Transcript: Why Improving Drug Policy Will Be An Uphill Struggle – Charlotte Walsh
Please enjoy this transcript of our interview with Charlotte Walsh.
Academic lawyer Charlotte Walsh shares her experience working in drug policy and explains why the UK is facing an uphill battle to change the stigma around psychoactive substances. Although police forces in the UK have some capacity to diverge from national policy and work to their own drug policy, this is nowhere near the power that US states can exercise in response to federal law.
Charlotte explains the unique challenges that the UK faces before achieving legalization, including: a powerful right-wing tabloid media; a deep-rooted anti-cannabis stigma; and particularly unforgiving attitudes towards cognitive liberty.
In this episode we talk about:
- How drug policy in the UK has followed the example of the US but is less flexible to change
- Why politicians in the UK listen to the right-wing press over the drug policy experts
- Why cognitive liberty should be an essential part of future drug policy
0:00:27 Paul Austin: Hey, listeners, I’m your host, Paul Austin, back with another episode of The Third Wave podcast. Excuse some of the noise outside, I’m back in New York. So if you hear a little background, that’s why. It’s never really quiet here. Let’s get to today’s show. It’s with Charlotte Walsh, who is a lecturer in law at Leicester Law School, where she runs a course in criminology largely concerned with drug policy. Her research focuses on the interface between psychedelics and the law viewed from a liberal human rights-based perspective. And she has published widely on this subject in journals and edited collections, along with being a regular speaker at psychedelic conferences. She is also a member of the ICEERS Legal Advisory Committee, and is on the steering committee of the Ayahuasca Defense Fund, thus being involved with legal defense work, education and protection, along with advocacy for policy reform.
0:01:16 PA: Basically, in my conversation with Charlotte, we talk a little bit about her personal interest in terms of getting involved with this work. And then we go into various things related to psychedelics, law, human rights and the Ayahuasca Defense Fund, etcetera, etcetera. This is the first time that we’ve done an extensive conversation specifically about the legal side of psychedelics, so this will be a nice little intro to that world of things for all of you listeners at home.
0:01:41 PA: Now, before we transition to the podcast, just two things. First of all, if you want to continue to support the work that we’re doing here at The Third Wave, it would be great if you could leave us a review on iTunes for the podcast. And if you wanna support us even more, you can donate by going to patreon.com/thethirdwave, and we have a number of gifts there in exchange for a small monthly donation. The other announcement is if you want to have a legal intentional psychedelic experience with Psilocybin, I co-founded a company called Synthesis, which is now running legal psychedelic retreats in the Netherlands. So if you’re interested in that, just go to synthesisretreat.com, and when filling out the application form, just mention that you found it through The Third Wave. So without any further ado, I bring you Charlotte Walsh.
0:02:43 PA: Our listeners are, many of them are somewhat new to the psychedelic space, and I consider a lot of the work you’re doing to be, I would say, very involved, in terms of your work with the Ayahuasca Defense Fund and the perspective that you have on cognitive liberty and our ability to alter our consciousness. So I’d love if you could just give a brief overview of who you are, some of the work that you’ve done, just to start off the conversation in a way that helps our audience understand a little bit more about you.
0:03:11 Charlotte Walsh: Sure, absolutely. So I am an academic lawyer. I’m a lecturer in law at Leicester Law School in the UK, and I run a critical criminology course there, which is a course that’s concerned with questioning why we have the laws we have and why we don’t have the laws that we don’t have. And a lot of the course is focused around drug policy. So I’m specifically interested, really, in critiquing drug policy through the lens of human rights, and I’ve been writing and speaking on that for a number of years. And then when I initially started, I was just sort of thinking about these issues in the abstract, in a sense. And then through my work being published online, some people who had been arrested for plant psychedelic offenses contacted me, and then I was involved in helping give them advice when they were preparing to appear in court. And then through that, that was what got me into a more sort of activist role and being involved with people on the ground, rather than just writing about it. I’m still very much involved in writing on drug policy and speaking on drug policy.
0:04:34 PA: I’d love to hear a little bit about that backstory. Why did you pursue this as a profession? What inspired your desire to wanna work in drug policy and look at how we can start to change some of these inhumane drug laws around altering consciousness?
0:04:48 CW: When I was a teenager, I grew up in the outskirts of Manchester, and I was involved in the rave scene, which was huge in Manchester, and it was this sort of late ’80s, ’90s. So it was that whole era with the big Manchester raves and the Hacienda. And that was very much my world. There was this sort of incredible phenomenon that took place where the sort of levels of drinking in Manchester really dipped during that time, and the levels of violence and the levels of football hooliganism also dipped accordingly. And there was a big sort of rise in the use of ecstasy and LSD. And these were my people, it was like I was really young and I’d found my tribe. And there was a lot of harassment from the police. There were a lot of searches of the venues that I was at and the car parks around, and then there were a lot of arrests. And then the government tried to bring in some legislation… Well, didn’t just try, they did bring in some legislation that criminalized repetitive beats.
0:05:57 CW: And so, I think that was the era when I first started really thinking about the law and whose interests that it served, because I thought we’re witnessing a shift in patterns of consumption that seems to be having an overall positive effect. The lack of drinking and the brawling is dipping and yet, this is what the police are pouncing on whilst they’re sort of, no, alcohol is lawful. And so then, the first thing I was involved in was there was a campaign called Save the Ravers, which was a campaign against the no repetitive beats legislation. But I guess that was what sort of sparked my interest in thinking about the law from a critical perspective. And then that was what inspired me to go to law school. But then, I was disappointed when I went to law school because even though the drug laws drive so much of the prison population, for instance, they’re the reason why so many people get caught up in the system, there was really scant attention paid to it at the law school that I was at.
