Podcast Transcript: How Do We Start Changing Drug Policy? – Dr. Henry Fisher
Please enjoy this transcript of our interview with Dr. Henry Fisher.
Dr. Henry Fisher is a policy director at the UK-based drug policy think tank, VolteFace, which aims to make positive changes to current UK drug policy by getting people outside the drug reform community involved in the debate.
In this episode, we talk about:
- Tide Effect, VolteFace’s first big policy report on cannabis regulation in countries and states where it has been legalized
- The status of cannabis legislation in the UK
- How academics in drug policy reform
- The challenge of preventing cannabis monopolies
0:00:29 Paul Austin: Welcome back to The Third Wave Podcast, guys. We have a great guest for you today, and I’m actually doing these intros a little different from now on. Instead of doing the intro in the podcast itself, I’m just going to pre-record intros to make sure that you can hear them, and to give myself a little time to summarize the podcast that we do. So this podcast today is with Henry Fisher, who is policy director at Volteface. Volteface is a think tank that looks at alternatives to current drug policies. They cultivate fresh thinking and new ideas via their online and print magazine and an ongoing program of public and private events.
0:01:07 PA: I met Henry Fisher when I was in London this past November, and he is just an excellent guy. I needed to get him on the show as soon as possible, so that you guys could hear about drug policy going on in the UK and about what Volteface is doing to change that paradigm, so that the UK is more open and accepting of drug regulation and policy reform. In my conversation with Henry we talk about a lot of things. Our conversation focuses actually quite a bit on cannabis and the differences between what’s going on with cannabis in the United States and Canada, compared to the UK. We also talked about general drug policy reform, as well as what role the psychedelic space should play in helping to expand drug policy reform, and of course, what’s going on with policy around psychedelics. So, we hit on a lot of things. Henry has a keen and exquisite mind. He is brilliant, and so was just a pleasure to pick his brain about policy around all aspects of drugs. So I hope that you enjoy this episode.
0:02:17 PA: As a couple announcements for you guys. We just launched a new microdosing course and community. You have to register to be able to join, and you then can interface and dialogue with a number of other people who are experimenting with micro-dosing, who have tried micro-dosing, who have questions about micro-dosing. That’s going to be an excellent, excellent resource going forward. I encourage you to go and check it out, after you listen to this podcast. Also as a reminder, this podcast is 100% listener-supported. We will never have advertisements on it, but in order to make this a viable option, something that we can do on a consistent basis, we do ask you that if you enjoy this podcast that you donate to our Patreon page. You can go there at patreon.com/thethirdwave. And if you donate, we’re gonna give you some prizes.
0:03:21 PA: We have a $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, a number of prizes, including our new book on micro-dosing, a limited edition micro-dosing journal that we’re releasing soon, tickets to our upcoming conference in about a year, The Mind Manifest Midwest Conference where we’re hoping to invite luminaries both within the psychedelic space, but also cultural figures outside the psychedelic space. If you enjoy the show, you get something out of it, we just ask you to make a small donation, even $2 a month would go a long ways toward helping us carry out our mission at The Third Wave in changing the cultural dialogue around psychedelic use. I hope you enjoy the show. It’s gonna be about an hour long, and I’d love to hear from you afterwards. Enjoy.
0:04:08 PA: Hey, Henry, and welcome to The Psychedelia Podcast. It’s so great to have you on here. I just wanted to start by asking you a little bit about Volteface. First of all, where does that name come from and how did this start up? Where did it come from?
0:04:23 Henry Fisher: Thanks for inviting me on. Where did the name come from? I don’t actually know where the name come from. It means to do a sudden complete reversal of opinion. I think that’s what we’re trying to generate in a lot of people. We’re trying to contact a lot of people who’ve never considered anything about drug policy at all before, and trying to change their opinion on it very quickly, to both have an opinion and for it to be our one.
0:04:49 PA: Is it a Latin phrase? Is it French? Do you know what the word…
0:04:52 HF: I think it must originally be… Yeah, originally Latin. Through kind of… Volte faccia is Italian and volte-face still exists in French. So yeah, it’s definitely a romance language. It means about face, to do an about turn, a 180. And that’s our aim, to try and convince lots of people that their opinion needs to change pretty quickly.
0:05:14 PA: Tell us more about that. What’s the mission of Volteface? What are you guys working to do from a fairly holistic, big idea perspective?
0:05:26 HF: We now describe ourselves as a drug policy think tank. We’ve been through a few different iterations. We were a… What were we before? We were a policy innovation hub for a while, and then when we first started out, we were mainly just a magazine that was kind of partly just to start building a brand, once we found our feet. And then once we felt a bit more confident sort of wading into slightly deeper policy, we made that progression into being a think tank. In terms of an overarching aim, we don’t actually have as a single ethos. What we try and do is essentially just provide a space, an area to think, to approach public policies about drugs from a new angle and push drug policies forwards whatever they happen to be, whether it’s in terms of regulation debates, whether it’s in terms of harm reduction, and whether it’s in terms of specific areas of something like prisons, where drugs in prisons are a huge thing in the UK at the moment, or say, harm reduction at festivals or other little issues and we just try and pick them up, see if we can push that forwards in a way that solves problems and, yeah, makes more sense really than what exists already.
0:06:40 PA: And how has that been going for you? I know you guys recently started, I think in late 2015 was when you first really got the website up and going, and started publishing pieces about it over the last 13-14 months. What type of progress have you seen? What type of projects have you worked on? Can you give us a brief summary of that?
0:06:57 HF: Yeah, absolutely. So it’s been certainly an exciting few months, just over a year. So the first six months or so of that was spent essentially trying to produce interesting and intellectual debate and content, all on various aspects of drug policy, trying to bring in voices into the debate that otherwise are usually left outside, either because they’re seen as the enemy or because they’re seen as not interested. So trying to actually engage with groups that you think would actually have an opinion on drug policy for whatever reason, whether it’s mental health, whether it’s treatment agencies or whether it’s even prison organizations, but then you realize that actually quite often those groups haven’t necessarily been engaged in the arguments, and so we’ve been bringing them in. So, one big area of research, our first big policy report that we did, which came out in November, was The Tide Effect, and there we essentially looked at what’s happening with cannabis regulation throughout the world and especially where it’s changing most quickly.
