Choose Your Chemical Reaction

In seventh grade science I learned about three drugs: alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana. The only fact I remember about the whole experience was that the average blunt contains three times the amount of harmful chemicals as a cigarette (the inconvenient fact that nobody, with the possible exception of Snoop Dogg, smokes the marijuana equivalent of one or two packs a day was left out). What about other drugs? If weed was so bad, could heroin or cocaine really be that much worse? I knew the answer was yes, but you wouldn’t have gotten that from the class. What I was really interested in, however, were psychedelic drugs. My curiosity was satiated in a single sentence: under LSD a person could think he or she were a bird and jump off a building. Apparently, LSD’s strongest effect was that users were constantly confusing themselves with birds or other flying objects, because I heard the moniker repeated several times in subsequent drug education classes. I also noticed that the lack of the education about drugs that weren’t in the “big three” leads to some interesting misconceptions by my peers: I have alternatively been told that Psylocybin (mushrooms) work by literally cooking one’s brain, or by causing blood to drip down the back of the brainstem (in fact, shrooms work primarily by inhibiting the neurotransmitter serotonin, just like many other psychedelic drugs []). Beyond being confused about how these substances work, the lack of education about them often leads classmates to believe that they are as dangerous as all those other unnamed drugs. In the conventional sense, this simply isn’t true; psychedelic drugs are not addictive (not even mentally in the sense that marijuana is), do not aggravate aggressive behavior and are not even in wide enough circulation to cause a significant amount of criminal activity. The real danger to the user is the danger of a bad trip, so in this sense the only thing to fear truly is fear itself. Well, that and the extreme hazard of thinking you are a bird. I do not mean to suggest that the possibility of having an extremely negative experience on psychedelic drugs is small or in any way insignificant. The fact is that by using these substances, one is taking a risk that is not to be taken lightly, and having never had a bad trip, I must confess I can only talk about this danger hypothetically. However, just because taking LSD, psilocybin or salvia needs to be seriously considered before it is undertaken doesn’t mean that it is never a good idea. Under the right circumstances, these experiences can be educational, expanding and even deeply spiritual (this is coming from an atheist, y’hear?). With the exception of psychedelic drugs, we live a culture that celebrates taking educated risks. When it comes to hang-gliding, base-jumping or taking Math 600, we seem to recognize that our brain produces the best-feeling chemicals when failure is possible and there are definite stakes involved. And at least with psychedelic drugs, those stakes don’t mean death; they just mean feeling really, really bad. There could be several objections with the previous analogy: that the hang glider’s euphoria is derived from “real” physical stimuli whereas the drug user’s euphoria is based on some sort of false assumptions on the nature of reality, and that the hang glider has a type of conscious control over the success of his experience that the drug user does not have. The first objection stems from the misconception that hallucination, in the sense of seeing something that isn’t there, is the solitary result of psychedelics; it does happen, but it is by no means the only thing that happens. Both the hang glider and the drug user can be seeing the world exactly as their senses report to their minds, yet both feel a rush of awe due to the circumstances they are in. The natural disposition of our brains to release chemicals of excitement when we are high up and moving really fast strikes me as in no sense inherently less valid than its disposition to release those same chemicals when we eat a certain plant. The second objection is true to a degree but also stems from an overconfidence in our physical abilities over our mental ones: just as the hang glider cannot be completely certain of wind conditions before a flight, we can not be entirely sure that we are in the right mental state before a psychedelic experience. We can, however, have a pretty good idea; if we are calm and unplagued by worries and regrets, we are likely to have a good experience, whereas nervousness and depression only deepen in the presence of psychedelic drugs. Perhaps, however, you are not entirely convinced. Even without comparing psychedelics to specific thrill-seeking, we are always in the process of attempting to reach chemical highs that are imposed in some way by artificial circumstances. Surely there is not a more prized emotion in any culture than love, and yet we all recognize how irrational, spontaneous and potentially destructive it can be. For myself I define love in all its myriad incarnations as the potential to find extreme beauty and nobility in another. And yet so often it mutates, unpredictably and unpleasantly, in the inability to ignore or disobey another, while simultaneously resenting the control that they display. Those who dismiss psychedelics due to one’s inability to control whether they see all beauty or all ugliness must dismiss love on the same grounds. Similarly, those who dismiss psychedelics because they are a “cheap” or de facto way to achieve spiritual experiences must dismiss the de facto love a new mother feels for her child on the same grounds. The fact is that everything that we find to have inherent value in our culture andin ourselves is the result of a chemical reaction that give those things meaning. Psychedelic drugs have the power to broaden that chemical reaction beyond simply other people, first into the world directly around us, then the universe and finally perception itself. If we are to so violently oppose feeling strongly about these phenomena, we must examine our reasons for not feeling the same about phenomena about which we do feel strongly in the absence of drugs. DISCLAIMER: I am by no means suggesting that doing psychedelic drugs at PA is a good idea; not only do we endure a great deal of stress on a daily basis that makes a bad trip that much more probable, we are also faced with a disciplinary system and a legal system that are not so discerning between different types of drugs as they perhaps ought to be. Wolfgang Siewert is a four-year Senior from Albany, Cal.