0:06:56 CW: It kind of got just like a passing mention, drug policy. And so then I went into academia, I became a lecturer and I very much wanted to have that as my focus. I think things have shifted a little bit in recent years. There’s a lot more criminology departments kind of set up in universities around the world, but particularly in the UK, I know that there is, and so there’s a lot more focus on drug policy. It’s kind of come to the forefront more, but this was, you know, back in the kind of like mid to late ’90s. And there was a real sort of absence of work on this. And so that’s the area that I wanted to go into.
0:07:32 PA: And could you just summarize a few of those developments since the mid ’90s? What have you seen happen in the last 20 to 25 years? Particularly in the UK, I think would be great to emphasize in the development around drug policy. I think, you know, David Nutt and his story is really interesting in terms of his role in the UK government, just a summary of that would be fantastic.
0:07:52 CW: I’ve seen really big shifts. So I know when I first started talking about drug policy, even sort of stating the most basic fact, that alcohol and tobacco are drugs, and there’s an arbitrary distinction drawn between alcohol and tobacco and the other drugs, was seen as, like a radical thing to say, whereas now that that’s accepted. And so there has been this kind of a huge shift in the conversation. There’s been a real rise in really kind of influential sort of activist organizations in the UK. So Transform and Release have really helped change the conversation on drugs. But in terms of policy, as you say, we have a kind of quite a dismal track record. So you mentioned David Nutt, he was the former chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which is a body that is set up to advise the government on their drug policy and it’s meant to be, so that drug policy is rooted in science and using that term broadly. So looking at the kind of the social impact of drugs as well as their pharmacology, for instance.
0:08:57 CW: And there was this real kind of spate of decisions that were made by the government whereby they basically neglected or ignored the advice that was given to them by their select committee with David Nutt as head of it, because the decisions weren’t seen as kind of politically palatable to them, I think. I think that the kind of the nadir of it in a sense was, at one point, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs said that they wanted to look at all the evidence on MDMA, on ecstasy, because they thought it was wrongly scheduled. It shouldn’t be in class A, which is like the equivalent of your schedule 1 over in the States. And the government kind of came out even before they published their research findings, and made the announcement that basically we don’t care what report the Advisory Council come up with, we’re still not going to reschedule ecstasy, so don’t worry about it.
0:09:53 CW: So we had this… We’ve had this real situation whereby drug policy has become increasingly politicized rather than rooted in science, to the extent where David Nutt effectively ended up being fired because he refused to toe that line, and he kept bringing it back to the science. And I think the thing that he did that really infuriated the government was he has what I think is a really valid perspective where he says that, “If we’re thinking about harms, we have to appreciate that most things are capable of causing harm, but in order for it to actually mean anything, we have to contextualize it.” And so he was always doing things like comparing how harmful a drug is with like, ecstasy with peanuts or ecstasy with horse riding or whatever it may be. And this really drove the government wild, the idea that we’d be comparing a unlawful exercise with a lawful exercise. And that was basically what got him fired eventually.
0:10:50 CW: So yeah, we have a situation in the UK where drug policy is incredibly political. We have a really sort of virulent right-wing tabloid press in the UK, which is very, very powerful. And I think a lot of the decisions about drug policy are made with one eye on that, you know, basically how Daily Mail readers will take this development. And so that really kind of stifles what happens in terms of drug policy. And the latest kind of really significant thing that happened here was, we passed the Psychoactive Substances Act in 2016, which I don’t know if you’ve heard about this piece of legislation, but it basically… It moves away from the previous situation whereby under the Misuse of Drugs Act would criminalize drugs, one by one, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs would look into that drug and see if it was causing harm or looked set to cause harm. And then now we’ve moved to this system whereby we basically, there’s a blanket ban on all psychoactive substances. So the definition of psycho activity that the government have given is if the substance affects your mental functioning or emotional state, then it’s unlawful. Apart from the exemptions that they’ve made for alcohol and tobacco, which they…
0:12:15 PA: And caffeine right? As well in terms of psychoactive or…
0:12:18 CW: Well, yes. Yeah. Basically foodstuffs. Yeah, absolutely. And medicines. So, I think, again, really highlighting the sort of the divorce from drug policy and it being rooted in science and it being rooted in harm. There were some really interesting conversations in the Houses of Parliament when they were bringing that legislation in and one of the lords stood up, to his credit, stood up and said, like asked the government what the intellectual justification was for exempting alcohol given the harms that of course… Accident and emergency in the UK is just filled with people who are experiencing the harms of alcohol every Saturday night and all the other nights of the week. And the government basically… The representative of the government basically just said, “We have a cultural history of drinking alcohol in this country, and we raise an awful lot of money from taxes on alcohol in this country. And so that’s why it was exempted.”
0:13:26 PA: So has that conversation kind of… To touch on that point a little bit, has that conversation evolved with Cannabis at all? Because, obviously, with what we’re seeing in the United States, for example, a lot of people who previously were drinking alcohol… And we’re seeing this both in a statistical abstract perspective but I also am experiencing this in my friend groups, immediate friend groups. A lot of people who were previously drinking a lot of alcohol are now transitioning to Cannabis instead. And Cannabis obviously is much healthier, it’s much safer, it’s just less harmful in so many ways and obviously, because it’s now legal, there are a lot of taxes that are coming in. How has the UK evolved? I just saw that there was, I think, a medical Cannabis thing passed in the UK. Like the past week, or something like that. How has the UK evolved around kind of that relationship between Cannabis and alcohol so far?
0:14:19 CW: Slowly. [chuckle] As you say, there has been a development recently. I think the trend that you mentioned, there’s certainly… There’s been a dip, I was reading the other day that there’s a really significant dip in kind of like younger generations in drinking, they drink less than older generations do, for sure. And yeah, I mean the change that you’ve mentioned in relation to Cannabis was a really disturbing story. So there was a young boy who had really severe epilepsy, and was using I think Cannabis oil to help with his epilepsy and and it was seized from him by the state and then he was having these extraordinarily bad epileptic fits that his mother was having to suffer watching him go through and he was having to suffer actually going through. And this caused an outcry from the public. And so that actually has spawned a change. Then they very kind of quickly had a review of what was going on medically in terms of Cannabis from the medical profession. And now they have kind of said that they’re going to allow Cannabis medically.