0:08:04 HF: So in North America, looking at US states that have just regulated and Canada, partly because they’re the places where government is closest to ours, especially Canada. And seeing how firstly, why they’ve changed their policy, and how they’ve changed that policy and what reasons they give for it, and if that can sort of inform the arguments here. So the way Justin Trudeau frames it in Canada, as he says when he talks about cannabis, it’s about two things, and really, only two things. And that’s making sure that cannabis stays out of the hands of children and developing minds which maybe are more prone to the more negative effects of cannabis, and trying to take out that market from the criminal gangs and from organized crime, especially. And it’s not… Although there’ll be lots of other positives, that kind of side perks like the tax revenue that will come in and obviously hopefully public health improvements as well, they’re not the main focus. The main focus is protecting kids and kind of denuding organized crime a huge source of income. And we did that work with the Adam Smith Institute which is a think-tank that bills themselves as a liberal, a neo-liberal think-tank, whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
0:09:27 HF: Partly, why we wanted to engage with them is, partly because they have a very different way of thinking to a lot of other groups that usually engage with drug policy, and they tend to come at things from a more conservative perspective, which helps for us at the moment ’cause we have a Conservative government and it looks like we will have one for at least a little while longer. So it’s worth making sure that we’re saying things to people that maybe might actually want to change the laws.
0:09:54 PA: And why does that matter? I think let’s dig into that a little bit more. Why does it matter to have a coalition of working with people who are perceived as conservative by the larger public, why does that matter in terms of changing drug policy in the long run?
0:10:10 HF: So one of the things that we’ve sort of realized pretty quickly is that you’re never gonna change drug policy if you’re a drug policy organization. Because if you speak to a politician and you say, “Hi, I’m from this drug policy think-tank and I think you should change your drug policy, they go, “Well, of course you think that, you work for a drug policy think-tank.” Whereas if that message comes from a different group, if it comes from an economics think-tank, or if it comes from, I don’t know, a patient group, or if it comes from police officers or other interested parties that have clearly engaged with the argument and see the value in what we’re saying, then that holds a lot more sway with politicians or with policymakers or people that you’re trying to influence to actually see why our argument makes more sense than the status quo.
0:10:57 PA: And this is interesting that you bring this up because what I’ve been working on with my team at The Third Wave is somewhat similar in terms of we’re trying to target, instead of more the traditional people who might use psychedelics or even trying to talk to people who use psychedelics as medicine, we’re really trying to speak to people who use psychedelics as tools, specifically those who might use it from an entrepreneurial or a Silicon Valley background. Because if you have cultural leaders, especially people who are CEOS of companies like Uber or Airbnb or Facebook, or people who work in high executive management positions there and they can get on board. A lot of them have used psychedelics. A lot of them…
0:11:40 HF: They have a lot of cultural influence as well.
0:11:43 PA: Exactly.
0:11:44 HF: I think that’s very important. It’s interesting when you say psychedelics specifically ’cause I think psychedelics are an area of drug policy and a group of drugs which suffer much more than anything else from a kind of mistaken identity. They’re seen as kind of, they have a lot of cultural baggage, and that becomes a problem when you’re then trying to engage with anyone sensibly on issues relating to psychedelics. When you’re talking about either their use in medicine or their use as tools or any other way of using them in culture, people tend to jump to certain things and they have certain prejudices already with psychedelics, perhaps more than with any other drug, which prevents those conversations from progressing further. So I think it’s important that you do bring in those other kind of cultural influences. Yeah.
0:12:33 PA: Yeah, and I think that will have… That’s one reason why I’m pinning a lot of my hope, or what we’ve pinned a lot of hope on in terms of micro-dosing when it comes to psychedelics, because there’s a lot of criticism in the psychedelic space about people who are using micro-dosing from a, we could say, elitist productivity-oriented mindset. And I think some of these people who are talking about the downsides of that don’t also recognize the upside, which is that you’re still getting more people who are responsibly using psychedelics, and a lot of those people will have wide influence when we can start to have a nationwide conversation about their utility and use.
0:13:10 HF: Yeah, it’s still bringing a lot of people improvements to their lives. So if people criticize someone else just because they use a drug in a different way to how they think it should be used, I think that’s… They’ve gotta maybe take a step back and look at why they’re criticizing them. Is it their own prejudice against those people that they’re actually putting in there? I mean, you could make the same criticism against someone who drinks coffee in the morning as opposed to someone who doesn’t. It’s not like they’re giving themselves an unfair advantage. They’re just drinking something that’s available, that helps them wake up in the morning.
0:13:42 PA: Yeah, no, no. And I think that’s a good point. And I think that’s even when I heard about the Adam Smith Institute. I heard about the policy thing that you guys did at the end of December with them. The legalization of psychedelics. I’m hesitant to embrace neoliberal economics, as many people are in the psychedelic space. At the same time, I think being pragmatic about how we approach drug policy is the most important thing. Idealism doesn’t really work when you’re working to change laws. Pragmatism is important. Have you guys thought about that, that relationship between pragmatism and idealism and where do you fall on that?
0:14:17 HF: We absolutely have. It’s something that we have as one of our core principles which we perhaps, I don’t know, clash with some of the other people that work in the space, where perhaps what’s important is the ethos with which they’re working. We tend to work more on a, I guess, a results-based type view, pragmatism before idealism. Partly because we don’t have the resources to build up an entire monolithic ideology, but what we can do is work on where we think we can make change, which is pragmatic, and look at ways to actually influence people. So we see pragmatism as being something that we can provide. There’s a lot of great people that have worked in drug policy for years and years, and they’ve essentially, they’ve built up the ideology. They’ve built up the ideal system that we would have if we could re-write drug policy from scratch. We tend to kind of work from a way of saying, “That’s where we’d like to get to. We’re here now. What little steps can we take along the way? And how are we gonna get there in the fastest possible way?” What’s the, not necessarily the path of least resistance, but what’s… How can we make gains fastest?
