What did you do for the psychedelic renaissance? by Andy Roberts

This is the editorial for the Psychedelic Press journal XVI (May 2016) and is written by Andy Roberts, author of newly published Acid Drops: Adventures in Psychedelia, and Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   We live in interesting times. Psychedelic drugs of all kinds, controlled and uncontrolled by law, are enjoying a renaissance and there is arguably more interest in these drugs now than ever before. Barely a week passes without the media running a story about how psychedelic drug use could benefit individuals or society and in 2015 the European Convention on Human Rights suggested that drug taking is a fundamental human right. Breakthroughs in successful medical trials with LSD, psilocybin and MDMA continue apace and there is a growing belief that medical/psychotherapeutic use might be licensed within the next decade.

That would be fantastic, but is it enough? Well, no, it isn’t. It’s a start but surely what we want is for adults to have the right to legally use psychedelics for their personal use – the cognitive liberty argument. This is also what many of the current psychedelic researchers, such as Dr Ben Sessa, want, and herein lies the psychedelic paradox. Ben’s argument is that the hippie counter-culture has failed to challenge the laws against psychedelic drugs using the cognitive liberty argument. Consequently the only successful route to legislative change is to use the weight of evidence from medical trials to first bring about legal psychedelic therapies and then to work toward legalisation for personal use. There is logic in this argument but just how realistic is it?

My view is that this optimism must be balanced against the government’s history of legislative actions against psychedelic drugs. LSD has been a Class A drug for decades. MDMA (Ecstasy) was designated a Class A controlled drug in 1977. Cannabis was up-graded from Class C to B in 2009, and ‘magic mushrooms’ designated a Class A drug in 2005. That track record alone gives me no faith in any future relaxation of the laws.

Dig deeper and you’ll find the political thinking behind these restrictions amplified in the government’s 2010 Drug Strategy document. One key sentence stands out as indicative of the government’s position: ‘This Government does not believe that liberalisation and legalisation are the answer’.

Why are psychedelic drugs subject to such harsh controls and legislation? Ask non-users and you’ll get a range of answers, usually suggesting it is because of their danger. Yet there is a wealth of scientific and anecdotal evidence to demonstrate that careful use of psychedelic substances is not particularly dangerous (with the caveats that certain groups of people including children and those with mental health issues should not use them). The canard that all drugs are bad was firmly demolished in 2009 in a surreal public clash between scientific evidence and political hypocrisy.

David Nutt, Chair of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was asked to resign when he claimed in a lecture some drugs were less harmful than others. Nutt refused and was summarily dismissed. A media furore ensued, revealing the fundamental ignorance inherent in political thinking about the effects of drugs on individuals and society.

In 2007, Nutt, drawing on the knowledge of 14 experts specialising in all aspects of drug use, examined nine of the alleged ‘harms’ of 20 drugs. Nutt’s evidence-based conclusions were startling. Alcohol was ranked as the most harmful, above heroin, whereas LSD was ranked 17th, MDMA 18th and psychedelic mushrooms 20th. Tobacco came in at 6th place.

All drugs are harmful to some degree but Nutt’s table of relative harms brought into question why those causing the most harms are legal to use, while those with no potential harm other than to the user are strictly controlled. It is difficult to believe Nutt was sacked for anything other than because his findings clashed with the prejudices of the government: prejudices that clearly demonstrate that the government was not interested in basing law and policies about drugs on scientific evidence.

Prior to his sacking, a telephone conversation between Nutt and former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, epitomised the simplistic reasoning used by politicians to justify their refusal to base drug laws on evidence.

JS:   You can’t compare harms from a legal activity with an illegal one.

DN: Why not?

JS:   Because one’s illegal.

DN: Why is it illegal?

JS:   Because it is harmful.

DN: Don’t we need to compare harms to determine if it should be illegal?

JS:   You can’t compare harms of an illegal activity with a legal one.

Lewis Carroll would have been proud! Nutt was not suggesting any drug is safe or that one should be chosen over another. He was doing what good science should do by bringing clarity to a subject mired in confusion and prejudice, offering evidence on which policy and law could be based.

