THIRD WAVE PODCAST
What’s Holding Back Psychedelic Research?
Dr. Stephen Bright
Our guest on this episode of The Third Wave Podcast is Stephen Bright, co-founder of PRISM and a leading psychedelic researcher in Australia. Stephen talks to us about the problems facing the psychedelic movement in Australia, where a conservative government perpetuates a ‘Pathological Paradigm’ that rewards negative views on drugs. Stephen tells us how the future of drug policy in Australia depends on research, the media, and a shift in popular opinion.
Stephen Bright is a co-founder of PRISM, a non-profit organisation in Australia that aims to begin research into MDMA as a treatment of PTSD. PRISM was formed in 2011, with support from MAPS founder Rick Doblin, but has faced many obstacles in getting an MDMA trial off the ground. Stephen presented at the recent Beyond Psychedelics conference in Prague, in a talk titled “Beyond Harm Reduction”, which was focused on the barriers facing harm reduction in Australia. PRISM has faced much more difficulty in getting a trial started than their MAPS colleagues in the US, and Stephen has even experienced the head of his University attempting to stop his research.
Stephen tells us about the conservative attitude prevalent in Australia, and how this leads to a problem known as the “Pathological Paradigm” of drug use. If you are a researcher, you will only get funding by publishing negative results on drugs. The conservative politicians in charge only like to hear theories that reaffirm their stance on prohibition; so positive news and research about drugs is just not heard.
Although the majority of the Australian public are in support of some kind of change in drug policy, no powerful politicians are brave enough to propose alternatives. Drug policy discussion in Australia is largely driven by the media: a story about drug abuse surfaces, there is a public outcry, and politicians need to be seen doing something about it. In most cases, this means that the government reacts with punitive, prohibitionist interventions, such as the recent campaign to get people to snitch on meth dealers.
Recently, Australia actually saw a breakthrough in drug policy that was driven by the media: some young children who relied on cannabis to treat their epilepsy got some attention in the media, and one of their grandparents donated a huge sum of money towards the medical cannabis campaign. The attention snowballed until even conservative commentators were on the side of medical cannabis reform. This very quickly led to legalisation of medical cannabis across Australia. Stephen says that drug policy can’t rely on these kind of brief windows of opportunity to get any further; policy-makers need to start responding to situations rather than reacting to popular news stories, which often aren’t representative of the broader situation.
Stephen talks about how anti-drug campaigns in Australia have been totally ineffective. The average young person will see their scare ads and know that the reality is not as dangerous as is being portrayed. Stephen gives us the example of the Montana Meth Project; kids exposed to the negative ‘Faces of Meth’ campaign actually believed meth was less dangerous after the campaign. In the age of the internet, kids can look up real information and find that the government often doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Stephen mentions that he often lectures to new University kids about the real facts around drugs, and how to reduce harm. He thinks it’s a shame that this kind of factual, pragmatic education is not available to a broader range of people in Australia. Instead, ineffective scare campaigns continue, without teaching kids how to minimise the harm of taking drugs.
On this podcast so far, we’ve often talked to people about their personal experiences with psychedelics. Unfortunately, this is something Stephen is unable to discuss with us, due to his position as a clinical psychologist and researcher. In Australia, he would potentially face deregistration and lose his job if he were to talk about personal drug use. He mentions one interview in Australia where he was repeatedly pestered to answer this question; he pointed out that if he admitted to drug use, the presenters would call him a hippie that was promoting psychedelics in a biased manner. But if he said he’d never taken drugs, he would be told he didn’t understand the potential adverse effects – so answering the question would never do him or his cause any good.
Stephen believes that there are very few ways you can ‘come out’ as a drug user in Australian society and not be vilified. You can come out and repent – say that you made a mistake taking drugs and will work to make up for your mistake. Otherwise, you have to have the luxury of being a celebrity. Stephen points out that people love hearing about celebs entering rehab or going on a binge, and we forgive our pop stars for using drugs as a creative tool.
Australia is also unique in that there is a cultural attitude of keeping quiet, says Stephen. The phrase “Don’t be the tall poppy” has led to a culture of ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’, where people are afraid to speak out positively about drug use. Whereas in the US and UK there are many examples of high profile businesspeople talking about their personal drug use, or desire for reform, in Australia there is no such openness. The small population of Australia, in combination with Tall Poppy Syndrome, means that the conservative status quo is maintained by relatively silent drug users.
Stephen hopes that the younger generation may be able to change this status quo by speaking out about drug use. Nick Wallace is currently trying to establish the Australian Psychedelic Society in Melbourne, and the Melbourne chapter of the SSDP (Students for Sensible Drug Policy) have recently held a symposium that attracted lots of interest. Stephen suggests that the youth in Australia will have a harder time coming out about drug use, because they are facing a more conservative opponent (the baby boomer generation in Australia did not experience the LSD revolution like the US baby boomers did), and because they face strict repercussions in their future professional lives if they speak out.
Stephen gives us his opinion on the recent case of a man protesting the criminalization of LSD in Victoria by taking it outside the courthouse. He was recently arrested and is seeking to be seen by the High Court, so he can argue for his human rights to religious freedom. Stephen believes there is not much chance of his case being seen by the High Court, as no judge or politician wants to be the ‘Tall Poppy’ and be the focus of a negative tabloid story. Stephen also warns that this kind of protest could actually harm the psychedelic movement, by painting psychedelic enthusiasts as crazy. In a way, it might end up perpetuating the belief that psychedelic use negatively affects your mental health!
Finally, Stephen gives us his opinions on the future of drug policy in Australia. He is not too optimistic; at the moment, only 3% of Australia’s drug policy budget goes into harm reduction. It’s interesting to think that Australia was once a world leader in harm reduction, becoming the first country to implement a needle exchange program in the 1980s in response to the HIV epidemic. Since then, a focus on harm reduction has been lost. Currently, there are attempts to make drug testing at festivals a reality, although there has been plenty of resistance, especially from the state of New South Wales. Stephen believes that the best chance for drug policy reform in Australia is to wait for more windows of opportunity, like the one that allowed the legalization of medical cannabis recently, and be prepared to have a frank discussion about harm reduction when the opportunity arises. The huge stigma surrounding drug use in Australia will need to be chipped away at – through personal conversations with friends and family, or through events and conferences such as SSDP’s symposium in Melbourne.