0:15:39 CW: But when they said that they were also really really clear to say that this doesn’t mean that we’re thinking about bringing Cannabis in for recreational use, that it’s just medical, that we’re gonna reschedule it so that it can be used medically. ‘Cause at the moment, it was kind of scheduled so that it’s perceived as having no medical use, which is obviously kind of ridiculous when you’re talking about a plant that has been used as a healing plant for thousands and thousands of years. I think in terms of what will happen with that it’s interesting to think about because if you think about the States, obviously, I think there’s a huge link between them bringing in medical marijuana and then transitioning over now to recreational Cannabis, I think it kind of normalized it to a large extent. And you’ve obviously got that blurring, haven’t you, of what does it mean to use something medically and what does it mean to use something recreationally.
0:16:37 CW: If this is making me feel better, is that medical or recreational. It’s not a clear-cut boundary. But then if you think of another example, so that opiates are commonly used medically, but we’re nowhere near bringing them in for use recreationally. So the fact that something is used medically, doesn’t of necessity mean that it’s the first footsteps on a path to it being used recreationally. But regardless of that, I think it’s just a fantastic development because I think it’s just unsupportable that we haven’t been able to use Cannabis in its kind of natural form medically in this country.
0:17:14 PA: And from a legal and policy perspective, how is the UK different from the United States? For example, with what’s happened in the United States, it first happened on a medical basis where the State of California medicalized Cannabis in 1996 and now with legal marijuana we’ve seen a development where it’s been an on a state-by-state basis again. Why doesn’t something like this happen in the UK where for example, the City of London just goes ahead and tries to medicalize and then legalize Cannabis. How is the political system different between the two countries?
0:17:47 CW: Well, I guess, because you have federal and state law and states have a lot more kind of separate power from the federal system. We obviously have… We have different regions in England, but there isn’t that same kind of split between levels of power. So we certainly have… It wouldn’t be within the power of a certain county, for example, to say that they’re going to bring in recreational Cannabis, they just don’t have the power to do that. But we do have kind of on a smaller level, so we’ve had quite a few police forces just effectively proclaim that they’re going to decriminalize Cannabis through their policing policies. So the police have a lot of discretion as regards whether or not they enforce the law and they can choose what they prioritize. So if they just say, “Well, we’re going to de-prioritize Cannabis,” then they can effectively decriminalize it.
0:18:56 CW: And that’s happened in quite a few forces around the UK in recent years. And I think it’s a really, really interesting phenomenon, actually, that this is, the change is coming from this kind of local level. And also interestingly, that it’s coming from the police quite often. I think it’s an interesting development. But I mean, in terms of going further than that, I don’t think we’ve got the same kind of leeway that there maybe is between the state and the federal system. It’s much more one system in a sense.
0:19:26 PA: And I think that could then, with what happened with Canada; they just legalized weed today. And that is obviously a system that’s probably closer in nature to where the UK is, rather than the United States. So, I think it’ll be interesting to see in the next year or so, as that really picks up momentum, what impact that has on the federal level for the UK, for example.
0:19:48 CW: Yeah, it will be interesting to see. I have to say, I don’t have particularly high hopes, because as I say, the latest development in the UK has been the opposite. It’s been this kind of like crackdown. So, there isn’t really any indication that we’re moving in the other direction. But maybe all it will take is a change of government, certainly. I mean, the only really… The political parties in the UK that are supportive of kind of like wholesale changes in drug policy are the Liberal Party and the Green Party. But the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, the Conservative Party are in power. And the Labour Party, they’re kind of the ones who are most likely to gain power from them, haven’t come out in favor of wholesale changes to drug policy. So, as I say, it doesn’t look incredibly promising at the moment, but then you never can tell. People would have predicted… I don’t think many people would have predicted what happened in the States, and it seemed to happen quite quickly. You know what I mean? And so, sometimes life is very surprising. So who knows? Hopefully, we’ll be pleasantly surprised in terms of changes in British drug policy.
0:21:08 PA: As I think the economic element, kind of coming back to your original point of the conversation that was happening in the parliament, as the economic element becomes clear, for example, at the federal level in Canada. How much extra tax money they’re bringing in, how it’s helping with minimizing harm in drug use, because people are switching from alcohol to Cannabis quite a bit. I think there will be a lot of systemic research that’s done on the overall efficacy which I think could change drug policy quite quickly, even though, as you emphasized before, there is this sort of cultural socio-political vacuum that creates this divide between alcohol, tobacco and other illicit substances. And I know a little bit about that background, in terms of how that’s rooted in colonialism, largely. And I was just wondering if you could speak a little bit more to that from your perspective. Why is it that alcohol and tobacco are so culturally normative, whereas these other substances, these other drugs that are much less harmful are illicit and just not accepted whatsoever?
0:22:12 CW: Yeah, yeah. I think, to a certain extent, obviously, it’s just rooted in the deeper history of which substances countries were exposed to at different points in their history, and therefore have kind of bedded in and become part of that country’s culture. So, tobacco has been in the UK for a good few hundred years, and alcohol, obviously, for way longer than that. But we did have, you know, we had quite famously in the Victorian era, there were lots of tinctures sold in, just over the counter that had opiates in them. There was cocaine sold without prescription just in shops in the UK. And so, we do have a history of these substances not being prohibited. And then, it was really only, a kind of a combination of things, really. I think there was obviously big pressure from the US for there to be a system of global prohibition brought in, and they were the main drivers at the end of the 19th, the beginning of the 20th century.
