Substance abuse is part of the person, not the substance.
That people feel the need to numb themselves, to switch off and escape, is almost always a result of something within that is really uncomfortable and hard to handle. Some have been abused, lost someone they love, been bullied or otherwise traumatized. Others feel bad in less visible ways. They suffer from anxiety, low self-esteem, they feel unimportant or unloved.
Many who flee into addiction have that in common that they lack other ways to cope. They stun themselves to escape. There are many ways to numbing oneself, many of which are legal but equally destructive as the illegal ways. The most obvious way is to numb oneself with drugs, where alcohol is the most common but also one of the most dangerous escape drugs. There are of course plenty of more or less dangerous substances, such as heroin, amphetamines and Spice. But if we really want to remedy abuse we need to understand that it is just as easy to abuse such things as gambling, sex, food and relationships.
The big problem with the Swedish drug policy is that it lacks this basic understanding. It chases symptoms (substances) instead of the root causes that drive people to flee from themselves. It is inherent in the very name – drug policy. It’s not an abuse policy. It’s not a policy of well-being. Everything prohibitionists have to say seems to focus almost solely on the substances.
The same backwards approach recurs in school drug education. The education essentially only tries to scare students from trying drugs. They are bombarded with terrible stories of drug abuse and a long list of negative effects that drugs can have. When I look back at my own education, I think it is remarkable that it never offered a single tool to take care of my mental health.
If we really want to reduce substance abuse we first need to help people to feel good. If we want people to feel good, we need to 1) not traumatize them, and 2) give them the tools to deal with the trauma that they will still be exposed to. If we really want to protect our young from abuse, we need to give them the tools to manage tough experiences in life, to process abuse, to handle losses and deal with bullying. They need to feel loved and important and included and given the opportunity to build a strong sense of self.
And those who still fall into addiction because they cannot find another way, we need to help. To help is something we do far too rarely today. Instead we pour our resources into chasing, controlling, forcing and punishing people. It is not only extremely costly for society, but it helps to perpetuate the problem. People do not recover by being systematically stigmatized, just as we cannot get children to stop fighting by beating sense into their heads.
Today’s drug policy is fundamentally flawed because it focuses on drugs, instead of focusing on people. Tear up the legislation and start over. Focus on people’s well-being. Redirect resources to not only help those stuck in addiction, but also to give everyone access to the tools to heal themselves from whatever they might want to flee from. In this way we will not only deal with abuse, but we will also put an end to a war that society wages against its own people and that it cannot possibly win.
Yesterday I randomly searched YouTube for people’s stories about how they have healed and grown using illegal substances. Despite deep stigma and threats of reprisals these stories are not hard to find.
All these people are someone’s child. They are siblings, parents, friends, colleagues. You probably know several people who have similar stories, even if you haven’t heard them. Each story is about someone’s life, and every life is a universe in itself.
Listen to their stories. If you still think that these substances should be illegal, stigmatized and users hunted by the judicial system – please, explain your reasoning to me. Tell me why Ruth shouldn’t have been given Ibogaine for her crack and heroin addiction, why Rachel who was sexually abused at age four should not have been given MDMA-assisted therapy, why Alex’s parents should not give autistic Alex cannabis and why Deepak Chopra, one of today’s great spiritual inspirators, should not have taken LSD.
Tell me why people should respect the law more than they value their own recovery.
Iboga / Ibogaine
Howard Lotsof accidentally discovers Ibogaines ability to abruptly break heroin addiction.
Ruth Zupan solves a crack and heroin addiction with Ibogaine …
Patrick solve intractable PTSD with Iboga …
Psychedelic mushrooms / Psilocybin
1 grams of psychedelic mushrooms solves Stickys long and complex depression, and his social anxiety.
Annie got terminal cancer and with it very much worry and anxiety, which psychedelic mushrooms solved.
