Drugs: Legalize and Regulate (5)

The Experience of Pleasure

Drugs feel good, there’s no denying. Human beings are primed and polished pleasure-seeking devices, and if we can get a hit, we will. In all the discussion on the legality of drugs, their role and harm they cause in society, there is a resonant, echoing, and very revealing avoidance of this fundamental fact.

A recent article in Crikey drew attention to this, saying, ‘Telling people that all illegal drugs are totally bad is not only patronising and paternalistic, but implausible in terms of those users’ own lived experience.’

So, full disclosure: I’ve used drugs. I smoked pot on a fairly regular basis, maybe a few times a week on average, for 7 or 8 years. During this time I was also drinking, occasionally in excess. In addition I used other drugs, although I never used any of them more than two or three times at most, and never in large doses: ecstacy, LSD, mescaline, amphetamines, heroin, opium, mushrooms.

I never had any problem getting drugs that I wanted. In fact, I hardly never went out of my way to get any, they were just around. I never had much money, but there always seemed to be enough to buy some pot. Except for the odd occasion, I never felt like I wanted more. Nor did I feel like smoking was an problem. I never had any run-ins with the law, even though we commonly smoked in public, in pubs, or coffee shops. Once I was at a party and some police arrived. Some guys threw a bag of pot on the BBQ, and the cops said, ‘You didn’t have to do that. We just wanted you to turn the music down.’ When I went to Thailand, drugs stopped being around and I stopped smoking and drinking, without missing it or craving at all. But of course, my life was soon filled with something much better: meditation.

I never smoked tobacco: hated the stuff, even a bit in a joint would give me headaches. I learnt early on at school about the irrationality of rules against drugs. My friends were having a ciggie and I was sitting chatting with them – everyone knew I never smoked. We got busted, and despite our protests the teachers refused to believe that I was not smoking and I was punished along with the rest.

So my main experience with drugs is pot and drink, often together. I’d like to give a few reflections about what, in retrospect, these experiences meant.

When you smoke pot, there’s an instant hit, a gentle glow of pleasure in the body. Your head gets lifted out of itself, and the concerns of life recede. At the same time there is a feeling of connection, of harmlessness and friendliness. Smoking is usually a communal activity. But even though it brings friends together, in the experience each one gets further out on their own trip. You can be laughing hilariously at something silly, but then just withdraw into watching a crack in the wall.

As a muso, I would normally find a guitar and start improvising. You get right into it, focused on every note, which sounds amazing – at least to stoned people. To others it sounds like aimless doodles. Actually, there’s a shift in relation to time: questions of form and structure become meaningless, and all that matters is the flow of notes happening in the present moment, the sheer sensual sound of it.

In all my years smoking, I never had any significant negative side effects, even after smoking a lot: a little groggy in the morning, perhaps, sometimes a mild paranoia (this can be strong in some people). In my experience, this contrasts strongly with alcohol, with its hangovers and vomiting; and in my case, tobacco, which gave me instant nausea and headaches.

This is my actual embodied experience, and I suspect many people have similar stories. It is one thing for scientific studies to lay out statistics and predictions, such-and-such a percentage of people will get lung cancer if they smoke x quantity of pot for a period of y years. But this is only one realm of discourse, an academic, disembodied, abstract notion of truth. The whole point of drugs is to get you here, into this body and experiencing this truth. And here, these things do not exist. In my own body, pot has no noticeable side effects, but alcohol and tobacco are clearly toxic. My body doesn’t like them and tells me so by becoming sick.

So you can come along with all your statistics and studies and try to prove to me that somehow your straight world has got it right: ciggies and drink are fine, but pot is of the devil. My own body – and the bodies of my friends – tells me otherwise. There is a culture of knowledge among drug users – not scientifically validated, but informed by countless occasions of actually using the stuff. Who is to say that a limited, randomized study of a few people in an abstract, artificial setting is inherently a better source of knowledge than the accumulated wisdom of an entire culture? For us, it is not a matter of establishing a valid experiment so that we can get our paper published in a journal, but a matter of life and death. We’re actually putting the stuff in our veins. It’s part of our life, who we are and how we define ourselves.