0:23:19 CW: And then, so I think that with that, and that in itself, as you’re well aware, has really kind of dodgy underpinnings; that it’s very much rooted in just trying to control minority groups, really. So largely bound up with, as you say, initially, colonialism and then it was bound up with trying to control the Chinese railroad workers in the US. And then, just basically control the drug, and there’s the idea that you can then control the people who typically take that drug. And so, it was Mexicans and black people. And so, there’s this really, as I say, kind of really shady history as regards why prohibition was being pushed for. And then a kind of interesting turn in the UK whereby, during the First World War, there was a real concern that the troops were being adversely affected by being sent drugs. So, they were being sent out care packages that contained things like cocaine and amphetamines, to kind of help keep them going. And there were sort of concerns raised that this was interfering with the war effort.
0:24:26 CW: And so, they brought in a system of… They brought in a Defence of the Realm Act, and brought in what was meant to be temporary prohibition during, over the period of the war, of certain substances. And when that was going through, there was actually some talk about whether or not alcohol would be included within that, because that can obviously be seen to be kind of interfering with efficiency, etcetera. And then the alcohol lobbies were more powerful and fought against that. So it’s kind of bound up with money and power and which groups are seen to take which drugs. And so then they kind of got left out of that equation and then were just seen as these kind of distinct substances, but I always think it’s really interesting to trace the roots of prohibition, because when you see what shaky foundations it’s premised in, this idea that… So the recent legislation that we’ve brought in that just criminalized everything on the basis of it being psychoactive and there’s no mention of harm is really, really problematic. But when you look at the history of drug policy, it’s never been premised in harm. It’s always been premised in perpetuating power interests and trying to kind of shut down people who were seen as being a threat to the status quo.
0:25:49 CW: And I think it’s really kind of significant to recognize that, to not kind of buy into the lie that drug policy is something other than what it actually is. I think one of the sort of interesting points that comes out of that, I think, is this question of whether or not the war on drugs has been a failure or whether or not it’s been a success, and to think about well, that depends what you think it was for, and if you think that drug policy was to control minority groups, to throw large numbers of them in prison, where they’re effectively carrying out slave labor, then and like further afield to go into countries where you want to exploit their resources and you want an excuse to be in there, then it’s been an enormous success.
0:26:40 CW: So I think it’s really important to look at what’s going on with drug policy. And sometimes you run the risk of it sounding a little bit conspiratorial, but it really isn’t, there’s that kind of, that famous quote of Nixon’s former aide, where he basically explicitly says when they were sort of crafting the current, the modern era of the war on drugs, that they basically, they wanted to control the Black Power movement and the hippies, but they couldn’t make it illegal to be a hippie or to be black, so criminalize the drugs. And they actually say, “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Yes, we did.”
0:27:15 CW: So I think it’s so important to get into that history and realize it’s about so much more than… The rhetoric is obviously we’re trying to protect you from harming yourself which even in itself, I have a problem with ’cause I come from a rights-based perspective. I’m a liberal, I don’t want someone to help me protect myself, but to not buy into the fact that that’s true, you know?
0:27:39 PA: And everything you’re saying has also been written about extensively in a book called “The New Jim Crow“.
0:27:45 CW: Yeah.
0:27:46 PA: Particular to the United States. So just for listeners who might wanna dig deeper into what is that historical relationship with the drug war specific to the United States, because as you said, particularly with the UN Convention of 1971, that’s when all of these drugs were basically made illegal and because the United States had so much post-World War II influence in places like the UK and the Netherlands and Continental Europe, they basically said, “Well, if we’re going to continue to provide you military resources to protect you, then you need to adopt these laws or else,” and this comes into American imperialism and this comes into our desire particularly, ’cause I’m an American, the United States’ desire to control and suppress particularly minority populations, blacks, Hispanics, Chinese, etcetera, etcetera.
0:28:36 CW: Yeah, and while we’re kind of giving shoutouts to good books, there’s a really fantastic book called “Drug War Capitalism” by Dawn Paley, who writes about how useful it is for foreign policy and for basically for neo-colonialism, for an excuse to go into countries and capture their resources from them and how that’s all bound up with the drug war, it’s really, really good. And then the documentary The House I Live In, I think is fantastic for showing how race has always been at the heart of drug policy and continues to be. And I was reading, I was reading the other day, just a few days ago, and there was new statistics that had come out in the UK that showed that you’re nine times more likely to be stopped and searched for a drug offense if you’re black than if you’re white, and but self-report studies where people talk about their own drug use, black people consistently come out as having lower rates of drug use than white people in this country but nine times more likely to be stopped and searched. So I think, even if you’re, if you have any interest in social justice, you should be questioning the drug laws because of the use to which they’re put.
0:29:51 CW: I think if laws repeatedly show themselves to be operationalized in a way that appears fundamentally discriminatory, that we need to do something about it and we’ve kind of shown time and time again that like trying to tighten up the rules on stop and search hasn’t worked. The statistics don’t change, or if they do change, they get worse. And so we need to fundamentally re-think the drug laws, I think. And I think really important kind of get away from this idea that you should only be interested in changing drug policy if you’re interested in taking drugs. So if you care about social justice, you should be interested in kind of revamping drug policy; if you care about human rights, you should be interested in revamping drug policy. No, if you care about your right to freedom of thought, regardless of whether or not you want to take drugs, you should care about drug policy. And I think that’s really important to make. I think, sometimes this idea that it’s, that you have to be involved in it to want to see change, which is particular to drug policy, ’cause lots of other areas of policy, you’d be arguing for change, you wouldn’t have to be involved in the problem to be taken seriously, arguing for change, so…
0:31:10 PA: Well, and this is like white people who have in the ’60s stood up for the Civil Rights Act, they weren’t being oppressed actively, but their brothers and sisters and people in their community and people that they knew who were African-American were. And I think this just comes down to then culturally how stigmatized drug use is because of the drug war, in a way. So it’s almost like a chicken and the egg situation, where people say, “Oh, this isn’t my problem, because I think people who use drugs are bad,” without recognizing that the only reason they think that people who use drugs are bad, is because of the propaganda and the drug war in the first place. So it’s a bit… And now that’s starting to unravel, I think, with Cannabis in particular.