After several blog posts where I have explained how profoundly detrimental today’s drug laws are and how legalization could work, it feels important to write something about addiction treatment after such a paradigm shift.
The question is: what kind of addiction treatment do we want to see in the future? But before I go into that, I first want to say something about addiction and addicts.
What is addiction?
I define addiction as something compulsive where the person despite serious negative consequences is not capable of changing their behaviour. Addiction is often surrounded by a lack of awareness about ones problems, or an unwillingness to face them.
Note that such a definition can be applied to very many things in life, not only substances. It is common for people to abuse relationships, sex, games, television or food, just to name a few. It is especially important to emphasize that addiction is never inherent to what is being abused, but is something in the addict him/herself.
When people talk about substance abuse in the public debate, it is easy to get the idea that the substance is the cause of addiction, because as soon as anyone uses an illegal substance they are seen as addicts. That is a profoundly erroneous notion that hinders a sensible understanding and good care. Anyone who has sex is not a sex addict. Similarly, not everyone who smokes cannabis is a drug addict. If there is no compulsive behaviour and serious negative consequences, they are merely using the substance. Sending a cannabis user to treatment is as stupid as treating someone who has a healthy relationship with food for bulimia.
The addiction is always in the person. We relieve addiction by helping people to heal their problems, not by chasing substances. If we manage to remove the substance without solving the underlying problem, then the addiction will simply jump and start using another substance or any other area of life. Then nothing is won, because the process of freeing oneself starts over.
What makes an addict?
One can probably find many features that characterize addicts, but these are two that I have seen in all addicts I’ve met.
Fleeing. Behind the addiction is a fear of meeting something within oneself or in the surrounding. It can often be such things as old traumas, abuse, problematic upbringing, shame or guilt. There may also be a fear of actually being as good as one can be. In such cases the abuse becomes a self-sabotage, which is also a way to flee, even if it is from a situation that is potentially better than the one the person is in.
Loss of control. This is the compulsive aspect that I talked about earlier. The situation has spiralled out of control. However, I think that it is incorrect to say that the drugs or someone else has taken control. All power in a person’s life originates from that person. If anything or anyone else is in power, it is because the person has given it away, but often that is not the case. Instead the power is still there but is not being used. Regardless of which, the long term solution is to rediscover and exercise power in one’s life; that is to reintroduce control.
But moving on to addiction treatment.
I want as many people as possible get the help they need to recover from addiction. That is not happening today. Instead the support that is being given is often contradictory, since society stigmatizes addicts and prevents or even sabotages the recovery process.
Education. The best prevention* that I can think of is to give young people the tools to deal with difficult situations, resolve trauma and rid themselves of such issues that might make them want to flee. We need to start working on personal development, so that we can identify and deal with the reasons why people want to flee from themselves. When there is no longer a need to flee, the fleeing will stop.
Our society works quite differently today. We learn to avoid that which scares us, rather than to face and deal with it. We prefer to distract or sedate ourselves rather than facing the discomfort. Antidepressant medication is a typical example of this, as it puts the lid on the symptoms instead of curing the cause. I’m not saying that antidepressants are never needed. They can be a very valuable emergency response, but the prolonged mass medication that we see today is a direct result of people not having the tools to deal with the unpleasantness that they encounter in life.
Addiction treatment. I want to see addiction treatment that is much more accessible and less stigmatizing than the one we have today. Reaching out for help should be a small step and help should be available to anyone who seeks it. The aim of treatment should primarily be to tackle the root causes of the addiction and since it is a disease it should be financed within the health care system, but should include more methods of treatment than those available today.
* By preventative work I do not mean to discourage people from using substances. I mean to prepare people to face life in such a way that they do not need to use substances to flee from themselves and thereby end up in an addiction.
Main photo: The Help by Marina del Castell on Flickr
Today’s repressive drug laws are at a dead end. The war on drugs harms society and citizens in a multitude of ways, of which I listed some in yesterdays blog post. Ironically it also prevents effective treatments for such things as addiction. But where can we go from here? Let’s imagine that all substances are legal. How can we organize the community to limit the damage and help addicts?