The ironic, hypocritical, punchline to the bad joke of Nutt’s sacking came in 2011 when Liberal Democrat politician Tom Brake asked David Cameron if he believed in evidence-based policies in relation to drugs. Cameron responded, ‘That is a lovely idea.’

So if evidence shows the potential harm of using psychedelic drugs is low and can be managed, the question as to why they are so vigorously controlled remains. I think there is a case to be made suggesting the government is trying to outlaw the psychedelic experience per se by criminalising and controlling the substances used to access it. A conspiracy based on an unspoken witchhunt against being high. If that is the case then any argument for the legal personal use of psychedelics must be based as much on the principle of cognitive liberty as on the medical/psychotherapeutic model.

Of course a conspiracy of this kind is unprovable. No one is going to discover a file in the National Archives at Kew labelled ‘The Conspiracy Against Psychedelic Drugs,’ conspiracies just don’t work like that. Nor is it a conspiracy by any specific government department or individual. More an unspoken conspiracy by the Establishment, defined in 1955 by journalist Henry Fairlie:

"By the Establishment, I do not only mean the centres of official power—though they are certainly part of it—but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised. The exercise of power in Britain (more specifically, in England) cannot be understood unless it is recognized that it is exercised socially."

Or to put it another way, a conspiracy conducted by those in positions of power who see psychedelics, and the cognitive liberty they offer, as antithetical to the British way of life. There is evidence in abundance to support such a conspiracy. For instance, consider the speed with which LSD was legislated against in 1966. Until March 1966 press, public and politician alike were only vaguely aware of LSD. Following lurid media exposes of how, in a few hours, LSD could transform a person’s focus from living as a mindless consumer drone to a thoughtful questioning individual, the hammer came down.

The last thing the Establishment wanted was its citizens becoming more interested in different ways of living through sexuality, relationships, spirituality, music and having fun instead of being a work slave. These older generational fears were echoed publically on 30 June 1966 when Lord St Just announced in the House of Lords that, “No drug has been produced which has caused greater trouble in this world than LSD”. Of course that statement was not backed up by any evidence to support it, simply because there was no evidence. LSD was heavily vilified in the media and its successful use by psychotherapists was scorned by the British Medical Journal. A series of debates in Parliament took place in which LSD was discussed in the same tone as drugs of addiction, and in October 1966, amid laughter and bad jokes, one of the most potent substances discovered became a controlled drug. Then came the crack down.

The vibrant counter-culture spawned and driven by LSD in the sixties and seventies was mercilessly routed. The Free Festivals were infiltrated by police, as were the network of squats, communes and shared houses that were springing up across Britain. So desperate were the Establishment to destroy this chemically initiated way of living that Britain’s first national drug squad was formed with huge physical and fiscal resources in order to smash the Operation Julie LSD manufacturing and distribution network, which produced some of the finest quality LSD ever. The two chemists were given prison sentences disproportionate to the crime, and well above those handed out to murderers and paedophiles. Similar force was brought to bear in the eighties and nineties on the burgeoning rave scene which, in its early days at least, had parallels with the hippies’ discovery of the transformational nature of LSD. I’m only scratching the surface, of course, evidence of the persecution of psychedelic culture in Britain goes much deeper and spans several decades.

Perhaps I’m being paranoid. Perhaps the prejudices held by the Establishment are slowly fading and a change really is coming. I hope so, but we still need to push on all fronts, and not just rely on those working on scientific and medical trials with psychedelic drugs. If we really are at a tipping point then we all have our part to play. When, in twenty years’ time, you are asked “What did you do for the psychedelic renaissance?” what will your answer be?

Whatever your skills or knowledge everyone can play a part in manifesting the change we all want. Lobby your local politician and ask their opinions on these transformational substances. Educate them if they are ignorant of the facts. Join your local psychedelic society. Better still, start one! Mainstream your interest and enthusiasm for psychedelic drugs whenever it is appropriate. The psychedelic experience itself is not illegal, nor is talking about it or lobbying for change in legislation. If you have had positive life changing experiences from using psychedelic substances give witness to them. In short, celebrate the psychedelic experience and psychedelic culture. Be the change you want to see.

For more information about Psychedelic Press XVI and to buy your copy please check out its page here.

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