Want to make a difference, whether you live in Australia or not? You can support PRISM by donating here – all money raised goes to fund psychedelic research. The Australian entheogenic conference, Entheogenesis Australis, will be held near Melbourne in December 2017. Keep an eye out for the appearance of the Australian Psychedelic Society in Melbourne, and if you’re a student, consider starting an SSDP chapter at your University. DanceWize recruits volunteers every year to provide harm reduction at festivals and events in Victoria, and the Drug Policy Modelling Program, run by Alison Ritter, deserves support in its effort to change policy at the highest levels.
0:00:29 Paul Austin: Hey, listeners, welcome back to The Third Wave Podcast, where we have conversations about the Third Wave of psychedelics. Today, we have another excellent guest from down under, from Melbourne, Australia. His name is Stephen Bright and he is from PRISM. Not prison, but PRISM. So, psychedelic research in science and medicine, it’s a non-profit group in Australia. And I brought him here to talk about what’s going on in Australia with psychedelic research as well as just having a general conversation about things related to psychedelics. So, Stephen, thanks for joining us, man.
0:01:02 Stephen Bright: Thanks for having me.
0:01:04 PA: So, we met about two months ago at the Beyond Psychedelics Conference in Prague where you gave what I thought was one of the best presentations there. Can you talk a little bit about that, what was that presentation and how in the world did you get all the way to Prague from Australia?
0:01:21 SB: Well, firstly, I got all the way to Prague thanks to the Australian community. We do have quite a strong psychedelic community in Australia. And I did some crowdfunding to help support that. And the guys at Beyond Psychedelics also threw in some cash to help me get there. In terms of the presentation that I gave, it was entitled Beyond Harm Reduction. And so I’m looking at what the barriers were to engaging in psychedelic science within Australia. So PRISM, or Psychedelic Research in Science and Medicine, was formed in 2011, and it happened when we had the very charismatic Rick Doblin over in Australia who believed that Australia was a good site for establishing an MDMA-assisted psychotherapy trial for PTSD and we were excited. We formed a not-for-profit organization and started moving towards developing a protocol. We developed a protocol. We put it through an ethics committee. And they were the only independent ethics committee in Australia. They rejected it stating that research such as this would need to be conducted within an institution. So we re-grouped. We found a new psychiatrist who was linked with the university and this is quite recently, we put forth our proposal to the ethics committee at this university. And just as it was about to be examined by the ethics committee, the head of the University stepped in and said, “This research is not gonna be happening at my university, thank you very much.”
0:03:01 SB: So what we’ve seen in Australia is an absolute lack of psychedelic research, psychedelic science, and I believe the issue is to do with academic and political conservativism. And the reason I’ve sort of come to that conclusion is that we are a small country, there’s limited government funding and a lot of the researchers are scared to put their head on the pulpit for this sort of research, because most of the funding is given to researchers who are able to demonstrate that drugs are dangerous, drugs are bad, and this has been referred to as the pathological paradigm of drug use. And so it’s very difficult to engage in research in Australia that sits outside of that paradigm. Regardless of funding people, are just very wary of what implications engaging in research that goes against the pathological paradigm might have on their career.
0:04:05 PA: And why does that pathological paradigm exist? Why are these illicit drugs perceived as being bad while alcohol and tobacco are may be perceived as being okay or acceptable?
0:04:18 SB: Yeah, well, look, it’s really just a historical quirk when you look at drug policy in general, and why we have the drugs that are illegal, that are illegal today. If you look at the history, it was based on, primarily racial reasons for banning the substances. And Australia really followed what was happening in the US, so that’s how we got to the situation that we’ve gotten to now, including MDMA being banned. Australia banned MDMA pretty much straight after it was banned in the US. We very much follow those trends in prohibition when other countries ban drugs. And sometimes we even ban drugs before other countries have got to them. BZP is a good example of a drug that Australia was the first country in the world to ban. We were one of the first countries in the world to ban Salvia.
0:05:12 SB: So we’re very good at banning things, and that’s where the pathological paradigm sort of supports what’s happening at a political level. So it’s a bit of a reciprocity that occurs. It’s a bit of a catch-22. We’ve got a political situation that’s focused on prohibition and therefore research that gets funded is that which supports prohibition. So the pathological paradigm stems from the historical quirks and the situation of prohibition that we have at the moment. And any sorts of effort to conduct research outside of that or even engage in advocacy or harm reduction work that sits outside of that seems to be very difficult to get political support for. And I guess an example of that is for the last nearly twelve months we’ve been trying to get drug checking or pill testing happening in Australia. And some states have been more open than others, but New South Wales have said if you bring your drug testing equipment to a festival here we will arrest you on sight. So I think come with this perception that Australia is quite a liberal country but, in fact, when it comes to drugs and many other aspects of human behavior, Australia is quite a conservative country.
0:06:49 PA: One, you were just mentioning this to me before we started the interview, was even something like gay marriage, which is pretty widely accepted in Europe and now in 2015, was deemed constitutional or whatever, it passed in the Supreme Court in America as well. And I was shocked, to be honest, and I think there’s this aspect of a lot of people, at least for someone like me, I travel quite a bit, so a lot of the people that I interact with are Australians who also travel quite a bit, and so they tend to be more progressive and more open-minded, whereas because Australia maybe it’s so far away and because there is, like you were saying, some still sense of conservatism and whatnot, that those who don’t live in Australia, that perception is a bit skewed because of the biases involved with who we interact with, which is maybe not the real person, real Australian majority, so to say.
0:07:49 SB: Yeah, look, I would say that, that was certainly my experience. I have to say going to Prague, the first time I’ve been to Europe and I was amazed and quite excited to see the different perspectives and the liberalism that I saw while I was over there. But in saying that, with things like gay marriage in Australia, 70% of the population support it, it becomes a political issue, and because of the nature of politics and people play political games, that’s why we’ve not seen any progression with regard to gay marriage. And I think with drug policy, it becomes even more complicated, there’s less public support for it, but there definitely is a majority public support for some sort of shift in what we’re doing. Most people in Australia, or maybe not most, but more than 50% of people in Australia would say, “What we’re doing is not working, and we need to take an alternative approach.” Yet politicians are too scared to propose taking such alternative approaches or at least those with power. We have Greens, MPs and Green Senators who are quite progressive and suggesting that we need to have, we need to have a summit and we need to talk about these issues. But the issues of the day, which tend to be very political about budgets and things like that, that’s what tends to take the precedence in the media, and drug policy just becomes an issue that’s at the bottom of the priority list.
