Human Givens – Sex, Drugs, Spirituality and the Olympics

The war is far from over, but at least there appears to be some glimmer of hope for an end to hostilities on the horizon. The war I’m talking about is the ‘War on Drugs’, often described on the’ War on (some) Drugs’ or indeed the ‘War on (some) People who take (some) Drugs’.

I’m not going to rehearse the backstory of the conflict, I guess most people reading this blog will know it all too well. The epic battle between cotton and hemp producers, an economic conflict in which the cotton rich Southern USA successfully deployed the spectre of a reefer smoking underclass against the hemp farmers of the Northern States. Leary, Kesey and the acid revolution. There were the Reagan years, the Zammo generation, the plaintive cry of ‘just say no’.

Scag scallywag

Scag scallywag

But the times they are a-changing. The increasingly acceptability of medical and now recreational cannabis use in the USA for instance. The legalisation of marijuana in Uruguay is another part of this sea change, and interesting to note that this law has been enacted first in this fiercely secular Latin-American nation. Liberalised drug laws in Czech Republic, Portugal and elsewhere with changes in the legislation bubbling just under the statute book in many other places.

Within the medical field we are finally entering a time when psychedelic medicine is once again a realistic possibility. Research is being conducted worldwide with ketamine, psilocybin, MDMA and a range of other molecules. Using the latest brain imagining techniques we can drill down into the deep layers of the neuronal substrate of awareness and look in minute detail at how these drugs work. In clinical settings the deployment of psychedelic assisted therapy is actually happening and getting good results (for instance check out the current research listed HERE).

With these changes are also intelligent notes of caution, often sounded by members of the ‘entheogenic’ community themselves. The naive position; that these substances are a universal panacea (either for medical, social or spiritual healing), is heard much less often these days. Take for instance the work of Ben Sessa, who manages to intelligently look at the mental health dangers associated with cannabis without being in any way blinded to the benefits of this or any other psychoactives.

There are other pressures emerging that are challenging the War on Drugs. Spiritual and sacred use of various medicines or sacraments, notably peyote and ayahuasca, have led to some critical legal and cultural challenges over the last few years. Moreover I detect a broader cultural understanding that these religious traditions are real as just that, legitimate spiritual practices, and not just ‘an excuse’ to bosh a big load of drugs.

Yet it seems to me that a key problem remains and that is money. While we have seen the liberalisation of laws (in some nations at any rate) governing some aspects of human behaviour (such as homosexuality), drugs are still problematic. They are ‘stuff’, they can be manufactured, harvested, bought and sold. Historically they have been the economic engines of many nations (especially the British Isles, what with the trade in tobacco, sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate and opium) and (the proposed revolution of molecular 3D printing notwithstanding) this is likely to remain true for years to come. Certain drugs can be grown in many environments and on small scales (cannabis), whereas others have niche ecologies (Erythroxylum coca likes sun, prefers high altitude and you need 100kgs of leaf to produce 1kg of hydrochloride of cocaine). Then there are those chemicals that are solely the product of laboratory processes. Understanding how our cultures can successfully integrate the economic side of our biological drive to change our minds pharmacologically is a big but not insurmountable challenge.

A few of our favourite things

A few of our favourite things

The fact that this desire, our need, to change awareness with drugs, is a ‘human given’ is a vitally important point. Although some drugs are privileged while others are castigated (in particular cultures) there is, in my view, an intrinsic human desire to get high. This behaviour can be observed in many other species beside our own; from reindeer drunk on Amanita muscaria through to cats rolling in catnip. The same might be said of homosexual behaviour which, given the forthcoming Winter Olympics in Russia, is very much in the news. While different cultures may have different social mores about homosexuality as to whether it is ‘moral’ or not, the fact is that this behaviour is ubiquitous in human cultures (though obviously acknowledged to greater or lesser degrees). And like drug use this behaviour exists within many other species. There is therefore a good case to say that both psychoactive drug use and homosexuality are both ‘natural’ features of being human, and that attempts to suppress these behaviours (whether justified through religious or political ideologies) inevitably manifest as social control, scapegoating and violent repression.

