The Half Baked Narratives Around Narcotics

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The use (and abuse) of drugs is backed by many narratives. Not all are rooted in fact.

A 2008 study in the United States revealed a long-known fact about anti-drug campaigns – that they don’t work. 94 percent of the youths surveyed were aware of the anti-drug campaigns, but statistics showed no decrease in marijuana use for those aged 12 to 18.

Revisiting the debate on drugs among youth has a new urgency in India. Over 200 schoolchildren in Hyderabad were found to be customers of drug peddlers selling ganja, Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) and Ecstasy.

What was surprising was that acid (the common name for LSD), as well as ecstasy, had made their way into India’s schools. This mainstream use of chemically-synthesized drugs is relatively new in India, especially among children. Yet, those in charge of drug control policies are hopelessly disconnected from the narratives that are fed to the young. And they don’t tackle the real narratives that teenagers, college-goers, and the new Indian youth are telling each other to promote drug use.

It starts with the word – drug. It comes with a connotation – bad – and it’s more common in the vocabulary of parents and law enforcement than in that of drug users. Nobody says “I’m going to take some drugs now.” Their language is different – ‘smoke up’, ‘toke up’, ‘take a hit’, ‘drop a blot’, ‘find Molly‘ and so on. If one was to try heroin, the word is ‘chase the dragon’.

Everyone knows that ‘drugs are bad‘. The trick to getting into its world is changing the line around what makes a drug. What effect does x have on you? Are there any medical side effects? How does one bypass addiction? And in whose interests is this ‘drug’ banned?

Answering those four questions on narcotics will usually lead you to believe that, No, drugs are not instant death/addiction machines. This ‘red-pilling’ (a cyber culture phrase used to mean waking up to oft-unspoken realities) usually starts with an Internet-driven study of marijuana, the ‘gateway drug‘.

No one has ever died from a marijuana overdose. Marijuana does not trigger addiction the way that alcohol, nicotine or caffeine does. There are also many benefits to smoking cannabis, such as relieving nausea in chemotherapy-struck patients, easing the pain of a migraine and other specific benefits. The worst to come out of a marijuana trip, as some would have you believe, is a mild headache and a craving for food.

In a more-elaborated form, the above paragraph is ‘the talk’ peddlers and drug users usually call the ‘truth’ about marijuana. What makes this talk effective is the fact that anti-drug campaigns seldom acknowledge these facts. But what makes it deceptive, is that it ignores that the effects of cannabis are still being studied. And when it comes to studying the impacts on mental health, it gets into a murkier world where outcomes are not easily measurable.

A recent study of 4,000 students in the Netherlands (where weed is legally available except for foreigners) was able to exploit a natural experiment – a situation where several users were no longer able to legally buy marijuana. The study found a clear link between poor grades and marijuana use; where students who stopped using saw their grades improve.

Another study has pointed to the effect marijuana has on anxiety. Smoking weed, commonly thought to help one relax, turned out to have had the opposite effect in a controlled experiment.

Thus, the pros and cons of marijuana are growing, debatable and ultimately, unyielding of a simple answer. But what happens when you start questioning whether things classified as drugs are really that bad for you?

LSD (also called acid) is a common next step after marijuana. Like ‘weed’, its effects are not immediately linked to death or addiction. It’s also portrayed as one of the least addictive drugs, by virtue of its intense effects. And those who have taken it include Richard Feynman (personally supervised by Timothy Leary), Steve Jobs and even Bill Gates.

But unlike weed, acid can make you do very strange things. It has a powerful effect on the mind; the ability to convince you of alternate realities to your own. The drug won’t kill you, but the trip just might. In 2015, a student of Manipal University died after consuming LSD and jumping off a four-story building. This year, a student at Cambridge suffered a similar fate, after he fell to his death while sliding down a banister.

Acid can change a person – for life. Its use is a serious affair, and certainly, one to concern the parents of the 200 children in 26 schools in Hyderabad – who must now worry if their kids are on it.

A quick internet search can yield enough juice about acid to make you want to try it. But are you really ready? Do you have psychological conditions, like depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, which may be amplified beyond belief by the effect of a trip you’ve never experienced?

The truth is that every drug has a narrative; even a backstory. With cannabis, it’s the narrative of an American-led ban on what was traditionally consumed in many global south countries. With acid, it’s the tale of Albert Hofmann and his bicycle ride on LSD – the first trip ever. Meth is the drug of the American working-class during the Recession – and the now-famous product of the fictional protagonist of Breaking Bad. Ecstasy is a party drug – one that Madonna thinks you should take. It’s a sex drug, supposed to make the experience that much more stimulating.

There is a lot to discover about these narcotics in the age of the internet, leading to the rise of ‘psychonauts’ – those who like to study the altered states of consciousness that can arise from narcotics (although the same study is possible through forms of meditation and lucid dreaming).

Journalists/presenters like Hamilton Morris are spectacles of the media age – trying out highly exotic and powerful drugs, only ostensibly so that you don’t have to. But the new explorers are young kids, with time, money and consciousness to spare.

It started with the hippie movement when people like Steve Jobs tried LSD and came to India – seeking a higher meaning to life, and walking away feeling like changed men and women. Bill Gates, speaking on his experience with LSD in his early-twenties, said he never missed a day of work because of it. That’s more than can be said of a lot for everyday psychonauts, looking for something they think they can’t find without a consciousness-expanding drug.

In many parts of India, the 1970s hippie trail never died. From Goa to Kasol to Hampi and Rishikesh, both Indian and foreign tourists seek beautiful backdrops to try out the drugs of their choice.

The elephant in the room is the illegality of it all. But in India, laws are loosely enforced or non-threatening if you’re a consumer. Unless you’re caught with enough narcotics to be considered a peddler, you usually get off with a fine. And in India’s hippie tourist destinations, the law enforcement agencies turn a convenient blind eye – when possible.

Some argue that cannabis or LSD should be legalized- perhaps even at the expense of banning alcohol and nicotine, drugs that kill more people than everything else combined. In fact, India’s minister of Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, made this very suggestion – to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, along the lines of what’s practised in the United States.

And this is what the modern youth expect to hear from their policymakers; a neutral evaluation of government-sanctified death-dealers. The State makes revenues from cigarettes and alcohol but not from the illegal sale of cannabis. There’s a perceived conflict of interest, and users don’t like being told what to do from institutions that are seen as benefiting from death.

But the everyday psychonaut could also hear out a faint and common voice of reason – anything in excess is harmful to you. If you find that; your grades are suffering, your relationship with your family grows distant, your ability to enjoy life sober is diminished and that somehow, through all of this, the possibility of quitting your choice narcotic is unthinkable – you might want to reconsider the pro-drug argument.

Try remembering that the rationales we give ourselves for our addictions can justify a lot more than just weed, LSD or alcohol.

At the far end of India’s addiction spectrum, is Punjab – where an entire village of widows exists, all people who lost their husbands or sons to heroin.

Heroin, a product of opium, is one drug most would agree not to try. But a similar brief internet search would tell you that in its unadulterated form, it’s not going to cause you any long-term complications. But before you rush to go and shoot crack, remember that in reality, no heroin is unadulterated. And it’s the purest forms that can kill you fastest through an overdose.

Every drug has two sides to it. And addiction; physical, mental or psychological – shows us that every human can have two sides as well. For ever drug-user who broke out, there’s another who didn’t. Narratives always come with strings (and perhaps needles) attached.

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