This is not to say that users will ignore science. Not true: we were very interested in it. It’s just that in the living of it, science is just another set of opinions, which does not displace our own lived experience. It’s apparent from the science, as I have shown in previous posts, that drugs cause harm, but also that there is no particular justification for asserting that illicit drugs cause more harm than licit ones. The science is ambivalent, and will be read accordingly.

In my years of using drugs, associating with musos, artists, and the like, almost everyone used drugs. I’d have to think hard to find anyone who never used drugs at all. Of course people would vary, some just didn’t like them, some used them a lot. None of these were evil or depraved. They were kind, harmless, creative, and intelligent people, who thought deeply about their lives, and who genuinely wanted to do good in this world.

I would have to say that, contrary to the straight world’s fantasy of wastrel addicts, most of us used drugs fairly responsibly most of the time. This is like when people drink, they will usually know when they must restrict themselves to one or two drinks, and when it’s okay to let go and get really drunk. Not all the time, obviously, but by and large. When you’re smoking pot, the hit comes on instantly, so it’s pretty easy to judge how much you want to have.

In all that time I never knew any addicts, or anyone whose life was ‘destroyed’ by drugs. I knew of some addicts indirectly, friends of friends, but no-one I normally hung out with. For sure, using drugs has a lot of negative effects, it saps energy and you just end up wasting a lot of time. But this is a long way from the stereotype of the wasted addict lying in a gutter. It happens, of course: I’ve seen a lot of people lying in the gutter on drugs, some of them drinking meths. I’m just saying it is not the norm, and it had no connection with my own experience of drug use.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I did know a few people whose lives were pretty devastated by drugs. But for them, while they did use other substances, the real killer was alcohol.

Why did we do it? We were young. We wanted to be different, independent. We thought we knew it all. We did it because it was outlawed, taboo. While this might sound strange, I think it is true to say that for us taking drugs was a moral choice. Not a wise moral choice, but a choice nevertheless. By taking our stand against the straight society, by actually ‘incorporating’ taboo, illicit substances in our own blood, we defined ourselves against ‘them’. We affirmed our own right to take control of our bodies, to make our own choices, to seek pleasure in our own way. Even to make our own mistakes.

And making mistakes is one way of finding your path. If you don’t have a map, you can either follow what everyone else is doing – even if you know it’s not going where you want – or you can strike out on your own. Sure, you’ll get lost, take wrong turns, end up in blind alleys. And some will die along the way. But sooner or later you’ll hit it.

And this is what happened to me, and several of my friends. We discovered Buddhism. Slowly, messily, dangerously, but we got there. This is not an isolated phenomenon. As is well known, the modern Western interest in Buddhism grew out of the hippy counterculture of the 60s, with its fascination with ‘Eastern’ mysticism. The experimenting with drugs, while it left a lot of wreckage, had some positive outcomes, namely, the modern flourishing of meditation in the West.

It is essential to understand this, as it underpins our attitudes to drug policy. The prohibitionists would have us return to an imagined 50s, when drugs were even more marginalized (whether or not this was actually the case is another matter). The problem is that this ignores the social forces that led to the widespread experimentation with drugs in the first place. There was a genuine movement towards a Higher Consciousness – we all heard it in the Beatles’ music; and their trip to India to do TM was a defining moment. This was not just a hedonistic indulgence: some of the people from that era, notably George Harrison, became genuinely interested in meditation and mystic spirituality, and continued to promote that in a positive way for many years.

The problem with the hippys was, I think, clearly analyzed by Ken Wilber, based on his pre/trans fallacy. He argued that within the hippy movement there was both a genuine yearning for a Higher Consciousness, a disenchantment with the means and methods of rational science whose ultimate gift was the atomic bomb; and a base hedonistic indulgence. These tendencies would be differently present in each person. However they were all united in their rejection of rational thought, and so were unable to distinguish between what was genuinely transformative and what was mere indulgence. This fracture line continued into American Buddhism, where it resulted in the well-known drugs-and-sex scandals that rocked several of the formative communities.

