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Psychoactive Substances - A Rising Counterrevolution Against Drug Laws

By Ratnabh Mukerjei

In an enlightened society, there are pivotal transformations on our views regarding certain prevalent accepted truths. In the 1960's, for instance, it was quite normal for adults and teens to be smoking, and being proud of it. Cigarettes were a step ahead of conventional starry advert glorification; they were normalized into becoming a self-sufficient subculture. Before people knew, the Marlboro Man was the pinnacle of formal machismo, the companion of every suit-flaunting corporate lord wanting to seek a few seconds of smoke to resign into “calmness.” Then came the nineties, and smoking was nothing more than abhorrent, looked at as obnoxious and downright gross; with bans on targeted advertisements, government crackdowns on production standards, and a far more sceptical consumer base becoming evident. What changed in people’s minds? In large part, the realization that smoking can be fatal, and if not so, it can leave you with permanent physical damage, irreversible in most cases. It doesn’t take much to draw a parallel with drugs, or psychoactive drugs, to be specific.


Every substance recognized by the National Association for Drug Abuse as a “schedule 1” narcotic (for example; LSD, DMT, cannabis, cocaine, heroin) is deemed as “hellish,” designed to destroy ambition; guaranteed to turn you into either a psychotic, an addict or an outlaw with a single dose. Interestingly, the cynic of this so-called enlightened age, while reading a National Geographic Study of marijuana or a New Yorker feature on psychoactive substances will inevitably be left in a state of utter dissonance: are drugs as bad as they paint them to be?


We can’t really blame the cynics either, given the strong developments in the counter- narrative. Apparently, an injured war veteran, wrought with post-traumatic stress disorder can “re-centre” himself after an “out-of-body” experience with ayahuasca: a medicinal DMT alternative being used in South America for spiritual healing. Methyl di-Tryptamine (MDMA) is being furthered as an anti-depressant, for extreme cases that conventional medicines have failed to cure or curtail. Marijuana, a soft Schedule 1 drug, is now an enterprising affair, outdoing sales for Starbucks in major American cities; a USD 52 billion industry with no signs of slowing down. Cannabis extracts are waging war on cancer, and chemotherapy is fast losing the faith in the medical community. It is becoming difficult to deny the fact that plants and plant derivatives are rewiring the human psyche in ways that were previously considered unimaginable; and if otherwise, unethical or dangerous. Perhaps, the orthodox narrative accepted thus far isn’t as innocent, either way.


The traditionally accepted stance that vilifies all such substances requires historical context, something that is often ignored in the dialogue around narcotics. The story goes way back to alcohol prohibition in the United States in the early twentieth century. The hard-line measure to combat alcohol (in the 1920’s), required a team of enforcers headed by Harry J. Anslinger to run an anti-alcohol campaign and a blanket ban. The results were phenomenal; legitimate alcohol consumption zeroed down in many states. The more interesting observation, however, was that bootlegging and underground bars sparked a mafia up-rise and a major health crisis due to absent regulatory measure. The ban got lifted, and for Anslinger’s team (now rendered jobless) to have an objective, a new dragon to slay (with a Mexican name, “marijuana”) was birthed. Anslinger’s enforcers drove public anxiety to the roof through a partisan press, and as the political pressure from lobbying entities mounted on Washington, Schedule 1 drugs (Controlled Substances Act) became a part of the United States Penal Code. Consequently, the United States successfully imposed its anti-drug stance on its western allies, and incrementally on the rest of the world through the 1961 United Nations Convention on Narcotics.


Now, through a measure supposedly founded to preserve world-health, we have come to a point wherein some of the most lethal drugs have been legalized, some of the most dormant ones are prohibited, and a significant number of the possibilities of drug harm come from illicit production. Methadone, for instance, is a prescription painkiller, nearly as addictive as heroin, sold on the counters of Australia and UK. Fentanyl, an addiction-abuse outrage in Canada, was originally a pharmaceutical opioid for period pain. The point, ultimately is, if addiction and health harm due to consumption (in the absence of regulation) is the real precedence of the law for imposing a blanket ban, a significant number of pharmaceutical companies would need to shut down business, and the alcohol industry would have to transform into a global drug trafficking racket overnight to stay afloat.


The fact of the matter is, alcohol and cigarettes (quite legal, and mostly available within metres of every posh residential) have reportedly been linked to more medical emergencies in the UK; compared to those of LSD, mushrooms, DMT, cannabis and ketamine combined, for the same period. The dialogue could probably move ahead if we would all be willing to accept that psychologically, humans have a natural tendency to develop dependencies, and drug abuse isn’t purely a matter of an individual’s choice and agency. Before she found heroin, Allison Dawes (name changed) couldn’t really get out of bed on most days. She contemplated suicide. She saw herself as an “obnoxious, worthless waste of space,” and no one was surprised. There is odd apathy revolving around the stories of her being molested by her family members, including her father; and stories of how heroin enabled her to feel the emotions she had presumed to be “forgotten.” Perhaps, if referred to a psychiatrist, she’d be dictated pharmaceutical anti-depressants, and out of the many, one might just have worked.


Objectively, nonetheless, one cannot deny arguments against substances like heroin; they are addictive, designed to develop tolerance if taken in uncontrolled measures, and depression should most definitively be approached by professional and legally accepted mechanisms. Such drugs have the potency to disconnect individuals from society at large, and can become gateways to abuse in unimagined and uncontrollable forms. Besides, if the state starts propagating medical vigilantism, the health crisis it would create would be immeasurable. In light of these perspectives: there should be cognizance of a certain practical truth in them. But it would also be unfair to classify opioids and psychedelic substances as inherently evil, invalid or bad; the way they are currently discussed in the conventional discourse.


It is probably a further consequence of our current approach to substance that we started looking at addiction as a criminal concern, as opposed to a psychological one. The right-wing press refuses to understand that sending drug users and abuse victims to prisons is a convenient stance to take; and avoid the dialogue on what psychological and environmental factors actually lead to chemical abuse of any nature, and whether anything can be done about them. Prisoners, or ex-inmates, are almost always socially outcasted; people with strong criminal records in drug-possession are denied social opportunity and subsidy. On the contrary, it is noteworthy that Portugal had stopped an opioid epidemic in the nineties, simply by decriminalising all drugs and politically shifting an incarceration stance to a health concern stance. Of course, the debate between the left and the right, on what qualifies as a sanctioned source of artificial pleasure, can continue forever.


It would be inexcusably innocent to assume that a blanket legalization can solve all of the world’s drug problems, but existing literature furthers that drugs would be approached better, if done so scientifically and medically. Irrespective, our current social lens, making us want to look at every substance from a moralistic perspective, is immaterial and falsely premised. The existing state of prohibition has failed to address any harms, while manifesting within itself, a rising criminal underworld. Our politicians have made a habit out of rejecting science; and in the comedown, a generation of young adults left vulnerable to abuse and a 60’s music record by the Beatles is all that we’re left with.

1 thought on “Psychoactive Substances – A Rising Counterrevolution Against Drug Laws”

  1. Ameya B. Sharma

    “The Marlboro Man was the pinnacle of formal machismo” is now my favourite phrase. Very enlightening.

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