0:15:23 PA: And how do you balance that personally, or even as a team? I know your background is in academia. You have a PhD, I believe. And oftentimes, again, I don’t have a PhD, I could be completely off on this, but my perception of some people in academia is, they at times can kind of lose touch with what actually needs to happen in the real world to instill change. So there have been a number of people, like you said, who have written up extensive academic reports or academic papers, including a couple of friends of mine, about what a psychedelic legalization would look like. At the same time, that is something that might be 5, 10 years off, and it’s sometimes difficult to implement those things right away. So how do you personally balance that view? Have you found yourself, now that you are working in drug policy, just to be a more pragmatic person in general? Were you ever idealistic in the past? What has that relationship been like for you?
0:16:18 HF: I think I’d definitely say I am an idealist as well as all of that. But I mean, partly also I was an academic, and then I left and ran for the hills to come and do something a bit more pragmatic. So maybe that says where I left idealism. I think it’s incredibly important that people actually that… Like you’re saying, the people that, say, write a document which is perhaps aspirational for what the system might be in 5 years or 10 years, ’cause without those documents and without someone really thinking deeply about what system we would ideally want, you can’t envisage where you’re going, and so how to get there. So we couldn’t be doing what we’re doing if it wasn’t for people writing those big, deep kind of an academic tracts.
0:16:58 HF: And we use the research that they’ve done in our arguments. I think also, even though people have written those kind of big documents, we still don’t know what system would actually transpire. There’s been, what now, eight states that have legalized cannabis, for example, and Canada and Uruguay. And they’ve all got different systems. So it’s not like the fact that there was a book written 10 years ago that says, “This is how you should legalize cannabis,” meant that everyone followed that to the letter. And the more experimentation that happens, I think, the better in this area, ’cause that’s how you find out what does work and what doesn’t. And just as long as you’re attentive, and when something doesn’t work you actually correct it. But there are kind of things to be worried about. I mean, just going back to the neoliberal worries, that there’s always the kind of fear that there could be a kind of… Cannabis being seen as this kind of big tobacco 2.0. And it’s something that I think has to be kept in check, and I think it can be kept in check very easily with regulation, and can be improved upon. I mean…
0:18:03 PA: Talk… Yeah, talk a little bit about that. How… ‘Cause I see that as a legitimate concern. I think many people see that as a legitimate concern in terms of the legalization. I think, if I remember, Canada had a task force that just recently in the past month or so released their document about how they should go about legalizing cannabis. And in there, it seemed like specific policies were built in to protect against the corporatization of big green. What have you guys discovered in terms of how we can protect against that, or what do you see as a protection against that?
0:18:37 HF: Just intelligent regulation, I think, is the best protection. So what you need is you need a feedback loop in your regulation. And so, actually Colorado has actually been a quite good example of this. Because they were the pilots, they’ve had to have this feedback loop where sometimes they end up correcting their legislation kind of once every two weeks on cannabis. That’s partly because they perhaps made a few mistakes at first and I certainly wouldn’t say that Colorado has a perfect system now, for lots of reasons. That’s not just because of perhaps non-ideal regulation, that’s also just because of the tricky situation there where they have the state regulations and then there’s the federal regulations and they can’t… Illegal at federal level, obviously.
0:19:18 HF: And I think people are wary of it. In Ohio last year, there was the vote, there was a ballot measure on legalizing cannabis there and it was very clear that that was aimed at producing, essentially, a kind of oligopoly of eight or so people who would stand to benefit hugely from the cannabis industry if it was legalized there and people saw through that and realized that’s not what they wanted. So I think people are aware of it and I think it’s why people do need to make the case for, I guess, it being an ethical business model.
0:19:54 HF: But I think that happens. That’s not unique to cannabis or even to other legal or illegal drugs. There’s always that argument where businesses need to be more ethical, and you see it with… Some of the most interesting regulation has been in places like Oakland, California, where… So, originally in Colorado, there was a rule which prevented people who had previous convictions for drug-related crimes from entering into the legal cannabis business. What obviously that… What quickly transpires is it means that one group of people who are most marginalized that could actually benefit from the illegal cannabis industry were suddenly being cut out of the legal industry, so they were still not benefiting, and other people were benefiting.
0:20:43 HF: So that kind of progressed. And as you’ve seen new places come along. There’s been places like Oakland, California, which actually then brought in a set of regulations which prioritized people who did actually have previous convictions or from marginalized backgrounds or whatever it happened to be and prioritized them entering into the market, which I think that has to be a step forwards. ‘Cause we have to recognize that the people that sell drugs illegally, at least at a kind of street level, not necessarily the kind of organized crime level, but at street level at least, they are from people that are doing it because society’s failed them in lots of other ways. So you need to make sure that in a legal market they’re actually kind of kept in the system.
0:21:29 PA: Do you think… I mean, what you’re talking about is repatriation, in a way, which, I know, with the laws that were on the book for California legalizing marijuana that there was a number of written rules or written laws in the legalization of cannabis for California that specifically emphasized the importance of repatriation, whereas we haven’t seen that necessarily in every other state law that has been the case. Why do you think that’s so important? Why is repatriation so important in terms of both maybe from a cannabis perspective but also when we look forward in terms of just general drug policy?
0:22:05 HF: From a cannabis perspective at least, it’s important because it’s the most widely sold and used drug and it’s also, in comparison to, say, something like cocaine, which is an… Or say heroin, they’re international drugs. They’re made in one country, they’re shipped to another country. There is necessarily an element of organized crime. With cannabis there isn’t necessarily that. There are still a lot of home growers, there’s clubs. It can be a lot more kind of organic, kind of cottage industries, which can exist illegally, and there needs to be some way of allowing them to move into the legal market, but in a way that actually still respects what you’re trying to achieve with the legal market, which is that you’re actually trying to protect those that are vulnerable. You’re actually trying to increase public health through regulation.