This historical process is not just my own experience, not just the experience of Western Buddhism as a whole, but is the experience that lies at the very roots of meditation in history. Meditation is a specifically Indian invention which evolved from the pre-existing religious and shamanic practices. One of these was the ritual consumption of a drug called soma. The identity and effects of soma are debated, but there is little doubt that it was a mind-altering substance of some sort, which would have contributed to the ecstatic trances of the ancient rishis. Together with the rituals, it stimulated the rishis to ‘envision’ inspired verses, just as artistic creativity today is often fueled by drugs. Today we call these verses the Ṛg Veda, one of the earliest and most magnificent cultural products of humanity.

The Vedas frequently lament the ‘death of soma’, which is often interpreted as a cultural memory of the time the ancient Āryans moved into India, where their former drug of choice was no longer available. This may be so, but it may also record a more subtle memory: the disillusionment and disenchantment with the drug experience, as with repeated use the drugs just don’t get you there any more. In any case, with the decline of the soma, the ascetics turned to other forms of spiritual stimulus – physical mortification, ecstatic ritual incantation, and ultimately meditation. This progress is recorded in the history of our meditation words: the Pali word jhāna is from the Vedic root dhī, which was the drug-inspired ‘envisioning’ of the sacred texts.

I am not making the argument that drug experience is an essential ‘gateway’ to meditation. That would be as ridiculous as the argument that pot is a ‘gateway’ to harder drugs. Remember the simile of the journey: if you don’t have a good map, you take a lot of byways first. if you do have a good map – the eightfold path – then you just walk it.

I am, however, making the argument that drug use is not solely an expression and cause of humanity’s lower instincts, but is also an expression, albeit confused, of a yearning for a higher, less constricted form of consciousness. I agree with Jung that the desire to become more conscious is humanity’s strongest motivation. If we want to formulate an effective drug policy we must stop misrepresenting drug users and drug usage as an entirely negative force. Nothing is. It has its good and bad sides. The more we try to repress it, the more we create divisions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and the more we confirm the belief of young people that the straight world just doesn’t get it.

In the discourse on drug use, the reality that the drug culture has had positive results, though it is plain to see, is systematically ignored, as it might ‘send the wrong message’. But the ‘wrong message’, which young people see with brutal clarity, is the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the straight world’s take on drugs. We knew very well that these things were not the demons they were painted as, and laughed outright at the absurd propoganda.

An effective policy must start by sending the ‘right message’: people who choose to take drugs are human beings with inherent wisdom and the capacity to make moral choices. As a society we should act with them, in respectful consultation and dialogue with users, who have the greatest investment in the issue. We should recognize that drug use has serious negative consequences, and out of compassion we should regulate its use in order to minimize harm, as we do with alcohol and tobacco.

At the same time we should go beyond mere management, and recognize that drug use is, in part, an expression of a genuine spiritual yearning. History has shown, time and time again, that this yearning will not be fulfilled through drugs, and the result will be either a downward spiral or stopping usage. The actual means to this transcendence is meditation, or comparable contemplative practices in different religious or secular contexts. Meditation is not, by itself, the solution to our drug problems. Nor are all drug users seriously interested in higher consciousness. Nevertheless, a significant number of them are. And rather than treat them like criminals, why not show them the real path to find what they’re seeking?


15 thoughts on “Drugs: Legalize and Regulate (5)

  1. Hypocrisy on drugs doesn’t just stem from a ‘good’ ‘bad’ perspective, but also from a capitalist one. Cannabis isn’t just up against the tobacco and alcohol industries, but the pharmaceutical giants, all of which are worth billions.

    The debate on drugs will never be satisfied while the issues are heavily politicised. Harm and harmlessness can never be allowed to be seen clearly when lobbyists and media with their own, selfish agendas, are involved.

  2. This article “The Prospects for Drug Reform in This Country Have Never Been So Good” has just been published in Alternet. Referring to the US it starts with “The prospects for reforming drug policy have never been so good. The persistent failure and negative consequences of drug war policies, combined with budgetary woes and generational change, are mainstreaming reformist ideas once considered taboo.”

