I Went to the Launch of the UK's Psychedelic Society
Last night, 500 people gathered in central London to hear the benefits of tripping balls.
This post originally appeared in VICE UK
Britain's drug policy has caused quite a stir recently. Last week, the Home Office released its first evidence-based study on drug laws, only two months later than they were supposed to. The report compared UK drug policy with 13 other countries and—steady yourselves—found no evidence to suggest that tougher anti-drug laws stop people from taking drugs.
Unsurprisingly, these results caused a bit of a shitstorm in Westminster. The Lib Dems accused the Tories of suppressing the report, with Nick Clegg urging the party to "have the courage, just for once, to break some of the taboos about Britain's ineffective drugs laws." Cameron, however, decided to ignore the advice of a team of experts, saying he doesn't want to "send out the message that somehow taking these drugs is OK and safe."
Finally, on Monday, Lib Dem Home Office drugs minister Norman Baker resigned, citing the Conservative's response to the drug report as the final straw after months of frustration with how things are done at the Home Office. He'll now be working on the general election fight in Lewes and focusing on his band.
With all this in the air, it seemed fitting that the Psychedelic Society--an organization dedicated to the discussion around psychedelic drugs--decided to hold their first public event in central London last night. There, at Holborn's Conway Hall, I took my seat next to nearly 500 people to listen to some specialists talk about the benefits of tripping balls.
The crowd was made up of all sorts, from students and shamans to lawyers and neuroscientists (as well as a soldier who quit the army after taking acid), which was a happy surprise—I half feared I might end up surrounded by Whirl-Y-Gig washouts. Before they all arrived, I had the chance to ask founder Stephen Reid how the society came about.
"I'm someone who believes that when ordinary people come together, they can change laws--and the laws around psychedelics are among the most unjust," he said. "It's absurd that these wonderful substances, which aren't even harmful, should be banned. And even if they were harmful, it should still be up to us whether we should take them or not."
He raises a good point; I'm going to assume that skydiving has killed quite a few more people than mushrooms, and nobody's banning that.
Although Reid had been toying with the idea of a psychedelic society for a while, it wasn't until he went to Nowhere festival that the idea began to take shape. Nowhere is a bit like Burning Man, only in Spain and not full of Silicon Valley CEOs. It's also where Stephen met Arielle Nylander, a masters student from New Mexico who was running psychedelic welfare support for festival-goers—an act that inspired him to finally set up the society, and something he asked Nylander to talk about last night.
As well as Nylander, Reid invited three more speakers to talk about different aspects of psychedelics. The first was Professor David Nutt, who was appointed head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in 2008, before the government fired him for saying that cannabis shouldn't have been reclassified from Class C to B.
The second speaker was David Babbs, executive director of the campaigning community 38 Degrees, and the third was Steve Rolles, a senior policy analyst for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation.
Before his talk, Rolles explained to me what his organization does. "At Transform, we try to critique the war on drugs, but model what a post-drug-war world would look like," he said. "If we want to move this debate forward, we need not just a critique but a vision of this alternative world. We're involved in the political side, but we're also interested in the practicalities of how you'd regulate drugs in the future."
Our conversation soon moved on to the absurdity of the laws surrounding magic mushrooms. "If you pick mushrooms, they are illegal. Once you've ingested them, they're not illegal. And on the ground, they're not illegal," he said, leaving us to conclude that the only vaguely legal way to ingest mushrooms is to eat them straight out of the mud.
After a brief introduction to the society from Reid, Professor Nutt spoke for 20 minutes about the latest research into psychedelic substances. First off, he talked about how psilocybin--a compound found in more than 200 species of magic mushrooms--can potentially treat depression by switching off the part of the brain associated with it. He then went on to speak about his forthcoming paper, which will be the first brain-imaging study of LSD, before complaining profusely about the lack of funding in the area.
Later, however, Nylander gave me cause for optimism. "We're much more likely to see psychedelics made legal than things like MDMA, because there's been so much positive research coming out of the US over the last five years," she told me. "If you pay attention to the science and not the moralizing government aspect of it, there is evidence that these drugs can be used safely in a therapeutic way."
And she's right. There have plenty of examples to that effect in the last couple of months alone, from LSD being used successfully to treat anxiety in patients suffering from terminal illnesses to the "astounding" effect that magic mushrooms can have on those trying to give up smoking.
Reid intends to use the society to connect other people who are interested in psychedelics, providing a space away from the places you'd usually talk about them—music festivals, psytrance raves, drunkenly outside pubs--so as to facilitate a calmer and more politically focused discussion. He also wants to lobby for reasonable and effective regulation of psychedelics, and spread awareness of the benefits and positive aspects of the drugs in the hope that people will be able to open up about their personal usage.
"For a long time, I was scared about talking about psychedelics to my friends, family, and colleagues, but this society has given me the opportunity to come out," he told me. "I've heard the phrase 'coming out' in the world of psychedelics more and more since I've started looking into the politics of it. It's a powerful phrase associated with things like the gay rights movement and gender equality, and there are definitely some parallels with those movements and the psychedelics movement."
Judging by the Q&A session at the end, Reid isn't the only person who's anxious about detailing her experiences with psychedelics. One parent, for example, asked how she could open up to her children, friends, and colleagues, and asked what the most appropriate age is to recommend using them. A lot of ground was covered in a small space of time, with discussion ranging from the scientific to the political, as well as touching on the religious and meditative uses for psychedelics.
Before I left, I asked Reid to clarify why he'd decided to focus solely on psychedelics, rather than involving all drugs in the discussion.
"The main argument that applies to psychedelics is the liberty argument," he said. "That argument doesn't really apply for all drugs—only really psychedelics, as the argument only works with minimal third-party harm. With heroin or crack cocaine, it doesn't apply, because those can affect others negatively.
"People who want to choose to use psychedelics in a way that has minimal impact on themselves and others are being persecuted for it. They can potentially get arrested and put in jail, in the same way people who made the choice to publicly come out as being in a homosexual relationship once were."
Picking up a "Legalize Mushrooms" sticker from the front desk, I asked Reid what's next for his society.
"I want the next event to be something more hands-on," he said. "Someone even came up with the idea of Psychedelic Pride... maybe we could organize a psychedelic carnival."
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