by Tarik Najeddine
People want to alter their minds, always have, and always will, using whatever choices they have available to them, from Amstel Light to Ayahuasca.
Whether it’s an IUD, prosthetics, or modafinil, humans will use whatever technology can provide to modify their brains and bodies. Even though we’ve spent the last 50 years demonizing the drug user, people will continue to consume mind-altering substances, no matter the consequences. As our choice of grey market substances expands and drug laws relax, this truth will need to be accepted by the members of government. Over the next 25 years, we are going to generate a truly astonishing number of options for people to modify their inner neurochemistry and outer world of stimuli. This combination of drugs and increasingly sophisticated technology will be able to create entirely new ways to interact with fantasy worlds, creating totally novel experiences for both our awareness and our cardiovascular system.
Access has trumped invention when it comes to marking one’s advancement the 21st Century. While the comforts of the 20th Century (electricity, refrigeration, personal transport in the automobile, vaccination, etc) have become trivial parts of middle class society, the most important parts of the late 20th Century, namely psychoactive therapeutic drugs and personal computing, are only now becoming widely available in echelons of society that don’t have their own boat or trust funds. 50% of the population takes at least 1 prescription, with 21% taking three or more. This is complimented by the burgeoning population of recreational drug users. Psychedelic use has reached levels only seen in the 1960’s, hitting 30 million in 2010. Cannabis use has almost reached 10% of the population, with the number of people admitting to use in the last year doubling in the last decade. But, it’s not just the fun hippie drugs that are being consumed at a greater rate. Drug overdose is the #1 cause of accidental death in the United states. Almost 19,000 people died of prescription painkiller overdose, and another 10,000 died of heroin overdose in 2014. Will we ensconce the same level of socioeconomic privilege into the virtual worlds we’re creating, that we’ve slowly built in this one?
This is something I think about a lot. After getting my BA at Johns Hopkins, my MA at Columbia, and a year working as a case manager for homeless veterans, I threw parties in New York City for a couple of years. Since then I’ve spent my off hours researching substance use in the underground dance music community in North America, writing about issues of class, race, privilege, access and health for a variety of outlets. I’ve been studying a disturbing phenomena that has presented itself at every party and in every major city I’ve visited. This is essentially, the wealthy or secure demonstrating a lackadaisical attitude towards ending the drug war, as they have the privilege of consuming whichever illegal drugs you’d like without penalty. Psychedelic Libertarianism, if you will.
This creates a stratified experience array, in which the richest and most privileged have access to the most diverse array of psychoactive modification options.
Think about it. If you only have access to painkillers and bourbon, it’s much more likely you’re going to use those substances, to solve problems they shouldn’t be used for, such as using Oxtcontin to get over a breakup or using Adderall to bang out a paper you don’t care about. If you can afford a top-tier doctor and psychiatrist, it’s significantly easier to get stuff a lot of the working class simply doesn’t have in any decent sized supply, even if they choose to buy it from their dealer. Sure, your dealer might have ritalin, but have they ever heard of modafinil? Can they get you Vyvanse? If you had access to drugs that allowed you to do your job faster, stay focused at your job for more hours, or relax/destress/rejuvenate from that job faster, you’d outstrip the competition, no matter how good they were. If you were good before you engaged in this doping, you’d be untouchable. Just ask Lance Armstrong.
Crack isn’t exactly something you can use to make sure you manage your Bloomberg Terminal in a way that gets you a bonus. But if you can use Vyvanse to speed up, Modafinil to stay up, and also have a dealer that can get you primo cannabis? You’re going to do a lot better over the long term if you work in a law firm, on a trading floor or in a coding pit. If you have access to mood stabilizers, xanax, or the cornucopia of coping substances, you’re probably not self-medicating using Jameson and domestic violence. So when people say “don’t do drugs, they’ll ruin your life” what they really mean is “don’t do SOME drugs, because those drugs suck.”
Steve Jobs and hundreds of business leaders, activists and researchers have attributed their creativity or breakthroughs to psychedelics, with LSD, MDMA & psilocybin currently proving their worth as useful in end-stage cancer treatment, PTSD & cluster headaches with half a dozen other medical uses currently in the pipeline. If you’ve read articles on the internet this year, you couldn’t have missed the explosion in interest in “microdosing,” taking tiny, sub-active doses of psychedelics like LSD or psilocybin daily, to enhance creativity and productivity.
Stop and consider the implications of that. Nerds in San Francisco not only have the ability to consume coffee (which tastes good, is free, and in the office at literally 100% of tech companies), but you also have an environment that allows your productivity to be enhanced by a drug like LSD or mushrooms. I don’t know about you, but I know a LOT of people who party on the weekend, but cannot “fuck up a dose” one day, and have the effects of either of those drugs at their jobs.
