Exploring the positive effects of drugs in university.
Bill Hicks once said “You never see positive drug stories on the news, do you? Isn’t that weird? Because most of the experiences I’ve had on drugs were real fucking positive”. That was the quote that immediately came to my mind after reading Ana Diamond’s article about her life with drugs. Media coverage of drug culture, even student media coverage, is always focused upon the negative effects. I am not writing this article as a direct critique of Ms. Diamond’s argument, that job has already been done in her article’s comment section. Nor am I building a case in support of legalisation of drugs; talented journalists and academics have devoted well-researched books and theses to the subject. All I can offer are my own experiences with drugs as a student at King’s.
At my secondary school I almost never encountered drugs, I neither looked for them nor actively avoided them. It was not until college that I was handed my first spliff. It was poorly rolled with very little weed in it, the product of hands unseasoned in the art of rolling. I will not bore you with any cannabis anecdotes; I’ll just say that our time together has now been long and fruitful. To me, it is a drug which feels far less intoxicating than alcohol. I don’t think that it’s particularly stigmatised any more, either. It’s a drug that opens users up to new ways of thinking, getting them accustomed to altering their consciousness. I suppose this is why it has such a strong reputation as a gateway drug. But I don’t think there’s much I need to say about this one, I just wanted to lay out how my relationship with drugs began. Besides, apparently 50% of KCL is already more than familiar with it.
It wasn’t until I came to University that I decided MDMA was something I wanted to experience. It took me a few weeks of deliberation and extensive internet research before I reached the conclusion that it was safe and that I, personally, would be able to handle myself under its influence. I discussed it with friends who were already very familiar with its effects and they advised me that it would be better to drop in a comfortable setting before braving a club or rave. So a date was set, two grams were bought and we dropped at a friend’s flat. I was admittedly nervous; when people had told me about their first time using MDMA it normally involved being a bit drunk first, which I imagine helped with the nerves. I swallowed 0.3 grams whilst of completely sound body and mind.
After half an hour my nervousness was washed away. I felt that unmistakeable tickle at the back of my neck, swiftly followed by the sensation that my brain was aglow, filled to its capacity with euphoria and contentment. I remember feeling undue pleasure just from deeply inhaling and exhaling. Now, those internal effects are all well and good, but the real pleasure of the drug is how it allows you to interact with your friends. If alcohol is a social lubricant then ecstasy is social lightning. No conversation topic is taboo. Social boundaries dissolve. There is a valid argument that the closeness you feel to people when you are on MDMA is false or superficial, which I think is something to keep in mind. But it also allows you to feel and express genuine emotions that might have otherwise been lost under the stifling wraps of sober social pretences. I can only speak for myself, but the best nights out of my first year of university almost all had MDMA in common.
Another watershed moment in my relationship with drugs was reading The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley. I had already had experience with party drugs but had only dabbled with hallucinogens. However, after reading about Huxley’s mescaline trip my mind was opened to the idea that drugs were not only fun, but could also be used in an explorative, intellectual context. As an arts student I was already familiar with the endless list of authors, artists and musicians who have experienced revelations through psychedelics: from Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his opium inspired fantasies, to Steve Jobs and his endorsement of LSD.
However psychedelics are not for all drug users. They can offer intense, and occasionally frightening, experiences. Psychedelics and party drugs are demanding in different ways, and knowing the distinction between the two is important if you are considering doing either.
One night in the summer myself and about six others decided that we wanted to take psilocybin mushrooms together. Having tried mushrooms before, I was excited to introduce these particular friends to the experience. We all took the same dose and sat in the living room, listening to music, chatting and waiting for the effects to begin. Half an hour later, Andy, a friend from my course, began his trip earlier than everyone else. At first he had trouble stringing long sentences together but he had a constant, infectious smile on his face. Soon the effects began to manifest for a few others so we left the living room and walked out into the garden to sit in the grass.
I started to become frustrated, feeling as if I were the only one who had not come up yet. In an attempt to quicken the process, I decided to sit on my own for a few minutes, close my eyes and concentrate. After a moment of patience I began to feel the small waves of contentment associated with the beginning of a shrooms trip. When my eyes were shut I saw multi-coloured fractals moving in concentric circles. I quickly understood why Andy had had a difficult time speaking earlier on. After another hour I did not need to close my eyes. Andy and I sat in the garden and talked into the night about what we were seeing. At the peak of my hallucination I watched the plants in the garden grow out from the ground into the sky and then wither and die all in the space of a few seconds. It was incredible.
We experienced all the clichés: there were intense/silly philosophical conversations, prolonged hugs that always involved at least four people and the overwhelming feeling that everything was connected. I don’t remember who said it, but a quote I remember from that night was “On shrooms, it is impossible to be an atheist. Everything just seems ordained and wonderful”. After four hours the effects of the psilocybin began to fade, and the euphoria converted to a satisfied calm. We all ended up back in the living room. Although we had seen different things, we all felt as if we had gone on a journey together.
So it would be accurate to say that my experiences with drugs at university, when used sensibly, have been overwhelmingly positive. University is a place where many of us become truly independent for the first time; it is a relatively safe place to experiment with new ideas and practices. Of course I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that every drug has its comedown, a yin to their yang. Each drug may not come with its equivalent of a hangover, but they all have possible negative side effects. But is that not the same for any worthwhile pleasure? Rollercoasters come off their tracks, mountain climbers fall and people choke on their steak. Douglas Coupland said that “adventure without risk is just Disneyland”. If you don’t think that risk is worth taking, that’s fine, but don’t chastise the rest of us for feeling that it is.
Once the comedown has set in or the psychedelic visions have faded, a question often arises among the company I keep: “Why do we take drugs?” This is not asked with regret or reassessment, but with curiosity as to what makes drugs seem attractive to us but not to others. Of course there can only be a personal answer to that question. There are a vast collection of motives and drives that might lead a person to experimental or habitual drug use, and obviously there are bad reasons to take otherwise safe substances: to escape from reality and real life problems, peer pressure, self-destruction or punishment.
If I’m completely honest with myself, one compelling reason for my enjoyment of certain drugs is that they act as a heady substitute for real adventure. The psychic journeys that hallucinogenic drugs take you on are exciting, often profound, but they are no replacement for genuine self-discovery. When taken properly, drugs should not be seen as experiences in and of themselves. They should be used to enhance and augment already desirable experiences, from a wild night out, to meditation, to spending quality time with your best friends.
To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, the patron saint of recreational drug use, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me”.