Are Recreational Drugs Really The Big Bad We’ve Been Taught They Are?
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
My upbringing taught me, resolutely, that recreational drugs are bad. From my home life to my education, the message was loud and clear. All recreational drugs are bad. This was fact. In secondary school, I was taught to be afraid of recreational drugs; ‘You do drugs, you die’, ‘You do drugs, you become an addict’.
One story that stays with me even now was told to me by an anti-drugs action group that came into my school. A man told us about a woman who had taken magic mushrooms, hallucinated that there were bugs crawling under her skin, and proceeded to scratch her skin off over a period of hours until the effects wore off.
I never questioned that drugs could be anything other than bad, until I reached University. Here, I found myself in an environment where many students around me were experimenting with drugs. And, when none of them died or became addicted or scratched their skin off, I began to question what I had been taught.
Further questions have been raised for me, and I am sure many others, as drugs have been making headline news over the past few weeks. ‘Well, that’s nothing new’, you may be saying. Actually, it is. I’m not talking about articles covering over doses and prominent figures checking into rehab, though of course it would be naïve to say that this hasn’t happened over the last few weeks. No, I am referring to the headlines where recreational drugs have been shed in positive light.
Canada Legalises Recreational Use of Cannabis
Since 2001, medical marijuana has been legal in Canada but this month the law was revolutionised to see Canada as the second country to legalise cannabis for recreational use. Justin Trudeau’s government have been working on this move for two years in response to society’s changing opinion about marijuana and to bring black market operators into a regulated system.
This move, arguably, has been great for Canada’s economy as over one hundred legal pot shops are planned to open across the country. By legalising cannabis, they have brought it into their country’s trade industry and are therefore able to impose regulations, as well as taxes, of course.
UK legalises medical marijuana
At the beginning of the month it was announced that doctors will be able to prescribe cannabis from November 1st. This huge shift in our country’s, and more specifically our government’s, attitude came after Home Secretary Sajid Javid was advised of the therapeutic benefits of cannabis by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
Several high-profile campaigns, which gained widespread media attention and public empathy, are largely responsible for the government’s decision. These campaigns involved severely epileptic children and showed the benefit cannabis had on reducing symptoms and seizures. Campaigners questioned how the UK could be the largest exporter of medical cannabis but deny this treatment to its own citizens in need.
Research into the benefits and detriments of cannabis has, up until this point, been extremely limited. Classified as a Schedule 1 drug, Home Office licenses were required to examine and test the substance. The limited clinical data available, as well as anecdotal evidence, has shown that epilepsy is not the only medical treatment that can be helped by medicinal cannabis. Patients with MS, cancer and other serious conditions could be helped by the drug.
For those who campaigned for the legalisation of medical marijuana this is a huge victory. Many UK citizens, both opposed to and in favour of the legalisation, have been asking will legalisation for recreational use come next? Sajid Javid remains adamant that this will not be the case. However, if Canada’s example is anything to go by, we could be on the road to full legalisation.
The Benefits of Cannabidiol
CBD or cannabidiol has been cropping up in the news with increasing frequency over the past few months, and most often it is linked with medical benefits, rather than downfalls.
Interestingly, CBD is legal in many American states where marijuana is not. According to Medical News Today, CBD can act as a natural form of pain relief, help with quitting smoking, reduce drug withdrawals, treat epilepsy, fight cancer, reduce anxiety, ease inflammation of the pancreas in patients with type 1 diabetes, treat acne and finally slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Surely, with a list that substantial, it comes as a shock that we can’t buy CBD as regularly as we can paracetamol. The main issue with CBD, however, is the lack of research surrounding it. These findings have come from small-scale studies due to the difficulties surrounding the legality of cannabis. As mentioned before, to carry out research into cannabis in the UK, one must procure a Home Office License. In the United States, it is equally tricky as researchers need to submit their proposals to a number of agencies, including the FDA and DEA in order to acquire the necessary licenses. Depending upon the state in which the research is to be carried out, there may be further checks, applications and licenses required.
Why are we seeing changes in attitudes to recreational drugs now?
There was a dim and distant age where many forms of recreational drugs, including cannabis and LSD were legalised in countries including the UK and the USA. In 1969, however, the US announced a war on drugs which prompted various other countries to outlaw drugs such as cannabis, even for medical use.
In 1996, California was the first US state to legalise cannabis for medical use and now in twenty-nine states you can legally use marijuana for medical use and eight for recreational use.
The fear factor has been a huge part of banning drugs for recreational and medical use. There still remains a stigma that drug users are synonymous with criminals and addicts. It is research, as mentioned previously, that has slowly seen a shift in attitude from citizens and governments alike. This slow nature, however, being due to the stigma and legality of the substances. A vicious cycle, you could say.
