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Home > Culture and Society

Turn On, Tune In, Look a Bit Uncomfortable

13 January 2006

It was Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann's birthday on Wednesday. He's 100 years old, which is rather a Burroughsian hoot given that he's responsible for flooding the gibbering brain of the world with acid. It was Hofmann who discovered in the early 50s that LSD was powerfully psychoactive, leading to its pioneering use in psychiatry. Just as MDMA began its journey to infamy as a humble aid to marriage counselling, so LSD was employed as a tool to help the obsessive and traumatised understand and work on the psychological sources of their troubles. Then a shower of grubby long-hairs in the 60s got hold of it, and commenced cavorting naked all over the burgeoning media, which was increasing in reach and power even as it was still suffering a mother of a 50s hangover. It became ever so slightly better known for making hippies think they could fly, and get away with kissing policemen, than for its more low-key activities in the health rena. So that was pretty much that. Now LSD's philanthropic beginnings sound about as ludicrous as a 'Jodie: I'm Saving
Myself For The Right Man' headline.

However, plucky young Dr Ben Sessa chose Hofmann's happy 100th to put LSD's case to a medical establishment that has been la-la-la-not-listening for decades. He's adamant that research halted in the 60s should be picked up, because if the drug was once found to be helpful in psychotherapy, it's rather scandalous that it's lying idle now when people are in pain. The modern psyche is a bugger to fix, and needs all the help it can get. Sessa is presenting to the Royal College of Psychiatrists this spring, and good luck to him. He doesn't give a fig for the recreational stuff - not especially surprising since that was what slammed the door on the research in the first instance - he just wants all available weaponry for the war on misery. He's merely being pragmatic, although with such a hot issue there's not much 'merely' about it, as it takes some balls. 'I really want to present a dispassionate medical, scientific evidence-based argument,' he was quoted in the Guardian. 'Scientists, psychiatrists and psychologists were forced to give up their studies for socio-political reasons. That's what really drives me.'

Of course this opens up a whole economy-sized can of oh my God, snakes, there are *snakes* coming out of the... oh, it's OK, they're just figurative worms. The long-standing taboo that envelops all recreational drugs is unlikely to be broken by one idealistic doctor, although more and more experts are liable to line up behind him. No-one but the most infuriating skunk-for-brains loon has ever suggested that illegal fun substances have no down side, no real attendant dangers; on the other hand there's a grudging acknowledgement on behalf of government and non-dabbling public that there must be pleasurable effects or people wouldn't bother. But there's still an enormous blind spot which negates the fact that these things, without being too glurgey about it, change lives - people do them not just for the momentary pretty colours or zingy feelings of whoop-de-do, but because they often find they have profound experiences that reshape their perspective. They risk depression to make themselves less depressed, if you want to be glib about it. If that impulse were grasped to even some extent, then it might naturally follow that research should be undertaken into the drugs for the relief of medical problems. If people self-prescribe these things in an attempt to help themselves feel happier, it's a scary thing - doctors carefully prescribing variants or extracts of the same to help patients feel happier is a less scary thing. Obviously research *is* being done into all manner of iffy ingestibles - the medical efficaciousness of cannabis, for example, has been scrutinised for years - but frankly, not enough, and such research is still needlessly stifled by moral panic. Drug research seems still to be centred on finding out how bad they might be for people who take them for fun, rather than how good they might be for people who would take them out of necessity.

This particular shenanigan was beautifully illustrated in 2001, when a BBC documentary about British ex-stuntman and Parkinson's sufferer Tim Lawrence was shown. He was an especially fit 34-year-old when he was stricken with the condition, and later discovered while out clubbing that ecstasy effectively cured him. The jerks and jitters that we think of as the characteristic symptoms of Parkinson's are in fact the result of the over-zealousness of the drug used to treat it; unfreezing stiff muscles is its job, but it doesn't have the pharmaceutical precision to pull up before it starts making limbs flail uncontrollably. Ecstasy, for complicated reasons, seems to get the balance Goldilocks-right. In the film Lawrence took a pill, pretty much like one you might score from some urchin in a club playing horrid hard house, and after half an hour he was shown somersaulting across a gym. It was a breathtaking, unforgettable image, not least because it was terribly sad; the whiff of a cure was right there, and yet it was bound to be panicked out of reach again by kneejerk condemnation of anything a) illegal and b) with nasty and erratic side-effects. The Parkinson's Disease Society reacted by effectively battening down the hatches with this statement: http://digbig.com/4fxxd The statement, updated in 2003, is a pretty blunt instrument aimed at quelling any sufferers' false hopes after watching Lawrence's miraculous temporary recovery. The rotten thing is that they were probably right to, not because their apparent terror of the drug is well-founded (they count 'euphoria' as one of the drug's 'undesirable side-effects') but because there was no way any MDMA-related drug was going to become available any time soon. However, it's sad to see how deeply the consternation penetrates - people find it almost impossible to be objective about illegal drugs that have been implicated in deaths. OK, so put it like that and it *does* sound impossible, irrational. But even Thalidomide, whose name has the doomy clang of the names of concentration camps, has been found to benefit sufferers of HIV, some cancers and leprosy. It's a matter of forcing aside the emotive to rescue the scientific.

The point of research is to eliminate or vastly reduce the gruesome stuff while extrapolating the good stuff. But researching illicit substances is so intensely problematic that the issue can hardly go anywhere but back into stasis, fumbling indecision and fear without some serious positive pressure. Perhaps part of the problem is that psychiatric illness or disturbance is still not taken half as seriously as it should be. Like 'drugs' itself, it's mostly something to be feared. The magnificently-muscled irony is that depression, schizophrenia and the other multifarious horsemen of the mental apocalypse are taken immensely seriously when research suggests that illegal drugs have a hand in *causing* them. It is the gallopy noises of these that is propelling Charles Clarke in his mission to further confuse and infuriate and bamboozle, by re-re-reclassifying cannabis back to what it was when it wasn't what it is. As if an inch's reclaimed difference in sentencing guidelines will help people who are suffering. This itself makes no direct impact upon the fragile possibility of more and better research into illicit drugs, but it is intended to 'send a message': the same old 'drugs are bad, QED' one that can only continue to hinder progress of any kind.

Any theoretical reversal of this accepted state of affairs - suggesting that drugs might sometimes belong at the other end of the mental illness spiral, drastically upgrading them from kill to cure - is too much for most to get their heads around after all this time. No government is going to want to risk looking soft on drugs by announcing emphatically that they might have more useful uses (the drugs, not the government), and certainly not this one. Societal antipathy, fermenting nicely as it has done for nearly half a century, is just too strong and deep. Even though these now vilified things actually started out as accepted little forces for good. Man, if you could synthesise all this irony, cut it with baking powder and snort it, we'd be giggling for twelve hours.

If nothing else Sessa's noble mission should give feckless dabblers, who gamble their health on a cacophony of official and unofficial advice, some pause. We might gripe eruditely about the absurdity of not being allowed to get fucked up as we please, and we might be right to. But at least we don't have to find words to express how awful it is that what could be a cure for, or at least an alleviation of, our life-wrecking illness is still being squashed out of existence for no good reason. Like a kitten under Charles Clarke's arse.

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