About the principle author...
Caution: Mad Scientist. A normal scientist wants to understand the world. A mad scientist wants to change the world, whether the world wants to be changed or not.
Location: Upper Midwest.
Politics: Libertarian-wing conservative. The ACLU is your friend; liberal fiscal policies are not.
Alias: Saint Jude (after the Catholic patron of lost causes.)
Deepest darkest secret: There's a Pizzicato Five CD buried here somewhere....
So, are you some sort of huge drug fiend or what?
Not at all. I've never used any drug frequently, and don't drink alcohol or smoke under any circumstances. It's a misconception that users of prohibited drugs are addicts, or even problem users. Like tens of millions of other Americans, I just preferred my recreational drugs to be something a little more interesting than mind-numbing alcohol.
What do you see in drugs?
From a biological perspective, drugs can temporarily alter your mood, level of alertness, and how your brain is processing and reacting to information. Depending on the drug and circumstances, these effects can be relaxing, enjoyable...even enlightening.
Relatively recreational drugs like MDMA and marijuana can enhance experiences and provide relaxation and entertainment during your time off, much like going to a movie, playing a sport, or whatever else you do instead of watching more TV. 'Psychedelic' drugs like LSD (and, to a lesser extend, MDMA) cannot give 'spiritual' (or other) enlightenment per se. What they can do is put you in a state of mind that is sufficiently different from your normal way of seeing the world that you may notice or discover something that you just hadn't been paying attention to in your normal 'sober' state. Maybe it's a new perspective about why you react to certain people or situations the way you do. Maybe it's finally admitting to yourself how passionately you hate your job. Maybe it's discovering that the world is full of small things of beauty and wonder if you just slow down long enough to appreciate them.
While everybody knows that drugs can cause harm, it's much less widely appreciated among non-users that prohibited drugs can also be quite beneficial. The person that enjoys a pipe of marijuana after work is not fundamentally different from the person that wants a beer instead, and is doing their health no more harm. Drugs, whether of the politically acceptable kind or not, can be a very real enhancement to our lives if used with respect for what dangers do exist. For all the anti-ecstasy hysteria in the press and from the government, being an MDMA user is still much less likely to result in injury, death, or addiction than alcohol or tobacco use. It sounds bizarre to the average American to say that your child being an ecstasy user is safer for them than if they were alcohol users...but that it precisely what the government's own research says.
How did you become a user of Prohibited drugs?
Many years ago (it seems like lifetimes ago now) a friend approached me with a suggestion and a gleam in their eye, talking about some remarkable discovery of theirs. The discovery was called 'ecstasy'. Was I interested, they asked? I didn't know. The drug really hadn't made much of a splash in the press yet, but I had heard of it, so I told them 'maybe' and did a little looking around on the Internet. There wasn't a lot of information available, but after a bit of reading about what the drug was like, I shifted from 'maybe no' to 'maybe yes'. The deal was done, and I was the nervous owner of a few small green pills of alleged but unproven quality, still unsure of what to do with them. They sat in my dresser drawer for almost a year...there were more pressing things to do with my time, and to be honest...I was still rather afraid of this whole 'drug' thing. After all, our teachers told us drugs were bad. The police told us drugs were bad. The television told us drugs were bad. Could they really all be wrong? (As it turns out, they could be...and they were.) But, one day, with the assurance of this same friend that it really was safe and fun, I swallowed one and a half of the little pills with a glass of water, walked out into the fading autumn sunlight...and into some small destiny.
Waiting. The gentle breeze seeped and flowed through the groves of trees around our rural home, rustling quietly, carrying those primal smells of soil and water, growing wildflowers, the buzz of honey bees, and, further off, the rumble of farm equipment working the fields. And so I walked. And nothing happened. Ten minutes. Twenty. Nothing. Where the pills bunk? Had I been ripped off? No, my source was trustworthy. Thirty minutes. Still nothing. This wasn't going quite as I had expected. Mistrust getting the better of me, I went back inside, and decided to just lay down on the couch and watch a little TV. And... And it, something, began. A feeling that I couldn't quite put my finger on, growing in the pit of my stomach, creeping into the back of my mind. I mentally clamped down on it, trying to isolate, to analyze, to control and command the strange growing feeling. And I was failing. Oh shit. Something was wrong...I couldn't bend this feeling to my will, couldn't overpower and manipulate it. A feeling of dread that something terrible was going to happen began to build within me, growing in power until it filled my mind as I fought desperately to remain static against an oncoming thing of undeniable power. And as I lay there, afraid and profoundly uncomfortable within my own skin...a thought came bubbling up to my conscious mind. Let go. A whisper in the dark. Let go. A quiet suggestion. LET GO! A command from god, a lightning bolt of understanding shattering the mental darkness. And just like that, I let go. I stopped fighting. I stopped trying to protect my little world at any cost, and accepted the onrushing shift in perspective for whatever it had to bring. And with that magical understanding that it was all right not to be in absolute control every waking moment, the building wave of dread and doubt was shattered. (Years later I would recognize this as a classic panic/anxiety reaction, popularly called a 'bad trip.')