The UK, Canada and the US aren’t the only countries who have seen a more relaxed attitude towards cannabis in recent years. Portugal decriminalised the possession of any drug, including cannabis, for personal use in 2001 and people are therefore able to self-medicate. In neighbouring Spain, the drug has been decriminalised since the 1990s and people are able to grow their own for personal use, too.
Could ‘getting mandied’ be beneficial?
In May, The Independent published an article containing the results of a new clinical trial into the so-called party drug, MDMA. Scientists in California tested twenty-six people who were suffering with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The study found that those on the higher doses of MDMA experienced the greatest reduction of PTSD symptoms. MDMA, as with any drug, carries with it side effects, in this case including anxiety, headaches and fatigue to name a few.
Dr Michael Bloomfield, clinical lecturer at University College London, said:
“This new, well-conducted study adds to fascinating research which suggests that MDMA may be a candidate drug in a future era of medicine-assisted psychotherapy.”
He also added that more research was needed in order to “tease out” the beneficial effects of MDMA.
What about other recreational drugs?
As is the case with cannabis, research into the benefits of other recreational drugs is limited due to the legalities involved. This does not mean that no research is being conducted, but there is much political and legal tape to be cut in order to begin research, let alone publicise the results.
Michael Pollan, journalist and author, published a book this year called How to Change Your Mind. This book details the “new science of psychedelics” and discusses the benefits of the ‘classic’ psychedelics; psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), LSD, DMT and mescaline.
Pollan started researching his book in 2014 after writing an article entitled Trip Treatment for the New Yorker which revealed to him the vast nature of the debate into recreational substances.
In a podcast with Joe Rogan, Pollan discussed the research he had uncovered when writing his book. He referenced a study where cancer patients were given psilocybin and described how the drug “reset these people’s attitudes to death”. The overall findings of the study showed that:
“80% of the people who had the sessions had statistically significant reductions in measurements of depression and anxiety”.
Like me, Pollan was afraid of recreational drugs, and psychedelics in particular, due to the stories he had heard surrounding them.
Rogan commented on this, saying:
“It’s a great tragedy in my opinion that our culture has demonised these substances and put them in this category of forbidden fruit to the point where you’re nervous about doing them and you have to get them from some shady character. If we just had professional places where we could go […] a psychedelic facility.”
Unlike everything I had been taught growing up, not all drugs are addictive. Psychedelics, in fact, are non-addictive according to Pollan’s research. In addition, the risks psychedelics pose to your body are “relatively low” and they are “much less toxic than many of the over-the-counter drugs in your medicine cabinet.” Pollan was referencing classic psychedelics here; psilocybin, LSD, DMT and mescaline.
Rogan spoke out about the difficulties involved in researching recreational drugs, including psychedelics, saying:
“That is a real problem with it being prohibited. The prohibition has really set back research and understanding by decades. We should have been studying this stuff since the 60’s.”
The jury is still out
Attitudes towards recreational drugs are starting to shift, and rightly so if they can be used to make advances in medicine. It is important, however, to keep coming back to the point that research is still limited into the benefits of substances such as cannabis, psilocybin and MDMA.
With all of these substances classified as illegal in the UK, there is no way that you can get away with a little home research. Although progress may be slow in the research community due to the restrictions on these substances, the vital part is that research is happening. Pollan referred to the thirty year “hiatus” that America experienced in testing controlled substances such as cannabis, accentuating how much time and therefore vital research had been lost.
Pollan and Rogan in their podcast express a clear opinion against the prohibition on recreational drugs. It is not a view that is necessary widely held, although a recent poll by Gallup showed that support of cannabis has reached an all-time high, with two thirds of Americans in favour of fully legalising the substance for recreational use.
Whether you are pro or anti the legalisation of substances such as cannabis for recreational use, Pollan made some strong points about the detriments of prohibiting and vilifying such substances. In his discussion with Rogan he said:
“When you have prohibition, you can’t regulate something. It’s a free for all. Whereas if you did legalise psilocybin, for example, you could set rules. For example, it can only be administered by licensed guides or in a medical context or that no one under a certain age can have it. […] That’s why it’s saner to legalise, not a in a free for all kind of way, but in a very considered way rather than have the system we have now; people are going to take the drug whether they should or not without any kind of clearance. And, by the way, who knows what you’re getting.”
Here Pollan touches upon one of the greatest fears in the drug-taking community: are you taking what you think you’re taking? Legalisation of all recreational drugs is a huge, and unlikely, step in our country’s near future. However, the legalisation of ‘natural’ recreational drugs, such as cannabis and psilocybin, may not be so unlikely.
With studies into recreational drugs beginning to gather more awareness and approval due to growing medical legalisation, we are moving into a period of better awareness. It is no longer strictly true that all drugs are bad and a lot of the fear-mongering and mystery surrounding these substances is disappearing. At thirteen, after hearing the anti-drugs talk at school, I cannot say I could have made a fully informed decision about recreational drugs. Arguably, I still cannot, but we, as a nation, have never been in a more informed position.