Thursday, October 30, 2008

'Iconoclasts' on Radio 4: Drugs can be good for you.

Last night (Wed 29 October) BBC Radio 4 broadcast the first of three episodes of 'Iconoclasts'. Produced by the Radio 4's religion and ethics programming department (who also produce the moral maze) it is a 'series of live, thought provoking discussions' that each week invites 'an 'Iconoclast' challenges our opinions and perceptions about an issue and listeners are invited to send in their comments via text and emails during the programme'. The opening episode featured as its iconoclast Transform Patron Dr Sue Blackmore. Axel Klein, a Transform trustee was also one of the panel questioning her. The title of the discussion was 'Illegal drugs can be good for you' , with Sue's premise summarised on the Radio 4 site thus:

The scientist and writer Dr Susan Blackmore argues that drugs can be good for you. She says most of the problems of drug abuse are really caused by drug prohibition. It would be much better if we decriminalised drugs and taught young people how to use them properly and safely instead. She says that our society doesn't take the "dangerous wonder" of mind-altering chemicals seriously. As a psychologist Susan wants to understand the mind. She has experimented with hallucinogenic drugs because she wanted to learn "how to face demons and terrors, how to let go of self, how to explore the further reaches of human experience." She wants a society in which adults are free to take drugs for their own reasons: for comfort and delight, to ease pain, to inspire insight or creativity, and even to face death. Just as we can distinguish between alcohol use and alcohol abuse, so should we accept that there's a place for positive drug use.

It is an obviously controversial position to argue and is worth reading her complete introductory paper, that usefully expands on the above, and which is copied below, you can also listen to the complete program online here, which was overall a positive contribution to an often difficult debate. Sue also had a blog published on the Guardian's Comment is Free: 'Hang-gliders of the mind' which is taking comments for a couple more days.

The three members of the panel were:

Dr Axel Klein
A lecturer in the study of addictive behaviour at the University of Kent, Dr Klein has a particular interest in the cultural contexts of drug use, the interplay of drugs and crime, and the development of drug policy at national and international level.

Dr Ken Checinski
A psychiatrist and senior lecturer in addictive behaviour at St George's University Hospital, Dr Checinski has both clinical and academic expertise in the effects of drug abuse.

Sarah Graham
Sarah Graham has a Priory Professional Diploma in Addictions Therapy. She works for the charity In-volve – counselling children in schools. Previously, Sarah worked in the media. She faced her addictions in 2001 and is an expert in holistic treatment models and communicating with young people. She advises Frank – the government drugs service and The Recovery Network.

Dr Sue Blackmore argues that illegal drugs can be good

Why do people use mind-altering drugs? They use them for comfort and delight, to ease pain, to inspire insight or creativity, and even to face death. There are lots of good uses for mind-altering drugs, yet what do we see all around us – drug abuse.

Why do people abuse drugs? Because they’ve never been taught to use them properly, because their lives are so tough they have to escape into addiction, because the only drugs they can find are filthy, adulterated, unreliable mixtures. In a word, because of prohibition.

Mind-altering drugs are both dangerous and wonderful. As a society we should be treating them with respect, encouraging their positive uses and discouraging abuse, but instead we have made them illegal – handing control over to criminals and ensuring that they are widely abused. One in five of secondary school children have taken illegal drugs, and in what circumstances? In ignorance of the power and potential of what they are taking, at far too young an age, in loud scary clubs, in unknown doses and in completely irresponsible mixtures. This is a tragedy, caused by our complete inability to treat these drugs seriously.

We manage much better with other dangerous wonders. We have flying lessons, and sailing schools, pilots licenses and skippers exams, apprenticeships in engineering and degrees in pharmacy. With all these things we weigh up the advantages of using something against the danger of accidents or abuse.

But the most dangerous and wondrous of all we shove into the corner and try to ignore. It won’t do. It’s a disgrace to us all.

Our ill-considered classification system includes drugs ranging from the highly addictive and dangerous to the relatively harmless, but I want to pick out from this mixture the most special, the most mind-opening, the drugs with the greatest potential.

These include the major hallucinogens, such as LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline, also known as psychedelics or “entheogens” meaning “releasing the God within”. Indeed many of them derive from plants and have been used for millennia. What distinguishes this traditional use from ours is that those cultures had long experience, social controls, training for users, and very specific conditions for use. A good example is DMT, the active ingredient in Ayahuasca, a complex brew of psychoactive plants used by Amazonian Indians. They treat their “spirit vine” with great respect, carefully training the people who take it, culminating in rituals for spiritual and mental healing.

I first took this short-acting hallucinogen twenty years ago or so and was told, by my experienced guide, that it would be like an eight hour LSD trip condensed into 15 minutes. That it might be horrific, and that one of his friends had said it was the worst experience he’d ever had. Hmm. That sounds fun! So why did I take it? Because then, like now, I was obsessed with understanding the mind. I wanted to learn how to face demons and terrors, how to let go of self, how to explore the further reaches of human experience.

