Turn on, tune in, heal yourself

When I first tried psychedelics in the 1970s, I wasn’t trying to heal myself. I was curious to find out how psychedelics, including LSD and “magic” mushrooms, could alter my consciousness.

image: New Scientist

My trip into hallucinogenic world of psychedelics wasn’t as studious as Aldous Huxley’s. He took notes as he journeyed into a state of altered perception. In his book, The Doors of Perception, he says:

“Half an hour after swallowing the drug I became aware of a slow dance of golden lights . . .”

That’s pretty much the way my experience went. It wasn’t always a joy ride –not something you tried casually. It required commitment and was truly a “trip.” Once you stepped onto that path, more like a conveyor belt, there was no turning back at for many hours.

“Turn on, tune in, drop out” was a phrase first popularized by Timothy Leary in 1966. He was a promoter of psychedelics as part of the hippy counterculture. Leary borrowed the phrase from the Canadian media guru, Marshall McLuhan.

Regrettably, after psychedelics became “recreational drugs,” they were made illegal. That’s when serious investigation into the medicinal applications of that family of drugs stopped.

One of those early studies in the 1950s was at the Saskatchewan Mental Hospital in Weyburn. That’s when the term “psychedelic” was first coined.   Saskatchewan was home to some of the most important psychedelic research in the world at the time. Treating patients with a single dose of psychedelic was seen as an attractive, cost-effective approach. It fit with the goals of a new, publicly funded health-care system started by Saskatchewan’s new premier, Tommy Douglas. The treatment was aimed at restoring health and autonomy to patients who had long been confined to asylums.

Since then, the prohibition of drugs has been a disaster. Instead of limiting drug use, making them illegal under the criminal code has increased the use of unregulated, contaminated and dangerous street drugs. This is especially true of synthetic opioids such as Fentanyl.

The trouble with opioids is that they are addictive with ever-increasing doses.

Now that the hippy era just a nostalgic memory and acid trips are no longer in vogue, the medical uses of psychedelics are being investigated again.

Health Canada has only approved psilocybin treatment for people in palliative care. The Vancouver Island based company, Numinus Wellness, is one of many who are looking go beyond that to the treatment of mental illness, addiction and trauma. Dr. Evan Wood, chief medical officer at Numinus says:

“With one in five Canadians currently grappling with debilitating mental-health conditions, we can’t afford not to look at psilocybin seriously (Globe and Mail, Sept. 4, 2021).”

The pandemic has further increased the incidence of mental illness.

The difference between using opioids versus psychedelics is that one or two treatments of psychedelics can completely change your view of reality.

“A session with psilocybin seems to disrupt this network,” adds Wood, “reset it and decrease its activity, thus alleviating the symptoms. The changes it appears to be bringing about with people are really profound. It gets at the root of what’s driving people to these mental disorders. Instead of giving them chemicals that numb those feelings, these treatments help you put that trauma behind you.”

Help fentanyl labs make a safer drug

Illegal fentanyl lab operators don’t intend to kill users. They would prefer to have return customers. The problem, I suspect, is that the fentanyl used is so concentrated that it’s hard to dissolve to a uniform consistency. The resulting doses are uneven –from low to deadly. It’s a good idea to provide testing facilities for fentanyl cooks to let them know the potency of their product. Dr. Tyndall of the BC Centre for Disease Control says:

  fentanyl lab. image: Global news

“I’m still firmly of the belief that nobody’s actually trying to kill people. These manufacturers don’t know what they’re doing and they’re putting out ridiculous concentrations of these drugs.”

The BCCDC recommends an expansion of drug-checking services where anyone, including producers of illegal fentanyl, can have their drugs tested for toxicity. B.C.’s Minister of Health, Judy Darcy, endorses the expansion.

As it stands, drug policy is perverse because we tell users not to use street drugs but provide no other option when legal supplies fail.

“We strongly advise people to stop using street drugs,” says Dr. Tyndall, “and if they can’t do that, then we offer them … Suboxone or methadone, and if that doesn’t work, we basically tell them to go and find their own drugs even though there is a very real possibility of dying.”

The BCCDC suggests ten “areas of action.” If they were adopted, opioids would be essentially legalized much in the way that marijuana will be next year. Grower’s clubs and individuals would be allowed to make medical grade opiates. To clarify, opiates are derived from poppies whereas opioids include all synthetic and natural products.

Legal opioids are not likely to happen any time soon. I started lobbying for legalization of cannabis 40 years ago and look how long that took. Optimistically, with the model of legalized marijuana to be established soon, it won’t take another 40 years for the legalization of opioids.

Even without legalization, off-label uses of opioids are allowed. The BCCDC suggest dispensing take-home opioids such as oral hydromorphone which users could take home, grind up, and inject without supervision.

If the above recommendations only seem radical, it’s only because of a false sense of what criminalization can achieve. Criminal law can’t accomplish societal goals. If we want to stop people from using harmful drugs, criminalization has been a dismal failure. Instead, make drugs legal and educate people of the unhealthy consequences of use. It works with tobacco. If the goal is harm reduction, the recommendations don’t seem so radical.

Imagine that we are talking about baby strollers instead of drugs, and that some early models collapsed resulting in injury or death. An irrational solution would be to make strollers illegal. The sensible solution would be to regulate manufacture of the strollers to make them safe.

Prohibition of opioids isn’t working. It didn’t work for coffee, cigarettes or alcohol.

If the current trend continues, the death rate will continue to climb. More than 1,500 will die in British Columbia this year -ordinary people like friends, family and neighbours. Forget the stereotype of street people overdosing in alleys: 90 per cent of deaths are indoors. Isn’t it time to abandon prohibition and give harm-reduction a chance?