During my internship at a law office last summer, a forensic drug analyst told me “molly” was a culture and not a drug. His lab tested the latest batch of pills retrieved from a concert, club or party and found all sorts of amphetamines masquerading as “molly,” from MDMA to meth.
“Molly” is an extreme case of a drug growing an identity beyond its chemistry, but it is not unique. From caffeine to crack, all drugs build cultures and identities beyond the physical and mental reactions they provoke.
There is no secret chemical structure in caffeine forcing people to drink coffee in the morning instead of the evening nor any molecule hidden in crack that makes one homeless and crazy.
Coffee culture and crack culture follow from the drugs’ effects — one drinks coffee in the morning because it is a stimulant and one becomes homeless and crazy while smoking crack because it is horribly addictive. However, particularly when crafting policy, one must tease out the difference between the culture and the drug.
The present opioid epidemic highlights lawmakers’ failure to do so. More than 1,000 people a day are treated in emergency rooms for misusing prescription opioids according to Centers for Disease Control, but there is no movement to severely restrict drug manufacturers.
If the drugs were not sold by large corporations, or if overdose victims were not predominantly white, or if any number of non-pharmacological, cultural factors were a little different, opiates would be banned and demonized with no consideration given to their usefulness as medicine.
Something like this happened in 2015, when Governor Butch Otter vetoed a bill legalizing marijuana-derived CBD oil, which treats seizures and can’t get people high. The word “marijuana” was a death knell, pointing to a culture — not a drug — that Governor Otter could not imagine supporting.
Too often, drug policy is driven by images of undesirable people — whether hippies or Mexicans or black people — rather than scientific rigor.
Fifty years after the height of the ‘60s counterculture, LSD retains its noxious, divisive context. Nothing was more terrifying as a parent than the idea of one’s child quitting school, not getting a job, moving to California and dropping acid. Today that fear, grounded in a cultural moment rather than the actual drug, lingers in the form of strict bans on all psychedelic substances.
One of the most powerful tools for introspection and therapy was co-opted by left-wing radicals, demonized by law and order romantics and barred from science.
A small amount of rigorous research has shown the power of psychedelic substances to enact lasting, positive change. A Cambridge study found long-term improvements to psychological wellbeing after dosing 20 healthy volunteers with LSD.
A Johns Hopkins study used psilocybin mush- rooms to help smokers quit. Eighty percent of
the participants remained abstinent after six months, more than twice the rate of typical therapy programs.
A New York University study treated cancer patients’ anxiety and depression with psilocybin, and 60 to 80 percent of participants showed significant improvements in quality of life.
Researchers tend to choose psilocybin instead of LSD because psilocybin is boring, clinical, difficult to pronounce and there- fore does not play as large a role in the culture. Good science cannot depend on such arbitrariness.
The dangers of LSD and other psychedelics are real. Misuse can surface latent mental illness or induce terrifying hallucinations. But the evidence indicates that psychedelics are non- addictive, safer than alcohol or tobacco and enormously beneficial when used in a controlled setting.
Doctors and scientists should not be limited to what the culture dictates — their treatment options and research should be based on what works.
One can imagine a more enlightened future with legal, regulated psychedelic therapy. Perhaps someday LSD can become a drug and not a culture.
Danny Bugingo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org