When my son was 16 he asked me about drugs. I told him to stay away from the stuff. “Life is easier if you can do without using drugs”, I said, but other than that I would like to let him know a few more details I’ve learned over the years:
Artificial vs Natural.
Scientists say that every emotion we have is due to our own manufacturing of drugs. Our brains and bodies lob chemical molecules around like basket-ball teams. The receptors we have in our brain can detect and react to compounds also found outside the body, in nature’s fauna. Certain chemicals make us feel in certain ways and thanks in part to science, man has concentrated or synthesized these chemicals to boost the effect of many natural substances. One result of such research has been the increased ability by medicine to manage severe pain and suppress emotions. Drugs can intensify or mask our perceptions – we use coffee, tea, cigarettes, pain medications, sugar and caffeine drinks, sleeping pills, keep-driving-pills, herbal remedies, doctor-prescribed peptide inhibitors and enhancers. Plants containing drugs have been used for thousands of years by all civilizations for healing, vision-quests or to enhance stamina. Some were used for pleasure, and some to control populations by creating mindless slaves (as in the Opium Wars). Drugs are ingested, inhaled, injected and absorbed. They are natural and synthetic, and they can heal or kill.
From my observations, an addiction to drugs can be chemical or psychological, but it would be safe to say that if something offers temporary relief from an undesirable condition (such as living in a bad neighborhood or in an intolerable situation) – that “something” continues to be an attractive alternative – from a psychological perspective. Chemically the brain seems to enjoy the pleasant effects of drugs, such as Nicotine found in cigarettes. So much so that, when the effect wears off, a smoker’s brain sends a “we need more of this” signal – often by way of a negative emotion. Cigarette manufacturers have, naturally, been happy about this arrangement, as have dealers and manufacturers of caffeine, sugar, and countless street-drugs.
What complicates matters is that Western Medicine has largely regarded all humans to be chemically the same. We now recognize that different compounds affect humans in sometimes slight, sometimes extremely different ways. Beer, for example, puts some people to sleep while others become up-beat and highly social – or in some cases angry and destructive.
Illegal Spells Profit.
The fact that many drugs made to induce pleasure (if only for a short while) are illegal to the public, adds a huge economical incentive to cultivate addicts, who would steal the bells of Santa’s sleigh for their next fix. On the black market there are no quality controls, and drugs are often mixed with stuff that is cheaper and even more damaging than the substance it proclaims to be – and just like the prohibition was the greatest boon to the liquor industry, some say illegality adds to the creation of addicts, not hindering it.
The History of Drugs.
Whether in the hands of a doctor, a healer or a street-peddler, drugs are not likely to go away. Throughout all recorded history substances of many kinds have been used in order to cause a shift in perspective. Some subtle, as a cigar after dinner, some more spectacular in nature. Alcohol was often the easiest to make – using anything that would ferment from potatoes to rice, grain, fruit and grapes – but other compounds found in nature were also cultivated. The Danish Vikings apparently ingested a certain mushroom, Fly Agaric, before going into battles making them go berserk and be impervious to pain. American Indians used the Peyote Cactus, Mescaline and “Magic Mushrooms” for vision quest journeys. The sacred “Peace Pipe” passed around could have contained only tobacco, but my guess is some “Loco Weed” may have found it’s way into the pipe. Further south, the medicine people in the Brazilian Rainforest for thousands of years have used the bark of the Ayahuasca tree, and parts of the Jurema Shrub in ceremonies – claiming to connect with a spirit world. The word “assassin” comes from the Mid-Eastern word “hashhassin” – meaning Hash-Eater, and even such venerable institutions as the “Oracle of Delphi” where “To thine own self be true” was edged over the entrance – featured a person affected by “a mildly toxic” steam rising in the cave. People have had a need for stimulation for as long as we can imagine and often as a way to perceive a connection with the mystery of life.
The Arts and Drugs.
Although the generally accepted idea today is that contact with drugs (and alcohol) can only be destructive, many artists have contributed countless paintings, books, movies, songs and music under an “influence” of some sort. Mozart drank an extraordinary amount of punch and wine during his short, genius life, as actors like Robben Williams freely admitted to using cocaine (and being on everything but roller skates) while performing in movies. The Beatles sang about pot and LSD in the Sixties, and one can speculate what songs would have been produced, had they led pious, sober lives. Another great band, The Doobie Brothers, probably also had some knowledge of what a doobie was. Country music is more famous for alcoholic stars, but some like Willie Nelson are known for their fondness of Marijuana. The world of Jazz seem to attracting artists more of a hard-core presuation. Ray Charles, and Charlie Parker come to mind – with their well known addictions to Heroin. Historically speaking several of the founding fathers are rumored to have enjoyed a bowl of “loco-weed” now and then. When Benjamin Franklin floated himself across the village pond pulled by a kite, I personally think he had more than tobacco in his pipe that day. Lately it has also been pointed out to me that the “snuff” used by many aristocrats during the time of the European Renaissance was a mixture of cocaine and tobacco (no wonder the French Revolution took them by surprise). Although fictional, Sherlock Holmes was in today’s terms also a coke-head, exhibiting all the driven, keen behavior typical of a cocaine user. During the 60’es and 70’es many university scientists (some working for the Army) experimented with LSD, and the field of “psychopharmacology” developed at that time. Singer/writer Paul Simon got in hot water for having weed in his limmo during a routine traffic-check, Paul McCartney is said to have divorced over the issue of pot, and do we want to talk about reggae and the Rasta religion?
