One of the causes I support is the end of prohibition, the end to the War on (some) Drugs. Chemognosis or the use of entheogens is something I’m interested in, that’s why I’m involved this year in helping to organise the mother of all psychedelics conferences, which opens this weekend, Breaking Convention.
There are numerous approaches being developed around the globe to help us get a post-prohibition model of how these powerful substances may be used. Many years ago I was involved in helping to set up the drug policy think-tank and campaigning organisation Transform. I’ve also encountered these substances first hand in (for want of better terms) ‘tribal’ cultures from outside of Britain. Given these facts I like to think I’m relatively well informed about the broad social story of drug use, as well as the specific narrative of their use in modern occulture. Within this in mind I thought I’d write an article that states something which I think should be blindingly obvious, but often appears in prohibitionist arguments about why we shouldn’t legalise or decriminalise drugs: this is the concept of ‘too much’.
For example, when discussing cannabis, opponents of legal and cultural reform will often point out that if you smoke too much cannabis this can have negative health consequences. This is certainly true. Current research suggests that heavy use of potent forms of cannabis (typically selectively bred, hydroponically produced weed) may be implicated in the development of mental illness, particularly in some young people. At the other end of the scale (in terms of how long humans have been using a given substance) novel materials such as 25I-NBOMe (which is active in very small amounts, typically between 0.000050 and 0.0001gram) have been linked to several deaths.
In all these cases the logic runs that people may take ‘too much’ of substance X and end up feeling ill or perhaps dead. However the point I’d like to make is that ‘too much’ is, by definition, ‘too much’. It’s no surprise that ‘too much’ of anything (water, egg and chips, paracetamol, chocolate biscuits or cocaine) can be a problem. That’s why we have those words – ‘too much’.
Another way to put ‘too much’ is to use the expression ‘overdose’ and this can perhaps help people see more clearly what’s going on. An overdose is literally (in the original sense of the term ‘literally’) a dosage level that is too high. At that level various effects the user might not want become apparent. (Although some entheogenic spiritual styles actively make use of reactions such as the purgative vomiting on peyote or ayahuasca as a transformative and liberating part of the trip.) In the language of pharmacology we can have an Effective Dose (the lowest dose at which an effect from the substance can be identified) all the way past the Dissociative Dose (DD, where consciousness is turned off) to the LD50 (the amount at which 50% of a given population of users will die). Of course we may desire the different effects at different doses, and for different substances (a full-blown ketamine trip for example often starts from a DD, ‘the K-hole’, and the experience is largely about awareness coming back on-line). However death is rarely a desired outcome and so an LD50 level dose is quite likely ‘too much’.
Entheogenic psychonauts sometimes claim a special case for psychedelics, in that they exhibit a rapid tolerance which means that the effects of a drug such as LSD will significantly reduce if taken regularly over a given period. There is also often a cross-tolerance which means that if you take a load of acid and, a few days later eat a bunch of psilocybin mushrooms, the effect of the latter material will be less dramatic than if the user had waited longer before going on another psychedelic trip. While this is true it’s also the case that some people do try their best to up the dose and increase the effect they are after. While there may not be any dramatic physiological responses to increasing the dose for ‘classic’ psychedelics there can certainly be unpleasant psychological issues. In this case the person has clearly taken ‘too much’ or ‘overdosed’.
Paracelsus wisely remarked, half a millennium ago; ‘Sola dosis facit venenum’. Liberally translated this means that ‘Poison is in everything, and nothing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy’. So the argument that we should ban, or keep banned, a substance because people may end up taking ‘too much’ and getting ill is simply a statement of the obvious and in no way a good argument to support prohibition. It is an argument for good education, good health-care provision, and better quality, labelling and licensing of substances – but prohibition? No. That’s simply ‘too much’.
While the overdose argument for drug prohibition ought to be dismantled and exposed, the ‘argument’ is more so an obfuscation of the fact that the illegality of (some) drugs is tied to socioeconomic directives. And although psychedelics are most certainly helpful, interesting and laden with possibilities for many people who would of course be better served by not being harassed or imprisoned for their usage, these substances are, in comparison to some other illegal drugs, more on the fringe of the anti-prohibition battle. The front line of the drug war, imo, is with opiates: The Pain Industry.