0:09:35 PA: So then how do you break out of the pathological paradigm? How do you transcend, to use a word that’s fairly common with psychedelics? How do you transcend that so that you can actually start encouraging policy makers to make decisions based on evidence and logic rather than ideology?
0:09:55 SB: Yeah, it’s a very difficult question to answer. I see a lot of our drug policy is media-driven. There’ll be a story in the media, the story in the media gets bigger and bigger, the government needs to be seen to be doing something about it and they do what they do best, which is to do more prohibitive punishment-based interventions. And a good example would be, we have had a lot of media attention around methamphetamine at the moment, and one of the responses to that was to set up a dob in a dealer hot line. So what a lot of the researchers in Australia are doing is trying to look at ways of shifting the political attention to looking at evidence base rather than just reacting. So that they’re responding rather than reacting to what’s happening in the media. Because the media is just sort of reporting on the pointy end of what’s happening and it’s not an accurate representation of what’s actually happening in the broader society.
0:11:04 SB: I think in terms of psychedelics and seeing what we’ve seen recently in Australia with regard to medicinal Cannabis, and just to give your audience an idea of what’s happened there, Australia’s recently seen a 180 spin on medicinal Cannabis, it happened really quickly, there was a very small window of opportunity where there was a lot of publicity around one or two young children with epilepsy, who were using medicinal Cannabis. And at the same time a philanthropic grandparent threw in 8 million dollars and all of a sudden, the conversation turned and we had conservative shock jocks saying that we need medicinal Cannabis in Australia, all of a sudden. So again, it’s media-driven, but then all of a sudden the federal government putting through legislation, to change the scheduling of Cannabis, each state was sort of fighting to be the first state to get a Cannabis trial up and have [0:12:10] ____.
0:12:10 SB: And so I think something that Rick from MAPS talked about at Prague is the medicalisation and I think that, for me that’s the way that you… Not necessarily break out of the pathological paradigm, but I think you need to be able to work within it and demonstrate that these chemicals and plants have medicinal value. If you can reframe the conversation and talk about their medicinal value, then that’s a different narrative to the pathological narrative that occurs when we’re talking about drugs are bad, people who use drugs are bad, they’re morally, there’s something morally inherently wrong with them, or drugs corrupt people, which sort of fits with the pathological paradigm. So, the idea is to shift the narrative to being around medical use. I think that’s gonna be the key in Australia to us conducting psychedelic research, psychedelic science. And in turn, I think, what follows that, what follows the medical research is evidence demonstrating that, “Hey, these drugs actually aren’t as dangerous as we’ve been told for so long.” And in turn, that might lead to policy change.
0:13:35 PA: And this is what… I’ll re-emphasize that this is what we’ve seen with medical Marijuana in the United States, is basically, with medical Marijuana becoming legal in California in 1996, and now, I think, 29 states have medical Marijuana. What that did is it made people comfortable with the aspect that their friends and family, at least usually, one person they know or a few people they knew started to use Cannabis and they recognize that, “Oh, I respect this person. This person has a job, this person is productive, so to say, or an important part of their community, or society, and they still use Marijuana. Wait, something must be wrong here with what the government has told me.” And this has eventually shifted public policy. So, it seems like by using a similar model or framework, and I think this is why MAPS is pushing so hard to medicalize MDMA for PTSD, is with how penetrating PTSD has really gone into our society, especially in America, with the wars that we’ve fought, I think their assumption is that something similar will happen as more and more people with PTSD turn to using MDMA, that it will normalize the use of the substance. And hopefully, open up some conversations and doors that weren’t previously accessible.
0:14:53 SB: Absolutely, I think that medicalization is the thin end of the wedge, and people base their opinions on what they’ve heard or what they’ve experienced. And so, as you were saying, if people have started to have experiences where there’s people they know that have had benefits from medicinal Cannabis, maybe they’re no longer taking 15 medications, or they’re not using opiates, or they’re not using whatever, people see that as being a positive thing. And similarly, with MDMA, with the research that’s coming out demonstrating that it has this curative effect in people who have not responded to other therapies, the more people that are exposed to people who have undergone that transformative experience, the more open they’re going to be to questioning this information that I’ve been given doesn’t match up with what I’m actually seeing. In many ways, it’s what happens in reverse, I guess, with the drug scare campaigns. We see a lot of drug scare campaigns in Australia, and I mentioned that a little bit in Prague. I demonstrated one of the campaigns with regard to ecstasy, which Rick Doblin thought was just hilarious. But what… It had a picture of a toilet with some beakers lying around, and it says, “You don’t know what’s in your ecstasy, it’s made with battery acid and Drano.”
0:16:32 SB: And of course, he took it back to the US and showed it to a few people like… I can’t think of his name now. Quite a prominent pharmacologist, who said, “You couldn’t have picked a… You couldn’t make MDMA in this set up that they have shown.” But more importantly, I love how they throw the battery acid and the Drano, as if that’s not the same reagents that we use when we’re making pharmaceutical drugs. We just call them sodium hydroxide and sulphuric acid. We don’t call it Drano and battery acid. But with those campaigns, what the research is showing is that they actually have the opposite intended effect, because they’re showing people that are having… And the Montana Meth Project is a great example of this, where it’s had the opposite of its intended effect. That they’re showing people at the really pointy end of methamphetamine use and the average young person, 16, 18, 21, if they’re seeing somebody who’s just using meth or MDMA, or whatever drug recreationally, they’re having a great time. And so, what that does is it discredits all of the drug education information that they’ve been given, and they go, “Well, hold on a minute. If Johnny’s not prostituting himself and enjoys a pipe of ice on every second Friday night, then maybe all of this other information I’ve been given about drugs is wrong as well.”
0:18:13 SB: And actually, what they’ve found in the Meth Montana Project was, from baseline to follow-up, the young people that were exposed to the Faces of Meth campaign were found to be more likely to think that the rate of methamphetamine use was higher than it actually was before they implemented the intervention, and they perceived it to be less dangerous. So, it had the opposite intended effect.