Repressive social controls, one might argue, are themselves ‘natural’; social species like ours are geared up, in evolutionary terms, to protect members of our in-group against outsiders. We all embody processes whereby we engage in cathartic community acts by expelling individuals – kicking the shit out of the Catholics, the Jews, the queers, the muggles and the rest – basically to make the rest of us feel better. But if the magical idea of The Great Work is to have any social meaning (a Greater Vehicle Great Work rather than a purely self-centred ‘becoming one with’, or ‘as God’ trip) then it must mean intelligently appreciating our humanity. (The model of The Great Work as ‘becoming more fully human’ or ‘soul making’.) We acknowledge our feelings; the desire to change our minds with drugs, to love members of the same gender, and our war-like, gang culture simian heritage. Then, knowing ourselves, we can explore social relationships that celebrate, and where necessary mitigate, our essential human characteristics .

Getting off our heads on drugs is a normal, natural desire, and for many people, even in legally problematic environments such as Britain, this desire is something that enhances rather than damages lives. Understanding the problems associated with drugs in culture means appreciating that addiction to them is most importantly a function of environment. The simple fact is that it’s really easy to get a rat (or a human) addicted to cocaine when it’s in an impoverished environment (a bare cage in a lab or a run-down ghetto in a city). But take that animal (rat or human) and put it in a richer more interesting environment where it still has easy access to drugs and, unsurprisingly, it will tend to do much less coke. Knowing these facts; about drug use and abuse, gives us a firm place to stand when we make demands for more liberal and humane drug laws and a skillful means for dealing with the problems of economics and addiction that are entwined within the drug narrative.

By the same token the pressure being brought to bear on Russians anti-gay legislation at the moment is spot on. Sure the focus is on that nation because of the Olympics, and there are lots of countries that have as bad, and in some cases a far worse record on gay rights than Russia. But by acknowledging homosexuality as a ‘human given’ I believe we can kick aside the wringing of hands about cultural relativism and, while acknowledging our own short comings (in places such as North America and Britain), know that it’s still right that we call on Russia to continue to liberalise laws concerning gay people. And in current international law what I’m calling on as the need to accept ‘human givens’ is re-framed as ‘human rights’.

From Russia with love

From Russia with love

Meanwhile owning our own (social and individual) tendency towards mob violence (another human given) we put into place systems such as the rules of evidence, impartial (as far as possible) judges and juries, expert witnesses and other processes to prevent abuses of power through the apparatus of the State. Secondly, we need to encourage political and social engagement by people in all walks of life to ensure that our political systems are not allowed to become tyrannical and plutocratically elitist. Thirdly, we should seek to encourage techniques (such as mindfulness meditation) that support our to ability engage emphatically, to discover compassion for ourselves and others (especially by the people who we select as the leaders of our states and corporations). Finally, we need to find ways to transform our desire for conflict through the alchemy of processes such as sport and other non-lethal pursuits. The Olympics is one example of this sublimation.

And as we address all these difficult issues we must do so in a way that is predicated on the knowledge that we are one human family, thus far stuck on this single, small planet. We owe it to ourselves, our ancestors and our children to find good ways to be here together.


26 thoughts on “Human Givens – Sex, Drugs, Spirituality and the Olympics

  1. Sable Aradia says:

    Reblogged this on Sable Aradia, Priestess & Witch and commented:
    A thought-provoking blog post.

  2. Thanks Sable 🙂 glad you enjoyed it JV

  3. David Lee says:

    The main immediate barrier to sensible drug laws in UK has to be the Daily Mail constituency. These people are ‘floating voters’ who will vote for any party who encourages their fears, so they have an influence which is highly disproportionate to their numbers.