Not because those jobs are “harder,” but because the penalties for not being sober are absolute. Dozens of jobs severely penalize this kind of behavior, like a trucker, cop or teacher. If I’m staring at Excel or Sublime++ for 7hrs a day, and the spreadsheet oozed & breathed for an hour because I microdosed wrong, no one would die. If I was on skyscraper crane duty and the console started to shimmer, that’s a very different afternoon.
If everyone had equal access to the armamentarium of substances that I just described, but that’s staggeringly not the case. Not only are minorities & people without college degrees more likely to have consumed a novel psychoactive substance instead of the illegal drug they thought they bought, but the penalties for getting caught for buying drugs while black are astronomical. How many poor, gay, or minimally educated people in this country are just straight up like “I’m not going to pursue that experience, because I can’t do so safely?” and not pursuing those altered mental states.
This is my central concern. We’ve seen use of opiate medication plummet in states with legal cannabis, by 25% in some places. People who have had psychedelic experiences to help them cope with having a terminal illness spend less money on palliative and experimental research. MDMA has completed Phase II clinical trials, is compiling data & will be moving into Phase III trials to actually treat PTSD, as opposed to just helping the patient manage the symptoms. As you can see, the bigger question is a level of access.
Certain tiers of the population are able to purchase pure, high quality substances out of the watchful eye of the law & drug dogs. If you are competent enough and rich enough to buy a computer, never go on Facebook, install TOR and learn about BitCoin, you can get exactly what you want now from whatever Silk Road clone hasn’t been shut down this week. The floodgates are open, and there’s very little any national or international enforcement body can do. Dealers mess up and occasionally get caught because they’re repeat users of cryptomarkets, but if you’re a consumer, you can get exactly what you need for the rest of your life and disappear. That’s right, many of the wealthy recreational users that I’ve spoken to don’t buy drugs at all anymore. They got all they’d ever do for their lives, in one order.
All of these wacky novel psychoactive substances are active at the microgram to milligram level, and they’re also conveniently not illegal yet, they’re just sanctioned under the Analog Act. This means if you get caught with them, you’ll be charged/treated as if you had something equivalent that’s illegal. But, because the drugs aren’t on the DEA or Customs radar, it’s less likely to be tracked like the 8lbs of pot some enterprising moron thinks to box up in Denver and ship. That means if you really like 5-MEO-DIPT, alpha-Pyrrolidinopentiophenone, Benzylbutylbarbiturates or some other alphabet soup psychoactive substance, you can probably get it, and never risk being arrested or incarcerated.
Some Gen X’rs & Baby Boomers reading this may remember when buying drugs consisted of copping a 10 strip of acid at a party from a dude wearing a shell necklace and a greatful dead t-shirt. Today? I hope your teenage kids buy a testing kit from DanceSafe and test the drugs before they do them, as what they got might be completely different. Even drugs bought on a cryptomarket have a 1 in 10 chance of not being what you bought.
A generation ago if you wanted to buy coke or speed, the drugs weren’t pure. They were usually “cut,” “stepped on” or otherwise adulterated by someone who added filler or some sort of extra substance to it. Usually this was done to sell more drug that was less potent, so if you bought coke back in the 70’s, it had baby powder in it or some other inert substance. When you found out you got sold some bullshit, you never bought from that person again (if you were privileged enough to know 2 dealers).
Today, it’s a totally different world. Not only are there way more drugs to choose from, both on the street and online, but it’s much more likely they’ll get a drug that’s cut with another drug. The problem is, what you do get, will do something. Sometimes it might even do something similar to the drug you actually wanted in the first place. For example, Instead of getting speed with Dexatrim in it, you’re going to get amphetamines cut with synthetic cathinones, a class of novel psychoactive substances more commonly known as “bath salts.” Much more powerful stimulant, with added stresses on the cardiovascular system. If you buy some “Molly” because you heard that’s what the kids are doing, you’ll be lucky to get real MDMA in your bag. You’ll get some novel stimulant and possibly even a synthetic cannabinoid. America, Canada, Europe, and Japan are now getting replacement chemicals
But they also do a lot of other things, and we have no idea what those things are. Whether it’s NBOMe, Flakka, SCRA’s, or 2nd and 3rd generation designer drugs based on Xanax, those are all in the street and those are all showing up in autopsies and morbidity/complication reports all over the world.
What happens when the 20 year old in San Francisco in 2025 has access to such an array of psychedelics and virtual environments that they can experience (not watch, not spectate in, experience), any reality he chooses, that adheres to the tech limitation at the time? How much faster can they learn? How much better can they plan? How much more relaxing will their off time be?