0:23:00 HF: So I think an interesting example there is when you look at, say, Canada, where there’ve been dispensaries that’ve existed that are kind of… Essentially, the dispensaries have been running illegally for years but with largely a blind eye turned to them, and their kinda continued hope was that when legalization does come along that they would just be grandfathered in. But what you’ve got to consider is there may be some dispensaries which deserve to be grandfathered in and then there’s some others which, maybe ’cause they’re just they’re not up to actually producing good products or their regulation isn’t all there, they may be, if they can’t get those licenses, they don’t necessarily deserve to be grandfathered into the new industry. So it is tricky. To some extent, if you’ve worked in an illegal cannabis business, it means you have some skills, which provided that you’re not kept out of the legal business, put you at an advantage. Obviously there’s gonna be other disadvantages which you might have to fight against, but you at least you’d have some market advantage which you should be able to make use of in a regulated system.
0:24:10 PA: Yeah, absolutely. And I think also from even what I was thinking about from a repatriation perspective as well, is in especially the United States, I’m not sure if it’s so much in the UK, I would assume also in the UK but I know especially in the United States, people who are arrested for drug purposes, for selling drugs, or for possessing drugs or for trafficking drugs, they are disproportionately minorities; black, Hispanic people specifically. And so, what do you think can be done from a policy perspective to repair those harms that have been done to more minority groups? Is that something that you guys have looked into and studied or is that not necessarily as relevant to Volteface because it’s not as prevalent in the UK?
0:24:58 HF: It’s not, perhaps, as directly relevant in the UK, partly because there’s far more of a class difference rather than a race difference here, but I think it’s something that is really important. Essentially, how do you make sure that a minority group, or a disadvantaged group, isn’t left out in the cold, and this way that they have of making money is just something taken away from them, and they’re left with even fewer options and ways of escaping the situation that they’re in than they were before? And that has to be something that a lot of thought is given to. I think the way forward is to essentially prioritize people that are from those backgrounds in a new regulated market, simply because people might say that that’s unfair because it’s giving some people advantage over another, but those people are already at a societal disadvantage, so you have to help them get on a level playing field. And you’ve also gotta, you can’t deny history, like, those people that are from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds, then work in the illegal drugs trade, that’s a fact that exists now. So when you then move to the legal market, you can’t deny that that was the case before, and ignore history.
0:26:12 PA: And that’s what some… I think, I forget the exact state that it was in that I saw a law trying to be passed, or even people were talking about a policy reform. But there are some specific states in the United States where they’ve tried to bar people who have felony drug convictions from actually working within the legal regulated market, which I find ridiculous, because the only reason they have felony drug convictions is because they were doing what is deemed now legal. So again, this is where I saw the importance of, in terms of the new state law that was passed in California is, I believe that there were specific policy rules written into the law that said, “Okay, we’re going to forgive past felonies from marijuana or specific incidents.”
0:26:53 HF: And it’s nice that California have thought about that and put that in because that’s, again, this is why I think it’s good to evolve with models rapidly. So Colorado, when they first brought in their system, they had that law that prevented people with previous convictions. They’ve since repealed that as far as I know. When Oregon brought in their regulation, they didn’t have that restriction. And then, of course, California have gone one step further, where they’re trying to push it towards positively encouraging those people to enter into the market, or supporting them if they do, which I think is important, especially as big cannabis businesses get bigger, and start to, they will start to monopolize some areas of the market.
0:27:35 PA: But let’s move this conversation forward, then, how does… You guys you published The Tide Effect, which analyzed the current drug policies in places like Canada and the United States, and how do those compare then to what’s going on in the UK, from a cannabis strictly perspective, to start off with?
0:27:52 HF: Well, certainly from a cannabis strictly perspective, in terms of things that are actually happening in the UK, there’s not much at all, policy, which is why we’re trying to make something happen. Our government seems to be resolutely wedded to the idea that cannabis is harmful, and it’s illegal ’cause it’s harmful, and it’s harmful ’cause it’s illegal, and really, that’s where the conversation ends. Obviously, when you look elsewhere, when you look at Canada and North America, and Germany, and The Netherlands, and Spain, and Portugal, that isn’t the case. Those governments are moving forwards with systems which work better, that address the problems more successfully, and that aren’t based on this very simple idea that drugs are bad ’cause they’re illegal and they’re illegal ’cause they’re bad.
0:28:43 HF: In terms of what we’re doing in the UK, partly it’s acknowledging that firstly, you have to acknowledge that drugs aren’t always… Especially with cannabis specifically, it’s not always positive, some people do develop problems, in the same way that I wouldn’t have a beer when I woke up every morning, I wouldn’t say I would have a problem, but it probably isn’t a good idea. I probably wouldn’t smoke weed if I woke up every morning, ’cause it’s just not gonna help me with what I’m doing.
0:29:13 HF: So, partly that’s kind of accepting that there are issues that need to be dealt with, and that the best way to do that is regulation, and actually setting up intelligent dialogue about usage habits, and about how to actually access support, if you need support, and if you don’t need support, then that’s fine, but just know that it’s there if you need it. ‘Cause most people, when they’re buying weed in the UK, illegally obviously, there’s no one there saying, “Maybe you should cut down to smoke whatever,” whereas that’s a system which could actually exist in a legal market. You could say, especially if you’re buying online, which it looks like might be one of the ways that you’ll be able to buy it in Canada. You can have limits set on your PC that say, “I only want to buy however many grams this month,” and you’re get a little warning saying, “You’ve exceeded your limit, maybe slow down,” something like that, which currently there just isn’t the capacity for.
0:30:07 PA: Yeah, that would be really interesting, like you get a little notification from an app in your phone when you wake up in the morning that says, “Hey, look, you’ve already consumed five grams of cannabis, this month. Here’s the science as to why that’s bad. Here’s the science as to maybe how you could cut back if you want to,” and just providing that educational information. I think we… ‘Cause from my perspective, prohibition assumes stupidity in some way, and it assumes that we’re all… To me it seems that, yeah, we’re quite stupid in that we can’t see through the issues, and while big federal governments could get away with that in the past, specifically when they controlled the flow of information, the internet has obviously changed that dynamic considerably, where now people have access to actual evidence-based information as well as research. But in terms of how that research has then been distributed, the internet’s been incredibly important in making that happen. And so from my perspective, it surprises me that we see this in the UK still, that there is… I don’t think there’s even medical marijuana in the UK, is there?
