Video: John Oliver on Psychedelics

Boy, that headline sounds a lot more entertaining than what this actually is. I do love the ambiguity of the English language sometimes.

When we talk about systems of power and domination like white supremacy or patriarchy, some people object by pointing to the ways in which those systems often hurt the people they supposedly privilege. This isn’t a bug, but rather a feature. White supremacy was developed not as a way to elevate the newly-invented “white race”, but as a way to control the majority of that race, to get their help in atrocious colonial projects, and to get them to defend a hierarchy that often hurts them more than it helps. To quote Lyndon Johnson:

If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.

This approach had many benefits for the white aristocracy – it got the consent of white people to murder and enslave countless Indigenous people in Africa and the Americas, and it often got those same white people to fight hard to defend the hierarchy because while they weren’t at the top, they could see every day that they weren’t at the bottom either. It created a pretty one-sided, cross-class solidarity based on sadism and bigotry, that continues to be central to maintaining capitalism to this day. While open hatred has gained popularity with the recent fascist backlash, there was a brief period in which the power of liberatory social movements made bigoted people look for ways to hide their bigotry, while still upholding systemic white supremacy. A good quote on this comes from Lee Atwater, another miserable bigot:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*****, n*****, n*****.” By 1968 you can’t say “n*****”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N*****, n*****.”

Again, we have the same theme – from people in or close to the ruling class who support white supremacy – that while black people are hurt more by systemic racism, a lot of white people get hurt by it as well. There are pretty easy examples – police violence, while mainly aimed at black and brown people, it also hurts white people all the time. That fits pretty well, since both white supremacy and police are all about keeping normal folks in line, but the pattern echoes throughout society. When the law no longer allowed black people to be explicitly excluded from government assistance and other public services, white society decided that if it couldn’t be for whites alone, it couldn’t exist at all. They were so obsessed with keeping black people down that they were willing to hurt poor white folks along with them.

And a similar thing happened with the drug war. To quote another horrible person who worked to uphold capitalism and white supremacy:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. 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.

Once again, I think it’s important to note that while these people were absolutely vicious bigots, they also used and perpetuated bigotry as a tool to attain, hold, or increase their power. And the harm? Well, the so-called War on Drugs has been almost universally regarded as a total failure, except with regard to its utility in justifying a massive expansion in the government’s power to destroy lives.

It goes beyond that, though. Most of the attention is quite rightly focused on the abuse, exploitation, and enslavement of black people in the U.S., but one of the ways in which it hurts everyone has been through a lack of access to, and understanding of a variety of drugs. It’s not just about fun, though I think we should have a right to that. Many of these are drugs that can measurably improve people’s wellbeing, and help us work through things ranging from trauma to the inevitable approach of death. I think I’ve mentioned in the past that during my last couple years in the U.S., I had a license to use medical cannabis to help manage stress and anxiety. I never touched the stuff until I was in my 30s, but for the couple years in which I had legal access, it made a huge difference in my life. I haven’t tried anything “stronger” though, partly because I haven’t felt a need, and partly because of criminalization.

I’d prefer not to get on the wrong side of the law, and when it comes to things that come in pill form, there seems to be an increasing problem with contamination (consider getting fentanyl test strips and narcan – they save lives). There may be inherent risks in the use of any given drug – just as there are with things like caffeine or alcohol – but the real danger comes from criminalization. The danger of violence comes from the police, and from the danger presented by the police. The danger of contamination comes, in most part, from the necessity of “underground” production. The danger of the drugs themselves comes from ignorance of the effects, and the danger (also from cops) inherent in seeking treatment or advice.

Decriminalizing makes it easier for researchers to study drugs and their effects, makes the trade safer, since there would be no need to hide from or defend against law enforcement, makes it easier to know what’s in a given drug, and makes it easier to get help if something goes wrong. In general, the standard should be informed consent – make sure people know the facts, and respect their right to make their own decisions.

Still, while we seem to be a ways off from me getting my way, there has been research into things like psychedelics over the years, and slow progress is being made on legalization for medicinal purposes, which is great. The more I hear, the more I want to have some of these things as an option when I reach my final days. Cannabis wasn’t a “gateway” that made me start using other drugs, but it did give me a little perspective on the lies told about them.

You know what does make me interested in other drugs? Videos like this, which break down the lies, and lay out what we know about how certain drugs have helped people:

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