Legalizing all drugs would of course not mean that you could buy them next to the sweets at your local supermarket. And everything doesn’t just fall into place because they come under government control. There would probably need to be a combination of solutions, some of which already exist and others that don’t. Here are some possible parts to such a system.
In the current situation the entire drug trade is a black economy that is largely controlled by criminal organizations. If all substances were legalized they would become part of the regular economy, where it becomes possible to set up rules for manufacturing and quality control products. The substances would be provided with a table of content, just like any other commodity. The goods may additionally be provided with other labels, such as organic and fair trade.
Those working in the trade would have the same rights as other workers, would have the support of existing labor laws, would have the right to organize themselves into unions and would become tax payers.
Sales could take place within established models, such as the state control (pharmacies/tobacco sales) or as a state monopoly (in Sweden all alcohol is sold by the state run Systembolaget). Age limits could be imposed on substances and they could also be differentiated, so that one would have to be older to purchase some of the more potent compounds.
When drugs come under government control it is possible to steer people away from more harmful substances by levying heavier taxes on them. It’s would be easy to see which substances are economically costly for society and adjust the taxes accordingly.
Possibility to withdraw the right to use certain substances.
People should be able to lose their right to use certain substances if they commit crimes or harm themselves or others when they use them. I think it is strange that those who repeatedly get into fights drunk, drive intoxicated or get wasted on the verge of dying, still have the right to buy as much liquor as they can pay for.
When one shows that they aren’t able to handle a certain substance, it should be possible to revoke that person’s right to do so, in the same manner that one can lose ones driving license or license to practice medicine.
The possibility to exclude oneself from certain substances.
Many people are very aware of which substances they should not take. For example I know many who say they have no problem drinking beer, but go berserk if they drink hard liquor. It’s the same with all substances. What is pure bliss for one, can be hell for another. What one is able to take a couple of times a year without developing a craving for, another becomes addicted to after just a few doses.
But then again, many people know perfectly well what substances are dangerous for them. It could be made easy for them to take responsibility with the choice to voluntarily waive the right to use certain substances. They could also be able to set limits for themselves, by specifying how much of a substance they may purchase during a certain time period.
Many addicts will arrive at the point where they want to break free from their habit. During a certain period the window of change is open. The problem is often that they relapse because the substance will continue to be available to them. If they can exclude themselves from the right to buy certain substances, such as if an alcoholic does not allow him/herself to buy liquor, it would effectively help in the recovery process.
Licenses to handle certain substances.
With some particularly heavy drugs such as heroin, it would be possible to introduce a license allowing an educated person to handle the substance. For most substances it would probably be enough with basic education in school and a little everyday common sense, but with substances that carry serious consequences, it is important to be sure that those who use them have proper knowledge about risks and safety. The education for such a license may contain things like responsible management, how to use in a safe manner to prevent spread of infection, and how to deal with accidental overdoses. Such a license may be revoked if the person is irresponsible and for example sells substances to other people or uses them in an unsafe manner.
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In addition to the distribution itself – what can we do to get control of the situation regarding different substances?
Universal education in dealing with drugs and addiction.
I often wonder how drug education in schools can be allowed to be so absolutely worthless. The “education” is basically designed solely to scare people not to try anything. As a teenager I was an exchange student in the United States and the school that I went to worked in exactly the same way when it came to sex education. There was no information about STDs, contraception or sex. The whole message was only “you should not have sex until you get married”, and it was really crammed down the teenagers throats. It is a dangerous kind of indoctrination that creates ignorant and bigoted citizens, while increasing the actual risks.
Instead we should have a proper drug education, which includes such themes as:
∙ What is an altered state of mind and how you can you work with it?
∙ How to use drugs safely.