  4. Pete Caroll says:

    Well educated self aware middle class psychonauts can usually get away with the ocasional recreational and esoteric uses of psychedelics without harm, and maybe they should remain a bit more discreet about it. A complete legal free for all on drugs would create a wasteland with hundreds of thousands dead from opiates, and millions rendered psychotic and indolent from skunk. Our society doesn’t even handle cheap cider very well, just wander round the estates. We will always have a war on drugs.

  5. I’m not sure the evidence from places like South Australia, Portugal and others supports the ‘wasteland’ conjecture Pete. While drug use is always problematic for some people these difficulties are perhaps better managed in medical and social terms rather than through an expensive and ineffective policy of prohibition. For some politcally savvy ways to address this issue you might want to spend some time exploring the work of Transform . The point about the cider-swilling folk on estates is well addressed by the work of Dr Carl Hart (see ghetto link in the article above). Meanwhile, while opium was undoubtedly overused in the unregulated environment of Victorian Britain ‘hundreds of thousands’ did not die (except perhaps in the war with China to keep the supply lines open). See JV

    • PsypressUK says:

      The Victorian figure could well be in the 100,000s actually – but one has to take into account the use of ‘Mother’s little Helper’ and other opium based medicines designed to keep children quiet. Infant mortality rates plummeted once they were banned. Of course, this could be read similarly to the State use of prescription medicines, wherein a ‘parental’ figure doses those in their charge in order to keep them subdued and manageable.

      • I agree the official figures I found seem to be on the low side (if you know of other well sourced stats please let me know). Mind you could also be that as parents were themselves less opiated they started looking after their children better generally etc. Interesting how the wide spread use of opiates coincides with the era of Victorian industrialisation. We build the largest empire the world has ever seen, in many senses, on drugs 😉 JV

    • PsypressUK says:

      Can’t find my copy of it but Virginia Berridge’s Opium and the People is the one to check out for figures. Also, Toby Seddon’s A History of Drugs is a very interesting look at the rise of drug legislation in the UK…

  6. David Lee says:

    So Pete, I take ity you can justify your excessive statements by reference to a detailed study of the situation in Portugal and other countries that have ditched this stupid prohibition?

  7. Pete Caroll says:

    Excessive statements?
    The Transform material concerns itself extensively with new ideas about Regulatory Frameworks for drugs. Under what sort of regulatory framework would you like to see Heroin, Morphine, Cocaine, Crack Cocaine, Amphetamines, and Crystal Meth made available to the general public for recreational uses Dave?

  8. Pete, this link from the Transform site deals with the issue of very potent drugs, I’m not sure anyone would suggest no regulation (at least not in the foreseeable future). However remember the point is that these things are already very easily available. Prohibition does not work, so the question remains; are there better cultural and legal instruments to deal with the facts, which are that drugs exists and people take them? Personally I can see the case, for example, for coca being legal but not refined cocaine in the same way that I can grow my own grapes and make my own wine but not distill it legally unless I have license (and certainly not sell an unlicensed distillate). However were I to become addicted to alcohol (distilled or otherwise) I could be supported and treated as an individual and we (as a culture) could look at the reasons for why my addiction happened (since only one component of addiction is the action of the substance itself). JV

  9. Pete Carroll says:

    Yes I read the whole thing, it seems insufficiently subtance specific.
    Plainly a war of some sort needs to continue against some substances like Crystal Meth for example, there seems no possible justification to allow its manufacture or distribution for any purpose.
    Alcohol regulation more or less works as you point out JV, and marketing neat ethanol remains illegal and apparently more or less sucessfully policed.
    However when it comes to something like LSD, regulation seems unlikely to work, few people would want very dilute doses or government controlled settings for higher dose consumption, but on the other hand if it became too easy to casually obtain we would end up with a lot of physical accidents and quite a few psychiatric casualties.