As the drug took hold the world disintegrated in a roaring chaos of green and orange. I can say little that does it justice now, except that I sat there with a beatific smile on my face, shaking my head and saying “terrible, terrible”. I learned much from this difficult drug, as from other easier ones. I have found peace and deep tranquillity, had visions and mystical insights, been enveloped in empathy with others, and laughed at the cosmic joke. Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for exploring weird states, and nor should they, just as not everyone wants to go hang-gliding or horse-riding. Yet there’s something wrong with a society that actively blocks people’s natural desire to explore their own minds.

We cannot take over the old traditions of those ancient societies, but we should create our own ways of using drugs for good not harm. Such as what good? you might ask.

A young woman I know well has been anorexic for ten years – a horrible condition of self-starvation and misery. She first took LSD two years ago and found it deep and interesting, so decided to take it again. On a glorious sunny day she walked miles to a beautiful beach and sat for many hours, watching the sea, listening to the birds and letting the whole of her anorexic life out of its bag. She progressed through what she called “growing mental torture” and then – as she kept just sitting and looking into it – to a deep pleasure in total presence. “The greatest revelation” she wrote later “was of the possibility of being, totally, without any fear or any desire; and, as the devastating counterpart, the knowledge that the way I have lived this past decade has precluded precisely this.” I can’t say, and nor would she, that one acid trip cured her of anorexia, but it certainly contributed to her now beginning to eat. With this knowledge she doesn’t need to take the drug again. It has done its work.

This, I suggest, is use not abuse.

And finally there is death. Many profound drug experiences include thoughts about dying and images of death, and this can, paradoxically, destroy the fear of death. With so many of us facing old age, disease and dying, this possibility of inner transformation should be encouraged, not banned. I hope that before I die I may live in a better society, one that has learned to respect and appreciate the most powerful of mind-changing drugs, one that knows how to use drugs, not abuse them.


Sven said...

I listened to this a little while after it was on. I must say I was incredibly dissapointed to hear Sarah Graham infer that alcohol and tobacco kill so many people because they are legal. Truly shameful twisting of facts.

Anonymous said...

Steve, maybe because Bristol does not get that much London regional news, you have gabbed the wrong end of the stick...

The same sort of poster campaign as run by the British Humanist Association et al should not drain your existing budget! That would be the beauty of it. People donated, not in response to the adverts but in order that the adverts could be produced and seen.

Psychologically speaking, people are more inclined to donate to something that promises immediate impact than to long term, low key projects. This is possibly why it took off so dramatically and ended up being reported in most of the dailies.

The only real problem is getting the ball rolling
Here is how Ariane Sherine pulled it off.

Here is the original article where she was hoping for just 4,680 atheists to respond.

The Guardian has a sort of intellectual, independently minded, beards and sandals readership, so
how many of its readers do you think are fed up with the war on drugs? The right article about the 'war on drugs' at the right time, might just do the trick.

If such a campaign also brings more people to your site, then more people might also find your donate button for the foundation. Two birds with one stone, you might say (no pun intended).

Steve Rolles said...

anon - I think thi sis cross post, but anyway....I live and work in London and followed the bus poster story as it unfolded. It benefited from the guardian column, and went viral online with Dawkins endorsement.

I like the idea very much but we dont immediately have access to either of those marketing tools, so would have to think about how to take it forward. I also remain to be convinced about the impact of a one off conventional poster advertising beyond it creating secondary media interest.

Anonymous said...

It's a pity Sue isn't as rich as Dawkins. I thought her performance was all but faultless on Iconoclasts.

Prohibitionists are forced to argue that legal drugs do so much harm we mustn't adopt harm reduction (decriminalisation) policies for illegal ones. Do they realise just how threadbare that argument is or are they simply being dishonest ?

However, at least the BBC didn't subject us to the Peter Hitchens argument : the War on Drugs isn't working, because we're not punishing users severely enough.

Anonymous said...

I don't wish the terrible trauma associated with cancer on anyone. I'm tempted to wish it upon those that oppose the use of medical marijuana so that they get a taste of the suffering they're insisting others live with. Marinol, THC, is just one of the MANY pharmacologically active compounds in marijuana. The other cannabinoids have been scientifically proven to help many diseases and conditions.

Not why I'm writing though. I have treatment resistant depression. I have used many different prescription medicines trying to overcome it. Only effexor and suboxone helped. Unfortunately, like many drugs, I built up a tolerance to effexor that forced me to increase the dose through the years, and when I stopped, it was the most terrible drug I've EVER encountered. I've been addicted to opiates and cocaine, and stopping them was nothing like stopping the effexor. It took over a year to get anywhere near back to normal, and two years later, I'm not the same.

Yes, drugs can be good for you. What I DO wish is that people like Scott Burns of the ONDCP, who stated after hearing that the only thing that helped some people was pot - "they should try crack cocaine. I've heard that'll really make 'em feel good" - anyway, what I DO wish is that people like him who just hate pot, there are many, would spend just one week feeling the INCREDIBLE dysphoria and other blah feelings I have to deal with almost daily. It's sorta like having the flu without the fever and other physical symptoms. Just the severe fatigue, amotivation, and the mental suffering that often accompany the flu.

One might wonder if they made it through all the above, what is this persons point? You see there was another medication/herb that helped and had few side effects and no tolerance. It was marijuana. One of these years I predict that science will find that some people have cannabinoid deficiencies.

Can't have that evil weed though. So many ignorant and intolerant moral-dictating sadists.

Drugs CAN be good for you.