Policy that ignores the real world and the findings of science is bad policy. Any drug policy that fails to recognise that humans seem to have used mind altering substances for tens of thousands of years is doomed to failure and is by definition “bad policy”.
Drug policy will only be successful when it accounts for the very real benefits of drug use, rather than simply focusing on the downsides.
(Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Many of the Hallucinogens, or Psychedelics that are now classed as “Transcendent Compounds”, were banned out of fear in the late 60’s, but even at this time, there was considerable, medical, academic and intellectual interest in their properties.
Practitioners realised early on that the dose a person took, along with their mindset (set) and the environment in which the substance was taken (setting) were all important determinants of a person’s experience. Both psilocybin and LSD were used very successfully for psychological therapy and while there were some research abuses (most notably unethical projects like MKULTRA were run by governments giving it to unsuspecting people in the hope that they could be used as weapons of war) the compounds were acknowledged as being safe, although few advocated widespread use.
Indeed, LSD was recognised as being so psychologically safe that Aldous Huxley famously took a 100 micrograms of LSD on his deathbed.
It was only after Timothy Leary had popularised the use of LSD, and after Owsley “Bear” Stanley began to manufacture literally millions of doses that uncontrolled, unsupervised and ignorant consumption of these compounds began. in 1966, two years after Owlsley commenced manufacture, they were illegal in the US. In following suit, governments around the world proceeded to throw the baby out with the bath water. Finally, in 1971, Richard Nixon’s futile and now seemingly eternal, “War on Drugs”, compounded the problem by institutionalising and then internationalising a war that can never be won. Ironically enough, even when people and countries recognise the need for change, and attempt to act within the auspices of the United Nations, “they remain shackled to an inflexible policy of prohibition and threatened by treaty directives that sometimes seem contradictory, ambiguous or even in conflict with other U.N. charters.”
Now, after nearly five decades, governments around the world are trapped into dysfunctional drugs policies that they feel powerless to escape. The lies and propaganda that has fed this travesty of justice has taken on a life of its own and they have become prisoners of their own deceit. Irrespective of their own conscience, each new politician, media identity, police officer and bureaucrat is inducted and co-opted by the machine, because to stand apart would be to end one’s career before it had even commenced.
The result? Trillions of dollars wasted demonising and prosecuting a war against the right to make decisions about what one does with their own consciousness, often while lauding the real demon: alcohol. Australia spends an estimated 1.1 billion dollars each year on this futile exercise.
Entirely as expected, the fallout of prohibitionist drug policy has mirrored the US experience with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.
It is Economics 101 that where there is a demand for a product, there will be supply and that market will generate profits for someone. Right now, the black market for illicit drugs around the world is estimated to be in excess of 320 billion dollars annually. The profits from this trade aren’t taxed and don’t contribute to anyone’s superannuation plan. Instead, It is no secret that most of the profits from illegal drugs goes straight to criminals who inhabit an often vicious, violent underworld that in turn corrupts police and infects the wider community.
So great is this recognition, that in 2011, Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who had been a staunch supporter of draconian drugs laws, suggested that the US “should seek market alternatives in order to cancel the criminals’ stratospheric profits”. Sadly, it took at least 60,000 deaths (and counting) in the Mexican Drug War, for Mexico’s President to join those particular dots.
(Note: Transcendent Compounds, such as psilocybin, mescaline, DMT and Salvinorin A are all available in the wild and in Australian gardens and so don’t tend to feed the criminal classes, even under prohibition.)
As can be expected, prohibition and the failure to regulate production leads to a variety of entirely preventable problems. These include:
- Environmental contaminants that often accompany illicit drug laboratories;
- needlessly increased incarceration rates;
- greatly increased incidences of infections, HIV, Hepatitis and other blood borne diseases among injecting drug users, who lack easy access to needles;
- adverse outcomes to business;
- Nil quality control, which means that drug purity is variable, which can lead people to inadvertently taking a dangerous quantity of a drug, or contaminated product;
- Failure to educate people in how to use drugs safely.
- The creation of a new “legal high” market, in which potentially dangerous drugs are sold in place of well-known safe ones.
- The needless destruction of rare plant species by people out to make a quick dollar from selling off their psychoactive alkaloids. (I don’t have a link, but am aware of this occurring).
On top of this, the War on Drugs has led to an almost complete halt of research into drugs that have highly promising futures in medicine. Earlier, I mentioned the impact on LSD research (see here for a discussion on recent advances) and these days most people are familiar with stalled research into medical cannabis, but many other potentially valuable medicines have been impacted as well.
For example, prior to being first made illegal in the United States, MDMA, also known as Ecstasy, was highly regarded by a number of psychiatrists as having beneficial therapeutic use. When, more than twenty years after it was made illegal, human trials were conducted into MDMA assisted therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were finally conducted, it was discovered that the drug had an enormous potential for helping people suffering from this debilitating condition.
