Backwards and Forwards… Worldwide Drug Policy Update

It’s been three months since the Psychoactive Substances Act was passed into law in the UK. It effectively banned every substance that wasn’t food, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or prescription medication. Despite the immense, sweeping power this act has given police, so far they’ve only targeted head shops; stores selling ‘legal highs’. This was the main aim of the PSAct from the outset – shut down the high street vendors that were successfully bypassing UK drug policy. Since the end of May, 24 head shops have been shut down, and over 300 non-specialist stores have stopped selling legal highs. The Home Office estimates this will cost the economy £32 million annually… and that’s probably a fairly conservative estimate.

In addition, 186 people have been arrested for selling legal highs. One representative example is a man selling canisters of harmless laughing gas at a festival. He could face a lifetime in jail for carrying a gas used to whip cream.

canisters

Canisters of laughing gas could land you in jail

So the PSAct has achieved its main goal – but at the cost of our freedom. This is the first time in our history that instead of declaring what is illegal, an Act has listed what is legal. And it’s a very small list. It sets a scary precedent for future policies.

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Cluster headaches

We’ve all suffered from the occasional spontaneous headache. If you’ve experienced migraines before, you’ll know they’re a step up from normal headaches – they cause nauseating pain, blind spots in your vision and pain that can last for hours.

Cluster headaches go beyond even the debilitating pain of migraines. Clinically a different type of headache altogether, they are characterised by severe, excruciating pain focused on one side of the head. An episode can last several hours and can reoccur within a short time period, even several times within the same day. Around one in 500 people suffer from cluster headaches, and some report that their headaches are more painful than childbirth.

headache

Because clinicians don’t understand what causes cluster headaches, treating them is difficult. Current treatments are expensive, unpleasant or impractical – such as inhaling from an oxygen tank or frequent injections. Many medicines, especially preventative ones, cause unpleasant side effects including heart problems and gum disease. An estimated 10-20% of sufferers can’t find relief from any typical treatments. But psychedelic drugs may be able to finally provide relief for those unfortunate few.

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Turning up the creativity dial

Swirling colours, delirious patterns, groovy rhythms and otherworldly vistas. These are some of the first things that come to mind when we think about psychedelics. The unique fashion and culture of the 1960s was influenced by the popularity of psychedelic drugs like no other time in our history; the colours, patterns and hair-dos of that time stand out like a carnival in our recent timeline.

paisley

Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles… the list of bands influenced by psychedelics could go on and on. Aldous Huxley’s works, still hugely influential to this day, are clearly inspired by his experiences with mescaline and LSD. Steve Jobs took LSD in college, and called it “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life”. The inventor of PCR, a breakthrough biomolecular technique that has revolutionised medical research, said that LSD gave him the intuition that allowed him to make the ground-breaking discovery. Artists and architects, authors and entrepreneurs have been finding inspiration in LSD, mescaline, psilocybin and DMT for decades.

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The Consciousness Conduit

The aptly-named ‘hard problem’ of consciousness: why do we experience? Why do we perceive colours and sounds? Why do we feel emotions?

On the surface, we can track the mechanical basis of all these sensations. We can look at a network of firing neurons and say, “there, that’s the perception of the colour red”. But we can’t explain how that links to our actual experience of the colour red. We currently have no neurobiological or physical explanation for how subjective experience results from complex systems of neurons.

robot brain

It seems as if there is no reason why subjective perception would have evolved in us. We just don’t need it. To escape a predator, I just need my brain to recognize a rustle in the bushes and make my legs move. To stop at a red light, I just need my neurons doing their jobs of recognizing the colour red, and pushing on the brake pedal. Where does my subjective perception of these events actually matter? On the surface, I am no different from a robot.

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Clubbing with Ecstasy

Strobe lights, dense fog, thumping beats, crowded dance floor… and a whole lot of MDMA. It’s a typical clubbing experience.

Clubs devoted to the class-A drug ecstasy aren’t exactly a new concept. They’ve been around for decades. But this was my first encounter. Everyone was clearly there to get high; the dancers knew it, the DJ knew it, the bouncers knew it.

In some ways it was a bizarre experience. And it was a microcosm of our nonsensical drug laws.

club1

Ecstasy has been illegal since 1985, but it is a relatively harmless drug. There are risks associated with taking large amounts, taking it frequently or mixing it with other drugs, but compared to alcohol or tobacco these risks are low. Former head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Professor David Nutt, was fired for (truthfully) saying that taking ecstasy is less dangerous than horse riding.

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Avoiding bad trips

“I felt my stomach drop upon the realization that all of my friends and family had always been simply creations of my own disturbed mentality, but even more so that I would be alone for all of eternity with only my thoughts to accompany me.”

“I feel parts of me go numb. I feel my heart start to give out but I pull it back to life. I am fighting to survive at this point, I have forgotten that I took a drug, I am alone in an eternal hell.”

“I became very restless because my mind was so incoherent. I wandered from bed to bed in the room, lying down and crawling into a foetal position in some attempt to make it stop. The trip was making every moment of existence complete and utter hell. I wanted to stop existing immediately in order to make it stop.”

These are all excerpts from various trip reports collected on the drug information website Erowid.org. They’re just a few of countless examples of people who have experienced the nasty side of psychedelics.

Psychedelics are extremely powerful drugs. Despite their enormous medical and spiritual potential (of which I’ve barely scratched the surface in this blog), they have the power to do harm when used irresponsibly.

bad trip

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