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Psychoactive identity politics: What drug activists could learn from identity activists

January 18, 2016
Women of the world unite. Women fight for equality in America. A New York March, 1970.

Women of the world unite. Women fight for equality in America. A New York March, 1970.

Recently I had the opportunity to talk on a popular Israeli TV show about the practice of micro-dosing on LSD. I was invited to the program as an expert on psychedelics, yet at a certain point in our conversation one of the hosts turned to me and asked. “Tell me Dr. do you yourself use LSD?” I was ready for this question, so I told him it would be better we’d discuss my practices after the show, however I wasn’t ready for his response. “Oh, is this because of the legal implications? Are you worried you’ll have cops waiting for you when you exit the studio?”

How do you answer a question like that? Certainly, part of the reason not to speak about psychedelic experiences on TV is because astonishingly they are still prohibited by law and publicly speaking about them might get one into trouble. Yet was the question even legit? Would the same TV presenter feel equally justified in asking a sexologist on the show, “So tell me Dr? Do you personally have lots of sex?” “Oh, would you rather not discuss this on TV because you are worried what our viewers might think?”

There wasn’t really anything unusual about this TV presenter’s questions. Actually, I had come to expect this kind of approach when I am interviewed about psychedelics. Yet the experience did lead me to think about the unique situation in which the discourse about psychedelics currently finds itself. While other political minorities such as the feminist, LGBT, or black rights movement have made great strides  over the past decades, the psychedelic movement is still stuck somewhere in the 1960s, a time when racial segregation became illegal, homosexuality ceased being a crime and feminist consciousness soared – but experimenting with psychedelics became illegal and punishable by law. Since the rise of the minority rights movement it has become increasingly unacceptable to stigmatize women, LGBT, blacks and other disadvantaged groups, yet as “Stoner sloth”, the recent anti-weed  campaign against weed reminds us, it is still accepted as perfectly legitimate, even desirable, to stigmatize drug users and paint them as dumb and lazy. In a world where disadvantaged groups are ever more vigilant about microagressions, it is still considered safe to debase drug users using derogative terms, portray them as recklessly irresponsible fiends,  and blame them the ills of society. This happens although various reports have shown that stigmatization of drug users leads to discrimination, lower addiction-recovery rates, and even torture and abuse. The legal persecution of drug users makes things ever more complicated, deterring many from raising their voice against the demeaning stereotypization of drug users for fear of being stigmatized themselves.

But what if it became clear that there is a need to be vigilant when speaking about drug users as when speaking about other disadvantaged groups, and that the discrimination and persecution of drug users are another form of minority discrimination?

 

The identity politics of psychoactives

LGBT protest against ROTC treatment of gays and lesbians. University of Wisconsin, 1990.

LGBT protest against ROTC treatment of gays and lesbians. University of Wisconsin, 1990.

Adding psychoactive drugs to the discussion about minority rights is a risky undertaking. To start with, many have difficulties recognizing drug users as a minority group. Indeed, while the majority of citizenry is composed of drug users (certainly if one includes alcohol or coffee), drug users hardly ever identify themselves as a group. At the same time, minority activists themselves might revolt against the idea, reminding us that  gender and race are biological realities, whereas drug preferences are not. Still, some support for the way the politics of consciousness might fit into the greater discussion about minority politics might be found in the acceptance of LGBT as an identity, although some have claimed sexual orientation is but a choice. The Wikipedia entry on identity politics states that the term might refer to a variety of possible identities, based not only on race, gender and sexual orientation but also on ideology, nation, culture, information preference or even musical or literary preferences. In that case, might we not consider psychoactive preferences as something which relates to a person’s identity? In actuality, the tendency to experiment with altered states of consciousness is arguably as natural and ubiquitous as the need to experiment with sexuality. All human cultures, indigenous or modern, make some use of mind-alterants, a tendency which often emerges already in childhood. Some people have a special propensity for experimenting with altered states of minds – yet they are not dumber, more dangerous, or in any way inferior to those who do not share this tendency, as is often suggested by anti-drug organizations.

The rapidly growing discourse on identity politics is fraught with discussions about privileged and discriminated groups, in which certain groups are acknowledged to be privileged over other disadvantaged groups. However, nobody speaks of the privilege of being able to use a favorite substance without fear of police violence and incarceration. Since the use of any drug necessarily also entails a lifestyle (consider, for example, the differences between alcohol, cannabis and coffee cultures) privileging some drugs over others is fundamentally privileging some types of cultures over others, and historically the drugs being privileged were those sanctioned by privileged groups, while prohibited drugs have been those used by marginalized groups. Marihuana was outlawed as part of a racist campaign which targeted Mexican immigrants; opium as part of a campaign against Chinese immigrants; cocaine in a scare campaign which demonized black users and psychedelics as part of a campaign to subdue the 1960s counterculture. The current war against drugs is also heavily mixed with race politics as evidenced by the fact that while 5 times as many whites use drugs, African Americans are 10 times as likely to be incarcerated for drug use. At the same time, sanctioned drugs, such as coffee, Ritalin or Prozac are those which are considered to allow the efficient management of human impulses and emotions for the optimization of economic production. Favoring some drugs over others is often favoring certain values over others. Being able to use your favorite drug without fear of incarceration is also a form of privilege.

 

Raising the consciousness about consciousness

Are the politics of consciousness a form of identity politics? The answer is far from simple, and yet, half a century after the beginning of the war against drugs and the rise of awareness to the unacceptable role that certain modes of speaking play in the discrimination of marginalized groups, it might be time for drug users and legalization advocates to learn a lesson in consciousness raising by embracing their identities and demanding a discussion about drugs which is free from stereotypes, debasement and dehumanization.

 

Update 10/07/2016

Psymposia have recently run an excellent series on psychedelics and identity politics which resonates and expands on the questions explored here. Check it out here.

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