Recreational drugs: Addiction, Socialisation & Spirituality

An epidemic of mental and physical suffering

A large majority of people today are trapped in a hopeless spiral of disease and suffering, to varying degrees. Humans are not very good at accepting suffering, so they usually want to make it stop.

The first choice will always be what is easily obtained and socially acceptable. The substance that currently fits this description is alcohol. Humans have been self medicating with alcohol since at least 6000BC, as it is easy to make, it has a mild pain-killing effect, and it can lift spirits. Another potent analgesic is opium. With use dating back to 5000BC, opium was in wide use across the globe until the 20th century when new drugs were developed and stricter controls slowly introduced. Yet, as we know, these controls didn’t really stop the consumption of opiates, because their powerful affinity for human biochemistry meant that we weren’t going to give it up so easily. We have now seen the effects of opiate addiction and how it came to be the crisis it is in modern times.

The key driver was physical pain, which deserved a prescription for a limited number of pills. If the medicine ran out and the pain remained, the patient had to go to the streets to find more, but they often find heroin laced with deadly fentanyl. These drugs also alleviate emotional pain as well as they do physical pain. This emotional pain stems from trauma, often abuse in childhood, which is then self-medicated with opiates or other drugs. It is this unresolved trauma that is the true gateway to hard drug addiction.

Any drug can be a crutch

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The drug of choice depends on the person, their social circle and their location, rather than a conscious selection that would best suit their condition. This results in a mix of self-medicating for physical pain and for mental escape. If they’re in the party scene, they might access ecstasy, ketamine, and speed. If they are a university student, they may get hooked on Adderall, which leads to a meth addiction. If they live in a country with tight drug controls, they may resort to riskier alternatives to escape the pain. This could be poppy seeds, nutmeg, deadly mushrooms, or brugmansia leaves. These have unpredictable outcomes, including a high likelihood of death. However, this is usually of little concern to someone in a state of deep trauma who is seeking some relief.

Self treatment with cannabis

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A common drug of choice for self-medicating is cannabis. Cannabis has been used for more than pain or sleep conditions since at least 2500BC. It is commonly used to increase creativity, or as an anti-depressant. While this drug is significantly less harmful than the other drugs of addiction, it is still unfortunate that someone could need to be medicated indefinitely because they don’t have a cure for their symptoms. Cannabis is a useful medicine when used intentionally, but no human should have to self medicate for life, just to deal with a variety of chronic symptoms.

Psychedelic drugs have potential benefits

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The war on drugs began in the 1960’s, resulting LSD and other swath of other drugs being hastily made illegal, with minimal research into each of the substances being prohibited. It is clear that the drugs that fall into the psychedelic category have the potential to cause harm, but the research shows they also have benefits if used correctly.

In response to the legitimate concerns surrounding drugs with a psychological component, modern drug users developed the concept of “set and setting”. This involves selecting a time when the user has a good mindset, and they are in a safe location. In terms of psychedelics drugs, this would mean that the person should not be in a state of turmoil, acute depression, heightened anxiety or taking psychiatric medications. The location should be familiar, comfortable and safe, and ideally a familiar, sober, experienced person should be present. It is also recommended that they know the source of the drug, or if that is not possible, a test kit used to check the substance. In terms of dosage, taking precautions and starting with a lower dose to gauge the intensity is good practice, and helps to avoid the tragedies associated with adulterated street drugs.

By following a simple set of instructions for ingestion, many of the problems are associated with recreational drugs are mitigated. Those that argue for the decriminalisation of all drugs propose that harm would be reduced if the drugs were available in their pure form, portioned into a predictable dose. They also suggest that usage would decrease as addicts feel safe to seek help. Availability of “softer” drugs such as cannabis, psilocybin and LSD would reduce demand for harder drugs such as meth, which is currently one of the easiest street drugs to buy.

A need for drug reform

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It is clear that natural biological processes cause us to seek out substances that alter our perceptions. However, the potential for harm caused by each substance varies wildly, and as such it is important to consider which are of most concern. Professer David Nutt, an English neuropsychopharmacologist specialising in research of drugs affect the brain, conducted a thorough review of the data regarding the harm caused by each drug. He showed that alcohol causes more harm collectively (to the user and society) than any other drug, while LSD and psilocybin caused comparatively little harm. This was not well received, and Professor Nutt was fired from his Government advisory position. He is now working in psychedelic research, some of which is facilitated by crowd-funding. The volume of science-based evidence is growing, and it already shows that these drugs can have positive effects on treatment-resistant depression, anxiety and addiction, with other conditions on the horizon.

The Internet allows users to share experiences

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While many discover prohibited substances in their youth at a party or club, their interest in mind-altering experiences often develops into a more serious approach. The Internet has become a vast knowledge base to draw from and add to. Starting with the extensive collection of “trip reports” on the website Erowid in the early 2000s, an entire culture of individual exploration has pervaded every corner of the internet. Social media platforms have allowed like-minded people connect and discuss every stage of the drug, from manufacture to post-trip experience integration. YouTube videos of every type of personality recount their personal tales with psychedelics, educate about harm reduction, or even horror stories of bad trips.

As the viewer sifts through days of content, a few common threads appear. Despite an increasingly agnostic population, there is a growing culture of spirituality that is intimately connected with the psychedelic experience. A sense of inquisitive wonder seems to lead those who choose to experiment on themselves in the privacy of their homes. There is a sense that there is something familiar, unifying, infinite, and ineffable about these states of being.

Spiritual exploration through inner experiences

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The Universe is, objectively, incomprehensibly large and complex. This is comparable to the psychedelic experience, yet in our curiosity we try to explain it. This results in beautiful works of visual art, music, poetry, and even lush gardens. Yet none of these actually convey the experience to the viewer. With our limited language and cultural framework, it is easy to describe these experiences with the nebulous term, spiritual. While most would agree that they have a sense of what is meant by spiritual, it is ultimately an unhelpful term that doesn’t give you any more insight. Similar terms such as God, angel, spirit, energy, fractal, vibration, inner light, and third eye, all have no quantifiable measure or definition. These words are being used in a desperate attempt to explain what is currently inexplicable. However, just because we do not understand what is happening, does not mean that we should not allow safe exploration. The mechanisms behind most prescription medications are not understood, and despite the harmful effects associated with them, they are still prescribed daily. The same applies to the millions of accounts of the psychedelic experience; there is something occurring that the layman describes as ‘spiritual’, and as such we need to be open to understanding what this truly means.

Shamans are experienced guides

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From an anecdotal standpoint, it seems that many people are experiencing positive outcomes from these experiences, especially when done in the more ideal settings. As some Western researchers have worked to develop a delivery modality that resembles a therapeutic counselling session, others have travelled to far corners of the globe to discover how traditional psychedelics are administered and experienced. A common theme is that of the Shaman, an expert in the substance who oversees the process from start to finish. Shaman may guide the participants in certain rituals, sing or chant, play a flute or drum, and even appear to communicate with what is labelled “the spirit realm”. With the Western scientific approach, it is easy to dismiss these elements as superfluous, but this is arrogance. History has shown how often native tribal practices were valuable and effective, but were dismissed (and even destroyed) by the ignorant new colonists. While the mechanism given by a Shaman may not be accurate, the effect can still be real. With humility and open-minded scientific inquiry, can we work to discover how the Universe functions without dogma.

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