By Richard J. Miller
Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of the author Aldous Huxley. Huxley was celebrated for many things and his involvement with the culture of psychotropic drugs was certainly one his most famous, or perhaps infamous, associations. Indeed, the story is told of how, on his death bed, Huxley instructed his wife Laura to inject him with LSD as he slipped into the hereafter. Huxley understood that psychotropic drugs were not just toys for recreational purposes but had the power to fuel political and religious change. In the 1930s, his breakthrough novel Brave New World described the use of a fictitious psychotropic drug for mass control of a subservient population. Later in his life he discovered real hallucinogens – first mescaline and then LSD. He experimented with them and concluded that they could be used as agents for self-discovery and enlightenment as described in his final utopian novel Island.
One story has it that Huxley was first introduced to mescaline in the 1930s by the famous occultist Aleister Crowley (“the great beast,” “the wickedest man in the world”). He would subsequently write about his mescaline experience in his book The Doors of Perception, read by every hippie in the 1960s. Huxley felt that the hallucinogenic experience was something that could be truly revelatory and his views fit in well with entheogenic theories concerning the origins of religion. These ideas posit that the discovery and use of naturally occurring hallucinogens by ancient peoples was a major influence on their emerging ideas about the spiritual world and the development of their civilizations. As Huxley once said, “Pharmacology came before agriculture.”
Now that it has been 50 years since Huxley’s death, one wonders what he would think about the status of psychotropic drugs these days. Apart from a few psychotropic drugs like caffeine, virtually all the others, including drugs like alcohol, hallucinogens, cannabis, psychostimulants, and opiates, are subject to legal controls of one kind or another. This raises certain questions. First of all, should we have laws regulating the use of these drugs and, if so, do the laws that we have make any sense?
We should remember that many societies have lived quite happily alongside the widespread use of psychotropic agents. Cannabis was widely used from ancient times on the Indian subcontinent; cocaine was widely used in pre-Columbian South America; and hallucinogens, such as psilocybin and ayahuasca, were used in Central and South America. On the other hand modern American and European cultures have never been comfortable with the use of such drugs. Drug taking seems to suggest something pre-Christian or pagan, which does not sit well with societies that think rewards should be the result of our labors. Why should we be privy to a profound psychological experience just by popping a pill — we didn’t work for it did we? It is also true that nowadays the available preparations of many drugs are of high purity, making their effects more immediate and powerful. So, perhaps we do indeed require laws to “protect” our society from these substances. Most people would agree that some limits are necessary.
But do our laws make sense? Since the early 1970s laws have been on the books in the United States and Europe that list drugs according to a schedule of perceived dangers. Schedule 1 drugs (using the US system as an example) are drugs which cannot be prescribed even by a physician, and are almost impossible to obtain even for research purposes. These drugs have been designated as having “no medical utility or other uses” and are supposed to have a high degree of likelihood for abuse. Schedule 1 drugs include cannabis, heroin, LSD, psilocybin, and ecstasy.
This makes very little sense. One may wonder who exactly determined that these drugs have “no potential for medical or other general use”? Most people would agree that there is no particular reason why anybody would need heroin (originally introduced as a cough medicine in 1898), but what about the others? Hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and psilocybin are not addictive in the normal sense of the word, and Huxley would have argued that they might be used in a beneficial and enlightening manner for self-improvement. Cannabis is also not very addictive and has a wide potential for medical utility in treating the symptoms of many diseases including cancer, chronic pain, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes. It has even been suggested in some circles that ecstasy might find a place in psychiatry. Should we not be actively considering the potentially positive uses of such interesting and mind-expanding chemicals?
The laws that presently exist in the United States and Britain do not reflect these possibilities at all. Most of these laws are the residue of political opinions that came into play in the early part of the 20th century, when little was known about how psychotropic drugs work or what dangers were really associated with their use. For example US laws governing cannabis use are contradictory. Many states are moving towards a more liberal attitude to cannabis use, whereas the federal government remains basically intransigent in its attitude and maintains cannabis’ status on Schedule 1. A significant problem has been the fact that the people responsible for drug laws are lawyers and politicians. Scientists may be “consulted” but basically this has always just proved to be window dressing as their opinions are ignored if they don’t fit it in with somebody’s political stance. Many people think that we are really missing an opportunity by ignoring the potential of these interesting substances, stuck as we are with our conservative, unenlightened, and clearly confused attitudes. So what would Huxley have thought of our world 50 years after his death? New – yes. Brave – no!
Richard J. Miller is the Alfred Newton Richards Professor of Pharmacology at Northwestern University in Chicago. He is the author of Drugged: The Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs.