The politics of transcendence and the war on drugs

Aldous Huxley thought western societies needed to become more open to ego-transcendence. We need to find ways to be less stuck in our egos, less stuck in consumerism and materialism, and more conscious, loving and open to other beings. We need to wake up to our potential and our power.

I am on board with that. I think that’s a good goal for individuals and for society. To discover the incredible resources within ourselves, and to find joy in that rather than restlessly mining and exhausting the Earth’s resources.

One of the main challenges, according to Huxley, was we have lost tools, maps and guides for the exploration of our inner lives. The birth of the modern era, from the 16th to the 18th century, saw the dissolution of the monasteries and their replacement by academies. The western gaze turned from the exploration of the inner world to the exploitation of the natural world. As we shifted from an enchanted to a materialist worldview, we marginalized and pathologized the idea of mystical transcendence. It was just seen as bonkers.

But we still need ways to get out of our heads. As Huxley insisted so brilliantly, humans have a basic urge to self-transcendence. It is boring, depressing and claustrophobic to be stuck in ordinary ego-consciousness. So we seek occasional holidays from the self, and western culture must offer those holidays, or we would all rapidly go mad and kill ourselves.

Modern western culture junked mysticism but offers alternative forms of ego-transcendence. Often, Huxley warned, they are toxic. He warned particularly of nationalism, which he called the great religion of the 19th and 20th centuries. It gives the crowd a form of intoxication in which they forget their separate egos in their worship of the Leader and their hatred of 'enemies of the people' (as Trump called the New York Times this week). Today, we see that ugly nationalism and tribalism on the rise again, particularly thanks to Twitter.

Huxley also warned of the false worship of gadgets and technology. And of course, the main way we get out of our heads is booze. We spend $1.3 trillion on booze each year. Our societies and collective sanity depend on it. But it comes at a cost – according to the World Health Organisation, about four million deaths a year are a direct result of alcohol, not to mention the crimes, violent incidents and accidents related to it.

Huxley wanted to help us find healthier forms of transcendence, healthier ways beyond the ego. He was an early adopter of meditation and yoga, he encouraged re-finding a sense of our spiritual place in the ecosystem of nature, he thought various forms of therapy could help us beyond our ego-shell, he championed the idea of the careful use of psychedelics as a spiritual technology, and he thought universities could help young people find healthier forms of transcendence (as opposed to the soulless wasteland of the modern university).

All forms of transcendence, he warned, are in danger of becoming false idols, ends in themselves rather than means to ultimate mystical transcendence. Aesthetic ecstasy could be a false god, for example, so could psychedelics. And all the supposedly toxic forms of transcendence could actually be helpful – technology, properly used, could help us to healthy transcendence. So could collective politics.

I have been wondering: how practical is Huxley’s politics of transcendence? What policy changes would follow from it? I will consider other policy areas in coming weeks, but this week I want to look at drugs policy, and how central it is to modern society.

Huxley was writing just at the beginning of America’s war on drugs, which started around 1920 and which has shaped the last century of drug policy around the world. There’s a hypocrisy at the centre of this policy. Some forms of chemical transcendence are to be allowed and even celebrated. Others are to be condemned as utterly evil and demonic.

I read a book this week about the 100-year-old war on drugs, and why it may finally be ending. It’s called Chasing the Scream, by Johann Hari. The British among you may remember that Hari was caught making up quotes as a journalist. But nonetheless, he is a brilliant writer, and this is a brilliant book.

He charts how the war on drugs was hatched by Harry Anslinger, the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Drugs like marijuana and heroin, Anslinger said, made people addicted, crazy, and prone to crime – especially Mexicans and African-Americans. The way to fight drugs was to criminalize them and lock up the dealers and users. That would eradicate the plague of drug use, he said. The US then forced this policy onto other countries all over the world.

A century on, we see the results. The war on drugs has empowered and enriched criminal gangs to the extent that they can take over whole countries. In western countries, the war on drugs has been a sort of holocaust for black people. While drug use is slightly more common among white people, imprisonment for drug use is far more common for black people in the US and the UK:

The 1993 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that 19 percent of drug dealers were African American, but they made up 64 percent of the arrests for it. Largely as a result of this disparity, there was an outcome that was more startling still. In 1993, in the death throes of apartheid, South Africa imprisoned 853 black men per hundred thousand in the population. The United States imprisons 4,919 black men per hundred thousand (versus only 943 white men).

The criminalization of drugs fosters gang violence – the economist Milton Friedman estimated it causes 10,000 homicides a year in the US; it increases the chances of overdoses and poisoning from impurities; it increases the likelihood addicts will resort to crime to feed their addiction; and it makes it more likely that teenagers have access to dangerous drugs. And it doesn’t stop people buying and taking drugs, as we’ve seen.

As Huxley said, humans have always sought holidays from themselves, and humans have always used psycho-active drugs for that purpose. Ronald Siegel, a psychopharmacologist at the University of California, has suggested the urge to intoxication is a basic urge, found in humans and many other animals.

And the vast majority of humans don’t get addicted, and manage their use of intoxicants relatively well. That’s true even of dangerous drugs like heroin and crack – during the Vietnam War, a huge number of American soldiers used heroin to cope with the war. Almost all of them quit when they returned to their normal lives in America.

There is, according to Hari, around 10% of users of heroin, crack, meth etc who do get addicted. But their addiction is less a result of the chemical, and more a consequence of trauma and isolation in their own lives. They cannot face their own pain, and they need something to help them avoid it, if only briefly. Criminalizing drugs won’t stop them seeking that holiday from their suffering. It just makes their incarceration and eventual death much more likely. That’s one of the problems with the pain-killer crisis in the US, by the way – as soon as a physician thinks you may be addicted to Oxycontin or other opiate pain-killers, they are obliged to cut you off, forcing people to turn to illegal heroin and making it likely they overdose.

Hari explores how drugs policies around the world are changing, and how the war on drugs may finally be ending. He looks at the de-criminalization of drugs and the provision of state support for addicts in Portugal, where this apparently radical policy is now supported by all political parties and has led to steep drops in problematic drug use and drug-related deaths. He examines how a group called VANDU – Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users – helped to transform the public perception of addicts from criminal deviants who deserved to die to human beings who deserved to be listened to, and included in the formulation of drugs policies. He looks at the legalization of marijuana in Uruguay, and in Colorado and Washington State. It's now legal or decriminalized in the majority of US states.

Mexico decriminalized drugs in 1940, leading to a sharp drop in drugs-related crime. But the Mexican government was forced to drop the reform within six months, because of pressure from Harry Anslinger. Eighty years later, Mexico’s cartels have destroyed the country. Now, finally, Mexico is considering changing its drugs policy. It’s finally allowed to, now American states have changed their laws.

Hari’s book is not arguing that we should all pop pills for a better life. Drugs are often a way of avoiding pain, avoiding intimacy, hiding in a fake sense of security and community. But humans have always used them and always will. Criminalizing them empowers violent gangs, weakens regulation and treatment, and destroys lives, neighbourhoods and whole countries. Legalizing them improves treatment, reduces incarceration, and increases the public budget. It also, by the by, enables the use of psychedelic drugs for therapeutic and spiritual purposes. Drugs aren't all bad. Properly used, they can help us to relax, celebrate, flourish and heal. But only when properly and very sparingly used.