0:18:42 PA: And this is interesting, and it’s a far cry from what, at least from an American-centric perspective, was going in the ’80s with the “Just Say No” drugs campaign that was all over public television and all over the mainstream media where you had this one actor who cracked an egg in a frying pan and had… It was something along the lines of this is your brain, with the egg, this is the drugs, with the frying pan, and then he cracked the egg in the frying pan and he said, “This is what drugs do to your brain. Any questions?” And I think a lot of people had questions. And I think… But more importantly, I think those campaigns were somewhat effective largely because the government had in a way a lot of control over the flow of information specific to society. And now with the internet people are starting to realize that they’re getting their information from multiple sources and that maybe a lot of this propaganda, more or less, misinformation that’s been shoved down our throats about all types of drugs, it’s not legitimate and that both comes from where they’re getting their information and it also comes from, like you said, these conversations and experiences that they’re observing or that are actually happening to them.
0:20:11 SB: Exactly. And, I mean, a lot of school education, drug education has been found to be ineffective for just that reason, because we have the Internet. Now people can, they can tell you all the bad things about drugs in high school to high school kids but then if they go online onto Erowid, they find out about a whole lot of positive things associated with those drugs as well and the information they’re being given is just being completely discredited.
0:20:40 PA: Yeah. There’s a complete lack of transparency and honesty and in the past governments could get away with that. Nowadays, both specific to drug use and just in general, in politics, transparency is becoming more important than ever. And so it’s like you just can’t get away with that type of information anymore.
0:21:01 SB: Yeah. I’m quite lucky because… Look, we’d not get away with doing this in a high school, but I get invited to give guest lectures for the orientation week for university students. So it’s their first week at university, and I come in with them, telling them the real story about drugs, that drugs make you feel good, these are the positive effects, these are the less positive effects. And talk to them around harm reduction. I’m not condoning drug use. But if you’re gonna use drugs, here are some ways that you might minimize the harm associated with your use, everything from reagent pill testing to just looking after your mates and stuff like that. It’s that I really enjoy the opportunity to go in to the 17 and 18-year-olds and go in and give them that information and give them the real story. It’s a shame that that can’t happen on a broader level, I guess.
0:22:00 PA: And when you do that, do you ever share your personal stories or does there have to be a pretty clear separation as a researcher between the information you give and maybe what you’ve experienced yourself?
0:22:11 SB: Yeah. I absolutely never talk about any… I never provide any information as to whether or not I’ve used drugs. And that includes when I’m presenting at conferences, and even at conferences that are quite liberal, such as the Entheogenesis Conference, which is Australia’s premier psychedelic conference, we’ve got one coming up in 2017 in December that we’re really looking forward to. I’ve done a few keynotes at the EGA conference and I’ll usually start by saying, “Don’t ask me about whether or not I’ve used these chemicals because my ambiguous response will just frustrate you and I both.” And the reason that is, and I’ve outlined it at an earlier conference is, I’m not just a researcher. I’m a clinically trained psychologist. I’m registered with the national registration body, and there’s the potential that I could be de-registered for discussing particularly current drug use, but even talking positively about past drug use, could be perceived as bringing my profession into disrepute. And so I tend to come up with different strategies to avoid answering the question, which I’m doing at the moment.
0:23:35 SB: I often do… I do a lot of media work here in Australia, trying to shift the discourse around psychedelics and it comes up quite frequently and I’ve got my set of questions. I did a radio interview with a shock jock on Bicycle Day. Actually, I was talking about Bicycle Day, I thought, what a great opportunity to enlighten some Australians and tell them about Bicycle Day and the implications of it, which led to talking about psychedelic research and how it’s being shown to have potential benefits for particular mental health conditions. And then they said, “Well, Stephen, have you use these drugs?” And I said, “Well, look, what I’m talking to you about today is the evidence and that’s what’s really important. What I’ve done in the past isn’t really important.” And these guys didn’t think that was a very good answer. They said, “Come on. We’re mates.” And I’m thinking, “No, we’re not mates. We’re talking on national radio.”
0:24:40 SB: “Can you tell us if you’ve used the drugs?” And I said, “Well, look, if I say that I do, I have, then you’ll just say that I’m a hippie promoting psychedelics and I don’t really have any credibility. And if I say that I haven’t then you’ll say that I don’t fully understand the potential adverse effects associated with these drugs. So, I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t.” And they pushed me again and it’s the only time I’ve been pushed a third time on that question, and so I had to think on my feet. And I mentioned that overseas, in the MAPS protocol, the therapists are actually brought over and given MDMA because it’s deemed to be ethical or deemed unethical to be administering drugs to people, particularly psychedelic drugs, if you have not experienced them yourself. And I said, “Unfortunately, because we don’t have MDMA research happening in Australia I haven’t had the opportunity to undergo that research.” And then they’re all, “Okay, that makes sense.”
0:25:44 SB: But yeah, that there’s the barrier to… I’ve sort of outlined the barriers to coming out in Australia with regard to one’s drug use. So there’s the issue of working as a clinician, there’s the issue of your credibility as being a researcher, and I guess the potential implications of that are that you might not get funding for other research that you’re doing because you’re the hippie that’s promoting psychedelic drugs.
0:26:14 PA: Right, and based on what we were talking about before, it seems like that also then ties into the same pathological paradigm.
0:26:20 SB: Absolutely.
0:26:21 PA: This inability for you to speak about it in a way.
0:26:26 SB: I guess the only way that you can get away with it in Australia in terms of coming out is if you come out and repent, and you say you were a very naughty boy and you did those things and you’ve learned from that, and that’s in turn led me to work in the alcohol and other drug industry, where I help people now. And that would probably be seen as an acceptable way of talking about past drug use. But the only other way that people probably get an out of free jail card is if they’re a creative type, and certainly my early research showed that people who are within the pop culture, celebrities, for example, have a get out of jail free card because for some reason we like to read about Robbie Williams going into detox or Lindsay Lohan on losing her shit or Charlie Sheen losing his shit. There’s this fascination around celebrities, and so there is the potential for celebrities to… Or people that are working in sort of the creative art type area, to talk about their drug use without it being seen as pathological.
0:27:45 PA: And what about specific to psychedelics? Have any major creative types in Australia or well-known business leaders come out in support of psychedelics? For example, in the States we had Steve Jobs, who said LSD was one of the best three things that he’s ever done. It’s pretty open that the founders of Google have done LSD. It’s pretty open that most people in Silicon Valley who are high up have probably done psychedelics at some point. Is that the case in Australia or is still the lid pretty tight on that, specific to psychedelics?
