I stumbled onto the drug scene comparatively late in my life: the first time I ever smoked weed was at 21, in a coffee shop in Amsterdam. It took me another three years before I tried cocaine, and the first time I took LSD (at 28), I didn’t even know what it was (looking back, that could have gone horribly wrong – but instead it sparked a profound love of psychedelics).
Of course the term “drugs” is very strange. Grouping speed and magic mushrooms into the same category is patently absurd. Equally absurd is the fact that we don’t generally describe alcohol as a drug – we talk about “alcohol and drugs” as if they’re separate things. This grossly underplays the dangers of alcohol, which we somehow feel safe to use even though it is by far the most ubiquitously destructive substance.
Most of us have been very mis-educated about drugs – the only drug education I ever received was to just “say no”. We’ve all seen the before and after pictures of a weather-beaten teen star, or heard whisperings about the local promising student who fell in with the wrong crowd and got hooked on meth. As a teenager, I thought all it would take for me to become a raving drug-addled dropout was to take a single pill handed to me by friends.
You hear that drugs, all drugs, are so addictive that you’ll never be able to quit if you’ve tried them once. You hear it burns holes in your brain. You read about that one girl who took ecstasy for the first time and promptly died of a heart attack. I was terrified of ruining my life – more than most kids, perhaps, I realised there would be very little to catch me should I fall. I needed my wits and my willpower, such as it was, to carve a life for myself and so I stayed away. Looking back I am quite glad I abstained from drugs for as long as I did.
But the widespread misinformation about drugs is much more harmful than it is good.
One of the biggest dangers about this misinformation is it that it completely alienates people who DO use drugs. Parents and peers alike react with horror at the slightest whispering of substance use. So what happens if you stumble upon cocaine, for instance, and find yourself liking it, and using it increasingly often? There’s no one to talk to, that’s what happens. Your mom would cry herself to sleep if she knew. Your friends and colleagues would look at you differently, even though many of them get drunk almost every weekend. You can’t even tell your GP because you’re too ashamed.
You enter the twilight world of dodgy backstreet purchases, of taking lines off toilet seats in clubs, half surprised your brain hasn’t collapsed yet. On the inevitable cocaine comedown you lie in bed feeling suicidal, totally alone, even though half your acquaintances have also, unbeknownst to you, abused a substance at one time or another.
On the flip side, the misinformation regarding drugs doesn’t prepare you for the relief you feel when, after all, you don’t promptly die of an overdose the first time you try MDMA. Oh! It’s actually fine. Actually all your friends use it too! It must be okay then. Because all the official sources react so hysterically to drugs, you dismiss them all as entirely wrong. Have you ever tried googling “effects of using MDMA”? All the websites stridently warn you off. All of them have banners at the top with the numbers of helplines you might call if you suffer from substance addiction. All of them detail the side-effects but barely mention what happens if you, like most people, simply take drugs every now and then without disappearing into the chasm of total addiction.
So between the hysterical headlines and the casual secrecy of your drug-using friends, you have nowhere to go for solid information. You have to learn it all yourself.
Imagine if we did this with sex – imagine if you googled “having sex for the first time” and the internet exploded with enthusiastic reddit threads and WebMD pages listing all the dangers of sex, with nothing balanced to actually explain your experience to you. What would happen? You’d be too embarrassed to ever go for an STD test, for one. You might never understand why your body works the way it does. If you enjoy sex, you might think there’s something wrong with you. If you don’t enjoy sex, you might think there’s something wrong with you.
As we know, until recently, this hushed hysteria surrounding sex was in fact the norm. We are realising the error of our ways gradually, with increasingly thorough sex education (though we still have a long way to go), with magazines and movies imperfectly bringing this profoundly normal act into everyday conversation.
But drugs? Drugs are still the all-around baddies. In movies when a character takes drugs (almost always a nondescript pill given by dodgy friends in a nightclub), the camera becomes shaky, visuals blur, music becomes ominous. You know the protagonist is going to wake up bloody and his best friend will be revealed, through disjointed flashbacks, to have died in a car accident. In police procedural series, it’s always either the street thug, the hopeless rich boy, or the crooked policeman who uses drugs.
This ignores the fact that most people have tried mind-altering substances at one time or another. Most of these people are functional citizens. Most people manage to drink two glasses of wine on a weekend without becoming alcoholics (although I’ll say again that alcohol is much more dangerous, in my opinion, than most other drugs). Many, many people smoke weed without becoming ambition-less stoners. Many people routinely take MDMA at a party and wake up just fine, if a little emotional, the next day. Many people, myself included, have even flirted dangerously with substance abuse and have emerged a little poorer, a little battered, but wiser and humbler on the other side. Without help, because none was available.
We need to talk about drugs. We need to talk about the fact that humans have been using mind-altering substances for as long as we have existed. We need to talk about the difference between psychedelics and opioids, about the difference between a line of pure cocaine and the similar-looking but much more dangerous speedball.
And importantly, we need to talk about the difference between drug use, drug abuse, and drug addiction.
A friend recently told me “I don’t use drugs because I don’t need anything to change my reality” – she was very drunk at that stage. This is one of the most pervasive myths I have encountered about drugs thus far: that it is somehow shameful to take them because it implies that you can’t have a good time otherwise. Like religion (the “opium of the masses”), drugs are viewed by many as a crutch for the weak, for those who can’t face life without something to soften the blow. SO many of my acquaintances have said to me that what you experience on drugs “isn’t real”. By implication, sobriety is the only valid way to experience ‘reality’.
Reality is a matter of perspective. You see colour differently than your dog does. You experience emotions in a different way from anybody else. Your brain chemistry and your biology is entirely your own. The information we take in, every minute of the day, is heavily filtered according to what we need to know and what we are able to process. Something as commonplace as a cup of coffee or a chocolate bar may significantly change our experience.
The expansive love we feel on ecstasy, or the spiritual awareness on LSD, or even the frenetic excitement of cocaine, is not inherently less valid than any emotions we might normally experience. It’s just an experience we might add to our arsenal, another way of seeing, another way of being. Like everything, this could further us on our journey, or it could hold us back. But to safely expand our horizon of experience, we need to bring drugs back from the shadowy world of fear and shame that they currently inhabit. We need to start a conversation. We need to talk about drugs.