Christmas decorations around Liberty Plaza. I assume unintentional
California recently voted down a move to legalize marijuana. Which is a shame. As I heard in this linked biography, all cultures adopt some psychoactive plant and reject others. In Sri Lanka the ruling political party runs under the symbol of the narcotic betel leaf. We, however, seize and arrest people for possessing marijuana. Drug policy is obviously not designed rationally. A recent Lancet study reported that alcohol is by far the most harmful drug (socially and personally), but it is also the most widely used and accepted. As the study’s co-author said, “What governments decide is illegal is not always based on science.” Indeed drug policy is often cultural. In the right social context, a dangerous drug like alcohol can be managed. What many people don’t like to think is that this type of managed intoxication may be possible with other substances as well.
Above is a fascinating documentary (part 1) called the Botany Of Desire. In it, a range of scientists concur that people are ‘born with an innate drive to experience other states of consciousness’ (Dr. Andrew Weil). As kids we are generally mad in the first place, but as adults we have to take steps to achieve these states. Yet, for some reason or another, these states are important. Personally, I think it’s adaptive to stretch your mind because you never know when a hostile environment will require you to think differently to survive. But it is a somewhat innate human trait.
The trouble is, children will kill themselves trying new things, as will adults. Parents, school and society eventually hammer that craziness out of kids and it’s allowed expression in a few culturally accepted ways. You can, for example, drink at most western(ized) weddings. At traditional Sinhala weddings you’ll give betel leaves. You can experience a few prescribed altered states depending on the culture you’re in. Just as we take children to the park to run wild, adults can go to bars. Similarly, just as we tell kids not to run with scissors, we tell adults not to drink and drive. Our cultures have evolved ways to compartmentalize this human desire in certain ways. But this particular set of highs and hows is not necessarily the best.
Marijuana is one glaring example. It’s really not that bad for you. It can actually be good. Local ayurvedic doctors have been using it in medical preparations for hundreds if not thousands of years. The Manna King of Rajagiriya has written as much to the President. Marijuana also has vague cultural acceptance with a popular and funny presence in both western and eastern film. As two examples, consider Half-Baked with a cameo by Jon Stewart and the Hindi Don remake wherein Shah Rukh Khan goes on an extended bhang binge. Marijuana is one plant which is struggling to find its place in the broader cultural consciousness, such that it becomes a state approved playground for the mind. Though the California measure has failed, I hope that other measures to bring this plant within the fold succeed.
I don’t think the desire to experience altered states can be denied. That just creates its expression in other, often more dangerous, ways. For example, in response to government bans, some people are actually manufacturing new drugs. Cultures can, however, control and regulate this desire, as they long have unconsciously. The rub is how to consciously make a drug policy that makes sense.