∙ What to do if you or someone else feels bad under the influence.
∙ How to manage an overdose.
∙ How to identify and get rid of substance abuse.
Use tax revenues for addiction treatment and prevention.
A legalization would generate tax revenue that I think primarily should go to addiction treatment and prevention. Even more money is now being spent on hunting, harassing and punishing people.
If we add a substantial part of those resources to create good addiction treatment, we will soon have the best addiction treatment the world has ever seen. Health care should be accessible and able to quickly help addicts who express a desire to receive care. Addiction is a disease and addicts should be treated as patients, not criminals.
There will always be addicts, but it is my firm belief that the addiction is to be found in the person – not in substance. People flee into abuse because they are fleeing from themselves, from the traumas they try to forget or from situations that are unbearable. Good prevention work builds on this understanding and aims to help people face themselves, help them process past trauma and to make their lives bearable. It helps them to stop fleeing and encourages them to take responsibility for their own lives. Much of today’s preventive work lacks this basic understanding.
Make substances available for scientific research, therapists, health care workers and healers.
There are many substances that are currently incorrectly classified as drugs with no medical value. This applies above all to psychedelics that are proven to be extremely effective in curing such things as addiction, depression, post-traumatic stress, empathy disorders and death anxiety. There are lots of stories about absolutely miraculous healing taking place with these substances, and they are at the same time very safe when used correctly.
Another substance that is being discussed greatly right now is cannabis and not only in its mind-altering form, but also as tinctures without the mind-altering properties. It is used with good results for such things as chronic pain, fibromyalgia, depression and end of life care. There seems to be some evidence that it also has cancer fighting properties.
These substances need to be made available to those who need the help and for the professionals who are working on this – from therapists, to regular health care workers, and also in alternative treatments. Today there are plenty of alternative therapists and traditional healers such as shamans, who have the knowledge and who have been passing it on for thousands of years. Here are exciting cross over’s to be made, when traditional methods of healing meet western medicine. Such work is already taking place. To fully take advantage of this scientific research needs to get started as soon as possible.
Making up for abuse committed by the state.
While the intention has probably been good, many people have been abused and badly treated under the current legislation. The current drug laws have stigmatized people, forced them into alienation, punished them, led people into a criminal lifestyle, actively withheld health care for sick addicts and has also led to many unnecessary deaths.
There is a need for redress and reconciliation. The very least the government should do is to apologize for the abuse that occurred under the current legislation.
At any point in time there are ideas that are so taken for granted that we find it difficult to imagine that it could be otherwise. They are so deeply ingrained in us that we are provoked if anyone questions them, even if the questioning is fully rational.
Drug legislation is such an idea. When weighing in all good and all bad that it brings, there is only one reasonable conclusion: the law is foolish. But say that out loud in Sweden today and you will be mocked, booed and threatened. All sense and logic seems to take a vacation whenever the subject comes up, and otherwise seemingly intelligent people suddenly behave like hateful narrow-minded bigots.
But all such ideas eventually collapse. We call it a paradigm shift. There is such a shift on its way right now. The USA, that has been aggressively active in what has become a war on drugs, is changing direction. Right now cannabis is being legalized, and as more and more amazing results in scientific studies of psychedelics are published, it is only a matter of time before substances like psilocybin (mushrooms), LSD and MDMA are also legalized.
This week I will try to show some of the worrying problems with the current situation, give you some users perspectives on certain illegal substancesand propose some measures that I think should be taken into consideration in a future legalization.
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When the first steps were taken to create the drug laws we see today, the aim was mainly to minimize addiction problems. The aim was to use the law to steer people away from getting caught up in addiction, destroying their lives and committing other criminal acts. There have been other, more shady reasons also, such as racism, but I want to see the good in people, so let’s say that is the primary reason.
So what has been the outcome of the criminalization of drugs?
Criminal organizations have become immensely rich.
