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Have you ever wondered why so many people see psychedelics as a threat to society while, at the same time, alcohol is so glorified and glamorized? I lost count of the times I have had to explain why I decided to eliminate alcohol from my life. ‘What a party-pooper’ is the most common response. But when I exclaim: ‘I don’t drink alcohol anymore; I only do psychedelics,’ I leave my inquirers chuckling or flabbergasted. In both cases, I pull out the report from the Lancet and shove it under their nose. It contains the findings of a group of researchers who examined the harms of drug use in the UK. They considered mortality, dependence, loss of tangibles, relationships, injury, crime, environmental damage and economic cost, among other things. The unanimous front-runner of the list? Alcohol. Followed by heroin and crack cocaine.
Of course, there is a side note: the availability of these three culprits. Heroin and crack cocaine would probably rank higher if they were as readily available as alcohol. Yet, the question remains: how come a toxic and addictive substance that causes the worst 'katzenjammers' of all times (if that were the only thing) is so embedded and normalized in many societies? While at the same time, the use of non-toxic and non-addictive mind-expanding 'teachers', such as mushrooms (20th on the Lancet list) or LSD (18th on the Lancet list), remains a crime?
I find it quite bizarre – and decided to investigate what lies behind this. My conclusion after reading multiple books, articles, interviews, reports, and historical reviews? There’s no logic to it! The standards applied to most drugs are disproportionate, unjustified, and often based on media-hyped stories about when things went wrong. Even though, for almost all drugs, these are exceptions to the rule.
Drugs policy in my country
I was born and raised in the Netherlands – a country known for its liberal drug policies. Entirely undeserved nowadays; we’ve been running behind tremendously on what’s happening in many other countries in terms of legalization and regulation of drug policies. A proposal for a new and stricter drug law* is awaiting approval by the Dutch House of Representatives as we speak. In this new law, hundreds of substances will be made illegal without even being proven harmful to health or society. Many bodies are against the proposal: the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), the Council of State, addiction care, science, etc. Yet, my government prefers to build on outdated thinking in which they fight drugs and the accompanying crime at all costs. While it’s precisely illegalization that has created the criminal machine we are in today.
The Dutch roaring ‘60s
To understand where the Netherlands’ liberal image comes from, we must go way back to the roaring ‘60s. At that time, Amsterdam was the magical center of the world for anyone who was young and wanted to do whatever they felt like. The city was a hotbed for movements that rebelled against society. Hippies populated Dam Square and the Vondelpark with their brightly colored clothes, long hair, beaded necklaces, hair bands and flowers. They were a voice of opposition to capitalism, war, discrimination and violence. Besides the hippies, there was another movement associated with the social upheaval of the decade: the Provos. This anarchistic protest group revolted against the establishment, consumer society, and any form of authority.
In these turbulent times, drugs were an excellent means of provocation and way to flip the bird to all that was established. Hashish and marijuana had already been prohibited since the launch of the first Opium Act in 1919 (and still are today, although decriminalized for personal use). However, LSD was legal and used freely.
The start of prohibition
In 1966, following a series of events, the Dutch tabloid De Telegraaf published a full-page article titled 'LSD leads to insanity. Many young people have already been driven to the brink of destruction.’ A report full of sensational - and ungrounded - examples of the ‘dangers’ of the psychedelic. One interviewed politician even declared that, until LSD is banned, its use will only increase, and with it, ‘the number of suicides and suicide attempts will rise and psychiatric hospitals will be overrun with LSD users.’
Around the same time, the Provos revolted against the wedding of the Dutch crown princess and her German Prince Charming-to-be. They distributed pamphlets stating that they would give sugar cubes soaked in LSD to the horses in the bridal procession of the royal couple. A few days later, there were rumors that the Provos were going to mix LSD into the drinking water supply of Amsterdam.
In reaction, the Dutch government decided to prohibit LSD straightaway. Promising research into the therapeutic potential of the substance, such as treatment for alcoholism, was swept off the table. Overnight, it became a crime to possess or use LSD. The front page of De Telegraaf, on 11 February 1966: 'Use of LSD now punishable. Great danger forced to intervene'.
The war on drugs in the US
Meanwhile, in the US, ‘LSD guru’ Timothy Leary's slogan 'Turn on, Tune in and Drop out' encouraged young people to expand their minds with psychedelics, live their own free lives and not go to war in Vietnam. Many Americans believed that ‘those hippies’ and their drug use severely threatened the country. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared war on 'America's greatest public enemy’. So, while thousands of people were dying in Vietnam in a war against their other public enemy, communism, the US started yet another war: the war on drugs. And even if you're only a bit familiar with the hegemony of the US system, you will understand how this war on drugs has had its influence worldwide… Soon the US war on drugs became a global war on drugs.
Money and widespread power and interests
A lengthy and unintelligible story of racism, exploitation, corruption and destruction. My nearest and most poignant example is what I saw in my former hometown Rio de Janeiro. In this ‘cidade maravilhosa’, poor, mostly black, youth from the favelas get caught up in a vicious cycle of poverty, unemployment and drug violence. They are used as drug runners, living the ‘fast life’, with the danger of being slaughtered by the (corrupt) police or a rivalling drug gang. And if they do, there’s a whole group of other youngsters waiting to take over. Over and over again. They are the lowest link in a complicated hierarchical web of a drug cartel. Where those who make the most money are the ones highest up. The untouchables. Those intertwined with legal, economic and political interests worldwide. It’s not so much the ‘danger’ of mind-altering substances that make innovative and more liberal policies challenging to achieve. It’s the money, politics and the widespread power and interests involved.