  10. The Transform section ‘Which drugs should be legally regulated?’ deals specifically with opiates and cocaine. Crystal meth (which is the terror of the modern world and occupies a psychic niche similar to that which heroin did in the 1980s and reefer in the 1950s) is an interesting case. There are already a number of approaches to this drug see & 20 years ago you could buy it over the counter in India. I agree there are a number of issues to be addressed (personally I can imagine a licensing system for LSD as suggest by Leary) but the entrenched mindset of the War on Drugs does, IMHO makes it much harder to open discursive spaces where we might find new, intelligent and more compassionate solutions. JV

    • David Lee says:

      Three things Pete:

      1. The success of Portugal :

      OK, it’s decriminalisation not legalization – but it’s still a million miles from a stupid ‘war on drugs.’ It produces less addicts, which demolishes your social disaster model.

      2. The drug laws are completely useless at stopping people getting the drugs they target. I am confident that I could find out how to score any illegal drug within an hour of arriving in an unfamiliar town. Given that, why would I choose a rubbish one like crystal meth when decent ones like MDMA are available? To bring this into closer focus, the three students who collapsed only yesterday from taking wheel cleaner (!) just shows you what people will do when proper drugs are banned – take toxic rubbish. Decriminalization would save hundreds of lives a year.

      3. You reveal another unfounded assumption when you write that middle class people can ‘get away’ with occasional use of psychedelics. This assumes that taking psychedelics is basically a bad thing. Check this out:
      – it shows that psychedelics are good for mental health.

  11. Pete Carroll says:

    Well Dave the Portuguese policy of treating users of illegal drugs as people in need of compulsory medical attention rather than legal punishment certainly has its merits, but it seems in conflict with the idea that users of psychedelics and marijuana do not need medical attention.
    Mind you, the mental health wards are seeing an increase in dope-psychosis cases these days because of skunk use. Plus I’d question the selection biases in the Norwegian study, I mean who’s going to admit I had a terrible bad trip and I think its wrong stuff for some people.
    You may well know where to score anything but that doesn’t alter the fact that for most people it takes some effort and risk and one presumes it still must do in Portugal.
    Maybe to clarify this fascinating debate you may care to draw up a list of currently illegal drugs and say which you think should go into various categories such as
    Freely available
    Availability restricted in some way, criminal or medical sanctions or none for supply or use?
    Completely illegal, criminal or medical sanctions for supply or use?

  12. Andy Roberts says:

    After being with and around drug users and drug cultures for most of my life and working with them for the past 22 years or so I think *all* drugs should be freely available. There would be a brief, ahem, ‘spike’ until people found out what they liked and more importantly what suited them and then society could get on with the business of dealing with people’s *behaviours* not what substances they choose to take. A drug’s legal status has, at least in my experience, never stopped someone from using it or from seeking out what they fancy. An age restriction on buying, as we have with alcohol (which *should* be banned if any drug should!) is about all you need.

  13. Kenneth Blight says:

    Much could be accomplished by the simple expedient of allowing doctors to prescribe according to there conscience.

  14. PsypressUK says:

    I’m not sure how big a ‘spike’ there would even be, especially in comparison to the 1960s. The general population are much more drug savvy now than they were then. Those who have wished to take certain plants and chemicals have managed to do so already, regardless of the law. People have, to a degree, already performed their own bioassays.

    Of course, there is always going to be a group of young people growing up and wanting to try things for the first time – they will do this regardless of the law. But should these kids be left to their own devices in a black market, where substance quality and support is questionable, and where they are liable to an increased health risk and criminality?

    This is only a small step though really, and still retains the root problem of the war of drugs – which is the State.

    In my opinion, it’s up to the individual to learn their own lessons in life – from their own experimentation, their family, and their friends. If the State treats people as stupid then those people have been given license to behave as such, with no recourse to their peers.

