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The Semmelweis Effect in the War on Drugs

by Ballard Quass, the Drug War Philosopher

November 21, 2023

n the 19th century, Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that women were dying in an obstetric ward thanks to the simple failure of doctors to adequately wash their hands after returning from a nearby dissecting room. They were thereby transmitting deadly pathogens to their patients1. And what happened when the obstetrician shared this insight with his colleagues? Did the ward doctors immediately change gears to save women's lives? Did they slap their foreheads and shout: "Great God! What have we been DOING up here in this joint?" Did they post all lavatories with an attention-getting placard to "wash your hands before operating"? To the contrary, they reacted indignantly. They were board-certified doctors, after all, with impressive resumes. They SAVED lives, thank you very much, they did not kill their patients! Harrumph! Besides, who was Semmelweis to tell them to wash their hands before operating? Last time they checked, he wasn't their mother, after all. Harrumph once again, this time with feeling!

And so the deadly status quo continued until Louis Pasteur came along and put the stamp of science on what until then had been (let's face it) ONLY COMMON SENSE2: dirty hands could, in fact, cause death in patients (even patients under the care of the most hoity-toity of doctors). True, there was no formalized germ theory before Semmelweis, but Leeuwenhoek had seen and described bacteria as early as 1674. Nicolas Andry had blamed smallpox on microorganisms (which he referred to as "worms") in 17003, and Richard Brookes had attributed "all pestilential distempers" to microscopic creatures in 17224. The idea that hand washing could kill dangerous pathogens should not have been dismissed out of hand given this backstory, but reductionist scientists are never influenced by mere common sense. Take laughing gas or MDMA, for instance. Every street kid knows that they cheer you up, but doctors claim to be unsure that they could help people with depression (see, for instance, Dr. Robert Glatter's hilarious article in Forbes magazine, June 9, 2021, naively entitled: "Can Laughing Gas Help People with Treatment-Resistant Depression?"5) Why? Because reductive scientists don't give a damn about common sense: they want proof in the form of number-driven pie charts that can be submitted to the FDA.

I know exactly how Semmelweis feels (or felt). I myself am undergoing the Semmelweis effect whenever I denounce the nonsensical assumptions behind the mass doping of America with Big Pharma meds. These meds are considered "scientific," you see, both by doctors and their patients, many of whom have been pumped up on this world view after watching pharmaceutical pep rallies on shows like Oprah Winfrey. Doctors in particular are offended by my philosophical attack on anti-depressants. Have they not been prescribing SSRIs for years? Am I telling them that they have been doing their patients a disservice for all this time? Who did I think I was, anyway? Last time they checked, I was not their mother, either.

This is why I have been ghosted by such otherwise sensical Drug War reform advocates as Rick Doblin, DJ Nutt, and Carl Hart. They all believe in "science," after all, and surely science can - and has - come up with objective, reliable treatments for depression in the form of wonder pills like Prozac and Effexor. These guys do not want to end the psychiatric pill mill - they simply want to augment it with treatments that might be applied to those stubborn sad sacks whose finicky body chemistry's refuse to recognize a good pharmaceutical thing when they see it. That's why Glatter uses the term "treatment-resistant" depression. He believes that there is already a treatment for depression that works just great, thank me very much. Now science just has to finish its war on depression by taking care of those finicky outliers who refuse to be cured scientifically.

Of course, one might ask why depression rates in America keep skyrocketing6 despite the fact that we've found a scientific wonder cure for the condition. But we live in an age when Science is the new religion, and therefore it is heresy to suggest that the Emperor is not wearing any lab coat.

I will not subject the reader to a detailed explanation of my misgivings with respect to the psychiatric pill mill. I have already written many essays devoted exclusively to that topic, such as "Why SSRIs are Crap"7 and "How the Drug War turned me into an eternal patient"8.