0:31:58 PA: I was just out to dinner with my family last night and I’m from the Midwest, in Michigan, it’s… It’s pretty conservative, traditional and even my younger sister is now talking to co-workers and her boss, for example, at this corporation that she does engineering stuff, is now aware that the drug war is racially motivated, and so I think we’re starting to see some of that unwind and untangle, but there’s still a lot, a long ways to go from what I’ve noticed.
0:32:23 CW: Yeah, yeah, I agree with you. And I think when you were sort of saying at the outset what have I seen change? And I remember that say 20 years ago, when I first started teaching drug policy and if I ever used to speak to anyone about it, I used to say, “I think that all drugs should be legalized,” and people used to look at me like I was the devil or something. “How can you say that?” [chuckle] Like well, because I’ve never seen a drug problem that criminalization doesn’t make worse. Whereas now, there’s lots of people who are making that argument in all kinds of different ways. I’m not by any means saying I was the first, I’m just saying that, it’s really, really grown as a narrative. So yeah, I think things are changing and I think just the, like say particularly in terms of psychedelics, for example, like the psychedelic renaissance in terms of the science on psychedelics is having that kind of bleed-out effect that people are reading. I mean, you get bored of reading it so often, don’t you? I have this thing where it’s really adorable, but anybody I know if ever there’s a newspaper article about science on psychedelics, they’ll forward it to me.
0:33:32 CW: I’m like, “Yeah, I know.” [chuckle] But there’s so much of that. And then, obviously, I think there’s obviously a difference between structured medical use of psychedelics, but it’s changing the story, saying that these are things that can have benefits which is, of course, we didn’t need to have scientific experiments to know it. People knew that already, but it’s a form of knowledge that people take seriously. And so there’s just been that Michael Pollan book, “How To Change Your Mind“, which I think is really significant in terms of… I think particularly because it’s interesting that he very much isn’t a psychonaut. If you read all the way through the book, he’s like really reticent about the things that he’s doing. It’s a great book, but I think that’s important, I think when you get people who are like incredibly gung-ho, it’s probably going to be off-putting for the majority of people in many ways, so it’s a perfect foil, in a sense.
0:34:39 PA: And even my dad who’s the same age as Michael Pollan, a white male, comes from a slightly different background, but I gave him that book to read. And specifically because of all these kind of like, not justifications, but Michael Pollan has a lot of points in his book where he goes, “I’m normally this way, but, I’m very atheist, but I had a spiritual experience,” or, “I wouldn’t normally use this language, but… ” And I think that provides a really good bridge for a person who… I dropped acid for the first time when I was 19. You were involved in the rave scene in Manchester in probably your late adolescence, teenage, early 20s as well. There are a lot of people who just never got that sort of exposure that we both had and I think this book does a great job of bridging that. Now, obviously something that Michael Pollan doesn’t talk about in the book is cognitive liberty and this is something that you’ve particularly focused on and I’d love if you could just explain a little bit about what is cognitive liberty and how does that relate to the work that you’re doing with the Ayahuasca Defense Fund, but more broadly with psychedelics.
0:35:50 CW: Sure, absolutely. So the main way in which I challenge drug policy from a legal perspective, is because I’m a legal academic, is through using legal tools. And so we don’t have a constitution, we don’t have a written constitution in the UK, but we’re signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, which basically protects various human rights like privacy, liberty, etcetera. And the idea, really, just to kind of give a really brief overview of the way it works. So obviously, if you have a democracy, you need to have some kind of protection to prevent a democracy from sliding into mob rule. And so, the idea with human rights is that we kind of ring-fence these certain rights and we say that, regardless of what the majority think, we can’t transgress these boundaries. And so I kind of make the argument that drug prohibition actually does transgress those boundaries and I think you can make that argument in terms of privacy. So just in terms of the drug laws, and how they invade privacy, so things like stop and search, surveillance, going into people’s homes, I think that they can be seen to breach privacy, but also I think in terms of cognitive liberty, so freedom of thought. So typically the drug laws aren’t challenged, people just go to prison for breaching them.
0:37:35 CW: When people do challenge them and they challenge them from a rights-based perspective, kind of typically it will be either from the perspective of health, so kind of saying this is a breach of the right to privacy which is read broadly and includes the right to health. So you’ll have people who are saying, for instance, “I’m sick and this is the only thing that helps alleviate my pain, not that it’s curing me, but it’s helping alleviate the symptoms.” Or it will be from a religious perspective, so, people saying that, “I have a right to religious freedom under the Human Rights Act and the drug laws are interfering with my religious freedom.” And that obviously comes about because the plant medicines, the sacraments that some people may take that have been, I would argue, at the heart, probably, of all world religions at some point are now prohibited under our drug laws.
0:38:35 CW: And so in the UK, for instance, we’ve had human rights-based challenges based on therapeutic use. We’ve had human rights challenges based on religious use. So somebody who was a Rastafarian who was caught taking Cannabis into their temple and kind of challenged that, unsuccessful in the UK. So we haven’t been successful in terms of challenging our drugs laws. We don’t have a [chuckle] good record in the UK in terms of drug policy in the courts or in our legislation. But cognitive liberty kind of takes it a step further. I guess, first of all, to emphasize that in terms of religious freedom, for example, like as I was saying, I genuinely think that the sort of the peak psychedelic experience is indistinguishable from the mystical experience that is described at the heart of all wisdom traditions. I think that sense of oneness, of being beyond space and time, of unity, that sense of transcendence, I think it’s the same regardless of how you get there. I’m not saying you need psychedelics to get there, but I think that the experience that we’re talking about… The importance of it I don’t think can be overestimated because I think it’s the peak human experience that you can have. So it’s not that I’m in any way denigrating the religious freedom argument.