The ‘real’ enemies
The very origin of the US war on drugs is just another example of this. Want to know who was Nixon’s real ‘greatest public enemy’? John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s advisor and assistant, stated in an interview: ‘The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.’
Results of the war on drugs
Curious about the result of the drug war? Well, the resources involved (approximately **$15 billion in the US and ***€433 million in the Netherlands in 2019) have far from compensated for the harm it has caused. People use more drugs than ever, the violence and unrest associated with it have only got worse, and the supply and quantity of substances produced now is greater than ever. Besides, the prejudice, ignorance, hostility, and moral panic draped over drugs as a heavy blanket has led to a one-sided view. All substances, except for, of course, alcohol, have long been portrayed purely as a threat to society, restricting scientific research for years. As a result, we nowadays have limited insight into these substances' possible benefits and other effects.
Psychedelics and their comeback
Nevertheless, after all these years, there seems to be a slight change to the one-sided negative image of drugs that has been dominant for all these years. And after decades of prejudice, stereotyping, exaggeration, distortion, and sensitization, psychedelics are making a comeback. Some governments allow researchers from prestigious universities and medical institutions to study the potential of psychedelics for treating mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety and addiction. Besides that, a growing number of famous people are openly talking about how they use psychedelics, and books on the subject are selling like hotcakes. More and more people are also discovering the perks of microdosing: taking a very tiny dose of a psychedelic, roughly one-tenth of a regular dose. Benefits vary from lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, and they even seem to offer an alternative to stimulants for ADHD and treatment for cluster headaches.
Alcohol and its proven medical value of zero
Meanwhile, LSD and most other psychedelics in the Netherlands remain on list I of the Opium Act. That means that the government thinks they have an unacceptable risk to public health. And in the US, most psychedelics still have a Schedule I drug status. This means they are considered a substance or chemical with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Interestingly, the fine print omits two things: psychedelics contain a chemical ingredient with anti-addictive properties, and the physical risks are neglectable. And where alcohol tops the Lancet list I mentioned in my intro, it's a significant absentee in both the Dutch Opium Act and the US Schedule I list. Despite its addictive nature, the harm it can do to health and society, and a proven medical value of.... zero.
Dreadful consequences of the Prohibition
Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that we should make alcohol as 'difficult' to obtain as all the other substances on the Lancet list. On the contrary. Just look at the dreadful consequences of the Prohibition in the US – the constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcohol from 1920 to 1933. The result was that the alcohol trade moved to the underground circuit. People started drinking in back rooms where they served illegally produced alcohol. Many criminals, such as Al Capone, made good money from this trade. Sounds familiar?
I don't believe in prohibition. I believe in education and justice. And I believe that the time has come to move in a new direction.
Policy shaped by science and humanity
As mentioned before: the standards applied to drugs are disproportionate and unjustified. What if governments were to focus on the health of people who use drugs rather than on the utopia of a drug-free world? If they studied and standardized each drug, its effects, advantages, and disadvantages separately? Instead of releasing most of them into an underground circuit of misery and wretchedness, a Sodom and Gomorrah, where they are distributed and used without quality control - with all the consequences that this entails?
Science, tolerance and humanity
At the 2019 International Harm Reduction Conference in Portugal, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet reflected on the failure of drug prohibition: “The so-called ‘war on drugs’ is driven by the idea that crackdowns on people who use drugs – or who are involved in the trade of drugs – will make drug use go away. But we know, from experience, that this is simply not true. After decades of this approach, the countries which adopted it are no closer to being ‘drug-free’. On the contrary, the range and amount of substances being produced and consumed are greater today than ever before.” We need a drug policy shaped by science, tolerance, and humanity rather than political hysteria, prejudice, ignorance, hostility, and moral panic fed by the media and willingly consumed and reproduced by whole nations, leading to a one-sided view of good and evil. Because when it comes to drugs, there is an extensive middle ground. Let’s learn. Let’s talk. Let’s be open and honest. Let’s question our governments. Let’s review our outdated drug laws that impede social justice and violate human rights. The time has come to move towards drug peace.
About the author: Marlies van Exter is a Dutch writer, storyteller, and communications consultant who loves to explore and inspire. She is one of WOOP's regular writers. Through her work, she wants to contribute to a world where everyone understands, respects and builds on their different perspectives. She believes that by digging deeper and going beyond cultural conditioning, it’s possible to create real connections and a better world. Marlies has always had an insatiable curiosity and eagerness to get the most out of life. In psychedelics, she found a travel companion for this and a guide to know herself on a deeper level. Want to know more about Marlies’ work? Check out her website Magpie Communications.
‘A Really Good Day’ by Ayelet Waldman ‘Chasing the Scream’ by Johann Hari ‘American Trip. Set, Setting, and the Psychedelic Experience in the Twentieth Century’ by Ido Hartogsohn Why We Love Drugs - Article on Vox
Colorado may be the next state to decriminalize “magic” mushrooms as new research shows potential benefits Lsd werd verboden omdat provo's de paarden van Beatrix ermee wilden drogeren Wat als alle drugs legaal waren?
* Do you live in the Netherlands and would you like to know more about the new drugs law? Check out this webpage.
** According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, the US federal government alone spent approximately $15 billion on drug control activities in the fiscal year 2019, with the largest portion going to law enforcement and interdiction efforts. This figure does not include spending by state and local governments or private organizations.
*** According to the annual report of the Trimbos Institute, a Dutch organization that conducts research on mental health and addiction, the total budget for Dutch drug policy in 2019 was approximately €433 million. This figure represents spending by the Dutch government and does not include private spending on drug-related activities.