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Under the Influence

by TRACY McLELLAN

Under the Influence: The Disinformation Guide to Drugs,
edited by Preston Peet;
The Disinformation Company Ltd., 2004, 312 pages

I first tried LSD many years ago when I was relatively very young. I have always found it near impossible to describe the mystical-religious experience that ensued. It was the most spiritual and religious, in the most impersonal, non-Christian sense of those terms, I have ever known. For one split second during the trip there was a seeing, feeling and being of oneness with the Universe, all light, wisdom and bliss. It was beyond words, already shadows of the realities they represent, which are by their very nature full of dualities ­ subject, object; speaker, spoken to–that that experience taught me are illusions. Maya as the Hindus call this vale of tears.

I always considered my drug use to be a search to enhance and expand consciousness, not smother and sedate it. Marijuana, LSD, MDA, Ecstasy were my drugs of choice for just this reason, an attempt, to a certain degree, achievement, but also abject failure, of recreating that singular experience. Rather than an institutional and cultural framework of support for such a breathtaking discovery, there was the most mendacious dissembling around the issue of (some) drugs. Other than a few close friends, I was groping alone in the dark.

True religious freedom to me would be an exploring and attempt at recreating these kinds of states of consciousness. Understanding the potentialities and limitations of integrating them into everyday life. The freedom to create some kind of cultural and institutional framework to give them legitimacy as religious ritual. But there is no religious freedom in America. The word “religion” in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution might just as well be replaced by the word “Christianity.”

Because several of the writers in Under the Influence examine seriously this religious/mystical aspect of the drug policy issue, the call for reform takes on a much more urgent and fundamental dimension. “Drug prohibition is really, says Richard Glen Boire, who holds a Doctorate of Jurisprudence from UC Berkeley, “a war on consciousness itself ­ how much, what sort we are permitted to experience, and who gets to control it. More than an unintentional misnomer, the government-termed ‘war on drugs’ is a strategic decoy label; a sleight-of-hand move by the government to redirect attention away from what lies at ground zero of the war ­ each individual’s fundamental right to control his or her own consciousness.”

Why are entheogenic-induced states of consciousness prohibited while those prompted by the constant advertisements and come-ons to buy consumer crap, vacuous television-watching, endlessly grinding it out on a soul-destroying job, and a permanent wartime economy, to take just several egregious examples of a culture empty and superficial through and through, considered acceptable? I believe because the powerful and privileged are afraid of the alternate realites these substances can show us.

Boire adds significantly: “Those who have never experienced the mental states that are now prohibitied do not realize what the laws are denying them.” Mary Jane Borden calls opposition to drug prohibition part of the “age-old fight against bigotry.” She maintains that the struggle against “chemical bigotry” is part and parcel of the ageless struggles against the bigotries of racism, sexism, colonialism, and imperialism, and for democratic rights.

Dr. Stanislav Grof’s interview with Albert Hofmann, the accidental discoverer in 1943 of LSD’s singularly potent properties, is fascinating. Hofmann was a chemist at Sandoz Laboratories in Germany innocuously attempting to derive a drug analogue useful in obstetrics from alkaloids of ergot, a fungus that grows on rye bread. While conducting chemical synthesis experiments, he unknowingly and accidentally ingested a tiny amount of one of these analogues through the pores of his skin. He had a powerful and bewildering response. Hofmann explores the work this led him to be interested in in other cultures with similar substances like the magic mushroom of the Mazatec Indians in Mexico, ololiuqui, a derivative of morning glory seeds, and salvia divinorum. Other essays look at the Native American Church, whose rite of religious use of ceremonial peyote has been upheld by the Supreme Court, and ayahuasca, a vine that contains DMT, which has been used in Amazonia to induce religious visions for thousands of years.

Initially Hofmann considered LSD to be his wonder child. He deeply laments it becoming a problem child with its rise as a drug of abuse in the early 1960s that put an immediate surcease into any further research into its psychotherapeutic applications, which until that time had been quite substantial. The pendulum is swinging arduously back the other way and there is again halting but significant steps being made in this direction. They face constant official resistance. Rick Doblin, founder and president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, glimpses into the slight thawing of policy respecting the potential of psychedelics in psychotherapy and examines the issue of medical marijuana. Several other essays also examine this latter topic.

This book, like the drug-policy reform movement itself however, is in the great bulk on the defensive. The many negative arguments alone against prohibition as ineffective and counterproductive ought to prevail and prompt radical change. Cigarettes kill 430,000 Americans every year, alcohol tens of thousands more, but they are sanctioned, even heavily advertised. Marijuana, which has never been blamed for a single fatality, is outlawed. Many so-called drug crimes are actually drug law-related. Drug prohibition artificially and exponentially inflates the price of drugs. It is the mountains of money to be reaped dealing drugs, the battles for turf and the like, rather than drugs and the states of mind they engender, that prompt so much violence. It is also this that encourages a never-ending flow of dealers willing to risk their huge profits. Several writers note that the illicit drug trade is part and parcel of every modern day military enterprise, including those of the United States. Legalization, medicalization would by itself reduce armed insurgencies around the world. If drugs were legalized no individuals would sell them for there would be no profit. Users wouldn’t have to commit crimes to obtain them.

This book contains too many reasons for drug legalization and medicalization to list. Its reminding me of the almost lost knowledge of that split second in eternity all those years ago renewed my hope momentarily that life could be something other than just the wartorn battlefield it is.

TRACY McLELLAN is an activist who is recovering from hip surgery in the Chicago area. You may contact him at tracymacL@yahoo.com.

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