicals. Various precautions and harm-minimization techniques are used – ranging from those of a professional chemist to ‘eye-balling’ doses with the casual ‘fuck-it’ attitude of a bored teenager – all in search of the perfect high.
In the past, the kind of person likely to buy a ‘RC’ marketed by its chemical name and dose themselves with it would likely know a bit about chemistry. They might test first for any allergic reaction to the compound, then start with a carefully measured, low threshold dose. Increasing doses slowly, they would know to take enough time between each trial to gage the come-down effects. Still not an ideal situation, but not exactly a pressing social issue.
However, the trend is for sites that used to sell mephedrone and other ‘legal highs’ to the general public to stock an increasing number of truly unknown substances. To promote chemicals new on the scene, some will even send free 100mg or 500mg samples. (Necessarily sold ‘not for human consumption’ to evade the law, even the more ethical retailers are unable to provide dosage and usage suggestions to their customers.)
Many websites offer same-day delivery by courier. So if anybody was at a loss for something to do tonight…
I’m all for the testing of any interesting substances for their ability to produce empathogenic, entactogenic, and entheogenic effects in humans. But it would seem something best left to the experts.
In the meantime, we have decades of detailed and rigorous scientific research on illegal drugs, such as MDMA (currently Class A), with few to no adverse side affects. Ironic considering most among this newly created population of ‘RC’ consumers are self-dosing with packets of white powder arriving in the post from an unknown source. In actual fact, they’re willing to take those risks in the hope of finding a decent substitute for pure MDMA or ecstasy pills (increasingly hard to come by in clubs, and of course illegal.)
Yet another reason for the government to take a good hard look at its drug policy and do some crucial reevaluating. Unless of course, the ‘War on Drugs’ has nothing to do with protecting the health of it’s citizens.
As the Daily Transmission is on a summer hiatus, here are a few not-to-be-missed headlines that should keep those juices flowing:
‘Why do we so willfully cover up the failure of the war on drugs?’ asks Angus Macqueen in The Guardian. Macqueen has just completed a documentary series for Channel 4 called ‘Our Drugs War’ which is a well-needed examination of the global ‘War on Drugs’. (Save for another time a discussion of what exactly constitutes a ‘drug’ in the first place… possibly the ‘War on Drugs’ belongs in the same failed category as the ‘War on Terror’?)
For further evidence of failed drug policy look no further than ‘Mephedrone found not guilty, but the next legal high may be a killer’ from former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris. We’re on a road to nowhere, attempting to ban each new pharmaceutical ‘high’ that comes out of a lab. It seems the recipe that got MDMA banned still works: Take tabloid headlines, scare stories and incomplete research, mix in some panicked political bravado, season with a bit of ignorance, and bam! You got yourself a mephedrone ban.
And for a shining example of where rational thought ends and politics begins, Sky News reports on why legalizing prostitution works (in Australia) – but ends telling us why prostitution laws in England are not likely to be changed any time soon:
There are not many votes to be won by decriminalisation and, potentially, many votes to be lost if it sparked a moral crusade by opponents of reform.
But that’s why we elect politicians, isn’t it? So they can get in power and ignore what they think is right in order to ensure getting re-elected?
Last week the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) held its 2010 Conference in San Jose, California – and the press stood up and took notice. It only took 40 years, but the government has finally given a few researchers permission to study the potential therapeutic uses of psychedelic drugs. Based on the preliminary results, it looks like mainstream science, and the media, are finally ready to move past the stigma of 1960s drug taking.
Brain-imaging studies in healthy volunteers show that MDMA quiets the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that some researchers call a “fear center” due to its central role in triggering strong negative emotions. MDMA also releases a flood of the brain messengers serotonin and dopamine while increasing blood levels of the hormones oxytocin and prolactin, which promote social bonding. This potent mix diminishes fear and defensiveness and boosts empathy and the desire to connect with others, says Holland, so “the therapy work goes faster and deeper.”
For anyone interested in the use of psychedelics pre-Timothy Leary, I highly recommend this National Film Board of Canada documentary:
This documentary offers a compassionate, open-minded look at LSD and how it fits into our world. Long before Timothy Leary urged ageneration to “tune in, turn on and drop out,” the drug was hailed as a way to treat forms of addiction and mental illness. At the same time, it was being touted as a powerful tool for mental exploration and self-understanding.
A long time coming, but I think we’re about to conquer the final frontier: the human mind.