0:31:14 HF: No, it’s a huge inertia there, there isn’t even medical cannabis here. We’re still… In fact there was a report released by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy in September last year here in the UK, which basically pointed out… It was essentially a meta analysis of all the data and a review on medical cannabis that said there’s these conditions for which there’s very strong evidence for, there’s these conditions for which there’s mediocre evidence for, and then there’s these conditions for which there’s weak evidence for, this is really something we should be moving on. And yet still, the government issued its two-line response, which essentially amounted to, “Cannabis as a dangerous drug, and that’s why it’s illegal,” and it’s not gonna change any time soon.
0:32:05 HF: We’re trying to chip away at that. The challenge is how do you do that? You have to find other people who are interested in making that argument. With medical cannabis in particular, especially as we don’t have the kind of direct ballot which is what’s been so useful in the States, you have to get people that are gonna convince politicians, and a politician, again, a politician isn’t gonna be convinced by a drug policy reform organization on its own, saying, “You should reform your drug policies.” But they might be convinced by say, a doctors’ group, or a patients’ group, or some medical charities that say, “Our patients really need this and you’re preventing them from a very valuable form of whatever it happens to be, palliative care or support, or whatever it happens to be.” It’s finding those voices that can actually make those arguments for us.
0:32:53 PA: And so when we extend that dialogue, then, out to psychedelics as well, what is it like in terms of in the UK, specifically with psychedelic research? I know you worked at Beckley Foundation for a period of time, and they’re more or less the forerunners in terms of providing the funds necessary for the research, a lot of it has been done in Imperial College. What’s kind of the cultural dialogue in the UK around psychedelics and where have you guys participated in that dialogue, and how have you tried to push it forward?
0:33:24 HF: I think what is really exciting about psychedelic research in the UK is firstly, we’ve got the Imperial Research Group, which are doing amazing things with… There was the MRI the study on LSD that came out last year, and other really, really interesting studies. They’re really actually digging deep into how LSD works in the brain, and other psychedelics as well, but that’s quite an interesting thing to see that happening because the more really thorough studies that get done on LSD, the more psychedelic research just gains more credibility. ‘Cause again, for maybe someone like you or me, it seems obvious that that’s legitimate research, but for a lot of people who have a lot of hang-ups, you mention that someone’s experimenting with LSD, let alone they’re experimenting for some kind of… For any kind of medical benefit, and a lot of people will dismiss that off-hand as it being whatever happens to be the drug that makes people jump out of windows. It’s interesting to see that happening in the UK, ’cause we hope for what’s happening here.
0:34:23 HF: The other thing which I think has been remarkable at least here in the last year or two, really, and it’s been fun watching it progress, has been an absolutely explosion of psychedelic clubs and societies, which are people that are feel safe enough in their society and whatever it happens to be… Or confident enough that they’re actually willing to come out and admit to psychedelic use. Or if they’re not admitting to psychedelic use, there’s some implicit… There is a nod. If there’s several hundred people in a room and they’re all there to listen to a talk about LSD, and they’re there week after week after week, it’s not just because they have a purely academic interest, at least some of them have a personal interest in it as well. I think that’s… It’s interesting that there’s actual activism happening on psychedelics, ’cause before that, it’s only really ever been cannabis where there’s been any significant activism, apart from maybe harm reduction with that. I guess there’s been some activism as well.
0:35:27 HF: In terms of what we’ve tried to do, and what I would like to do more, because actually getting kinda useful policy change with any drug other than cannabis is certainly a way down the road. What I think is important is that the kind of psychedelic community, which is pretty sizeable, and as kind of these events reveal, is far more bold than… You don’t get anyone coming out and saying, “I’m a proud cocaine user and it’s my absolute right to make sure I’m doing lines of this every Saturday.” People don’t tend to come out and say that, whereas people do come out and say, “I’m a proud psychedelic user and it’s changed my life for the better, dot dot dot.” I think what’s important is that those people feed into the wider argument on drug policy. Obviously, psychedelics are unique within the realm of psychoactive drugs, because of the positive things that it can give to society, and they’re not balanced out by the kind of negative sides of potential of addiction and things like that.
0:36:32 HF: They do inhabit this unique place within drug policy dialogues, but I think it’s important that the psychedelic community actually stand up and are counted, not least because if you look at… If you go to any psychedelic event, and you look around and a lot of people are pretty well-heeled, there’s a lot of white faces, it’s a lot of people that have a lot of privilege, and they have a lot of kind of social capital that they can play upon to actually change people’s minds, in a way that, say, that the heroin-using community or drug-injecting community, they don’t have that same social capacity to make things change. There’s not going to be a march of heroin users on parliament anytime soon, but you could easily imagine there might be a march of psychedelic users, which means that if they can speak up for psychedelics, they can actually speak up for a wider drug policy.
0:37:25 PA: And what do you say to the people, specifically people who are in the psychedelic space, who say, “Well, yeah, we support psychedelic decriminalization. We support psychedelic medicalization, we support psychedelic legalization. Because these substances have been proved to be non-addictive, these substances have been proved to be safe when used within the correct context and setting, but cocaine should still be illegal, and methamphetamines should still be illegal, and heroin obviously should still be illegal, because they’re so addictive, or they’re so harmful or they’re so whatever it else might be.” What do you say to those people in terms of that approach to drug policy?
0:38:02 HF: I would say to them that it’s interesting when you’re then approaching it from that perspective, because they’re saying there’s all these positive reasons for changing the law around psychedelics, but there only are the negative reasons because psychedelics aren’t addictive and things. But all those reasons which produce greater, or a lot of those reasons that produce greater harms with other drugs when they’re illegal, simply don’t exist with psychedelics, just because they are relatively unproblematic substances. But they’re all, all these illegal drugs are still being made more dangerous by the same set of regulations, and whereas with psychedelics there are marginal gains to be made from them being legal, in terms of people’s safety, there are far more drastic gains in terms of people’s safety, in terms of people’s freedom, in terms of people not being… Their life chances not being held back by, say, criminal records, there’s far more of that with other drugs, and I think to say, “Oh, we just want psychedelics legal, we’re not worried about the rest,” is, I think, a dereliction of duty.