0:28:20 SB: Yeah, no, the lid is screwed on really tight. We don’t even have a Prime Minister who has admitted that they’ve not inhaled, let alone had a toke. Yeah, we don’t have any people from… That are reputable within the business industry or within politics or so forth within Australia that have come out in such a way. And I think that comes back to the issue that we have in Australia of us having such a small population compared to the very large population that you have in North America and in Europe, where there’s opportunities for more people to come out. And even if it’s… Even an example of Richard Branson, he’s not necessarily coming out to say that he’s a regular drug user, but he’s certainly talking about drug reform, and how he’s had a spliff with his parents to try to change their minds around drugs. But we have a very small population and so I think people… And I think that’s maybe what perpetuates the conservativism that we have here is, nobody’s really willing to put their head on the pulpit and it’s almost an Australian cultural thing. We have some terms like, “You don’t wanna be the squeaky wheel,” “You don’t want to suffer from tall poppy syndrome,” in Australia.
0:29:49 PA: That is my favorite one, the tall poppy syndrome, I’ve heard that. I have two close friends who I hang out with quite a bit in Lisbon, where I’m living right now in Portugal, and that is my favorite phrase that they use there. A lot of phrases that Australians have, where I’m just like, “My mind is blown.” But I think tall poppy syndrome is my favorite by far.
0:30:11 SB: Yeah, and so tall poppy syndrome is actually preventing people from talking about their drug experiences and perpetuating the conservativism. And we just end up with this status quo that doesn’t change.
0:30:26 PA: Right, and they’ve mentioned that specifically that it’s… Although it sounds interesting, it’s actually… It’s a cultural issue, in tall poppy syndrome and it’s in direct opposition to American culture, which is more like, “Oh, look how good I am, look at what I’ve done, blah blah blah blah blah.”
0:30:45 SB: Absolutely, and it’s really interesting watching Australians try to put together a CV and go for a job interview, because they don’t wanna be seen as having tall poppy syndrome. But yeah, it’s something I haven’t really thought about so much until having this conversation with you, but it’s more than us being a small population, it’s to do with our culture as well. People don’t wanna stand out in Australia, they want to fit in and be part of the community and coming out and saying, psychedelics have had this profound effect on me doesn’t really fit in with our culture.
0:31:23 PA: And that probably won’t change any time soon, then, because the cultural more that you’re talking about seems like it’s fairly ingrained. And it sounds like… ‘Cause a lot of what’s going on… We could call this psychedelic identity politics, a lot of big push that’s going on with groups like Symposium and the Psychedelics Because Campaign, it’s about openly coming out and saying, “Hey, look, I’m a lawyer. Hey, look, I’m a doctor, an entrepreneur, a psychologist or a psychiatrist and I’ve done psychedelics.” But it sounds like that route won’t be a possibility for drug reform in Australia, it sounds like it will probably have to be a combination of people reading news stories from abroad, for example, understanding that things like Cannabis have now been legalized in America, a combination of that and a combination of what PRISM is working on with hopefully some level of medicalization leading to just a more open conversation about what’s going on with psychedelics, but also drugs in general.
0:32:26 SB: Yeah, even the psychiatrist that we’re working with, he’s not willing to be interviewed by the media about his intention to do MDMA-assisted psychotherapy and that’s part of that tall poppy syndrome, he doesn’t want to… He doesn’t want to stand out by being named in the media. He’s spoken to the media for us in the past, but he’s certainly protected his name from being published, because he doesn’t want people’s opinions from him talking about his intentions and wanting to engage in MDMA research to impact on his, I guess, his identity as a psychiatrist. So yeah, we’re not going to see many people coming out and saying that, though I think there’s a growing trend in the younger community.
0:33:27 SB: We’ve got a fellow, Nick Wallace in Australia, who’s trying to establish the Australian Psychedelic Society, and a lot of that will be, I think, around advocacy, setting up forums around psychedelics and information evenings and things like that. But a little bit will be about trying to get people to come out. And I think what you’ll see in Australia is a lot of the younger folk coming out, because they’ve grown up in this different time, where they’ve got access to the internet. Their views are very different to the baby boomers’ views. Because even in… In America, at least, with your baby boomers, they went through the ’60s and the ’70s with LSD. There wasn’t a lot of that happening in Australia, and so… They might have smoked… We’ve got baby boomers that might have smoked a bit of pot, but there would have been very few that had taken LSD. And so, I think that’s another… Being so isolated as we are, we weren’t really exposed to much of that.
0:34:33 SB: However, with this younger group, I do see the younger group coming through and people being far more open about their psychedelic drug use and talking about the benefits of it. It’s gonna get interesting, I guess, as I’m watching this sort of happen, how that then impacts on people’s future careers. And that’s one concern, I say to younger people, if they’re wanting to come out and they’re studying to be a psychologist or a social worker or something like that, I just say, “Just be a little careful. Think about what implications it could have on your future.” Because we are so conservative here and our registration bodies are all quite conservative and looking to basically have psychologists and nurses and so forth dob on each other for their drug use. So yes, I think the change will be very slow in terms of people coming out. So, like you said, what we need to do is what we’re continuing to do is just trying to have continuous media output, with myself or other people from PRISM talking about studies that are happening overseas so that there’s this just sort of white noise of psychedelic science happening that people are hearing. And hopefully, in turn, as people hear more and more about that, they might start asking more questions around, “Oh, I’ve heard that a few times, that’s interesting. I might be interested in finding a little bit more about that.”
0:36:05 SB: And I have to say I was really heartened earlier this year as part of the MAPS’ dinner, the dinners that were happening around the globe. We had one in Melbourne, and it was organized by the Students For Sensible Drug Policy at the University of Melbourne. And it absolutely blew me away. The number of people that attended this… It’s more of a symposium than a dinner. We had some informal food, but it was… The speaker was Olivia Carter, who’s done some research in psychedelics overseas, looking at… I can’t pronounce his name. [UNKNOWN], who’s done quite a bit of research into the visual cortex and psychedelic drugs, very basic science stuff. Myself and Martin Williams, from PRISM, talked as well. But the makeup of the audience really blew me away. There was everybody from sort of hipsters through to people coming up to me saying, “Actually, I’m a psychologist or a social worker, I’m a psychiatric registrar, I’m really interested in this.” And so, I think there’s more and more people coming through the professions that are interested in it, they’re just not really sure how to assist in moving the dialogue toward something more positive. And PRISM gets lots of emails saying, “I’ve just finished my bachelor’s degree, how can I get involved in psychedelic research?”