Two Kinds of Users.
I think users fall into two basic categories: Those wishing to escape, and those on a quest. Those who’s only goal it is to escape a “reality” are easy targets for exploitation, as a drug’s effect is only temporary while the need keeps growing (It is said that the first shot of Heroin or Meth gives a pleasure rush so intense that the user will spend the rest of his/her life trying to duplicate it – and it will actually never happen). If, on the other hand, a drug is used is for the purpose of exploration, the picture may be a little different. It appears to me that users who are motivated by curiosity, rather than need, are less likely to become addicts. A drug like Ecstasy, for instance, was originally developed for intra-personal therapy by a scientists named Alexander Sholgun, who had found a way to mimic what the brain releases naturally when it wants to feel euphoric. Originally a therapist would use the drug to guide couples – typically married, but at an impasse of their relationship – though a journey “of the heart” and often with lasting success. Couples were able to put personality and events aside and see the universality of each other. The remarkable claims about this method was that the insights, lessons learned and connection made did not vanish with the morning light. Ecstasy was not a substance suited for addiction as we knew it back when, since our bodies needed to reset before taking another “journey”, we couldn’t simply take more of it. What the kids today call Ecstasy, MDMA, X or Molly does not sound like what we experienced. We took X as a quiet “deepening of the heart” – the Rave-parties of today would have been the last thing we would want to engage in. Today’s X must be mixed with Speed and/or other stuff to give someone the idea to dance all night with hundreds of people.
Lately there has been a lot of focus on athletes using drugs to improve their performance. There has been talk about removing suspected users of Steroids from the Hall of Fame (presumably to the Hall of Shame)… Although most would agree we should punish those who had an unfair advantages in sports, should we also ban countless musical compositions and paintings because they were created “under the influence”?
On the surface it seems that society celebrates creative people when we can either ignore our suspicion that they may be “on” something, or if they say they used to but don’t any more… If a person has led a “rough” life, they are considered seasoned and an inspiration to others.
Threat to the public
Since drugs (and alcohol) have been around forever, and the so-called “war on drugs” has not had any success, it would perhaps make sense to pause – and ask a few basic questions such as: Is doing drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and other unhealthy behavior a personal issue or should government get involved? Most would agree that if a person behaves in a self-destructive way, we would see action be taken, but if there is no direct threat to others, who is best suited for intervention, family/friends or government?
In short I think freedom means the right to figure life out by ourselves, and we have each other to help. Some of us get addicted to credit cards, sex, bad relationships, gambling, sugar or fast food – does this mean that the government should step in before we do more harm to ourselves? Do we want the authorities to protect us from ourselves? Not unless we look to government to also define the reason for living, and this, I think, is the central question regarding drugs:
What do we think life is for?
It seems to me, that if we believe life is a test to do the “right” thing in order to be rewarded at death by a Supreme Being, then the race is on to determine what is right and what is wrong before it’s too late. If life, on the other hand, is an opportunity for a unique experience including personal choice, and there is no “judgment” or “right way” in the eyes of the Universe, then we are each free to choose what kind of experience we want. This doesn’t mean its a good idea to go crazy because there is no one to punish us: It would indeed be our own loss if we found ourselves wasting away on Opium in the slums of Hong Kong, much like if a foolish action left us crippled or stranded on a barren island. Free Will means personal responsibility, and no one to blame but ourselves.
Many Christians believe we are all sinners and must repent. Jews were told they were the chosen people and have been isolated by other tribes ever since. Muslims have not yet separated faith from science, something the Christians called Reformation. Buddhists attempt all-acceptance, but are driven out of lands by those tolerating nothing – and Native Indians see all animals, plants, earth, water, fire and sky as connected, but not so modern society. Most faiths attempt to gain access to the unknown by restricting or modifying behaviour and governing thought. Since drugs challenge accepted views of life, they are often regarded at a threat to “tradition”, hence banned as evil.
The down side
of Drugs is that the user often becomes isolated in a personal experience that others can’t relate to, or is caught in either a mental, or chemical dependency. Drug abusers become despondent, listless, and without interests beyond the drug itself. We say that when there are drugs or alcohol involved, the person is not fully able to make good judgments about choices in life and therefore it is a compassionate response to step in and change the situation.
In my view, a well functioning community of friends, family and neighbors is probably better suited for such intervention, rather than laws and government. Little is done to help someone by putting them in jail.
was founded on the idea of personal freedom to pursue a life of one’s own choosing. We are allowed to tattoo ourselves from head to toe, eat Twinkies for all our meals, smoke cigarettes non stop and never see a dentist, so why are we are not permitted to alter our minds with any other substance than alcohol?
I grew up during the sixties and had my fair share of various herbs and spices such as Pot, LSD, Mushrooms, and MDMA. I learned a lot and never had a bad experience, but luckily I was never attracted to the hard stuff. Pot helped me better than Prozac and Dextrin during a depressing period of my life, and I still find it helpful to lift the mood and find musical inspiration. Otherwise I appreciate having a keen mind, living in the same world as those around me and show up on time with all my gear. My friends and loved ones helped me find balance, not the government.
More useful information available from the book: “Hallucionogenic Plants” by Richard Evans Schultes published by Golden Press, NY.