My point here is simply that this is a message that many drug law reformers do not want to hear. They see it as science bashing, when in reality, what I am bashing is not science itself, but their philosophy of science: namely, the idea that mood and mentation in human beings is best understood and "treated" through reductionism (i.e., a focus on biochemistry and/or genetics) rather than through the holistic and often drug-aided approaches that tribal human beings have employed time out of mind to increase their feelings of connectedness with the world and their fellow human beings.

Of course, it's not just medical professionals who hiss and jeer when I play the role of Cassandra on this topic. I always seem to lose a follower or two every time I "hate on anti-depressants" in my tweets. Almost everybody has at least one complaint about the Drug War - but few if any have made the connection between the Drug War and the psychiatric pill mill, despite the fact that the latter would not exist without the former. It is the Drug War which gives Big Pharma a monopoly on providing mood medicine, after all.

My main point on the topic is this: these scientistic reduction-based SSRIs and SNRIs would have never been created in the first place if psychoactive medicines were legal and we had scoured the world -- and its laboratories -- for them and spent billions on discovering safe-use protocols for their beneficial use (rather than spending those billions on arresting minorities and invading South American countries on the pretext of fighting drugs that have been used by the indigenous populations for millennia). If there are drugs that can give you a spiritual glimpse of heaven and make you "all right" with the world, all without addicting you (like shrooms, peyote, or the hundreds of phenethylamines created by Alexander Shulgin) , why on earth would you prefer a drug that dulls your mind and makes you a patient for life?!! There are only two possible reasons for such a preference: 1) you are a Christian Scientist, i.e., one who believes that drug use - as opposed to "med" use -- is morally wrong, or 2) you so firmly believe in the current scientific method (i.e., the habit of referring all psycho-spiritual pathologies and shortcomings to microscopic origins) that you would rather choose "scientific medicines" and be depressed than choose "non-scientific medicines" and feel elated.

It would seem, then, that I am the Ignaz Semmelweis of our times when it comes to therapeutic drug use and that we will have to wait for a modern Louis Pasteur to come along to translate my common sense into the charts and figures that myopic scientists can understand. In the meantime, tough luck for the depressed who cannot use godsend medicines thanks to prohibition; tough luck for the kids in hospice who have to go without adequate pain relief; tough luck for those who cannot practice their nature-based religion; tough luck for those who, like William James, feel we must study altered states in order to understand reality9.

The poet Rimbaud was wiser than his years when he penned the following line in "Une Saison en Enfer" at the tender age of 19:

"La science est trop lente"10

Science is indeed too slow for us -- as yours truly, the Ignaz Semmelweis of our times, continues to learn to his own cost.


1 Britannica, Ignaz Semmelweis Hungarian physician, (up)
2 Britannica, germ theory medicine, (up)
3 Wikiwand, Nicolas Andry, (up)
4 Brookes, Richard, A history of the most remarkable pestilential distempers that have appeared in Europe for three hundred years..., 1722 (up)
5 Quass, Brian, Forbes Magazine's Laughable Article about Nitrous Oxide, 2022 (up)
6 Columbia: Mailman School of Public Health, Nearly One in Ten Americans Reports Having Depression, 2022 (up)
7 Quass, Brian, Why SSRIs are Crap, 2023 (up)
8 Quass, Brian, How Psychiatry and the Drug War turned me into an eternal patient, 2021 (up)
9 Quass, Brian, William James rolls over in his grave as England bans Laughing Gas, 2023 (up)
10 Rimbaud, Arthur, Une Saison en Enfer, Une Saison en Enfer, 1873 (up)

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William James Tweets

William James knew that there were substances that could elate. However, it never occurred to him that we should use such substances to prevent suicide. It seems James was blinded to this possibility by his puritanical assumptions.
So he writes about the mindset of the deeply depressed, reifying the condition as if it were some great "type" inevitably to be encountered in humanity. No. It's the "type" to be found in a post-Christian society that has turned up its scientific nose at psychoactive medicine.

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