Drugs – You Done Too Much

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’.

The sharp end of the War on (some) Drugs

The sharp end of the War on (some) Drugs

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’.

Just injecting one Marijuana can kill you (probably)

Just injecting one Marijuana can kill you (probably)

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’.

JV