The black market on drugs funds a wide array of criminal organizations, such as terrorist organizations, mafias, paramilitary organizations, biker gangs and suburban gangs. This lucrative market finances other criminal activities, such as acts of terrorism and militarization.
Violence has increased many times over.
In addition to the criminal violence that drug profits are used to finance, there is plenty of violence at all levels of handling drugs, from the producers down to the final consumer. There is an outright war against drugs today, and parts of that war are being waged with military strategy and equipment. The majority of the violence takes place abroad and just as in other wars, many of the victims are innocent civilians. Drug conflicts are destabilizing entire countries and regions.
Police and other resources are being wasted.
There are vast resources spent on combating drugs, resources that could have been used better. If all those resources that are now being spent on chasing and punishing people who use drugs, were instead spent on helping addicts, we would have the most amazing addiction treatment the world has ever seen. We spend much more on fighting and punishing, than we do on helping or treating addicts.
More criminals are created.
When drugs were outlawed that instantaneously created a large new group of “criminals” whose only crime is that they like certain substances more than others. The vast majority – more than with alcohol or nicotine – don’t have and will never have any problems with the substances they use. The only contact many of these people will ever have with a criminal underworld is when they buy drugs. Even so, they will be treated as criminals and addicts if they get caught and will get a ticket to the same prison as other criminals. Through the legal system they are stigmatized, forced into debt and are given more criminal contacts, which in the worst case is a gateway to a criminal lifestyle.
The laws are used to harass people.
Drug laws are used by the police to take people with a certain appearance, taste in music, or ethnic background into custody without any realistic suspicion. Many of the drug laws have racist roots, reflected in today’s application of them. People are also indirectly harassed through the exclusion that they are forced into and the stigma they face. The system embedded hypocrisy in all of this is especially noticeable when many of the ones being hunted use significantly less dangerous substances than the legal alternatives.
Addicts are prevented from getting proper care.
Addicts are sick, but are treated as criminals, and authorities can at any time deprive them of any security and impose unreasonable demands on them. Even those who voluntarily seek government help to get rid of their addiction are treated as a criminal and are often given late and inadequate assistance, if any at all, because the resources are rather devoted to controlling and punishing the person. This creates a high amount of stress among many addicts, which undermines recovery and triggers relapses, with exclusion and alienation as a result.
Creates a black market that wants people to be addicted.
The criminal organizations that control the black market have an interest in keeping people hooked and to attract them back into using. One result is that the market prefers more addictive drugs such as heroin rather than opium.
The lack of quality control is lethal.
On the black market, there is no quality control. Drugs can be diluted with other dangerous substances. They can also be something quite different from what they are said to be, giving the user an experience that s/he didn’t anticipate. Sometimes the substance is much stronger than what the user is used to, which may lead to severe accidental overdoses. Many deaths that occur on drugs are because of accidental overdoses, combined with a fear to seek help.
Research Chemicals harm and kill.
Another dangerous development is that people who want to avoid breaking the law buy so-called Research Chemicals instead. These are new compounds that have not yet been classified, and are therefore legal, but they can sometimes be deadly. Knowledge about dosage and how they react with other substances (such as alcohol) is often virtually non-existent, which is a very dangerous combination. Thus drug users who want to stay on the right side of the law are steered away from well-known and less hazardous substances, to substances which are unknown and in some cases even fatal.
Alternativetreatments are being prevented.
Ironically many of the substances which are particularly effective to help relieve addiction are classified as drugs without medical value. LSD-assisted therapy for alcoholics had, when it was legal, a far higher efficiency than the 12-step program has ever had. Ibogaine, an incredibly powerful psychedelic substance, has been shown to cure heroin addiction in just a few doses. But rather than give heroin addicts access to Ibogaine, we lock them in other addictions, such as with Subutex/Suboxone or Methadone. In the current situation there is no treatment that comes close to being as effective as psychedelic assisted treatment, but these therapeutic tools have been wrongly classified as drugs.