My mind cleared of that initial distraction, I could now feel and understand this strange drug, this 'ecstasy' as they called it. A lightness and energy rushed into me, replacing the darkness of doubt with the strength of reconciliation and acceptance. I took a few steps, and began to laugh. This was what I had feared so? This was the horror of drugs? I felt entirely myself. I could think perfectly clearly. I wasn't stumbling about. The feeling was clean and strong and pure, like the day's first light on new snow. I knew that I had been a fool. I had accepted the claims about what drugs were like from people who had never tried them, who had never bothered to see for themselves...who had nothing to offer me but the poison of their secondhand ignorance and fear. In the end, the effect of the MDMA itself was mild...the average user would probably have been disappointed. But I had gained an epiphany that would endure far beyond the quickly fading drug.
I suppose you could call it a 'gateway drug' experience, but not in the way that the Prohibitionists envision 'gateway drugs'. The experience showed me that drugs were not something that had to be feared...that they could be used and enjoyed without coming to any harm for it. That is the real gateway effect; the realization that comes with your first decent experience with a prohibited drug that the government has been lying to you, that drugs can be fun and safe. To whatever small degree it even exists, the 'gateway' effect is a side effect of prohibition! Unfortunately it can cut both ways, leading people to reject all the warnings they have heard, sometimes unwisely. This is the price of a social policy of crying wolf: When young people discover that you were lying to them about the dangers drugs pose, they are much less likely to believe you even when a drug-use danger is legitimate. Of course, the average Joe doesn't even realize that they are spreading lies...they really don't know that the legal drugs (alcohol and tobacco) are actually more dangerous than many prohibited drugs like marijuana, MDMA, etc.
So how did we get from there to here? What turned an experimental user into an expert on MDMA?
Partly academic curiousity...and partly fear. The big anti-MDMA advertising pushes were coming, the government screaming 'it'll eat holes in your brain!' from every TV, radio station, and magazine. Given my own history of past and (then) current use, it suddenly seemed like more than an abstract academic question whether or not MDMA was damaging user's brains. The average person would probably have either quit using or ignored the propaganda and kept using, depending on how much faith they had in the source of the claims. But my interests and education weren't those of an accountant or English teacher...I was born to be a scientist. So, I looked around. I read. I started with secondary resources...what the press and other users were saying. It quickly became clear that I needed to go deeper to get the real story, which led me to the MAPS/Erowid MDMA research vault (a collection of over a thousand original scientific articles about MDMA) and PubMed. It was a grim job...working a few hours a day as time allowed, it took about half a year to complete the first pass through the backlog of articles.
At first it seemed like the doomsayers had been right. Studies finding that MDMA users had lower test scores than people who didn't use any drugs. A brain scan study finding that MDMA users had lower SERT density than non-users (suggesting brain damage.) But, as the years of research went by, something strange happened. Unlike the first studies (funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse) which concluded that use of illegal drugs was horribly bad for you, the new studies were producing quite different results. Yes, the MDMA users had lower memory scores than people who didn't use any drugs...but when some bright researcher said "wait a minute, these guys are all heavy pot smokers" and new tests were performed, it was found that the MDMA-using pot smokers were no worse off than people who just used pot. The early brain scan experiments, which had given wildly scattered readings, proved to be unrepeatable. As newer brain scan studies using more advanced equipment and techniques came out, the data was startling: The brains of people who had used MDMA, even hundreds of times, were normal. Their brains showed no signs of the long-term damage that the anti-drug forces had been insisting was occurring. (Visit Neurotoxicity for more information.)
You might think I would be relieved, and to some extent I was. But I was also deeply troubled by what I was finding, not because there was any reason to think my drug use had hurt me, but because of what I was finding in the politically charged debate: Fraud. A great wasteland of lies, oversights, and unsupported claims coming from government-funded researchers in their efforts to produce the anti-drug results they were being paid for. Something was very, very wrong. Not only did the latest research not support the government's position on MDMA, only a few of the experts had ever been willing to come out in support of the 'users are damaging their brains' theory. Something was very rotten in the USA. Beyond the flawed, sometimes outright fraudulent research, a picture of a propaganda war began to emerge. When a study came out that seemed to support the government's position, they made sure the press got and reported the story. When a piece of new research cast serious doubts on these government-promoted studies, it was never reported, because the press wasn't made aware of it. You see, the Dateline staff doesn't actually read "Neuropsychopharmacology" or "The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics"...they only become aware of the research journals when a little voice (or press release) tells them there is something there of interest. The anti-drug forces, with billions of dollars of federal backing, were manipulating the press (and through them, the public) by making sure their side of the argument got out while pretending the other side of the argument didn't even exist.
"Somebody should do something," I told myself. Time went by. "Somebody should really do something", I thought. Eventually, it became obvious that I was the somebody who should be doing something. Blech. That sounded like a lot of work. Well, you can't change the world if you aren't willing to put in some time and trouble...and so it began. Part hard science, part activism and spin, forged in the fires of righteous anger and unfounded optimism.
The buck stops here.