0:37:47 SB: And unfortunately, my response to them is, “Unfortunately, in Australia, there really isn’t any psychedelic research happening, but maybe you could do a PhD and do some survey-based research or do some observations of Ayahuasca circles, or something like that.” We haven’t got the precedent in Australia set yet to be able to conduct good psychedelic research, and that’s gonna take some time. And so, we need to kick a couple of goals to set the precedent. And so, while our focus has been around MDMA research, we’re sort of looking at the moment of the potential of doing brain scan studies. It may be not kicking the goal that we want, but at least we get a point, heading towards the direction we want. Set some precedent for conducting research with prohibited chemicals, looking at their positive effect, because there actually has been studies conducted using Schedule 9, or what you call in the US, Schedule 1 chemicals in Australia, where they’ve been administered for people, but they are being focused on looking how it impacts people’s driving and those sorts of things, so focused on that pathogenic aspect.
0:39:01 PA: And so, I think I’ll go back and re-emphasize a point that you made, specific to the Australian Psychedelic Society and the MAPS global psychedelic dinner that you guys hosted, or the symposium, more or less, ’cause I think that could potentially play an important role in the future, especially in the nearish future as these things get up and going in potentially places like Melbourne and Sydney and Perth or Adelaide, the major cities in Australia, I think enabling people to come out and just even have conversations with others might be one way to help overcome that tall poppy syndrome, so to say that is very inherent in…
0:39:37 SB: Absolutely. The fact it was held at the Florey Brain Institute, which is a very reputable organization in Australia, was probably key to people coming to it, that may not have normally come to a psychedelic event. It was held in a quite a well-esteemed organization, and that led to people who may not have normally gone to psychedelic events attend and I think that’s a key for us as well is making sure that we make these links with well-established institutions, and I think if you look at what’s happened in the US and in the UK, I think that’s been a factor that has assisted in the work that’s been undertaken. Johns Hopkins, UCLA, King’s College, Imperial College, these are all very well-known and very well-established and respected organizations. And so, I think something PRISM has to focus on is engaging with those sorts of organizations in Australia, because if Johns Hopkins is doing stuff within America, that’s perceived as have been quality medical research. And similarly in Australia, we have a couple of institutes that hold some authority and it’s just a matter of working with the people in power, or that have the power in those organizations to open their minds a little bit to the potential possibilities that might come with getting on board with this psychedelic research renaissance.
0:41:22 PA: Absolutely. And one thing that I’ve been thinking about as we’ve had this tall poppy syndrome conversation and even just talking about psychedelics in general in Australia is, I read an article maybe a month or two ago, that I think I found through your Twitter. It was about a guy who was doing LSD in public and…
0:41:43 SB: Yes.
0:41:43 PA: Fighting it. Can you tell us a little, ’cause that seems to then go completely in the opposite direction. But I found the story to be so interesting. I haven’t revisited it since then, but what’s going on there? Can you kinda give us the background of that story?
0:41:56 SB: Yeah. So look, Greg is an interesting character. He would probably be perceived, even within the psychedelic community, as a bit of a tall poppy. Look, he’s had mixed support for what he’s doing. Some people see that his efforts may actually be a threat rather than provide any positive movement with regard to psychedelics and policy change. So basically, for the last five or six years on Bicycle Day, Greg sits out the front of Parliament in Victoria and drops acid and he has a sign that says, “I’m taking acid. It’s Bicycle Day today, and I use psychedelics because of their spiritual… For this mystical experience I get from them. This is basically my religion. And I wanna use the Charter of Human Rights, which we have in Victoria,” I think it might be also at a national level, “For religious freedom to use these drugs.” And he’s basically, up until this year, gone and done it and no one’s really taken much notice. And so, he stepped it up a bit this year. He actually wanted to get arrested. He’s been trying to get arrested for five years, and he’s sitting up there in Parliament saying, “I’m taking acid,” And no one’s, everyone’s just walking past.
0:43:24 SB: And so he actually went, saw some police officers that were, maybe a couple of hundred meters away, and he said… He set himself up to do what he’d normally do, and he just walked up to them first and said, “Look, I’m just letting you know, I’m just gonna sit up there for the rest of the day. I’m gonna drop some acid, because this is part of my religion.” And they kinda looked at each other and, “You mean you’re in possession of LSD?” He said, “Yes, yes, I’m in possession of LSD.” And they searched him and arrested him. He went to court, and he’s asked the court… Basically, what he’s trying to do is get his case taken to the High Court, so that the Charter of Human Rights can be considered. Because if it’s handled at a county court, they’re not looking at those sorts of… Constitutional stuff happens at the High Court, a bit like the Supreme Court in the US. He’s been able to, so far, get his case taken to the next level up, but he hasn’t made it to the High Court yet.
0:44:29 SB: Well, yeah, well, I guess that’s where he’s at. So he’s looking to engage, ideally, somebody from the Queen’s Counsel who is basically a very high-priced lawyer that works in the High Court to represent him. But before he even gets there, he’s gotta get to the High Court. He needs a judge at the Victorian Supreme Court, which is less than the High Court, to actually say that he’s got a case to be heard. Otherwise he just ends up with a drug charge.
0:45:03 PA: And so, how do you feel about this? What are your thoughts on this? Do you think this is counterproductive to some of the measures that are going on in the psychedelic world, specific to Australia? Do you think it doesn’t really matter either way, that he’s made a bit of a splash, but nothing big is gonna happen? Or do you think him coming out open like this might open the doors for other people to maybe be a little bit more open about how they might use psychedelics for spirituality?
0:45:32 SB: I think, unfortunately, yeah, he’s just made a little splash that’s unlikely to make much of a difference. If it gets to the High Court things could get interesting, but based on the literature I’ve read on cognitive liberty and cases in the UK where people have tried to do similar things, basically, the drug laws have been deemed to override the Charter of Human Rights, because it’s in the interest of public safety for the drug laws to be in place, or at least that’s the rationale of the judges, and therefore that trumps the Charter of Human Rights. So if it plays out in the same way that it’s played out in the UK, then unfortunately he won’t even make it to the High Court.
