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Time travel - not for the faint hearted. - Tactical Ninja

Apr. 24th, 2013

10:17 am - Time travel - not for the faint hearted.

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Right, now I've had about 16 hours' sleep I feel much more human. Sorry about the weirdly-shaped gap in posts - going from San Francisco to Wellington involves losing an entire day, so for me, Monday's post disappeared into a place where it may end up in a Dr Who episode one day. *cough*

Anyway, I have many things on my mind. Today I will be reading the Psychoactive Substances Bill in preparation for making my submission. We have till the 30th of April to have our say on this. I'll be posting my thoughts on that for those who are interested later this week. But meanwhile, here's the rest of the conference.

The first talk was called "Repositioning Psychedelics in the Public Mind" and had three speakers - a PR representative from MAPS (who created the conference and have been instrumental in the development of modern psychedelic research); a journalist; and a graphic designer.

The first speaker, Brad Burge of MAPS, talked about culture as a kind of "set and setting" for science. Set and setting, for those not familiar with psychedelic terminology, is roughly the context in which an experience happens - the person's mindset and the surrounding setting. These things have a huge influence on the type of experience an individual will have with a psychedelic, and Brad believes that the same applies to culture and how it influences the way science is conducted and received.

So, in terms of the science of psychedelics, he feels it's important to change the culture around psychedelic science by reframing the stories told through the media. Historically, it has been the 'old' story - you know the one. There's a group of people over there doing spiritual things who have been using X substance for generations, then Western culture discovers it, there's a recreational explosion, then the substance gets banned. We need to start framing a new story, the one that doesn't erase the uses within Western societies, that includes the reality that these substances have been and are being explored by some very intelligent people within our culture before reaching popular culture. Anyone who's read What the Dormouse Said will know about the significant overlap between psychedelic research in the 1960s and the development of Silicon Valley. This is no coincidence.

So anyway, the idea is that psychedelics were tools long before they were recreational substances, and Brad feels that this is the story that needs to be at the forefront of media releases to the public, creating more ethical metaphors around psychedelics based on purpose rather than morality. He finished with the catchphrase "Stories engage, data convinces."

I see his point and agree with him to an extent, and I can certainly see evidence here of 'the wedge' that rivet was talking about the other day. However, this view is very based in the medical model and I am very firmly of the belief that a person doesn't need to have something wrong with them in order for psychedelics to have a positive influence on their life - and also that there is an assumption in the above framing that so-called 'popular use' is also by definition irresponsible. I find this vaguely offensive while at the same time understanding the need for this kind of reframing. However, I'll be over here producing the data that's needed to follow up the medical model with a new framing that includes non-medical uses by well people within the definition of ethical, intelligent purposes. Fuck yeah.

Next up there was a journalist, talking about the way stories about psychedelics can reach a wider audience. Bullet points from this talk include:

- put the information where it will be seen - in magazines and papers with a broad audience.
- fit one of three rubrics - scientific breakthrough story (new information from legitimate sources); This Will Change Your Life stories, which expound on science, make it personal, and include the experiences of someone recognisable to the mainstream; or the Trend Piece which looks at 'these people who are doing this cool thing'.
- be conscious of packaging - where will it be? What pictures and advertising will be included?
- counterpoint is required in articles. For psychedelics the counterpoint is safety, and sometimes it's difficult to find real safety issues with psychedelics, however without them the article will appear unbalanced.
- have a specific narrative - like a redemption narrative. For example veterans with PTSD getting better through the use of MDMA.
- create a specific mental model - what image should be left in the mind of the reader?

The main message from the graphic designer was that repetition creates facts. This is true whether the information is factual or not - this is how that 'this is your brain, this is your brain on drugs' story ended up being part of the zeitgeist, and the word 'fried' is now used in relation to drugs. If this works that way, it will also work through the repeated presentation of actual facts.

I found these three talks pretty interesting since a lot of what I do is write about drugs with the aim of changing people's basic perceptions and ingrained beliefs. That's why they've received so much space here. This stuff is worth remembering.

Next up, the folks who are doing the study on Ibogaine in Otago skyped in. I totally thought that was cheating! It was 6:30am on Monday morning in NZ at the time though, so, um.. yeah. Also, I was stoked when the speaker introduced himself in Maori, even if everyone else was just confused.

So, ibogaine. What the hell is it? It's a substance made from a tree root that has been used by the Bwiti of Gabon for spiritual and ritual purposes for a very long time (hey look, those people over there doing spiritual things!). It's a strong hallucinogen and dissociative that can last for up to 24 hours. By all accounts it is not fun and therefore has no known recreational use. It was studied before the War on Drugs and showed some potential in the treatment of addiction, but Hello Psychedelic! And therefore governments wielded the banhammer and thus prevented a lot of research.

However, in New Zealand, ibogaine is a non-approved medicine under the Medicines Act, and is not in the Misuse of Drugs Act at all. This means it can be prescribed, but there are no regulations or set protocols around how it is used within a treatment regime. The New Zealand pilot study had 8 participants, and the aim was to determine the effectiveness of ibogaine and assess other issues such as withdrawal, whether it helps with depression, and the patient's impression of how well it worked. Subjects were mainly addicted to opioids through previous prescription of painkillers (heroin isn't really a thing here) and living rurally, which is historically a difficult population to work with. The study included a visiting and drug testing regime for 12 months after their ibogaine experience. So far, 5 out of the 8 people are currrently not using opioids, although of those, two have had short relapses that they have since addressed.