We’ve already seen Pokemon Go have unequal access/experience outside of urban centers. We’ve seen computer/digital skills shoot to the top of the wage/salary pyramid. What happens when those at the top of that pyramid now gets personalized pharmacology that they can acquire at no risk? How does the kid in the urban core who gets harassed/shaken down by a cop even when he doesn’t smoke pot, compete in school or in the workplace?
Substances, like adderall, modafinil, vyvanse, xanax, and the cornucopia of cannabis-derived products are able to ensure workers can learn faster, process emotions and trauma more quickly, and enjoy either increased earnings, more off time, or greater freedom to work remotely.
What happens when that stratification calcifies? What happens when cannabis tinctures are hyper-potent, leaving plant matter in the dust? What happens when the teens smoking “pot” in high school in the 2020s don’t recognize a pot leaf or flower in a bag, since they’re just vaping “ChemDog Flavor CannaBlaze” brand vape oil? What happens when we have 10 different brands of clear concentrate cannabis vaporizers, but only the most expensive ones use THC and not synthetic cannabinoids, and you or I can’t tell the difference between them? What happens when only Apple employees can afford/access pure LSD?
If you don’t think this can happen, when’s the last time anyone smoked real Tobacco? Not the awful mixture of tobacco leavings, addictive chemicals and sadness the crushing majority of people consume dozens of times a day in cigarettes. (Ok, people who own tins of the stuff and are all hipstery about it, I see you, put the torches and pitchforks down) Why couldn’t this happen to every other drug that becomes legal and commercialized? Why are mushrooms, MDMA, cannabis or LSD somehow immune to these effects?
We’re at the precipice of a truly extraordinary time. As 3D printing, personalized medicine, and neuroscience research advance, they’re intersecting with the plummeting cost of chemical synthesis. This has already given rise to dozens of “research chemical” companies across the globe, willing, and able, to produce high quality psychoactive substances labeled “not for human consumption.”
But that doesn’t matter. I may not be willing to consume these drugs before they go through clinical trials, but thousands of people are. We’ve got drug users out there beta testing these substances with their cardiovascular systems, finding all the bugs & incompatibilities the new substance has with human physiology. Say what you want about science and research, the studies they’ve done with most classic substances like LSD, MDMA & psilocybin show those drugs aren’t fatal. We’ve got reports of millions of people who have used classic psychoactive substances, legal and otherwise, so we know exactly they do. Both in the short term, and the long term. This new stuff? Not a clue.
So, now we’ve got a situation where people are guessing at what drug they want to do, buying something on the street, and use it entirely differently than you should. It’s one thing to think that LSD will solve your existential crisis or you want to relax and you don’t want to drink beer all day. It’s a very different thing thinking you got LSD, but then ingested a synthetic cathinone that might affect your pre-existing heart condition. Which, by the way, happens at many major music festivals.
We now have the ability, as a species, to honestly assess substances as they affect our mind and body, soberly, and accurately. In a way that could benefit literally every human, if deployed correctly. A great, uncontrolled experiment is playing out in the neurochemistry of the world’s novel psychoactive substance users. We’re seeing one class of people use stimulants to stay awake all night to work 2 jobs, while another tier uses better quality stimulants of the same class (in this case, amphetamines) to do much higher paying work, with fewer health consequences. How will we bright this gap? Use technology? Run clinical trials? Policy changes? How do we honestly assess a sub-culture that is entirely unwilling to speak on the record about their illegal habits? I think it’s important to remember that the morality of drug use isn’t uniform. There are plenty of exceptionally well-compensated professionals, athletes and executives who would gladly consume a productivity enhancing substance tailor made to them, even if there were risks to their health. Just ask anyone who hit home runs in the late 90’s.
In the next article, I’ll get into this idea of pharmacological neuroenhancement, or “brain doping” more deeply. It’s a topic we only discuss when complaining how bad Limitless (both) is, or when some sportball scandal breaks, and we get to wax philosophical about how “competition should be.”
In reality, a lot of the competing has already been done by the time the players take the field. The gigantic differences in size, strength, speed, education, training, coaching and expertise in athletic competition have been compounded by increasingly sophisticated nutrition and supplement regimens over the years. What happens when personalized pharmacology is added to the mix? What happens when it’s added to the trading floor? Or the medical school? Or the soldier? It’s an exciting time, so get plenty of rest, drink lots of water, and don’t forget to take your vitamins.
Tarik Najeddine threw underground parties in Brooklyn while going to Columbia for his masters in Clinical Psychology, then working at the only veterans-only publicly funded homeless shelter in the country. After all of his favorite venues were shut down, he began to study substance use patterns in NYC, Philadelphia, Baltimore, DC, Denver, Seattle and San Francisco. What he found was deeply troubling, and he's presented his findings at academic meetings, interdisciplinary conferences and private discussion salons in the USA, Canada & Europe over the last two years. You can contact him here