0:39:55 CW: I do think these laws are a breach of religious freedom and I really support the cases that are arguing for that. And as you mentioned, I’m on the Steering Committee for the Ayahuasca Defense Fund and they’re very much concerned with trying to protect religious freedom through the courts using these rights-based arguments. And I’m involved in a UK group where we’re kind of like an off-shoot doing that kind of work. But then cognitive liberty is really this idea that you shouldn’t… Basically, that you shouldn’t have to force your experiences into some kind of box. Like say this is a religious experience or I’m sick but that rather, that if we have the right to freedom of thought, then taking drugs is a way of… We’re basically… We’re made of chemicals, and so ingesting chemicals is a way of altering our chemical make-up. And so if we interfere with people’s right to take drugs, it’s a form of censorship. It’s kind of preventing us from accessing the different mental landscapes we might otherwise be able to access. And so therefore, it’s a kind of a direct assault on freedom of thought.
0:41:13 CW: And if you think like going back to… I just mentioned the Psychoactive Substances Act, they basically said they’re prohibiting anything that’s psychoactive, which is anything that affects our mental functioning or emotional state. So they’re not even pretending that they’re legislating against harm. There’s no mention of harm, they’re saying, “We’re legislating against you taking substances that affect your mental functioning or emotional state.” To me, that is, like I read those words and I sort of thought, I’ve spent years saying that drug policy is really about trying to control our mental states. And now they’re explicitly saying it, it’s absolutely bizarre. And I think… And I think this idea that you might have these incredibly kind of revelatory transcendental experiences on psychedelics, or you might just take some acid and play Zelda all day whilst giggling with your mates. And it doesn’t, it shouldn’t matter, because the basic point is, what is the role of… Or what should the relationship be between the state and the individual? And I think that the state should only be… It’s not just me who thinks this, this is meant to be the central premise of criminal law, that the state should only pass criminal laws in order to prevent harm to others.
0:42:41 CW: And so, the drug laws just basically don’t satisfy the central premise of the rule of law. If you’ve got the criminal law it basically… The criminal law gives the state license to purposefully inflict harm upon its own citizens. And so they should be really kind of cautious about bringing in criminal laws. You only want to be doing that where that’s wholly necessary, not where somebody’s mind has been changed. [chuckle] Maybe in a way that’s like wholly… Wholly beneficial. So, yeah, coming from a rights-based perspective is this challenge that actually the drug laws breach people’s human rights. And most of the human rights aren’t absolute. So in other words that… You can say, “Well, okay, you’ve got the right to that. But if that interferes with my right to do this, or if that interferes with these other interests in society,” then we’re not like these atomized individuals, we’re all interconnected. Some of the rights are absolute. The right to life is absolute, hence that’s why we don’t have the death penalty in Europe. But the right to freedom of thought, for example, isn’t absolute.
0:43:49 CW: But in order to interfere with it, the courts should show that what you’re doing poses some kind of risk to society. So whether that be a risk of crime or a risk to public health. And in the cases that have gone through the courts, they really haven’t shown that. So the judiciary have basically been asked to see whether or not this legislation conflicts with human rights protections and they just kind of make this claim that, “Well, yes, your right to freedom is clearly being impinged upon,” or, “Your right to freedom of religion is clearly being impinged upon. You can’t take your kind of holy sacrament. But that’s justified because if you did do that, then this would… It would cause a threat to society.” And what they do is they just say that as like a rhetorical claim, whereas what they should actually be doing is… Or what the prosecution should be doing is proving that. You need to produce empirical data and you need to show that the harms caused by taking Ayahuasca in ceremony, for instance, outweigh the benefits that people claim to get from it, but they don’t do that.
0:45:02 CW: So I think there’s actually… I think there’s a real abdication of duty, like I actually believe that we have the tools in place to upturn the unjust laws that we have, but they’re just not, they’re just not used properly, because unfortunately, legal decision-making isn’t some kind of like rational mathematical calculation. It’s heavily, heavily politicized, you know?
0:45:28 PA: And this is what we talked about earlier, and this is what you emphasized with, when people in the early ’90s were consuming more ecstasy, there was a drop in alcohol, there was a drop to harm in public health. So you’d think it would almost be based on, again, scientific evidence, it would be the opposite, that Cannabis and psychedelics would be legal and that alcohol and tobacco would be illegal, even though I think ideally all, as you’ve emphasized, all drugs should be legal and so, and that’s the big transition that we’re going through. Oftentimes, when I look at drug policy, I see it as a remnant of industrialization and really, what we’re going through on a larger cultural scale is this transition from the industrial age to the information age, and the drugs that helped us to build the industrial age, tobacco and caffeine in particular, because they’re stimulants and then alcohol as a depressant to help bring us down at the end of the day, aren’t as useful as these new drugs, Cannabis and psychedelics, which will help us to create this new socio-economic model of the information age, where the limiting factor is not manufacturing like it was in the industrial age, meaning we need to produce more, but the limiting factor in the information age is how we spend our attention and where we put our attention.
0:46:41 PA: And we’re seeing basically like, again, just from my perspective, a decadence of all the systems in the industrial age that are now starting to fall apart, including the drug war, and that’s why we see people like Donald Trump, that’s why we see I think a move towards more right-wing kind of fascist things is it’s the last sort of power-grab before a lot of it dissolves, at least that’s my optimistic hope.
0:47:03 CW: I’m like that too, I think sometimes when the Psychoactive Substances Act came in, we were all sort of really miserable and then I sort of took that view of it’s almost like the last sort of, you imagine like a monster thrashing its tail as it dies and it just causes that the last kind of bit of damage and then it like, “Eh!” [chuckle] Exactly, exactly as you say, in that… I’ve always thought that you look at, when David Nutt, who we mentioned earlier, and various other scientists produced that famous graph where they look at the harms caused by drugs and then they rank them and then look at where they are in the drug legislation and as you say, it’s all… It’s flipped, it’s like this inverse correlation, like the harms that the… The ones that cause the most harm aren’t even in the drug legislation and then all the ones that are class A are right down there, like magic mushrooms and things that don’t cause any harm and also have these amazing benefits. I think that’s what’s always spurred my passion for this is because I’m surrounded by some of the most interesting, creative people who… Compassionate, empathic people who I’ve ever met, and by being part of the psychedelic community and people who are genuinely trying to help one another and genuinely trying to do good in the world.