As a result of this lack of access to medicines that might significantly help people with major medical and psychological conditions, it is certain that doctors are prescribing far more dangerous and addictive drugs. For example, they prescribe opiate and other potentially dangerous painkillers, (instead of cannabis) and benzodiazepines and antidepressants (instead of MDMA, hallucinogens, or cannabis) for anxiety, depression and sleeping disorders. Subsequently, doctors are most likely killing far more people than they’d ever care to acknowledge. So much for the Hippocratic Oath!
Add to these the millions of people, who are simply receiving sub standard treatment, such as Veterans suffering from PTSD, who are unable to access the MDMA assisted therapy, or people suffering from cluster headaches, who are unable to access LSD, or psilocybin.
Perhaps one of the most insidious negative impacts of prohibitionist drug policy, is that it grants monopoly status to the most dangerous drug on the planet: Alcohol.
In 2014 the United Nations published its, “Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health”. It reported that:
alcohol consumption has been identified as a component
cause for more than 200 health conditions covered by ICD-10 disease and injury codes. (p 11)
Overall, about 3.3 million deaths in 2012 are estimated to have been caused by alcohol consumption. This corresponds to 5.9% of all deaths, or one in every twenty deaths in the world (7.6% for men, 4.0% for women). (p 48).
In other words, incalculable harm is being done, not by the drugs that people aren’t able to take, but by the one drug that they are legally allowed to take if they wish to achieve a significantly mind altered state. (I don’t include coffee, or tobacco here, because few people take them at doses that achieve majorly altered states of consciousness.)
Despite this raft of measurable, real life adverse consequences, politicians have routinely demonstrated no interest in any sort of drug law reform.
The merest mention of being “soft on drugs” is enough to send most politicians scurrying in fear for more, and harsher anti-drugs legislation. Given that at least a third of all Australian politicians would have tried illegal drugs of one sort or another and at least 10% would have used them in the last twelve months (unless they are “unrepresentative swill”), the prevailing attitude has been one of hypocrisy.
But the tide has changed. Eminent, mainstream magazines, such as The Economist and New Scientist along with organisations such as the Global Commission on Drugs Policy now openly support a more sensible approach. The lessons from Portugal, which has decriminalised most drugs and thereby reduced much drug related harm are filtering through.
Most people are beginning to wake up to the lie that they have been told about cannabis. In 1996, California, the world’s 8th largest economy, became the first US state to legalise medical cannabis. As of this writing (early 2015), medical cannabis is either legal, or pending legalisation in at least 27 US states and the United States Federal Government has introduced legislation to make medical cannabis legal at the Federal level in states that allow it. Even more dramatically, full recreational use is now legal in four states (with at least one more pending) and several more are contemplating the introduction of full legalisation.
Internationally, cannabis is either legal, or effectively so in Uruguay, Jamaica and The Netherlands, while medical cannabis is now legal in Canada, the Czech Republic and Israel. Ironically, the crazy-mad, totalitarian dictatorship of North Korea is one of those countries in which cannabis use appears to be completely legal, or at least not frowned upon.
Within Australia, the momentum for change has been delayed, but is gathering steam. In 2012, Australia 21 produced two excellent reports (here and here), decrying the failure of current policies, while legal and medical professional associations are calling for change.
Until recently, the state of drug law reform in the Australian state of Victoria had been a tragically ironic replay of the follies of the last century. The previous conservative Liberal Government, continued the never-ending, futile game of “whack a mole” against emergent drugs (aka “legal highs”). This demonstrated the depressingly knee jerk reaction to mind altering substances that puts politics and fear of the media above leadership and good public policy. Similarly, a ban on the sale of bongs, was a pointless exercise that did nothing to stop people smoking cannabis (joints anyone?) and everything to make the government seem out of touch and irrelevant on the issue.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Liberal government was voted out after a single, uninspiring term in office, in which it seemed to struggle to communicate its message and convince voters of its basic competency.
In its place the left leaning Labor Party was elected on a platform of providing medical cannabis “to treat people with terminal illnesses or life-threatening conditions”. Daniel Andrews, the new Victorian Premier said “This is the right thing to do because we have to drag this law into the 21st century”. Sadly, during the election campaign, he demonstrated either gross ignorance about the drug, or a typical lack of courage when he stated, “This is not about smoking anything. This is not about illicit drugs or recreational drugs. This is not about wrecking lives.”
It is indeed ironic that before long, it will be legal to give some Victorian children cannabis, but illegal for adults to make an informed decision about whether or not they wish to use a drug that is immeasurably safer than the monopoly drug alcohol.
Perhaps the best news to come out of the 2014 Victorian State election was the election of Fiona Patten from the Australian Sex Party. Uniquely, among all of the political parties vying for the election, the Sex Party was the only one whose drug policy acknowledged the validity and history of the spiritual use of mind altering substances, saying:
In line with secular values, those (18+) who take a psychoactive substance as part of a religious ceremony and those who take a psychoactive substance in a responsible and ethical setting for personal mystical/spiritual experience ought to be free to do so.
