merican pharmacologist Alexander Shulgin (1924-2014) was the epitome of what a psychoactive drug researcher should be -- and what they WOULD be were America not under the spell of Drug War propaganda. Not only did he introduce the MDMA empathogen (or entactogen) to psychologists in the 1970s, but he personally created and "test drove" over 200 psychedelic substances, whose use conduced to happiness, mental focus and self-insight. . He achieved these results because he was granted a kind of rare exception to Drug War prohibitions thanks to his pharmacological genius. Along with his wife Ann, he was the author of the revolutionary 1991 book "PIHKAL: Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved." The title, by the way, is obscure on purpose, since Alexander knew that the use of the word "psychedelics" would virtually prevent the book from even being sold in Canada and America's mid-west.
Shulgin's research is a reproach to scientists everywhere, who have not only cowered under the threats of prohibition but also failed to admit to themselves or to the scientific community that they had self-censored their work due to Drug War prohibition. This is why we see articles in The Atlantic which discuss potential treatments for depression in which neither the author nor the scientists even mention the role that outlawed psychoactives could play in treating that condition. This is the worst kind of censorship imaginable, one in which the censored individuals fail to even recognize that their work is censored. At least Galileo knew that he was being forced to self-censor his work to agree with Church dogma. But scientists almost never admit that they have to censor THEIR work due to Drug War dogma: viz. the mendacious and anti-scientific idea that certain politically identified psychoactive substances can have no potential benefits whatsoever, not now, not later, not ever.
The fact that Shulgin "gets it" is clear from this damning observation of the status quo that he makes in the opening chapter of PIKHAL entitled "The Philosophy Behind the Writing of Pikhal":
"Our generation is the first, ever, to have made the search for self-awareness a crime, if it is done with the use of plants or chemical compounds as the means of opening the psychic doors."
Of course, no one's perfect. Shulgin's words are a wake-up call for myself as well. They remind me that I have been drawing a somewhat arbitrary distinction between Mother Nature's medicines and the synthetic substances that are inspired and derived from them. I've also focused on the idiocy of criminalizing Mother Nature, when perhaps the greater infamy, as Shulgin reminds us, is the criminalization of the search for self-awareness, the criminalization of our efforts to pursue the Platonic imperative of knowing ourselves.
The modest ambition of this essay is to bring Alexander Shulgin's work to the attention of those who have yet to learn of it. Mission accomplished, I hope. But I would like to conclude with one philosophical observation based on my reading thus far.
In Chapter 1, the semi-fictional protagonist, Alexander, recounts a surgical operation that he underwent for his infected thumb while in the Navy in World War II. Before the operation, he was presented with a glass of orange juice containing a gram of white powder and told that the substance was a powerful anesthetic. After drinking the substance, the sailor fell into a deep state of unconsciousness. Only later did he learn that the white substance was sugar and that his "anesthetic" was actually a placebo. This fact gave Alexander intimations about the great untapped potential of the human mind and eventually led to his decision to become a pharmacologist.
OBSERVATION: Most of the wonders that we ascribe to "drugs" are perhaps more accurately ascribed to the human mind. As suggested in the Doors of Perception, the role of psychedelic drugs in particular may be to help us activate different potentials that we already possess, not to foist upon us foreign thoughts and dreams that are somehow inherent in the substances themselves. Some psychologists erroneously conclude from this fact, however, that drugs are totally unnecessary for mental improvement and self-awareness. And so they make a virtue of Drug War necessity by promoting an endless list of drug-free self-help schemes to "open our minds," such as yoga, special diets, jogging, repeating affirmations, etc.
But let's not be naive. Most of us cannot go through painless surgery by drinking a glass of sugar water. Nor will the profound wonders of the mind ever be satisfactorily sounded by dint of willpower and exercise, except perhaps in the rare cases of Eastern monks who devote their entire life to achieving that drug-free goal. This is what I've tried in vain to tell my own therapists for the last 40 years. They always wanted me to run more, eat better foods, sleep more, sleep less, etc. I, for my part, wanted them to use the real politik of pharmacology, not because the counselor's anemic remedies could not work in theory, but because they almost never really worked in practice. And those who said they "did" work had what I considered to be very low standards for such alleged "success," unacquainted as they were with the profound epiphanies that psychoactive drugs can facilitate.
