Challenging media narratives in discussions of psychedelics

Medium is the Message

Marshall McLuhan, media and cultural theorist, who coined the term “The Medium is the Message”

One of the difficulties in writing about Breaking Convention, the biennial gathering of scientists, academics, shamans and psychedelic explorers researching the use of many psychoactive substances, is that of correctly placing it in the context of the present legal condition of drug prohibition, the moral climate of suspicion and my own experiences with various psychoactive substances over many years. What I have witnessed in the past 11 years, since attending my first psychedelic conference in the UK, the groundbreaking Exploring Consciousness held in Bath in 2004, is the growth of scientific study and historical and anthropological research on a wide variety of psychoactive substances that have been made illegal to use, and remain so despite growing evidence of their medical, psychological and social value. This work has often been initiated and continues in the US, but the UK has also nurtured and maintained a psychedelic culture, and has been blessed with talented and courageous scientists who have been able to translate that quest into solid scientific evidence that is of great value in opening official doors.

In the intervening years, I have seen organisations such as MAPS and Oxford’s Beckley Foundation amass a wealth of evidence for a scientific and legal case for ending prohibition, helped by campaigning groups such as Transform. But despite some media attention and a few positive articles, the overarching media narrative and political rhetoric remains resolutely prohibitionist. So we have this curious situation of scientists presenting research on the margins of legality, often with grudging government approval and often secretively it would seem, outside the legal framework. Along with those who take psychedelics for cognitive exploration, for recreation or as part of a religious ritual, many citizens are flouting the law, forming part of a growing and identifiable counterculture that has its roots in 1960s counterculture and presently existing with some rebelliousness outside the mainstream spotlight and in a sort of psychedelic netherworld, avoiding the intense public attention that might also attract visits from hysterical journalists and overzealous police officers, but which might also result in a fruitful dialogue were it ever allowed to take its place in mainstream media discussion.

It is this tacit acceptance of drug use that the much-derided Peter Hitchens is perhaps referring to when he says we already live in a decriminalised state. It is just that personal economic wealth more often than not protects one from the possibility of legal censure, while violence from the state is most likely to be specific to areas of poverty, with ethnic origin also being a determining factor in who is subject to that violence, which is also directed at political activists, who often forcefully challenge legality and legitimacy. Morally, the use of drugs deemed illegal or decriminalised, is seen de facto as causing harm, and perhaps those who feel this way also feel the same way about alcohol, as having the potential for deep destructiveness (which is scientifically one of the most destructive psychoactives), but which gets a pass simply because of its legal status, as the rights of an individual within the legal framework are protected to a certain extent.

The organisers of Breaking Convention, academics and scientists from respected universities, have done a marvellous and courageous job in bringing three conferences over six years to the UK, inviting speakers from around the world to discuss their latest research, whether it be the neurochemical pathways activated by DMT use, the indigenous methods and rituals in the use of ayahuasca or iboga, or the psychological benefits of counselling in the treatment of post-traumatic stress using MDMA. All have been and continue to be of great use in presenting an evidence-based case for an end to the war on drugs and halting the destructive effect of prohibition, which engenders in any person interested in these substances a sense of excitement both that this research exists and also that there exists a possibility of becoming personally involved in further research.

Of course there is also a growing sense of anticipation of the possibility that these substances may soon be treated as any pharmaceutical drug would, as legitimate pathways to health and wellbeing, in a world that has overcome its irrational fear of the harms that these substances can do if abused, and that a change in the law is imminent, or at least not too far in the distance. I have often thought the same myself, and the scientific evidence would seem to be definitive to me of their relative benefits and harms. The case for legalisation, or at the very least decriminalisation and medical licensing, may be strong from a scientific point of view, but the moral and ethical case is struggling to challenge prevailing assumptions of how a proper society should function.

I am not as hopeful as I’d like to be that these assumptions can be challenged without an overarching political narrative that highlights and critiques existing norms of behaviour and moral assumptions about cognitive liberty and mystical experience. The challenges must come in all fields, but in law, science, media and government (an extension of law) false moral assumptions are at their most acute, since this is where rules of behaviour are established and preserved. An analysis of systemic power and intransigent worldviews is necessary to explain the difficulties in these most human of motives to wish to explore altered states being prohibited within law and dismissed in mainstream media. A more radical political narrative in the general narrative of psychedelic discussions is needed to challenge assumptions and create better undertanding.

In 2015, at Breaking Convention, I presented a talk that attempted to explain the resistance in political life and mainstream media, to the use of these substances in public life. It was the first talk I have delivered to the public on this matter in this form. I felt privileged to be part of the set-up, among so many distinguished scientific and academic voices, and perhaps this led to me being overawed by the occasion, so my presentation did not go as smoothly as I had hoped. I was speaking at the same time Professor David Nutt delivered a talk in the main auditorium, along with novelist Anna Hope’s equally popular talk on Radical Uncertainty in the other main hall, so I spoke to barely 20 people.

My general premise is that there are forces and trends at work which it is important for us to identify and challenge, that make the possibility of prohibition ending a more difficult prospect than simply making the science case for health and wellbeing. There are powerful self-interested parties at work, lobbyists in the House of Commons, House of Lords and other religious institutions that find the idea of drug liberalisation problematic at the very least, outright scandalous at worst. The issue has never solely been about science or rational argument, it has also been about the maintaining of a power structure that serves a narrow strata of society, and the irrational fears that those in positions of power instill in those who they have co-opted, wittingly or unwittingly, into maintaining the structure of “how things should be”. Psychedelics open us up to the myriad possibilities of interpreting the world in ways that exist outside the framework of the materialist corporate mindset, and since mainstream media is driven by the concerns and assumptions of corporate materialism, anything that challenges that does not rest easy on the page or in discussions.

But in order to successfully challenge these assumptions on evidence, perhaps a meticulous study of mainstream media stories on psychedelics is needed and a deeper psychological and sociological dissection of the language used and the type of media presented, as well as identifying the common concerns, fears and prejudices around the effects, both individual and communal, of the use of certain psychedelics. At present this cannot happen, or is not happening, in mainstream media and while such experiences are openly discussed at festivals and in general within music and art culture, there is perhaps need of an academic structure that can present these discussions on a more solid foundation, so that in any mainstream discussion of psychedelics, the cultural as well as scientific case can be made. The narrative cannot be determined solely by the corporate materialist mindset. It is this ideology more than anything, that needs to be challenged.

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One Response to Challenging media narratives in discussions of psychedelics

  1. Robert Forte says:

    really a great beginning of an important discussion…

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