It should be noted that lacking a treatment protocol, what typically happens is that as with a lot of addiction treatment, the follow-up support is scanty and not that helpful - ie, the ibogaine experience is an event not a process, and people are not given support to integrate their experience into their default lives. This was the same with the Mexican ibogaine study. Thus, while it seems that ibogaine use does have some pretty profound impacts on people suffering from addiction, the lack of follow-up support means that relapse is fairly common. However, 5/8 being clean a year later is a pretty impressive stat when you compare it with the rates for other treatments, which vary from about 5 to 20 percent (not including the claims made by Narcanon which are bullshit).

The conclusion from this is that ibogaine looks like a promising tool for use in the treatment of opioid addiction, but that research into appropriate treatment processes is necessary. I have hope that this study will continue within New Zealand.

The Erowids' State of the Stone talk was as always very interesting, focusing mainly on the rate at which synthetic substances are currently coming on the market, and also on the Silk Road internet drug purchase site (which is probably not going to last a lot longer given how well-known it is becoming). New Zealand's new PSBill got a mention. The perception of this law from overseas is that it is progressive and will be a good thing, but there is potential for it to merely be a vehicle for banning all new substances. A lot depends on what is eventually signed into law, and I am glad that the cynicism I expressed in my conversation with Earth the day before made it into his talk, because I think people need to consider the potential consequences in the context of NZ's somewhat draconian approach to drugs rather than merely cheer it on because it looks better than what other countries have on face value.

Then there was Why People Climb Mountains, by a chap I'd had a conversation with in the art gallery the day before. His interest stems from an experiential comparison between the use of psychedelics and the feelings of euphoria that climbers feel. He had investigated the neurochemistry (psychoneuroendocrinology of all things) of climbing, and discovered some interesting things:

First, it's not an adrenaline rush. Climbers are not adrenaline junkies - adrenaline is no fun, as anyone who's experienced it will know. It's the reaction to thinking you are going to die, and it's extremely unpleasant. It's also not an endorphin high. The so-called 'runner's high' is being increasingly shown to be a myth, mostly because endorphins can't cross the blood/brain barrier, and thus can't actually get you high. A person of particular interest in this field is one Huda Akil, a leading expert in the role of endorphins.

So what is it then? Well, this chap has gathered together a large amount of research that seems to indicate the following hormonal landscape within the brain when participating in activities like climbing:

- noradrenaline (not to be mistaken for adrenaline), which is produced under circumstances of hard work and risk-taking, and of which there is a large increase in the brain when climbing;
- dopamine and serotonin, our two main pleasure hormones, which are released when exercising and also when experiencing exhilarating activities such as beautiful scenery and recreation;
- anandamide, which is the human hormonal counterpart for marijuana. This is the stuff our cannabinoid receptors are actually designed to receive;
- arguably, DMT. The jury is out on this one, but it is produced in the brain (see also: The Spirit Molecule), particularly during near-death experiences and extreme stress. The speaker believes this plays a part.

However, even if this doesn't play a part, have a look at that list of hormones, and think about the substances people use for recreation and what things they stimulate in the brain. Dopamine, serotonin and/or the cannabinoids are the active hormones in the brain for almost every popular recreational drug. So basically, this guy's thesis is that people climb because it gets them high on a 'hormone cocktail' that mimics polydrug use, and has written a book called The Alchemy of Action, which enlarges on this theory and will be published in a few months. Yep, I'll be buying it.

This guy gave me a mention in his lecture because I insisted that bouldering be included on the list of fun climbing activities. O.o

Gosh, that was long. So.Much.Interesting.Stuff. In terms of networking, I found the large tables of people at breakfast, and the art gallery, seemed to be the best places for having conversations with people. But in terms of brain-splodey lernins, the lectures were definitely where it's at.

I am so glad I went. It's renewed my desire to be in this field, and to support the changing of the public and state approach to drugs in order to enable ordinary people to benefit from the things being researched right now, and in general from access to psychedelic substances. One of the big messages that came through was that if we want this subculture to become part of actual culture, people need to 'come out'. While psychedelic users are hiding, it's easy to see them as different from other people, to enable the myths that drugs make you a loser, less than human.

Don't believe me that people think drug users are less than human? Read this. It's the results of a questionnaire to see how people feel about the use of animals in testing for the safety of recreational substances under the new Psychoactive Substances Act in NZ. It shows that a majority of people would prefer animals were not used for testing. Fair enough.

However, if you look down the bottom, there is a significant group of people who think that instead, testing should be done on prisoners or drug users. So it's not right to do it to animals, but if you've been convicted of a crime or use drugs, apparently that's ok, because.. because why? Because clearly you are not only less than human, but also less than animals.

More on this later, I've gone on long enough - but that style of thinking makes me very angry, just saying, and it needs to change.


[User Picture]
Date:April 23rd, 2013 10:38 pm (UTC)
I am so EXCEEDINGLY pleased that you've done this. I've often found conferences to be a shot in the arm that reminds me of why I'm doing a thing by connecting me with other people who share my passion as well as lots of juicy ideas in a short span. May it do the same for you!
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[User Picture]
Date:April 23rd, 2013 10:41 pm (UTC)
Just the fact of being surrounded by 1800 other people who feel the same way I do about this and are actively working towards changing the way this topic is perceived, was awesome. Being able to speak freely without having to be so diplomatic as to lose meaning was priceless.

I'm not alone, OMG.
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[User Picture]
Date:April 27th, 2013 12:49 am (UTC)
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