    We don’t need any legal framework – illegal, regulated, or rights – we just need more education, and the willingness to openly discuss the question of substance use in all levels of society: inter-generationally, ritually, familial, socially, etc.

    Free the weed, legalize community


  15. Pete Carroll says:

    Well hopefully this debate has provoked those whose knee jerk liberal instincts to legalise everything temporarily triumphed over common sense. The situation requires a more sophisticated response than mere blanket legalisation or blanket criminalisation, yet I do not share Mr Blight’s faith in the medical profession:
    Kenneth Blight says: ‘Much could be accomplished by the simple expedient of allowing doctors to prescribe according to their conscience.’
    Dr Harold Shipman seemed to err rather too generously with his heroin prescriptions methinks and the lesson from the USA seems to say that some doctor or other will give anyone anything they want if we allow them to.
    Also I cannot agree with PsypressUK:
    ‘……..the root problem of the war of drugs – which is the State.’
    The people constitute the state. The vast majority of people in general do not want a free for all on drugs and would vote against it.

  16. psychicdeli says:

    “The vast majority of people in general do not want a free for all on drugs and would vote against it.”

    Actually Pete, even the Daily Mail readers are now coming round to drug reform and they represent the people who count – the swing voters…

    …with £6bn being spent annually on the drug war in the UK, which rather than regulating drugs only puts them in the hands of criminal black markets it is finally time for actual regulation through de-criiminilisation. The UN war on drugs after 50 years, has failed, and their motto ” a drug free world, we can do it” has been made ever more increasingly ridiculous as drugs have never been cheaper, in greater supply, or used by so many people and they have been on these upward trends ever since prohibition started. Face it, PROHIBITION DOES NOT WORK, it merely criminalises otherwise innocent people and deregulates a market that needs regulating. End the war (on some) drugs (and some drug users). What we need is better regulation, better education and better medical care.

    Excellent article btw Julian. Treating drug users like any other marginalised and persecuted group within society, like homosexuals (although drug users are arguably more numerous even) and treating drug use as human right is definitely the way to go. Come to think of it, if we had more human (and other species) rights and less laws so much more would be for the better.

    Love long and perspire!

    (Dr David Luke)

  17. Ben Sessa says:

    Nice one Julian. Great article and thanks for the big-up. The question really is how we get the message about the futility of the WoD into the hearts and minds of the non-believers; the Daily Mail-reading God-fearing people of middle England. I think the laws *will* change, but not, I fear, for the right reasons. The balance will tip when we can demonstrate that by not locking people away and spending millions on their incarcerations for the sake of how they choose to alter their consciousness is a waste of MONEY. Then we will see real political change – for the wrong reasons, perhaps, but will that matter?

    There would be an increase in drug use (estimates of around 15%) if all drugs were legalised. But the money saved by not having the police, courts and prisons chasing round after drug users would more than adequately provide enough new drug health services and educational campaigns to counteract any subsequent rise on drug-related harms. So on pure financial terms the argument for legalisation is clearly in it’s favour.

    They have been very shrewd in Colorado, ear-marking the first 29 million dollars saved by shifting money away from criminalising pot into building a new string of hospitals and the next 29 million will be channeled into building new schools. The result being that by the end of the first 12 months of legalisation the people of Colorado will have experienced some real positive societal changes as a result of their new laws. This will be great and will, I think, create the environment that will (hopefully) make Cameron and other politicians sit up and re-consider our own archaic drug laws.

    As I say, not necessarily for the most morally sound reasons (money!) but it will at least mean those who want to smoke pot can do so with impunity.

