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two round white pills in a clear plastic bag against a bright blue background

Image: Tetyana Kulchytska, © Canva (One-design use licence)

This year marks half a century since President Nixon declared drug abuse ‘America’s public enemy number one’. It was far from the beginning of the country’s attempts to criminalise certain drugs—municipal antiopium laws had been around since 1875—but it was the first time a politician had framed prohibition as a ‘war’. Despite fifty years of evidence that the global ban on drugs has been a catastrophic moral and policy failure, the rhetoric of war, and many of the brutal and brutalising practices that it has become shorthand for, are still with us. In Australia we spend $1.7 billion per year fighting illicit drugs, the bulk of which funds law enforcement rather than harm reduction, treatment, and prevention. It’s a strategy that few people in good faith maintain is working, wherever they sit on the political spectrum—in 2014, then prime minister Tony Abbott told 3AW radio that the war on drugs is ‘not a war we will ever finally win’.

In 1994, former Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman revealed to journalist Dan Baum the extent to which the drug war had never really been about drugs at all—the real targets, he said, had been Black people and the antiwar left. Outlawing pacifism or Blackness wasn’t an option, so to get at them, according to Ehrlichman, it was necessary to associate specific drugs with undesirable groups—namely, marijuana with hippies, and heroin with people of colour—and then strongly criminalise them. That way, Ehrlichman told Baum, ‘we could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.’

While Ehrlichman’s confession was remarkable for its frankness, the phenomenon he described—the use of drug laws as a cover to oppress racial minorities and other out-groups—was neither new nor confined to the United States. In Australia the first drug laws, introduced in the mid-19th century, targeted opium with increasingly prohibitive tariffs designed, as the lawyer and writer Steve Bolt has argued, less to control the drug’s importation than to discourage Chinese people from migrating to the country. Professor Desmond Manderson, author of From Mr Sin to Mr Big: A history of Australian drug laws, put it well when he wrote:

…no matter what we are told, ‘drug laws’ have not been about health or addiction at all. They have been an expression of bigotry, class, and deep-rooted social fears, a function of Australia’s international subservience to other powers, and a field in which politicians, and bureaucrats have sought power. Drugs have been the subject of our laws but not their object.


For a long time my preferred drug was one that, though it causes the most harm by far to individuals and society, is entirely legal: alcohol. For 20 years or so, it had been a drug I’d used habitually to tamp down social anxiety and self-loathing, and delude myself into thinking I was more interesting (the world was almost certainly more compelling to me when viewed through alcohol’s warm, softening veil). There’s no small amount of cognitive dissonance in the fact that if you want to consume a mind-altering drug made from fermented grain or fruit you can do so in public, in full view of hundreds of people (and indeed for free if you happen to be asked to the right kinds of parties), yet if you want to take any number of other substances that change your perception of the world you have to slip away to a bathroom cubicle or dark alleyway and hope nobody notices.

Like many others, I’ve been watching with interest the so-called ‘psychedelic renaissance’, the recent revival of interest in drugs like LSD, psilocybin, and ayahuasca as potential modalities for treating a variety of mental health disorders from depression and anxiety to PTSD, addiction, and end-of-life terror. The medicinal and recreational use of marijuana, technically a psychedelic, is not only gaining traction around the world but becoming big business. Within a few years, the global legal market may be worth close to one hundred billion dollars. In large parts of the US, where around one third of the population already lives in places with some degree of legalisation, marijuana use is no longer controversial, with 70 per cent of Americans viewing it as a morally acceptable activity. As of 2019, for the first time in the history of the National Drug Strategy Household Survey, more Australians support the legalisation of cannabis (41 per cent) than oppose it (37 per cent).

In large parts of the US, marijuana use is no longer controversial, with 70 per cent of Americans viewing it as a morally acceptable activity.

Psilocybin, the main psychoactive alkaloid in magic mushrooms, is next. Following in the footsteps of legal cannabis, the total market is expected to be worth $US34 billion by 2024. Alongside this corporatisation has come increased interest in psychedelics as facilitative agents of personal insight, spiritual growth, and self-improvement—old understandings given new weight by an ever-proliferating number of clinical trials. While psilocybin remains, for now, a Schedule 9 prohibited substance in Australia, an increasing number of us, perhaps motivated by recent studies pointing to the safety and efficacy of psychedelics as mental health treatments, are seeking out underground psychedelic therapy anyway.

At the same time, we are consuming notably less alcohol than previous generations. Sales of non-alcoholic beverages in Australia have almost doubled in the past year, and trends like microdosing—taking sub-perceptual amounts of psychedelic drugs, around one tenth of a ‘standard’ dose, to treat illness, and improve mood, creativity, and productivity—are on the rise. At the beginning of this year I stopped drinking, riding a wave of self-experimentation with other mind-altering compounds including MDMA and psilocybin into a new relationship with drugs. I can’t say for certain that my first experience of taking a high dose of a ‘classic’ psychedelic—in this case, the potent psychoactive mushroom Psilocybe subaeruginosa—led directly to my quitting alcohol, but only a few weeks separated these two epochal events, and the ability of psychedelics to disrupt routinised thoughts and behaviour is well known.