0:39:14 HF: And also, there’s a blurred line here, you can talk about classical psychedelics, but then where do you put MDMA? I would say MDMA has psychedelic qualities, but it’s also a stimulant, it’s also more opened up to abuse than some other drugs. And then you get this line where, well, MDMA does have these stimulant qualities, so it is an amphetamine as well, so there’s shades of gray to this. I think for you to draw a line arbitrarily… Like would you draw the line one side of MDMA, or the other side of MDMA? What about all the other drugs? What about new psychoactive substances that are empathogens, but maybe are also more stimulating as well? It’s quite hard to then, to figure that one out.
0:40:02 PA: And it’s already happening, obviously, with the legalization of cannabis, we are drawing lines. We’re basically saying that cannabis is obviously much more widely used than any other illicit drug, I think, at this point, like 50%-60% of people have tried cannabis at some point. This is in the United States, at least, whereas with psychedelics, it’s more like 10%-15%. I’m not sure of the numbers for heroin, or amphetamines, or methamphetamines, like illicit amphetamines or methamphetamines. But there does seem to be that general overarching view of, “Cannabis is more safe, so it’s okay to legalize this, but we shouldn’t legalize heroin obviously, that would be terrible. We shouldn’t legalize cocaine, we shouldn’t legalize crystal meth, or whatever else it might be, because those are dangerous bad drugs that are addictive and ruin families.” Yet, like you’re saying, I think only with full legalization can we actually get straight facts, and only with full legalization can we provide the support necessary to create a buffer for the obvious negative downsides of people who use heroin, or people who use cocaine.
0:41:13 PA: And basically what I’m saying is making it illegal, all it does is it obviously puts the money in the hands of people who shouldn’t have it, and it makes the drugs much more dangerous. And it’s a poor argument, I think, to say, “Hey, we should legalize this illicit substance, but we shouldn’t legalize this one.”
0:41:32 HF: And there’s obviously there’s other things that you can bring into the argument, like alcohol is obviously legal, and that can be bought, is one of the more harmful of drugs and it’s legal. And I don’t doubt there might be some people who want to legalize psychedelics, but then make alcohol illegal, but I would say that that’s the wrong approach. I think the right approach is to allow people these options and provide more support for people… There wouldn’t need to be say the same support around psychedelics as there would need to be around addicting drugs, but there would need to be some unique type of support which doesn’t exist now. Plenty of people have bad trips and have horrendous experiences, and maybe people who shouldn’t be taking psychedelics because of underlying conditions do, partly because it’s an illegal, unregulated market where there’s no support for people. I think one of most interesting things happening in New York, is it, at the moment, is there’s sort of an informal group of people that are forming a network for people who do want to take psychedelics, or sorry, have taken psychedelics, but are struggling to integrate those experiences into their life subsequently.
0:42:46 PA: I think that’s maybe the Center for Integrative Education with Andrew Tatarsky? I think Andrew Tatarsky had set it up, but I’m not completely sure of the exact name. We’ll provide that in the show notes, we’ll dig it up. But I think it’s Andrew Tatarsky and Katherine MacLean who head that up.
0:43:01 HF: I think that’s interesting, because obviously people having to form that informal network in the illegal market, because there isn’t any kind of capacity for legally regulated support being given to people. But in a legal market, you could have retreats and things in the same way that you get ayahuasca retreats in certain countries in South America, some of which are better regulated than others. Obviously, you do get horror stories, but then you also get people who travel to South America and have ayahuasca experiences, and come back transformed or whatever. So again, it’s tricky, but there’s, I think, where you draw the line on where you’d want to legalize certain drugs and other drugs is then the way you start encountering problems. MDMA would be one interesting example of the kind of line in between psychedelics and other one, and addicting drugs. Another one is ketamine.
0:43:54 HF: So, yeah, I think the best way to actually avoid trying to figure out where that arbitrary line gets set is to actually look at all the arguments, and see that there’s a lot of good arguments for legalizing all drugs, but just every single drug needs to be considered independently, just as how you wouldn’t necessarily legalize, I don’t know, ib in the same way that you’d legalize mushrooms or you wouldn’t regulate heroin in the same way that you regulate codeine, which you can buy codeine and paracetamol over-the-counter here. Heroin would be a very different situation, I presume it’d be prescription or whatever it would happen to be. So yeah, I think different drugs need to just be considered in different ways.
0:44:40 PA: And so, from a policy perspective, or we could even talk from a grass roots or cultural perspective, how do we get more and more people to get over the fact, or government officials to get over the fact, or all these people to over the fact that legalization does not equal encouragement? I think there is a sense of, “If we legalize this, we’re obviously then encouraging people to do it.” How do we toe that line, yeah, how do we toe that line?
0:45:08 HF: I think because what legalization, or more specifically regulation allows us to do is it gives you more control. It allows nuance. What full prohibition or even de facto criminalization, where you have not… So a lot of the police forces here are maybe quite lax when it comes to arresting people for cannabis. So it’s not a formal decriminalization, but it’s kind of de facto criminalization. But that means that support can’t necessarily be given to people because it’s still technically illegal. But it’s not… But it’s just not being pursued by the police. So again, that sort of can be a bit of a red herring. I think… What was the question again? I’ve totally forgotten.
0:45:48 PA: Basically, I think a lot of people in government, and I think a lot of influential people from a cultural perspective would make the argument that legalization of substance is equivalent to the encouragement of using those substances. Or what a government official would say, they’d say, “If we legalize this, well then, our constituents or our populace or our citizenry is going to take that as, ‘Hey, it’s okay to do this’.” And obviously, that’s not the case.
0:46:13 HF: It sends the wrong signals.
0:46:16 PA: Yeah. How do we kind of overcome that cultural stigma or bias in terms of helping people, whether that’s government… Especially, how do we help government officials understand that that’s not the case, that you legalizing these substances is not equivalent to encouraging their use?