  18. Pete Carroll says:

    Well it seems we finally get to the nitty gritty of what a lot of psychonauts here really seem to want, legalised cannabis of approved quality on sale along with the cigarettes, well that probably won’t do much harm apart from reducing a number of social gatherings to mind numbing tedium and rendering a number of people dopily lethargic and unemployable, no worse than booze I suppose. Plus I guess that said psychonauts probably approve of the idea of licensed shamans and head doctors administering entheogens under controlled situations. I bet they would eagerly apply for such licences themselves.
    However beyond that I think society needs to maintain some sort of pressure against further drug use. Party drugs like MDMA remain illegal largely because of the rather grim come-down effects which often end up eventually attracting medical attention.
    Hey, whatever happened to the magical arts of inducing gnosis by ritual or meditation? Have modern music and parties become so bad that only drugs make them tolerable?
    Users of heroin, cocaine, crack and crystal meth need medical, social, and psychological help, the dealers need shooting.

    • Andy Roberts says:

      Pete wrote:
      >Party drugs like MDMA remain illegal largely because of the rather >grim come-down effects which often end up eventually attracting >medical attention.

      That’s nonsense, surely! Shite variants of those drugs may cause those effects but the ‘real thing’ is clean and assuming you treat your body right by drinking enough, keeping generally healthy, sleeping afterwards and so on you are in little danger of either a ‘grim’ comedown or needing medical attention. Most problems caused by ‘partrty drugs’ are caused by a) the user not knowing what they are taking b) treating what they are taking like the last version of what they took, c) set and setting. If drugs were removed from the legal system good, clean and pure substances could be made widely and cheaply available and people wouldn’t, by and large, suffer from taking them. And the government could make some money!

  19. I absolutely agree that the incline to take substances or any other way to feel a thrill is innate to human nature. We all have seen or remember been a little toddler when first discovers to spin around, it’s exiting! Accelerating! And what most kids say? “again! again!”
    But I like to remark “most kids” because it is not for every one, some kids feel sic and prefer not to swirl too much.
    Nothing is for everybody; we are all unique on our ways to experience existence. And everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…. or at least we aspire to live in a society that respects human rights.
    Purely from the harm reduction point of view, I strongly believe that in a perfect world, all drugs should be labelled with full information about duration of effects, maximum doses, composition, contraindications and side-effects. If drugs were regulated would be less accidents in the long term, because people would be better informed, it would be more scientific research, more knowledge and safety.
    One thing is certain; drugs are here to stay. Human beings have been interacting with nature in this way for millennia, searching specifically for those substances that alter the linear reality and take us deep into new landscapes. Our ancestral search for magic and meaning will naturally incite some young people to adventure on the exploration of their brains and souls. As humanity we have been doing it for so long that the fact that about hundred years ago were implemented the first severe strict laws and punishment for the distribution and use of drugs, has not stopped people from using, exchanging and developing new drugs to spin around. More than anything, what prohibition has created is a veil of mystery that makes drugs even more attractive for the urge, also intrinsic to human nature, of wanting to discover the occult. Pete, you ask whatever happened to the magical arts of inducing gnosis by ritual or meditation? I think all that goes on too. They’re all valid. All the ways of pursuit enlightenment, taking the word to its full connotations.
    I dream with a society that has gone over all the fuss of prohibition and regulations, where would not be any more an issue if an adult decides to take the substance of their choice on their free time. I imagine how good it could be if our society embraces our human nature as a fact; if no one would raise an eyebrow when a teenager expresses his desire to try a substance, if we could see it as normal that at that age, some kids want to explore new sensations. They could ask what all is about; learn openly about the spectrum of possibilities and delights but also about the risks and consequences of each one. As much as driving is a complicated business that without instruction may certainly end in disaster, taking drugs may also need some instructions to understand how to pilot the ride. We could create safe-spaces, where interested young people could enjoy an experience without hiding or on fear of been prosecuted, instead they would be supported by their love ones through their entire journey, making sure that all goes well. If it was integrated in society, these experiences would have their place and time. People who openly take drugs will under no exception be excused of behaving un-ethically or to put themselves or others in danger; it should be instructions in every substance about recommend settings and things to avoid. And every adult should take the necessary precautions to reduce all risks.
    Maybe one day…

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