High Society exhibition: can dope give us hope?
The ban on hallucinogens is holding back vital research into their
medical benefits, says Jake Wallis Simons.
By Jake Wallis Simons
09 Nov 2010
Last week, the news took on a decidedly trippy tinge. First,
Professor David Nutt, sacked as an adviser to the Labour government
for criticising its policy on drugs, sparked controversy when he
published research suggesting that heroin was less damaging than
alcohol. The following day, Californians went to the polls to vote on
a proposal to legalise cannabis. In a dramatic move, President Obama
and his Attorney General, Eric Holder, threatened to intervene if the
outcome was a "yes" (it wasn't).
It is timely, then, that this Thursday, the Wellcome Trust will open
the doors on High Society, an exhibition exploring the history of
mind-altering drugs. In keeping with the Wellcome ethos, the
exhibition blends a scientific and cultural approach, with
curiosities such as a 20 metre opium pipe an installation by the
Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping sitting alongside more scientific
(if no less bizarre) exhibits, such as a Nasa experiment that studied
the strange webs spiders spin after they are given different types of drugs.
Amid the debate about drugs, one thing is often ignored: their
surprising potential in medicine. Most people are familiar with the
idea that cannabis can be used therapeutically, chiefly in relieving
pain or the nausea caused by chemotherapy, but also to moderate
autoimmune and neurological disorders. But according to Amanda
Feilding, Countess of Wemyss and director of the Beckley Foundation
a charity that promotes research into drugs and consciousness we
have not fully harnessed its potential. "The prohibition of the past
50 years has dramatically slowed the advancement of knowledge in the
area," she says. "In combating the recreational use of cannabis, the
baby has been thrown out with the bath water."
More surprising is the fact that harder drugs may also have
therapeutic potential. Class A substances such as LSD and ecstasy,
Feilding claims, may have a wealth of health benefits. "We need to
wash these substances of their taboo by using the best science," she
says. "Opium and heroin are already widely used in hospitals.
Hallucinogenic drugs, however, are victims of a prohibition that came
into place in the Sixties."
Feilding is something of a fringe figure, having earned the nickname
"The Cannabis Countess" from the tabloids, and pioneered the art of
trepanation, or drilling a hole in the cranium (in order to expand
one's consciousness). But hers is not an isolated view: the past five
years have seen an increase in psychedelic research, to the extent
that a full scientific conference is being organised on the topic in April.
"The potential of Class A hallucinogens for clinical use is
tantalising," says Mike Jay, curator of the exhibition. "Psychedelic
drugs have been subjected to the most stringent legislation. Yet when
administered clinically, they are non-addictive, non-toxic and
effective in the smallest quantities."
LSD was discovered in 1943 by Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist.
Hofmann, the story goes, was carrying out experiments and got a tiny
amount of LSD on his fingers. As he was riding his bicycle that
evening, the world "transformede_SLps dissolving into a flux of
kaleidoscopic spirals and fountains".
"In the 1950s, the advent of LSD sparked a furious interest in
psychedelic psychotherapy," says Dr Ben Sessa, a consultant
psychiatrist involved in organising the conference. "Then the
substances leaked to recreational users, the drug revolution started,
and the government halted the supply, even for therapeutic use."
These may sound like the views of a crank. But Dr Sessa points out
that he is not "a fringe figure in a wacky tie", but a "serious,
grey-suited scientist" who has "no interest in decriminalisation".
There is, he adds, particular excitement over research into MDMA, the
active component of ecstasy. "MDMA is an incredibly clean substance
when administered in a controlled setting. It's very unlikely to
cause a bad trip. There is no evidence that it is physically
addictive. And it is extremely effective in psychotherapy, and to
ease the anxiety experienced by cancer sufferers."
This doesn't mean that we should dispense MDMA over the counter at
Boots. But the drug, which was developed in 1976, has proved its
mettle in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Dr
Michael Mithoefer, a psychiatrist from South Carolina, has carried
out extensive research in this area. He found that for the 30 per
cent of PTSD sufferers who were too traumatised to talk about their
experiences, therapy was useless. The administering of a small amount
of MDMA, however, enabled them to talk freely about their trauma,
allowing them to "move on".
The British Government maintains that its rules on drugs do not mean
that legitimate research is being curtailed. "The Misuse of Drugs Act
1971 recognises the importance of research into drugs such as MDMA,"
says a Home Office spokesman, "and allows it to take place under licence."