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Now imagine that you step back in time to just before today’s repressive drug laws were first passed. You are a decision maker and it worries you to see the addiction problems associated with some of the drugs. On the table is a proposal to ban a variety of substances and impose severe penalties.
On the table there is also an analysis on what other impact the law would have. Among the consequences you read are: criminal organizations will become immensely rich, violence will increase and even lead to war in several countries, the drug profits will fund terror crimes and wars, police resources will be wasted, more criminals will be created, addicts will get worse care, drug users will be exposed to more addictive substances, the lack of quality control will lead to more deaths, more dangerous substances will be researched and sold in order to circumvent the law and the most promising treatments to cure addiction will be stopped . But despite all this, the number of actual addicts will remain about the same.
– It extends here, he explained, while he built the molecule with hand gestures.
For a chemist, it was probably obvious what was happening there in the thin air in front of him. For me it was completely incomprehensible, yet incredibly fascinating. There is something very beautiful and attractive about people who are so involved in what they do.
The rest of the audience seemed to know exactly who he was, but I stumbled into the lecture without a clue. Alexander Shulgin, and next to him his wife Ann Shulgin. Both gray-haired, old, but with a sparkling natural glow that lit up the room. Together they spun the story of his life’s work.
Alexander made it his life’s work to synthesize and develop new psychedelics. He then tested them with his wife, before they tested them together with friends.
– How do you usually do when you try them the first time? asked one of the audience.
– Well, usually we’re in the bedroom. Many of these substances have lovely erotic effects, said Ann Shulgin and made the audience giggle in recognition.
His two books PIHKAL and TIHKAL (Phenethylamines and Tryptamines I Have Known And Loved) include all the basic information on the magical molecules which he discovered. He published all the recipes, so that the pharmaceutical industry could not patent them, and thus keep them away from the public. Best known of all the substances attributed to Shulgin is not a discovery, but the rediscovery of MDMA – the sought-after ingredient in Ecstasy.
MDMA releases serotonin in the brain, leading to extremely happy and emphatic states. In this lies both the substance’s blessing as its curse. If you are over using MDMA, it is easy to burn out the reserves and plummet into depression and feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness. However, if you use it with proper caution and with an intention, then it can be a miraculous remedy for such things as depression, anxiety of death, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, empathy disorders and the like. That was the main area where the substance was first made available – it was used with excellent results by therapists to help people who were stuck in different ways. However, the substance was soon picked up in club and rave culture, and when the establishment saw how strangely the youths started dancing and behaving it was banned.
What do you think happened next?
Well, criminal organizations took over the manufacturing and distribution of the substance. MDMA became big business for the Mafia, militant groups, motorcycle gangs and suburban gangs. Quality control disappeared and consumers could not be sure that the substance was pure or what strength it held.
Young people continued to experiment in such a high degree that it can rightly be considered the single most important ingredient for the development of rave culture. The availability is high and many people use it, but because it is illegal, many safety nets fail. For example, if someone would feel acutely bad, many would avoid contacting authorities because they would risk getting caught.
Of course some people are getting caught, but it is rarely at the level in the criminal organizations where it actually matters. Many people who get caught are very young and are at the bottom of the chain, sometimes only as users. They are judged and stigmatized accordingly and lose opportunities in life, with no effect on supply or demand.
The big losers, however, are all those suffering from death anxiety, depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress and empathy disorders. They are war-traumatized, rape victims, cancer patients, drug users, those who have lost children, those who no longer dare to feel emotions and those who see life in gray. They are the ones that are deprived of a legitimate and powerful therapeutic tool.
Only now, 30 years after MDMA was banned, clinical studies are beginning to be permitted on a very small scale. Not surprisingly they show stunning results and cures.
The psychedelic godfather Alexander Shulgin died on 2 June 2014.
Thanks for letting me watch you play with molecules in the air.