0:48:22 CW: And yet they’re actually at risk, and it’s never failed to just kind of really, really sort of astound me and also, kind of like really drive me to want to change it. It just always seems so kind of fundamentally wrong to me.
0:48:38 PA: Yeah, this oppression of love and acceptance and connection and all these things that are at the core of the whole entire system that’s rotting, that we’re now starting to realize and I think that’s my hope as well with the larger movement of psychedelics is that it’s really not just about psychedelics, but it’s really about creating a culture that is much healthier and it will likely in many ways when I look at the role of psychedelics in medicine, the role of psychedelics in human rights and the role of psychedelics even in the business world and the role of psychedelics in spiritual communities, it’s seeming to be kind of like a… Like psychedelics are going to birth a lot of new perspectives with them and I think going, in many ways going to help to legitimize and mainstream mind-body connection and wellness, because it is a drug and for many reasons, as humans we do like drugs, they are very attractive to us compared to something like meditation or spending time in the woods.
0:49:48 PA: And I think that also hits another point that I wanted to explore a little bit with you is the rise of the dark net and the markets on the dark net, because obviously, one development over the last 10 years with the Silk Road and all these other things that have popped up on Tor, have been accessibility to drugs, particularly illegal drugs, that maybe weren’t previously accessible. So I just would love to hear from you, how has the rise of the dark net changed the landscape in particular to drug policy?
0:50:21 CW: Can I just pick up on something you were saying, ’cause I think it’s interesting. When you were talking about the psychedelics, it’s not really about the psychedelics, it’s about them as tools, and I really, really agree with that. It’s not, it’s where they get it that’s interesting, not obviously, not the thing itself. And I think kind of following on from what you were saying, for me, I think it’s kind of fundamentally, it’s about connection, it’s about first of all, feeling that sort of deep connection within yourself, to yourself, and then, recognizing that the distinction between self and other is illusory and then that obviously helping with kind of like, with compassion, with lessening anxiety and fear, and then also sort of ultimately, I think, if you have these peak experiences, that sense of connection with source, it can reshape your whole cosmology, and in terms of whether or not it’s just a drug, I think there’s also interesting issues if you’re thinking about the plant medicines where some people would take the view that you’re actually kind of calling in the spirits with these plants and so you’ve got that whole, you’ve got that whole kind of story coming in as well.
0:51:39 CW: But yeah, I think it’s really interesting where they take us and the… To me, the much more conducive to sort of… I always think fundamentally, if the doses are high enough, they always seem to be about love, love and unity and connection. And that’s certainly what we need plenty of. Yeah, in terms of the dark web, I think it’s really fascinating, I think it’s… Particularly, something like the Silk Road, which was explicitly premised in cognitive liberty. Ross Ulbricht in the Silk Road Manifesto talks about how he’s using the Silk Road to allow people to have their cognitive liberty and sort of… So it’s freedom of mind, but also sort of freedom from the sort of incumbent power structures ’cause you’re using Bitcoin and you’re on the dark web. And I think it was interesting that… I look at this with my students, and we’ve got quite a lot of academic literature that carries out research into the actual practical implications of the dark web.
0:52:58 CW: And it sort of basically finds that it led to this huge rise in harm reduction or lessening of harm, to put it another way. Because obviously, you’re… Largely through the ratings system, you’re gonna have much higher quality drugs ’cause people can’t afford to get bad ratings. You’re cutting out all that chance, all that there’s sort of connections between… I don’t want to overstate this. Most people get their drugs off their friends, but people who are getting drugs off dealers and the risks of violence involved, etcetera, that are all cut. You’re basically cutting out a lot of the middlemen with the dark web.
0:53:38 CW: And so, you have this rise in harm reduction. I always have this conversation with my students of, “Well, do we see this as a good thing, then, if it’s leading to harm reduction?” But as I said, I think even more interestingly, the fact that it was portrayed as, “This is an ethical thing. We’re doing this because it brings about more freedom. It brings about more liberty.” And I think it’s interesting in terms of the impact that it’s gonna have on prohibition, because a lot of prohibition is… A lot of the justification for prohibition is rooted in the harms caused by prohibition, if you see what I mean. So they’ll say, “We need prohibition because look at all these terrible harms that drugs cause to the inner cities,” for example. Whereas in actual fact, the harms they’re talking about are the harms caused by prohibition.
0:54:33 CW: And one of the things that I think the dark web does is it gets rid of all of that because you’re like, “Well, look, we basically just got a free market here. We don’t have any of those harms because we’re cutting out loads of the layers.” And so, it sort of like scythes through a lot of the arguments that have been put in place for prohibition. So I think it undermines prohibition in that way. And then I think… I just think that the idea that we can have the kinds of societies that we have, which are so consumer-driven, so about having what you want instantaneously, and then say, “Oh, but there’s this arbitrary, random collection of substances that we decided that you can’t have access to.” It just appears increasingly nonsensical to people. And so, I just don’t think prohibition can sustain… I genuinely think it will collapse; it’s just a matter of when.
0:55:35 PA: And what’s your understanding of that? With the confluence of cryptocurrency, blockchain technology, and I don’t know enough to really go into that. But also, drug policy changes. So obviously, Portugal has had all drugs decriminalized since 1999 or 2000. Norway, the parliament just passed an initiative last year saying that they need to decriminalize drugs within the next couple of years. Canada just legalized marijuana and is likely going to have a conversation about full drug decriminalization. From your vantage point, what would you say is a feasible timeline where we could see more of movement in particularly the drug decriminalization department, whether that’s psychedelics or just generally all drugs?