Anecdotal evidence, however, points the other way. "It can be
frustrating," says Dr Celia Morgan, a psychopharmacologist at
University College London who is engaged in research into cannabis.
"Our work is funded by the Medical Research Council, but it was hard
to come by. I'd like to see fewer restrictions and more scope for
The Government's restrictive attitude, she says, is highlighted by a
proposed amendment to the 1971 Act that will give ministers the power
to ban "legal highs", without any scientific evidence that they are
harmful. "Prohibition should be based on proper evidence," she says.
"Science should not be circumvented or curtailed."
Morgan and her co-researcher, Professor Val Cullen, have found that
an element of marijuana called cannabinadol, or CBD, which has a
beneficial effect on psychosis, anxiety, inflammation, nausea and
cancer cell growth, is being bred out of commercially available
cannabis. "Only 30 per cent of cannabis on the street contains any
CBD at all," says Prof Cullen. "That makes it far more dangerous."
From the point of view of the Wellcome Trust, the societal forces
that influence drugs policy must also be taken into account.
According to Mike Jay, every drug has its own history.
"Traditionally, we tend to be suspicious of drugs associated with
other cultures, while being tolerant of those identified with our
own," he says. "For example, we don't take alcohol very seriously,
despite its dangers. Cannabis, however, with its historical links to
Caribbean immigrant communities, has been viewed as far more dangerous."
This is illustrated in the High Society exhibition by two pre-war
posters. One reads, "Guinness is good for you". The second states
that "marihuana" is a "weed with roots in hell" and leads to "weird
orgies, wild parties and unleashed passions".
"Another good example is kava, a narcotic drink that has a central
role in cultures across the South Pacific," says Jay. "It encourages
cordial conversation and comfortable silence. Yet in 2001, the EU
banned it, on the flimsiest of evidence." The ban has now been lifted.
"Every society is a high society," he says. "The question is, what
are we going to do about it? If illegal drugs can be used as
effective medical treatments, it would be wrong not to research that
'High Society' is at the Wellcome Collection, London NW1 from Nov 11;
London exhibit examines centuries of drug history
Nov 11, 2010
LONDON (AP) So you think drug culture began at Woodstock in the
1960s? Think again.
A massive bong statue spanning the length of a room, the
laudanum-induced 'Kubla Khan' manuscript and psychedelic videos in a
riot of color await those curious enough to learn about 3,500 years'
worth of human drug use.
"High Society," an exhibition opening Thursday at London's Wellcome
Collection museum, examines the controversial history of opium, from
pre-biblical practices to today's entire illegal drug market, which
is worth an estimated $320 billion per year, according to the United Nations.
The multimedia extravaganza features over 200 artifacts, ranging from
dope-inspired paintings and documents, to documentaries and art
videos, to giant graphics examining the bloody trail of today's drug trade.
A confession corner gives visitors the chance to share personal
experiences with mind-altering substances anonymously, of course.
One of the aims of the exhibit is to de-stigmatize today's illegal
drugs and show there is more to the subject than visitors may have
thought, said Caroline Fisher, one of the show's co-curators.
After all, substances that many people ingest freely today alcohol,
caffeine and tobacco have all been criminalized in years past or
are still illegal in some parts of the world.
"Most people don't know that much about drugs earlier than the
1960's, they think that drug culture all started about 50 years ago,"
Fisher said. "But there's actually a really long and fascinating
history behind it."
The oldest artifact a decrepit, poppy-shaped clay opium jug dates
back to 1500 B.C.
In one of the exhibit's six sections, it presents kaleidoscope of
what societies have labeled good or bad drugs and the paraphernalia
needed to use them: a Victorian tobacco pipe alongside a contemporary
needle kit for injecting drugs, a digital cannabis vaporizer, Chinese
beer and Marks & Spencer wine.
A section titled "Collective Intoxication" shows cross-cultural
appreciation of drugs in group settings, from the rituals of the
Amazon's Barasana people to the "Love-in's" of the 1960's.
Co-curator Mike Jay, a historian and author, says the exhibit should
challenge people to step back from the polarized debate about drugs
to take a broader historical and cultural view.
"This is a subject that people come to with very strong prejudices on
either side. What we're trying to do for people on both sides is to
disturb those prejudices," said Jay, whose book "High Society:
Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture" accompanies the exhibition.
"High Society" is free and runs until February 27.