In her maiden speech to the Victorian Parliament, Fiona also stated forthrightly:
“I am also here to officially declare that the war on drugs has been lost in Victoria, and I intend to write a peace plan over the next year and submit it to Parliament.”
While it is perhaps far too optimistic to hope that Fiona represents a new breed of politician, the gradual recognition of a need for drug law reform seems to be taking root around the country.
Suddenly, all sorts of politicians have been telling voters that just perhaps, cannabis isn’t the evil drug it has been made out to be. Even Tony Abbott, the much derided and unpopular Australian Prime Minister has acknowledged that medical cannabis should be made available.
While nobody has the courage to state it plainly, it is now clear that the population are waking up about the truth of cannabis and beginning to realise that much of what they have been taught about cannabis have been nothing but propaganda and lies.
But while there is movement in regard to cannabis, there is nothing but the usual stupid, failed, “war on drugs” mantra, when it comes to other drugs. The new Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews demonstrated this more than amply when, during the 2014 election campaign, he promised to introduce pointlessly harmful and vindictive legislation that would jail dealers of “ice” for 20-25 years. While decrying the production and addiction to the drug as a problem “”got away from all of us”. Of course, no such measures were offered in the battle to tackle the biggest drug issue: alcohol.
I understand the logic of these moves. Politics, is above all, the art of the possible. Over the years, I have spoken to members of parliament and staffers who agree that current drugs policies are not working, but acknowledge that nothing can be done because of the media and the irrational fear of “drugs” that decades of propaganda and misinformation have instilled in our citizens.
It was Abraham Lincoln who said: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
And increasingly, when it comes to the issue of Drug Policy, prohibitionists are running out of fools. It is undeniable that the tide is changing. Every day, more and more people are coming to realise that prohibition has been an abject, deadly failure and that it is only through the adoption of evidence based, scientifically informed policies that we are going to achieve anything resembling a healthy and productive relationship mind altering substances.
What is needed is a circuit breaker. I believe that the spiritual and religious use of Transcendent Compounds could be exactly the circuit breaker required. Any Victorian government introducing these changes could do so with impeccable justification:
1. They are non-toxic, non-addictive and psychologically safe.
2. They will be only available within a regulated framework for spiritual purposes.
3. Their availability within this context is an indication of the Government’s commitment to the principle of religious freedom in general and its legal obligations, as laid out in the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act (2006).
(Note: this applies equally to legislation that uses the same wording as the Charter. Examples include the Australian Capital Territory and the Canadian Constitution. South Africa’s Constitution also contains similar language.)
4. They are legal (with the admitted exception of LSD) in other parts of the world – particularly the US – for this purpose.
A circuit breaker such as this could allow the wider community to engage in a more nuanced and thoughtful debate on the wider implications of our current drugs policies and how these can be improved.
One important policy implication of the provision of regulated access for Transcendent Compounds for spiritual and religious use is that it has the potential to reshape the conversation away from “drug harms” and towards, “drug benefits”. Our current conversation is framed almost entirely in “harm minimisation“, rather than “benefit maximisation”, but the reality of most drug users is that their use occurs occurs within the context of attempts to maximise the whatever benefit the drug might have.
The idea of benefit maximisation runs through much of the literature about the spiritual use of all kinds of drugs. Whether it is Aldous Huxley’s groundbreaking “Doors of Perception“, Timothy Leary’s classic “The Psychedelic Experience”, or more recent offerings such as, Rick Strassman’s “The Spirit Molecule”, or Robert Forte et al’s “Entheogens and the Future of Religion” a common theme has been how the respectful use of drugs regarded as “Sacred” can lead humanity into a better tomorrow.
While few would expect an overnight revolution in the way humanity perceives itself, it is not beyond the bounds of expectation, and fully within the bounds of science, that more widespread use of Transcendent Compounds, could have a significantly beneficial impact on our society and ourselves.
Once the public had adapted to the idea that these currently terrifying drugs were routinely available and the sky hadn’t fallen, governments would be more easily able to implement better drugs policies by pointing to the program’s success. Similarly, they would be better equipped to fend off media allegations of being “soft on drugs”, because the arguments for regulated access to these drugs are based on decades of solid, peer-reviewed research and based on fundamental human rights.
None of this is meant to attempt to preempt, or assume what drugs policy should ultimately look like. While I certainly have my own ideas, there are a multitude of other voices to be heard. and this is a discussion for the people.
But at the very least any sensible drug policy should be based on the best available scientific evidence (and be flexible enough to encompass new findings) and it should recognise the basic legitimacy of claims to religious freedom and contain allowances for the use of Transcendent Compounds and other safe drugs for spiritual purposes.
It is impossible to say if the recent thaw on drug law and the emergence of common sense, at least with respect to cannabis, are here to stay. But, given the gradual, worldwide reorientation in drug policy perceptions that we have witnessed over the last decade, I would anticipate that forward-looking politicians should seek to lay the groundwork for a reimagining of drug policy, rather than painting themselves into an outdated, unresponsive and potentially career ending corner.
Today, perhaps for the first time in more than a century, good drug policy is also good drug politics.