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’.
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.
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’.
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.