0:46:30 HF: I think that there are two things to draw out here. So one is, if you look at the way… You can actually form regulation which persuades people to use drugs or a certain substance less and less, or has a positive effect. So two examples of that that I could give is… So here in the UK, there was a big problem with underage drinking, say, 20 years or so ago. And so the government at the time, looked at the problems and then brought in very strict laws on IDs and sales and kind of regulation that allowed alcohol only to be sold to adults. Nowadays, the amount of teenagers that can actually access alcohol is… That access to alcohol through shops is tiny. Or in a pub. Whereas 20 years ago, you could go into a pub in a school uniform and buy a drink. Nowadays, that’s just not something that could happen. I get ID-ed every time I buy alcohol now. I’m a bit fresh-faced, but I’m certainly not under 18. And so that’s one example.
0:47:43 HF: Also when you look at, say, tobacco use in the UK, that’s decreased year on year here in the UK for the last I think… I don’t know how long. But basically, and that’s just come from continued public health messaging, saying, “Smoking is really bad for you,” also, “If you want to give up, here’s some advice and some help.” And again, offering support for people that do actually want to reduce their use. To the other side to that, besides the fact that you can just introduce regulations which do reduce use… The other side is that there’s a difference between increasing use and increasing harm. So just because more people use a drug, that doesn’t mean that more people are gonna have a problematic relationship, or it certainly doesn’t mean that more people are gonna necessarily suffer more harm from it. Again, what that requires is a bit of intelligence with how you go about things. And you can, if you make it kind of a free, open market with no restrictions, and… I’d say certain things like adverts and deals and stuff are pretty bad ideas, and making it super cheap. But if you just pin the regulations the right way, you can make sure that… Maybe use will go up and often, when something is legalized, there is an uptick.
0:49:05 HF: You can then mediate that and certainly reduce the worst, the most negative effects of the drug use. One example that I could give for that is where… So, use of cannabis may increase, for example, in a legal state. And also what might also increase is the number of people submitting themselves to or presenting themselves to treatment centers for cannabis dependence or problematic cannabis use. Now, you could just say that the most direct thing which is, well, that’s just because more people are using it, and so more people are getting… More people are becoming dependent on it. But then actually, if you look into the numbers, that might not necessarily be the case at all. It might be that far more people are actually using it far more sensibly, I guess, or in a more… Less unhealthy way. Using it more safely. And those people that did have a problem in the first place, or that are developing a problem, find it far more easy to go to a treatment center and say, “I’ve got a problem with cannabis,” because it’s legal at that point, and they’re not going to suddenly, I don’t know, risk losing their kid or losing their job or whatever… Or even end up with a criminal record. Whereas in the illegal market, that threat exists and it prevents people from seeking treatment. And it exists…
0:50:23 PA: And I think that’s… Yeah. That’s a really good point, and maybe the best point that you’ve made in terms of that. There’s a phrase that Stephen Bright… Dr. Stephen Bright; he works with Prism in Australia. He calls it the… I’m forgetting the phrase right now, but it’s about the paradigm that we exist in, and how this paradigm encourages really harmful substance use because, like you’re saying, people can’t come out if they do need help and support from that. The Pathological Paradigm, I believe is what he calls it.
0:50:54 HF: Exactly. And that… And then another thing, or a related issue to that, is in a legal market, you can have a far wider range of things on offer. You can have low strength products on offer. Whereas in an illegal market, there is a tendency to make things stronger and stronger, or to produce products which may have something else in it that isn’t apparent, that makes it feel like it’s stronger or it makes it feel like it’s more effective, whereas in a legal market, or at least a well regulated legal market, those issues should reduce dramatically. ‘Cause obviously you have quality control on your products and you also have people that… A lot of people just want to drink beer, but if you only have spirits then you’ll only drink spirits, that’s what was found in Prohibition America, people tended towards moonshine. Soon as regulation comes back in, people like drinking beer again, but beer is pretty hard to bootleg so people bootleg spirits.
0:51:51 PA: Which I think is a good transition point to bring this conversation back to psychedelics. We were talking about this earlier when I mentioned micro-dosing. But there are some people who have now been saying with the advent of micro-dosing, well, Timothy Leary and back in the ’60s, used to encourage people to drop LSD, take LSD and oftentimes the average dose was 250 micrograms. And of course that’s mostly all that was available, but then what if we had asked the question instead of it being 250 micrograms what if, just every dose had been 10 micrograms, a micro-dose? And so I think then that also provides an interesting dialogue in terms of where certain arguments could be made for the eventual regulation of psychedelic use is if, I was just thinking about this as you were talking, what if in a future world where psychedelics are legal and regulated, you basically, you have to get a driver’s license of some sort, Maps has come up with this idea, to use them.
0:52:47 PA: And then you have some sort of mobile punch card that you have to download that’s regulated, and you can only purchase psychedelics once a month or once every three months, and the amount that you can purchase is a reasonable amount. You can’t go kind of crazy with it. What other ideas and thoughts has Volteface had about the legalization and regulation of psychedelics? I know you guys hosted an event with the Adam Smith Institute in early December. What sort of ideas were talked about at that event?
0:53:19 HF: Our event in December was more just a kind of thinking shop, we had people from very different backgrounds. So one of the guys was the director from the Adam Smith Institute, but then we also had Charlotte Walsh who’s an academic, but also she consults on the Ayahuasca Defense Fund, so she’s a lawyer as well. And then we also had Dr. James Rucker, who is a psychiatrist who’s been taking part in the research at Imperial. So they all had very different views on what the way forward is on psychedelic regulation, whether it’s tight control or less tight control. I think there’s some really interesting issues here that are specific to psychedelics. Just mentioning micro-dosing, one that I haven’t really thought about before is that I don’t know how most people go about micro-dosing themselves. But a lot of people have to dilute things. But if you can only get, say, a tab then that’s a pretty tricky thing to actually reliably dose down, ’cause you don’t actually really know for certain what the dose on the tab is. And I’ve certainly read more than one example of often quite light-heartedly written about people that did just, they kind of… They were meant to be micro-dosing themselves and instead didn’t and ended up tripping for the day and ha ha, isn’t that funny?