Not so long ago I would have been sceptical, in the tedious tradition of Australian anti-wowserism, of anyone trumpeting the benefits of sobriety. As obvious as they seem in hindsight, though, I truly didn’t expect the rewards of not drinking to be so rich. Suddenly I was sleeping better, losing weight, and saving a considerable amount of money. On Sunday mornings, clearheaded and able-bodied, I could go for a walk or to the market without feeling like Gregor Samsa. Even the social anxiety I had been drinking to ease no longer seemed insurmountable, and there was something oddly satisfying in being able to feel the sharp reality of my discomfort without alcohol’s distorting lens.

The effects of microdosing are, on the other hand, less than clear cut. Recent studies have tended to reach an open verdict on whether its purported benefits can be accounted for by the drug itself or the placebo effect. Certainly, when I microdosed with LSD for a month earlier this year, the only observable change was to my dreams, which took on an unusually vivid and often lucid quality. Then again, my dubiousness about the whole enterprise of microdosing—a ‘productivity hack’ long associated with Silicon Valley’s legion of white, Ayn Rand-adoring tech bros—may well have played its part. It might be true, as one prominent researcher in the field in Australia once put it to me, that in reality the practice is no more widespread in the tech industry than anywhere else, but its resemblance to Aldous Huxley’s vision of a Fordist dystopia in which unhappiness and dissent are medicated away with small, regular doses of a drug with antidepressant and hallucinogenic effects has always troubled me.

If my encounters with psychedelic drugs have taught me anything, it’s that their instrumentalisation flies in the face of substances that are not merely tools, but mysterious, irreducible entry points to other modes of perception that can seem more real than ordinary waking consciousness. Attempts are already being made to strip psychedelics of their ‘trippy’ effects, which, while perhaps providing some interesting insights into their neural mechanisms, speaks to the emerging divide between corporate psychedelia (#Corporadelic) and the countercultures that have long championed chemically-induced altered states of consciousness.

The socio-cultural context in which drugs are taken is equally, if not more, determinative of the drug experience than the biochemical and physiological effects themselves.

I don’t take drugs regularly. Nor have I experienced problems such as addiction or dysfunction as a result of my occasional use, which puts me in the 70 per cent or more of drug users who, according to neuroscientist Dr Carl L. Hart, don’t meet the standard criteria for addiction. ‘Indeed,’ Hart writes in Drug Use for Grown-Ups, ‘research shows repeatedly that such issues affect only 10 to 30 per cent of those who use even the most stigmatised drugs, such as heroin and methamphetamine’ (Hart himself uses a range of drugs recreationally, including heroin).

If this surprises you, as it once surprised me, I suspect it’s because the media’s relentless yoking together of drugs and addiction, as well as drug literature’s domination by addiction and recovery memoirs, give a distorted, one-eyed view of how illicit substances are actually used by the majority of people. This is not to minimise the ruinous effects of addiction, about which many powerful accounts have been written since the genre first bloomed in the mid-20th century. Nor is it to suggest that the pharmacological profiles of drugs are insignificant. Rather, it is simply to draw an underexposed fact into the light: that, as Antony Loewenstein notes in Pills, Powder, and Smoke, for many Australians ’drug taking is a normal part of life with no negative consequences… Drugs are no longer the bogeyman that threatens lives; they’re taken for fun on weekends, with friends, and in homes, clubs, and bars.’

A few years ago, the American journalist Michelle Lhooq—a sort of Hedda Hopper for the rave scene, only with much better politics—coined the term ‘Cali sober’ (short for ‘California sober’) to refer to people who don’t drink, but do use other psychotropic substances. Lhooq is quick to point out that, while personally preferring psychedelics like LSD and mushrooms, she doesn’t approve of ‘drug exceptionalism’, which holds that some substances are inherently better or worse than others. For years opioids were a ‘good’ drug, yet we now know that, at the same time as the war on drugs was arguably peaking in the 1990s, tens of thousands of people were becoming hooked on, and ultimately dying from, aggressively marketed prescription pain relievers like OxyContin and the synthetic opioid fentanyl. This is not to argue that opioids are therefore ‘bad’—as with every other drug, the majority of people who use them don’t become addicted or suffer other harms. Instead, we would do well to bear in mind legendary pharmacologist Alexander Shulgin’s observation that, while all drugs are abusable, toxic, and dangerous, ‘all can be used sensibly and safely, without toxic effects, and in a way that is free from danger’.

The recent decriminalisation of ‘hard’ drugs is not the grand experiment claimed by critics—rather, drug prohibition is.