    The contents of the article meshes with Bhante’s viewpoints on drugs and it also notes that “African-Americans and Latinos are arrested for marijuana offenses at dramatically higher rates than whites, even though they are no more likely to use or possess marijuana.”

    The article ends with this paragraph “The greatest challenge today is one that was best articulated a couple of years ago by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, co-chaired by former presidents Cardoso of Brazil, Gaviria of Colombia and Zedillo of Mexico. It is to “break the taboo” on vigorous, honest and open debate about all drug policy options, including harm reduction, decriminalization and legalization. That’s what drug war advocates most fear—because they know the policies they advocate ultimately are indefensible on grounds of science, compassion, health or human rights. Breaking taboos requires courage, but it is an essential step on the path to broader drug policy reform.”

    Right on Bhante. We need to look at the drug issue from new perspectives as outright condemnation and prohibition have comprehensively failed.

    The link: http://www.alternet.org/drugs/149174/the_prospects_for_drug_reform_in_this_country_have_never_been_so_good?page=entire

    • I saw that today and thought again of this blog. It goes to show the policy on drugs isn’t one of facts and scientific/experiential evidence.

      For the politicians it’s entirely about popular policies and the fear of the hysterical media –
      the whole debate needs more sense and less sensibilities.

      Interesting to note that Ainsworth suggested putting the drugs into the hands of pharmaceuticals. In the current climate I doubt any company would risk the backlash and inevitable claims it was profiteering from selling drugs to addicts.

      But this is one possibility for the future, not the best, but far far better than leaving drugs in the hands of criminals where there’s no regulation and a huge amount of suffering from the bottom up of the drugs trafficking train.

  3. What a fascinating & wise post. Your conclusion is something I’ve mused on many a time.

    I used to love smoking pot when I was young, I haven’t smoked it at all for a few years now but the last times I did, which were few & far between, I didn’t enjoy it at all. This was quite a surprise to me but all I can think is that whilst its effects used to seem so amazing, compared to the pleasure and awareness generated from meditation, its effects seem dull in comparison.

  4. oops pressed post accidently.

    It was LSD when I was 21 that got me onto meditation. I’d tried it a few times prior, & a few times after that, but it was only that one time that I had a ‘spritual experience’ from LSD. I was a committed athiest/Marxist/activist, cyncical, still grieving the death of my father from 3 years before, and that night I had what I can best describe as a ‘flowering of the mind’. It felt like insights were rushing through my mind at an incredible speed, each moment a new insight. And I was amazed to discover through them that my parents had been teaching me the right thing all along, rather than religion being the opium of the people, Jesus was right – the only things of importance were love, compassion, forgiveness, non-judging. I cried tears of joy, something I didn’t even know was truly possible before.

    I told my now-husband what I’d experienced & he dug out an old book that he’d been given by a monk when he stayed one night in a monastery in India. It was called the book of nothing by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (at that time we had no idea of his infamy!). I devoured it, amazed that I’d finally found what had been missing all my life, that I’d finally found life’s meaning.

    I love that story about the two worms that Ajahn Brahm tells, because before that night there would have been no point talking to me of religion, spirituality, morality. I was intelligent, I’d come in the top 2% of the state in high school, but I was simply incapable of understanding.

    Funnily enough whilst that was 13 years ago, & i’ve been ‘committed’ now to Buddhism for a few years, it was only this week that I really started focussing on the eightfold path. I’ve known, in theory, for quite a long time that sila is essential for meditation, that it is of vital importance. But the thing was I never really believed until this week what the Dhammapada says about morality being the highest happiness.

    It wasn’t enough to ‘know’ it in my head. I needed to experience the truth of it for myself. The numbers of times I’ve prayed for that fast forward button – take me to complete commitment to the eightfold path – but I realise now that I was like the person in that story who wanted his food masticated for him.

    Bhante – last time I saw you I told you that I had prayed for more suffering, as I felt that was what I needed to help me advance on the path, & you said that we don’t need to ask for suffering life will bring us more than enough soon enough! Well, its a funny thing but I find whenever I pray for something I need, like humility or in this case, life brings it to me in the most unexpected ways.