0:54:46 HF: But it’s… There’s things like that which in a regulated market you could go and buy your blister pack of 30 pills for the month, each one has got 10 micrograms of LSD or whatever it would have to be. I don’t know if you’d need to have tight controls or not in terms of what Maps suggests, but it would allow exploration and experimentation in the field. Which I think is important and interesting because apart from the work of obviously a few very important pioneering chemists, there hasn’t been the same degree of research done on new psychedelics as there has been in, say, any other area of medicine. So for example, we don’t, as far as I know, we don’t really have a drug that is given to people which can essentially… Which can be used as an antidote to, say, to a psychedelic. So as kind of… Whatever it would happen to be, an antagonist that would just block the receptor, and pull someone out of a trip. That would be something. I think the thing that most doctors do is they just inject someone with benzodiazepines if they’re having a bad time and they just largely sleep it off.
0:56:03 HF: That’s not necessarily the best way to deal with someone, especially if they’ve taken other drugs and you’re just pumping them with even more quite powerful sedatives and you don’t know what else they’re taken. If you could just essentially kind of a naloxone for psychedelics, that could be an interesting example. Or developing much shorter-acting drugs that aren’t as intense. So there’s actually short-acting psychedelics like DMT, but they’re incredibly intense, they’re certainly not what most people would look for if they just wanted to have a half-an-hour trip. So I think there’s a lot of potential for innovation in the space and just intelligent regulation and just kind of a culture to be built up around it. I mentioned earlier the kind of retreat-type thing. I think that would be something which could be regulated for the people who’d want to go away and have like psychedelic experiences or psychedelic weekends or whatever it would happen to be in a place that they feel is safe and that’s regulated, in the same way that they might go away to any other kind of meditative retreat, but at the moment, and certainly in most countries, that can’t exist.
0:57:08 PA: Well, and it’s interesting that you mentioned that, ’cause I’m doing that myself, in a couple of weeks. [chuckle] I’m going to Jamaica, actually, where psilocybin mushrooms are legal if you cultivate them. There’s an organization who is running retreats down there and this is also something that the London Psychedelic Society has done in the Netherlands, where they’ve done weekend retreats with truffles there, so this is, you know, we see this with the ayahuasca. Obviously, ayahuasca is much, much more intense. But there do seem to be certain countries that you do have psychedelics, or we could… They tend to refer to more to them as sacraments or medicines. Where they’re legally available, I mean, I was just reading an article yesterday where actually in the state of New Mexico it is legal to grow magic mushrooms and consume them on your own. And there is a group called the Oratory of Mystical Sacraments in New Mexico, which is legally allowed to consume peyote and San Pedro and mushrooms.
0:58:12 HF: I thought I’d I heard of them, yeah, I did know that there was a… That there was this church or a group that… Yeah, could administer peyote or could grow and administer peyote.
0:58:24 PA: Yeah, I think that would be interesting to study from a policy perspective and a regulation perspective, is then how do they facilitate those? What do they do when they facilitate those? What safety precautions and measures do they take? And I think we can… So to then, maybe do some initial research in some of these retreat centers that are going on. Obviously, there are hundreds of people doing it almost every day in the Amazon with ayahuasca. What models can we take from the ones that are already existing on the fringes of society, and how can we then apply it to a wider, broad scale?
0:58:58 HF: Exactly, we do actually have this huge history of psychedelic use. And it’s used in a largely ritualistic setting. So we can actually take all that human experience that’s built up over centuries and apply it to the way people might use psychedelics now. The fact that it tends to… A lot of people tend to want to use them in that kind of group setting, where there’s a ritual, and when there’s things that push people thoughts in the right… People’s minds in the right direction for having a positive and learning and transformative experience. I wouldn’t wanna put restrictions on things, but that seems to be a much more intelligent and positive way of taking psychedelics then, say, I don’t know, the type of person that drops four tabs of acid at a festival and just heads into the crowd, and for some reason has an awful time, obviously. Well, not necessarily obviously. But…
0:59:56 PA: In many cases, this is what we see these horror stories come from, is these people who don’t necessarily have any education around setting when it comes to psychedelic use. Or even worse, people who think they’re taking LSD and might be taking N-bomb… Or people who think they’re taking MDMA and might be taking something that can harm them, which is another conversation and one I’d like to have, but we don’t really have the time for. We’ll kind of wrap up now ’cause we’re close to the hour mark. I’ve been trying to keep these around an hour. Just from a brief overview, what are some of the future plans of Volteface? What projects are you guys working on and where do you see it going from here?
1:00:32 HF: In terms of… A lot of the things that we’re working on. Something that I’m leading on at the moment is kind of looking at the way we’re approaching medical cannabis and what needs to… Or what kind of road map we would actually have in the UK for making medical cannabis a reality and what kind of model we would have. So that’s what I’m kinda leading on at the moment. We’re also doing a lot of interesting work on looking at the relationship between the illegal cannabis market and how that relates to youth crime and things like that. And it seems to be that there’s a kind of… Like cannabis when it’s sold illegally, because it’s sold by gangs can actually be used as a very handy tool for pulling young people into a crime network. That’s something that we’re looking into. In terms of wider work, we’re always looking to see what interesting things are around the corner. So, one of the big things that happened last year in the UK in drugs policy at least, is we… There was the first ever pill testing done at festivals. There’s a chance that that might expand this year and we’d be wanting to push that in a direction that sort of helps most people and continues to move forward. But yeah, there’s a lot of exciting things happening, often at kinda local levels. And the idea is that if we can make things happen at a local level, then it can be pushed upwards to a national level.
1:02:10 PA: Right. This idea of a grassroots movement and how we can… As building off the model of cannabis legalization or partial legalization in the United States. I think that’s a great model to go off. Well, Henry, thank you so much for joining us. You know, this was one of my favorite conversations that I’ve had so far in the podcast. I think you did a tremendous job of explaining all of the nuances of policy related to cannabis and also some excellent ideas in terms of full legalization of all drugs as well as psychedelics. So, I just wanna thank you for coming on the show. It’d be great to do another show, and I just wanna encourage everyone who’s listening to go and check out Volteface’s website. It’s volteface.me. That’s correct?
1:02:51 HF: Yep, that’s the one.
1:02:53 PA: Okay, volteface.me. They’re based out of London. They have a really cool office space in Soho, where Henry is probably calling from right now, and I encourage you guys to go check it out. So, Henry, thanks again so much for joining us on the show.
1:03:06 HF: Cheers, thanks very much. It was great.