This isn’t an understanding unique to us moderns: the ancient Greek word for drug, pharmakon, meant both medicine and poison. What the ancient Greeks understood, and what we will have to grapple with if we are to finally end prohibition, is that the socio-cultural context in which drugs are taken is equally, if not more, determinative of the drug experience than the biochemical and physiological effects themselves. The geography of the so-called ‘opioid crisis’—confined largely to areas of the US experiencing profound post-industrial depression and disenfranchisement—tells us more about the nature of addiction than the pharmacology of certain drugs. The same is true of Australia where the harms of crystal methamphetamine (ice) are highest in remote and regional areas, and among groups facing increased hardship and sociopolitical disadvantage. By demonising substances like ice we’re able to take the focus off the social determinants of drug abuse—trauma, alienation, economic adversity, and so on—which require not only individualised solutions like improved education and treatment services (though these are, of course, indispensable) but also much more complex structural interventions.


In writing this, I realise that my ability to be open about my own drug use is a function of my relative privilege as a white, cisgender, middle-class man. What can be hard to remember, especially for those like me, born in the wake of the Baby Boomer Generation, is that the recent decriminalisation of ‘hard’ drugs in countries like Portugal, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, and smaller jurisdictions like Oregon in the US, is not the grand experiment claimed by critics—rather, drug prohibition is. For the vast majority of human history, and in virtually every culture, mind-altering substances have been used for a variety of reasons, not indiscriminately but in carefully regulated ways that have tended to bind societies together rather than promote antisocial behaviour. In a recent New York Times essay, Michael Pollan argued that it is to these cultures, and traditions like the use of peyote (a cactus containing the psychoactive alkaloid mescaline) in the Native American Church, that we ought to now turn as we begin to imagine what a postwar on drugs future might look like.

To seek a way forward from the very people to whom the war on drugs has done the most violence seems, in a way, like a fitting end to prohibition. But it also comes with a risk of cultural appropriation, compounding the racism and colonialism that have undergirded the war from the beginning, and continue to drive the unequal enforcement of the law despite similar levels of drug use in Black and white communities. (Pollan, to his credit, has acknowledged the need to decolonise our relationship with drugs, writing in his new book This is Your Mind on Plants of opting to take a synthetic version of mescaline rather than pursuing participation in a traditional ceremony.) Lhooq, a queer woman of colour, has herself complained of journalists using the term ‘Cali sober’ without crediting her as its originator. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

I admire Pollan’s optimism, but it’s premature to declare the war on drugs over. Like every long, dark multilateral policy failure it will die hard, its architects reluctant to join the legion of defeat’s orphans. As I was finishing this essay, my wife emailed me an article on how forensic scientists from the university she works at have figured out a way for police to recover human DNA from MDMA caps. It’s hard to think of a bigger waste of a university’s time or (increasingly precious) money. More fundamentally, while a raft of drug reforms are sweeping across multiple US states, it’s plain to see in the antipathy of Australian governments and media organisations towards harm-reducing pill-testing and injection rooms (more Australians now support both measures than oppose them) a distinct lack of political appetite for change.

The increasing legitimisation of psychedelics both here and abroad may prove a harbinger of the wider decriminalisation of drugs, just as medicinal cannabis seems to have paved the way for less punitive laws around the recreational use of marijuana and other psychoactive plants in the US and elsewhere. In Australia, we can reasonably expect drugs like psilocybin and MDMA to be legalised in the treatment of mental health disorders within the next five to ten years (ketamine, in the form of the nasal spray Spravato, has already been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration for use in cases of treatment-resistant depression).

Decriminalisation will not be perfect…But it is a necessary first step in reducing the harms caused by drugs.

But none of this comes with the assurance that Australia is ready to embrace a new approach to drugs that puts public health and—heaven forfend!—pleasure ahead of moralism and punishment, or that even just one major adverse event in a clinical trial won’t set progress back decades. Decriminalisation will not be perfect, and it need not be (would anyone suggest the legalisation and regulation of alcohol is without problems?). But it is a necessary first step in reducing the harms caused by drugs, and returning to us the freedom to safely use various compounds, most of them plant-derived, to alter consciousness.

Writing about Measure 109, the act governing psilocybin use in Oregon and approved in November last year as a ballot measure, Ezra Klein argued in the New York Times that:

…it breaks away from the medicalisation-legalisation binary that has defined drug reform for the past few decades. It does not allow anyone to sell psilocybin pills in stores. Nor does it restrict treatment to those with a diagnosis of mental illness. The measure does not grudgingly accept psilocybin as the lesser evil compared with, say, the drug war or PTSD. Instead, it is based on the idea that psilocybin has the potential to change our lives for the good, whether we are sick or well, and so it is worth investing in the frameworks and safeguards so that it can be used safely and productively.

This, in the end, is the choice we face, and that the war on drugs has long elided: not between a society with drugs and one without—as Hart notes, there has never been such a society, and virtually nobody would want to live in such an uninteresting place anyway—but between one in which they are used as they are now, prohibited but unregulated and therefore less safe and beneficial, and one in which their use is free from shame, and scaffolded, where appropriate, with ritual and meaning. It’s often said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. By this definition, allowing the war on drugs to continue is madness of a rare kind.