0:46:26 PA: And does the Australian High Court use the decisions from the UK as precedents when they’re making decisions? Do you have any idea?
0:46:35 SB: Not that I’m aware of, but my feeling is, given what I’ve talked about in terms of Australia being quite conservative, I’ve just been a little concerned for him that he may not get the hearing that he’s wanting. He wanted to get arrested. He wanted to try to put this through the court system to see what would happen, to see if he would get a chance to argue that the prohibition of LSD was in violation of his human rights. I just worry that he’s not going to get the opportunities to do that based on what I’ve seen happen around the world and given that we are conservative in Australia, to repeat something I just saw on somebody’s Twitter post, no politician or judge wants to be on the front page of the Herald Sun, our local tabloid newspaper, with what might be perceived as a negative story. So I think that fear of potential maybe ramifications of a judge saying, “Do you know what? You’ve got something here. This is interesting.” I think that they would act on the… They would be risk adverse and not allow him to take his case to the High Court.
0:47:57 PA: It’s an interesting case, and based on our conversations over the past hour, I largely agree with you on that. I think while it is… I guess the best way I can describe it is it’s an interesting effort. When I read the article, I was a bit like, “What?” I didn’t know how to respond to it. [laughter]
0:48:19 SB: And I think that’s how many people in the broader psychedelic community feel is what we don’t wanna do is have the general public thinking that people in the psychedelic community are a little bit loopy, and I think I appreciate what Greg’s trying to do, but there is the danger, in his efforts to do that, he does look a little bit like a crazy man. He’s done a hunger strike. He’s had a few efforts at trying to get some publicity around this, and I appreciate what he’s trying to do, I just am a little concerned that the way in which he’s going about it could potentially lead people to perceive psychedelics and people who use them to be a little nutty, and that’s not the perception that we want the broader public in Australia to have.
0:49:19 PA: Rather, maybe it’s not the perception we want people to continue to have. I think that has to some degree been the perception that people have had in the past, and that’s part of what you’re doing at PRISM and what we’re working to do in terms of changing cultural understanding of psychedelic users, right?
0:49:35 SB: Exactly, I think you’ve nailed it. I think why people are concerned… He does have his supporters, but the people that are concerned, are concerned that what he’s doing is actually perpetuating that pre-existing belief that psychedelics turn you into a crazy person, and the fact that he’s trying to set up a church where you can use LSD and has his… He talks about the MES transcendental compounds. And so he’s a little esoteric in the way he describes his use of the drugs. It can potentially perpetuate that stereotype that LSD turns you into a crazy person.
0:50:22 PA: Yeah, absolutely, so… Yeah, interesting to hear your thoughts on the matter. I’ll kinda do a bit of a 90 degree turn now, just because we’re kinda nearing the end of the hour, and I still wanna hear your thoughts just on what’s going on with PRISM specific to maybe what will happen in the next two to three years, with what you guys are doing and also what you maybe perceive as some changes that could potentially happen in drug policy in the next five to 10 years in Australia specifically, just based on what we talked about with pill testing and what’s going on with Marijuana in the United States and now it looks like there are certain political movements in the UK as well to legalize Cannabis. What do you perceive as coming down the pipeline both for PRISM but also for drug policy and psychedelics in Australia in the next five to 10 years?
0:51:16 SB: Yeah, look, I’m in two minds. If you look at the amount of government spending with regard to drug policy, only 3% of our spending goes into harm reduction, and that’s significantly declined over the past 20 years, so that doesn’t fill me with optimism. At the same time, I’m very hopeful that we’ll get drug checking underway within the next 12 to 24 months, but at the end of the day, there’s always the potential for politicians to step in and veto it. We saw that in Australia in the ’90s, we were trial of prescription heroin in the ACT and the conservative John Howard government stepped in and overrode the state government and said, “No, no, no, you can’t do this.” Interestingly enough, because he was concerned it was going to impact our trade and relations with the US, because this was before you guys had decided you were all gonna go down the medicinal Cannabis route. It would be interesting if it had have happened today, it might have been a different situation.
0:52:28 SB: So there’s a decreasing funding towards harm reduction. I hope that… We’ve got a lot of good, talented researchers in drug policy at the moment in Australia, that can hopefully turn some of that around. There’s a lot of support among the younger cohort to implement some of these policies, we’ve got parents, for example, whose children have died from taking ecstasy who are in support of it. So I think some of those things we may see happen. And at the same time just to demonstrate the conservativism in Australia. Australia was the first country in the world to implement harm reduction in 1985 when there was the potential of the HIV epidemic. Australia was seen as a world leader by setting up needle and syringe programs and all other fantastic initiatives.
0:53:26 SB: And that’s really just wound back over time, I guess our last big bang was we had… Was the set up of a consumption room in Sydney, that was piloted for 10 years until it was finally given the thumbs up to continue as a permanent project. So you can see that there’s this, it’s a really slow, long road when it comes to drug policy in Australia. Hopefully what will happen is that there will be another or many other windows of opportunity that come up like that that occurred with regard to medicinal Cannabis in Australia, which might allow us to implement things like pill testing and to engage in psychedelic research and to talk about decriminalization and to have some of those conversations. For me, it’s about windows of opportunity and embracing those windows of opportunity when they arise and having your information ready to go, so that when that window of opportunity opens up, you can engage the media, you can talk to politicians, you’ve got protocols, you’re ready to go.
0:54:36 PA: That’s an important part, is having some… Knowing ways to navigate sticky situations when it comes to talking about drug policy in a public way or talking about psychedelics in a public way. This is something that Terry Crabb spoke about at the Beyond Psychedelics conference as well in terms of how do we speak to the media, even how do we speak to our friends and family about these substances without alienating or without being stigmatized as a result of it?
