High Times

The countercultural drug revival


| March-April 1996



Kids wear hemp baseball caps with cannabis-leaf emblems. Virtual reality emulates the effects of LSD. Rock and hip-hop artists extoll the virtues of marijuana. Dance club environments are tailor-made for trippers. After a decade of “Just Say No” rhetoric, we’re in the midst of a countercultural revival that’s not just saying yes to certain mind-expanding substances, but saying it loudly and proudly.

“Humans have an innate need to experience altered states of consciousness,” writes Oxford anthropologist Richard Rudgley in Essential Substances: A Cultural History of Intoxicants in Society (Kodansha, 1993), and “to ignore or repress our own nature in this way is to neglect our own capacities.” Rudgley examines the ways various cultures have used psychoactive substances throughout history—most often in strictly determined secular and religious contexts—and suggests that Western culture might benefit from a study of how these substances have been integrated positively into the fabric of other societies.

Rudgley’s book is one of several recent critical writings that have rushed into the vacuum of drug war silence—what author David Lenson refers to as the time of “Just Say Nothing.” Lenson, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, analyzes our culture’s love-hate relationship with mood-altering substances from the user’s point of view in On Drugs (University of Minnesota Press, 1995). He writes about the differences between “drugs of desire” (mainly cocaine, crack, and speed) and “drugs of pleasure” (mainly marijuana and hallucinogens). The former he sees as reflecting the main ideology of Western culture—consumerism—in that frequent users tend to fixate on acquiring more to the exclusion of everything else, while the latter tend to interdict the consumerist mind-set by letting users savor everyday activities and objects already at hand.

Stoners who prefer getting high on their own neurochemistry are also sharing thoughts and strategies. In Stoned Free (Loompanics Unlimited, 1995), Patrick Wells and Douglas Rushkoff run down a laundry list of familiar and offbeat techniques for altering consciousness legally. They include phosphene stimulation (i.e., rubbing your eyes), holotropic breathing, tantric sex, kundalini yoga, reading (Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and the psychedelic studies of Terence and Dennis McKenna rate high), making noise or music, and various forms of sensory deprivation. Belinda Gore’s Ecstatic Body Postures: An Alternate Reality Workbook (Bear, 1995) offers a variety of shamanic posturing techniques that facilitate trance states.

Many writers, such as Jack Herer (author of the now-classic procannabis text The Emperor Wears No Clothes) and Steve Kubby (author of The Politics of Consciousness and a cancer survivor who attributes his remission to self-therapy with vitamin C, downhill skiing, and LSD), see the issue of getting high as a matter of personal freedom. Others, like Lenson, make the same argument along the lines of identity politics. “Progressive forces in America have been fighting since the 1960s to broaden the platform of democracy to include all races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, religions, and physical and mental challenges,” he writes. “It is now time to add another diversity to that list: diversity of consciousness.”

From a sociocultural standpoint, perhaps the greatest casualty of the war on drugs has been honesty. Whether or not Bill Clinton told the truth about not inhaling is beside the point. After Ronald Reagan bounced Douglas Ginsberg from the Supreme Court short list because of his one-time marijuana use, it became impossible for people in the public eye to admit to, let alone discuss, their experiences with illicit substances without risking their jobs, social standing, and more. The result is that young people encountering drugs for the first time once again have no elders to turn to for honest, informed guidance, leaving them to experiment in fear and perhaps repeat the mistakes of the previous generation.