    This is a story I wrote about that experience with LSD at the time http://csp.org/nicholas/csp%20site%20/A60.html Please forgive the title!!! At that age I had no knowledge of Buddhism and no idea what enlightenment was 🙂

  5. I am just reading through Bikkhu Bodhi’s commentary to the noble eightfold path for the fourth time this week & I realised that I’ve spent much time over the years studying & practising the last six factors, but neglected the first two, particularly right intention.

  6. Dear Bhante

    On behalf of the smokers of the world, I vehemently object to your demonising alchocol and ciggies when you wrote –

    “In my own body, pot has no noticeable side effects, but alcohol and tobacco are clearly toxic. My body doesn’t like them and tells me so by becoming sick.”

    Toxicity aside, the nausea you experienced is most likely mediated by your dopamine system over-reacting to the pleasures of these 2 indulgences. Had you popped a dopamine-receptor antagonist (eg Motilium) with the spirits or ciggie, you would have been spared from the debilitating wave of nausea. Dopamine, as with any other pleasurable pursuit that reqards the brain with a dopamine hit, is not mediated by the poisons in smoke, but nicotine simpliciter.

    We smokers demand a retraction of that unwarranted slander of the evils of smoking.

    • My apologies, Sylvester! I am obviously incapable of processing the profound pleasure of these experiences – and as you so wisely point out, the harmful effects of drugs are best counteracted by the entirely rational means of taking more drugs! Now, why didn’t I think of that?

    • Dear Bhante

      The apology is warmly acknowledged by the Smokers’ Union.

      I’m glad you had not discovered Motilium in the bad old days. You would have been quite a sight, with your T-shirt constantly wet. It is used to stimulate lactation and has that unfortunate side-effect on men as well. (Have to banish that frightful image from my mind).

      Urm, don’t you think your reductio ad absurdum is really the result of making the distinction between nicotine (a psychotropic nAChR agonist) and motilium (a non-psychotropic D2 + D3 receptor antagonist) hazy by elevating both to “drugs” which does not look meaningful for comparative purposes?

      On behalf of all hypogalactia sufferers and constipation-dominant IBS sufferers who resort to Motilium, I demand that Motilium be dissociated from its evil nicotinic cousin. 🙂

  7. Congratulations for the blog. Rarely is a topic as hard as this one talked so clearly, but, as we all know, drugs are found everywhere in our society, even they are legal, illegal or medical drugs, having a strong influence in people’s life and in the society. That’s why this is the correct way to talk about it, clearly, with knowledge and, if it is possible, without any fears or attachment which can have an influence in our opinion about them.
    Reading your post, dear Sujato, I get the feeling (perhaps I can’t understand English quite well) that a drug such as the marijuana cannot cause important damages in the person which is consuming it, and to provide him a pleasuring and happy experience, inclusive almost mystical.
    However, in my opinion, that is not so. Every action produces karma, inclusive the consuming of any drug, when they act directly on our minds and distortion our perception of reality. It is true that smoking cannabis or marijuana can not to have an strong impact in our bodies as other drugs can produce, including legal ones. But this doesn’t avoid them to modify our learning about everything, our cognitive processes, avoiding us to see and to solve our anxieties and conditionings as we have to do: Using our conscience.
    Drugs consume, including smoking cannabis or marijuana, avoids the Awakening of Conscience, that should be, as we all know, the aim of the ones who want to be definitely free of their fears and attachments. Inclusive many times, the damage to our minds that they can cause can avoid to this Awakening to be possible, inclusive if the consumer stops doing it. Fortunately, this is not always so.
    In fact, neither the use of drugs in order to have mystical experiences and reaching with it the Awakening is effective, as it is said in many occasions. Perhaps those experiences can be revealing, but will never be revealing and liberating, as those experiences as a result of the work and the obtained through meditation and showed by the free of attachments and conditionings conscience skills are.

    Greetings with my desires of happiness to everyone,

    Joaquín Carrizosa.

    P.S.: Sorry if my English is not as good as it should be. I’m just learning.

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