Author's Follow-up: September 30, 2023
Talking about failing to learn from history, despite Americans' fascination with documentaries about World War II, many still believe that the biggest threat to humankind in the 21st century are drugs like Ecstasy which help bring human beings together in a spirit of peace and love.
Buy the Drug War Comic Book by Brian Quass, featuring 150 hilarious op-ed pics about America's disgraceful war on Americans
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You have been reading essays by the Drug War Philosopher, Brian Quass, at abolishthedea.com. Brian is the founder of The Drug War Gift Shop, where artists can feature and sell their protest artwork online. He has also written for Sociodelic and is the author of The Drug War Comic Book, which contains 150 political cartoons illustrating some of the seemingly endless problems with the war on drugs -- many of which only Brian seems to have noticed, by the way, judging by the recycled pieties that pass for analysis these days when it comes to "drugs." That's not surprising, considering the fact that the category of "drugs" is a political category, not a medical or scientific one.
A "drug," as the world defines the term today, is "a substance that has no good uses for anyone, ever, at any time, under any circumstances" -- and, of course, there are no substances of that kind: even cyanide and the deadly botox toxin have positive uses: a war on drugs is therefore unscientific at heart, to the point that it truly qualifies as a superstition, one in which we turn inanimate substances into boogie-men and scapegoats for all our social problems.
The Drug War is, in fact, the philosophical problem par excellence of our time, premised as it is on a raft of faulty assumptions (notwithstanding the fact that most philosophers today pretend as if the drug war does not exist). It is a war against the poor, against minorities, against religion, against science, against the elderly, against the depressed, against those in pain, against children in hospice care, and against philosophy itself. (For proof of that latter charge, check out how the US and UK have criminalized the substances that William James himself told us to study in order to understand reality.) It outlaws substances that have inspired entire religions (like the Vedic), Nazifies the English language (referring to folks who emulate drug-loving Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin as "scumbags") and militarizes police forces nationwide (resulting in gestapo SWAT teams breaking into houses of peaceable Americans and shouting "GO GO GO!").
(Speaking of Nazification, L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates thought that drug users should be shot. What a softie! The real hardliners are the William Bennetts of the world who want drug users to be beheaded instead. That will teach them to use time-honored plant medicine of which politicians disapprove! Mary Baker Eddy must be ecstatic in her drug-free heaven, as she looks down and sees this modern inquisition on behalf of the drug-hating principles that she herself maintained. I bet she never dared hope that her religion would become the viciously enforced religion of America, let alone of the entire freakin' world!)
In short, the drug war causes all of the problems that it purports to solve, and then some, meanwhile violating the Natural Law upon which Thomas Jefferson founded America. (Surely, Jefferson was rolling over in his grave when Ronald Reagan's DEA stomped onto Monticello in 1987 and confiscated the founding father's poppy plants.)
If you believe in freedom and democracy, in America and around the world, please stay tuned for more philosophically oriented broadsides against the outrageous war on godsend medicines, AKA the war on drugs.
PS The drug war has not failed: to the contrary, it has succeeded, insofar as its ultimate goal was to militarize police forces around the world and help authorities to ruthlessly eliminate those who stand in the way of global capitalism. For more, see Drug War Capitalism by Dawn Paley. Oh, and did I mention that most Drug Warriors these days would never get elected were it not for the Drug War itself, which threw hundreds of thousands of their political opposition in jail? Trump was right for the wrong reasons: elections are being stolen in America, but the number-one example of that fact is his own narrow victory in 2016, which could never have happened without the existence of laws that were specifically written to keep Blacks and minorities from voting. The Drug War, in short, is a cancer on the body politic.
PPS Drugs like opium and psychedelics should come with the following warning: "Outlawing of this product may result in inner-city gunfire, civil wars overseas, and rigged elections in which drug warriors win office by throwing minorities in jail."
Rather than apologetically decriminalizing selected plants, we should be demanding the immediate restoration of Natural Law, according to which "The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being." (John Locke)
Andrew, Christopher "The Secret World: A History of Intelligence" 2019 Yale University Press
Aurelius, Marcus "Meditations" 2021 East India Publishing Company
Bache, Christopher "LSD and the Mind of the Universe: Diamonds from Heaven" 2019 Park Street Press