0:55:07 SB: Yeah, absolutely and so going back to the earlier… Our earlier conversation, there’s clearly a potential for people being stigmatized. In fact, there’s a massive stigma for people who use drugs in general, not just psychedelics, but that’s something that was a real focus of our most recent National Conference on drugs was the fact that stigma is so severe that it’s having an impact on people accessing health services, accessing treatment and further, the stigma is perpetuating their dependency because they’re internalizing that potential stigma. There was something else you just said that sort of slipped my mind ’cause we’ve spoken for a while now but…
0:55:57 PA: Yeah, I was talking just about the stigma attached to it. And just making sure that the way that we navigate certain points when we’re talking to media, when we’re talking to friends and family that we do so in a way that doesn’t alienate people, but instead brings people into the conversation to have a constructive dialogue, keeping in mind that our focus is really the same. It’s to protect and support people and it’s to provide services that help people be healthy, whether that’s harm reduction or whether that’s the use of psychedelics, our intentions are the same, and I think just understanding the alignment of those principles is important in terms of moving the conversation and the dialogue forward to be more inclusive.
0:56:37 SB: Yeah, and I’ve certainly learned a lot in the last, probably five or 10 years of working with media and even my own conversations with family around these sorts of issues. And certainly with my family, it’s been great to see the changes and then see my parents sort of talking to their friends and trying to sort of convert them as well now that they’ve sort of understood the situation. Some things I’ve learnt, I guess, is unlike Terry, I take a much more conservative approach when I’m talking with the media, I very much talk within a medical model. I’m very keen to distinguish between recreational use and clinical use to try to ensure that people support what I’m saying. I’m not putting people off who may not agree with recreational use, and I also am very careful in the words that I use in terms of talking about harm reduction. Quite often myself and colleagues will preface what we’re saying to the media by saying, “There’s no such thing as safe drug use, but there are ways that we can reduce harm.”
0:57:52 SB: We’re not talking about safe drug here, that term “safe” is something we really avoid when we’re talking to the media, because people who don’t have experience with drug use or have negative beliefs towards people who use illicit drugs will come straight back and say, “This guy is saying drug use is safe. This guy is crazy.” So you’ve gotta be very careful with the language that you use in Australia when you’re talking with the media.
0:58:24 PA: Absolutely. And again, this comes back to these cultural differences between… Probably who Terry has talked to has been largely American media, and then probably someone in Norway and Europe as well. And there’s just different cultural mores in America and Europe compared to Australia. So adjusting the language like you need to, I think is an important part of understanding what environment you exist within and what are the best ways to navigate that environment.
0:58:50 SB: Yeah. And I think some of this for me has been quite fluid and organic. And I’ve kind of… I’ve had an idea of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, but, particularly, after going to Prague, it’s really made me realize that we are a very different culture here in Australia, and the way in which we need to approach things needs to be very different to that that’s happening in North America, in Europe. We are not just geographically isolated, we are ideologically isolated as well.
0:59:20 PA: Absolutely. Yeah. So that’s a very good point. So let’s wrap up this conversation now. Just kind of… If we have listeners from Australia who are listening to this, and who want to help out, or become involved, specific to what PRISM is doing, or just generally for psychedelics, what do you recommend that they do?
0:59:41 SB: I think supporting. You can support PRISM financially just by making a small donation. All of the money that PRISM is collecting is only to be used to fund psychedelic research. So, for example, you know I did a crowd funding campaign to get to Prague. The money that PRISM continues to raise… And MAPs have said that they’ll match us 50-50 in terms of funding for research. I’d also encourage people to attend the Entheogenesis conference. If you’re living in Western Australia or South Australia or the Northern Territory, it’s a long way to travel, but I absolutely guarantee that the people that you will meet, and the caliber of the presentations there will blow you away and will be absolutely worth the great distance to get to the EGA conference. And I guess, finally, Nick setting up the Australian Psychedelic Society. So keep an eye out for that. I think once that gets underway, it’ll start in Melbourne and then ideally spread to the other capital cities. And Students for Sensible Drug Policy are doing a fantastic job in Australia at the moment.
1:01:03 SB: So if you’re a student, and you don’t… And you’re… If your university doesn’t have a chapter, contact the guys to get a chapter set up at your university, because they have been significant allies with PRISM, with EGA, with Harm Reduction Victoria, with the pill testing, with everything that’s going on here at the moment when it comes to policy reform. So then it’s probably a shout out to a few key students. Probably, also to DanceWize, who provide trip sitting and harm reduction at festivals. You can make… They do a recruitment every year for new people who are willing to attend festivals and assist with people who are having difficult experiences under the influence of psychedelics. Yeah, there’s a lot of great organizations that are doing fantastic work in Australia. There’s probably one that doesn’t get much attention from the psychedelic community, and it’s the Drug Policy Modeling Program. Monica Barratt, from there is certainly pushing for the pill testing, but Alison Ritter, who heads that up, I have a lot of respect for, she’s certainly not suffering from tall poppy syndrome, but she’s very carefully weaving and weaving the story, and trying to change the narrative at the highest levels. And so I absolutely support the work that’s going on with the Drug Policy Modeling Program.
1:02:36 PA: Fantastic. So that’s a very nice summary and a wrap up of a lot of things drug-related that’s going on in Australia. So PRISM, obviously, which is what you’re directly involved in. The Psychedelic Society is, I think you said Nick Wallace is going to start soon?
1:02:52 SB: Yeah.
1:02:53 PA: The Entheogenesis conference, in December 2017, which is in Melbourne. Is that correct?
1:03:00 SB: That… It’s just out of Melbourne. It’s a little way out of Melbourne, but in Victoria.
1:03:03 PA: Okay.
1:03:03 SB: And apologies for any other organizations that I’ve missed. [chuckle]
1:03:07 PA: No. And then we’ll kind of wrap or we’ll in the show notes we’ll include links to these as well as additional resources that we find. But no, this has been excellent. So our conversation has ranged far and wide, and I think it’s great to have you on the show to talk about specific to what’s going on in Australia. Because we hear a lot about what’s going on in the States, and a little bit of what’s going on with Europe, but obviously, Australia with its relevance to psychedelics and culture, and just its relevance in the world, it’s really important to have this conversation. So thanks so much for joining us, Stephen.
1:03:45 SB: Thanks for having me, and the opportunity to let the world know that there is a psychedelic community in Australia. You just don’t hear much about it, because of the conservatism that we have here and the lack of psychedelic science.
1:04:00 PA: Thanks for listening to The Third Wave Podcast, with Paul Austin. Want more psychedelic information? Go to our website at thethirdwave.co and register for our email list and newsletter. Also, please consider donating to Third Wave via our Patreon page. Donations make this podcast possible. Psychedelics have the potential to transform lives. By donating, you enable us to continue to inform people about the benefits of these powerful substances.