0:56:19 CW: Gosh, I don’t know that I could put a timeline on it. Just to add to your list of good things that have happened, one of the developments that I found really sort of reassuring is that in Mexico and in South Africa in the past year or two, there have been Supreme Court decisions that have used the human rights framework, specifically the right to privacy, to challenge the Cannabis laws. And then they’ve been successful in saying that this is… “Our right to grow and smoke Cannabis at home is a private matter, and these laws breach our human rights.” And those arguments have been accepted by the courts. And so, I think that’s really reassuring. I had this sort of weird sensation when I was reading, I think it was the South African judge talking through why they’ve made the decision that they’ve made. And it was like reading a sort of manifesto of a drug policy activist group, but that all the points he was making about this is root… This drug legislation is rooted in racism. Lots of the things that we’ve been talking about today, they were all there in a court judgment. So I think that there are different ways of attacking this.
0:57:40 CW: And one of the things that’s great about human rights is all you have to get, really, is one successful court. You don’t… When we were talking earlier about stigmatization, and because of that, it’s… And sort of political sort of machinations. And politicians don’t want to do anything that they don’t think the public will accept. And then because of drug stigmatization, it’s really hard. And psychedelics, in particular, real kind of minority support.
0:58:09 CW: And so it’s gonna be hard to convince the public otherwise, but with rights-based challenges, you don’t need to. You just need to convince one court that your rights have been breached, and then the repercussions flow from that. It’s one of the other reasons why I think it’s such an attractive route in this area. Going back to your question, I really I can’t answer it in terms of how this is going to play out. But I just do fundamentally believe that prohibition, it’s been a blip. For most of human history we haven’t had prohibition and I think we’ll look back on this and just think it was misguided and foolish. And when that will happen, I’m not entirely sure, but change seems to be coming about pretty quickly I think… Absolutely.
0:58:58 PA: Yeah, and again that’s another element of with psychedelics becoming medicalized and I don’t necessarily agree with the medicalization model. I think the drug policy and the human rights perspective is, it’s better in many ways, which I won’t get into at this point. But it seems inevitable that with Cannabis legalization in Canada, with the medicalization of psychedelics, MDMA and Psilocybin, in the UK and the United States and maybe the rest of Europe in a few years. And just with what’s going on, generally, in these places that you mentioned. I think it’s only going to pick up steam from here and more and more good news. I think that’s one of the blips of optimism in our current cultural situation, is we’re seeing a lot of progress on the drug policy front within psychedelics in particular. There’s more science coming out, there’s more money backing the science and the research, more influence. And I think that’s part of the reason why I’m beginning to love this work, more and more.
0:59:57 PA: It’s been a bit of a slog, the past couple of years, but with Michael Pollan’s new book coming out in particular, it’s becoming easier. And when you talk about things like the Supreme Court, and that obviously is a human rights element, but it also happens within the larger cultural container of developments which we saw in the United States with gay rights, for example, where there was a right place in time to finally bring it to the Supreme Court. And I think psychedelics will have their moment in the 2020s, I don’t know when. It might be the mid-2020s, it might be the late 2020s but I see that brewing as this picks up more cultural steam we’ll be able to bring it to the highest level.
1:00:45 CW: Well, here’s hoping and I couldn’t agree with you more either on the caution that I feel in terms of going from criminalization to medicalization. So particularly, I spend a lot of time thinking about Ayahuasca and I think one of the things that is extraordinary about Ayahuasca is that that whole kind of ceremonial modeling which Ayahuasca is typically drunk and the incredibly positive therapeutic effects of that. And I’m using the term therapeutic broadly, just holistic human health and well-being. I think to try and to… If criminalization… And to try and squish that into some sort of medical model will just kill it, it doesn’t fit. And I think one of the things that’s amazing about the psychedelics is that they, including the plant medicines, is that they seem to have this kind of extraordinary potential for dealing with mental health issues.
1:01:56 CW: And Western science, amazing for so many reasons, isn’t great at dealing with mental health issues. We have an unprecedented crisis in mental health issues, as you know. And so I think if we’ve got something that seems to be working, but it’s working in all kinds of ways that are so different from the model that we’re kind of used to from Western medicine, to respect that and to protect that rather than to try and force it into a model that has been shown to be failing in this specific respect, you know.
1:02:29 PA: And I respect the… I think that is the larger narrative of people. For example, Rick from MAPS. I think ultimately that is what he’s going for, and Usona and some of these other institutions. But it’s almost like how do you first work within the system to then change it? But I think keeping that in mind, ’cause we’re still using molecules, we’re still using Psilocybin that’s GMP synthesized MDMA, which is synthesized. And the great thing about Ayahuasca, as an example, is as a plant medicine, you can’t put it in that sort of container.
1:03:07 CW: Yeah, yeah.
1:03:09 PA: It comes with all these other elements that we’re now realizing are so critical to healing, again the mind body element. And also the spiritual component in terms of that direct connection to source, facilitating that awareness of, “Oh, this is what it’s like to be healthy and connected and loved and all these beautiful things.”
1:03:30 CW: Yeah, absolutely.
1:03:32 PA: Well, I just wanna thank you for your time, Charlotte, and all your insights, and just give you a chance for our listeners, if they wanna find out more about your work. Is there a website or a place that they can check out…
1:03:46 CW: No.
1:03:47 PA: To learn more or maybe the Ayahuasca Defense Fund or something like that?
1:03:54 CW: Yeah, yeah, so there’s the Ayahuasca Defense Fund and ICEERS and we’re always a happy of new supporters. Sign-up for the newsletter, make a donation. We’re always happy for that.
1:04:06 PA: Well, thank you again for everything that you’re doing and for all of your insights today.
1:04:11 CW: Thank you.