With opiates there are, in addition to the usual prohibition interests of law enforcement and the court and ‘correction’ systems, the significant interests of Latin American cartels, warlords in the Middle East, the medical community and others feeding into one another. Even for those without such interests, it has the strong potential to become a pressing end-of-life concern. For as destructive as opiates can be, they continue after thousands of years to be used to treat pain because they work and, in the U.S. at least, doctors are loathe to prescribe them lest they end up on a DEA watch list. Which may lead to otherwise uninterested parties seeking other avenues to obtain relief, which may lead to arrest and on to prison. (One can easily imagine the hypocrisy of the crusaders of prohibition if, Goddess forbid, they or someone they cared for were in need of their effects.)
Meanwhile, the oppressively counterproductive effects of prohibition in America has spawned a far, far worse situation in Mexico: the ghastliness of cartel kidnappings, killings and torture has many of its (predominantly Catholic) citizens believing that Satan is in control of their country.
One could also mention that two of the most common, and in most places, entirely legal, drugs – tobacco and alcohol – both contain substances that cause “unwanted harm” *regardless* of the size of the dosage. Going by the “too much” argument, then, alcohol and tobacco have a much greater need for prohibition than the vast majority of drugs targeted by the War on Drugs. And if they need additional incentive, then hey, world-wide use of alcohol kills over 3 million people yearly, and tobacco over 6 million (including over 500,000 through second hand smoking). Although I don’t make use of any drugs at all I feel that, if anything, they should outlaw tobacco and decriminalise those drugs that have proven positive effects at “less-than-too-much” dosage.
Of course, prohibitionists – and moralists in general – seldom take reality into account at all, instead relying on their own socially-conditioned knee jerk reactions, so…
Very interesting piece Julian. And you’re right about the concept of too much. The real problem is of course that the establishment is still too scared of the UK media to take any positive and sensible steps towards the end of prohibition. And big-pharma is reluctant to sanction any kind of “cure” that they can’t patent – hence their opposition to very effective, recently discovered, cancer treatments using cannaboids and stem cells. Research has been shown that these treatments work, but they’ll be held down simply because the Pharma Industry cannot make money from them. And of course the USA has privatised most of it’s penal system meaning that drug arrests will continue to be encouraged in order that the industrial/incarceration machine can continue to rake in the profits of human misery.
However, It will be interesting to see how successful experiments like the legalisation of dope in Colorado – which has brought in huge profits for the state at the same time as reducing crime, increasing employment and increasing the health of its citizens – take hold in other States and countries.
Psychoactive drugs seem to fall into two categories, those which change how you feel; uppers, downers, painkillers, antidepressants and so on, and those which change how you perceive i.e. hallucinogens. Some hallucinogens do both, you may get nausea or elation along with your hallucinations. Mood altering drugs can also cause hallucinations at high doses.
Hallucinations can change how you perceive both the external world and the internal world and the image of self. Such alternative perceptions can prove interesting and informative but I fail to understand why anyone would want to use the same type of hallucinogen more than once unless they merely sought the associated mood altering effects again.
As biological organisms maintain themselves by homeostatic biochemical mechanisms, any use of mood altering substances comes at some sort of a price.
Blanket prohibitions or blanket legalisations of psychoactives makes little sense. A humane society needs to look at each case in detail and to realise that in addition to a few noble psychonauts opening the doors of perception it also contains a large proportion of people who can easily create a lot of costs for others if they have easy access to the wrong stuff.
“As biochemical organisms maintain themselves by homeostatic biochemical mechanisms, any use of mood altering substances comes at some sort of a price.” Quite true, as is the converse: the removal from a biochemical organism of any mood altering substances comes at some sort of a price.
“A humane society needs to look at each case in detail…” How do you envision that such a society would implement this?
I think we need to prioritise preserving freedom and reducing harm and crime.
Thus I’d like to see licensed administrators of hallucinogens obtaining their wares from scientifically validated sources. In principle anyone could apply for licensed administrator training and status; for research, religious, esoteric, psychotherapeutic or artistic purposes.
Of course the license can get taken away and administrators can become personally liable if they overstep sensible protocols and start causing casualties.
I’d also like to see addiction centres where anyone can freely obtain anything to which they have become addicted and have it professionally administered in carefully controlled and gradually reducing doses along with treatment and support.
I’d like to see those things as well. They accord nicely with some of the interrelated constructive aspects of strategy as prescribed by Col. John Boyd: improving the fitness, spirit and strength of the organic whole (whether individual, local group, society, etc.); behaving in a manner which doesn’t create more adversaries (while at the same time drawing potential adversaries to one’s side); and using harmony as a counterweight to mistrust.
I really like your writings about drugs. I have been through them all and psychedelics are the only ones that I really love, but I still feel that governments need to learn to give the people what they want. Mental illness? It’s caused by the so-called real world far more often than drugs.