By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Erowid is the trusted source for young people who want to get information that’s as uncontaminated by hidden agendas as possible,” says Rick Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which maintains close ties to the site. As an example, Doblin compares Erowid to Freevibe, a sassy anti-drug Web site created by Disney and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). “Freevibe is designed to attract young people, but their MDMA page is bullshit. By providing misinformation or inaccurate information, you destroy your credibility. Kids go elsewhere.” Doblin believes that Erowid is performing a public service by providing information that citizens can use to make good choices. “Erowid shouldn’t have to do what it’s doing. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t exist. This work would be done by the government.”
Inside the psychedelic, rave and harm-reduction communities, Earth and Fire are considered leaders, even heroes. But they insist they’re just a pair of librarians — archivists and “Internet dorks” who believe that better access to better information just makes for better decisions in the long run. “Basically, we act as if there isn’t prohibition,” says Earth. “We are trying to publish this information as if the world were already making rational choices around this complicated area.”
Rationality, however, rarely claws its way into the public discussion of drug use in this country. Despite widespread disgust with the war on drugs, the dominant American narrative hasn’t budged much since Reefer Madness, which assumed that people are defenseless lemmings unable to withstand the seductive and all-consuming call of horribly damaging drugs and their demonic proponents. After years working under the radar, Erowid is now being painted into this patronizing, B-movie tableau. A year ago, CBS News ran an “Eye on America” that focused on the Web site, which they faintly praised as “the encyclopedia of altered states.” Their flash case was a 17-year-old who fell unconscious after taking a combination of 5-MeO-DMT, a mighty psychedelic tryptamine, and Syrian rue, a plant rich in a monoamine-oxidase inhibitor, or MAOI, called harmaline. By temporarily squelching enzymes that metabolize organic amines such as DMT, MAOIs significantly extend the tryptamine’s flight time. The fellow learned about this rather risky combo from Erowid, which CBS claimed had given the fellow “a brand-new way to flirt with death.” Later that year, Fox News ran a predictably hysterical piece about online drug information that showed screen shots of Erowid, although the site’s name had been blurred out. Perhaps Fox knew that CBS’s earlier spot had doubled Erowid’s server traffic for days.
These reports cast Erowid as little more than cheerleaders proffering recipes for gray-matter mischief. “Erowid are presented as somehow opposite the government, as totally positive rather than constantly negative,” says MAPS’s Doblin. “But that’s just wrong. They’re not pro-drug. They’re pro-choice, and the choice should lie with the individual who has access to good information.” Doblin points out that only an idiot could mistake the 5-MeO-DMT vault for a pusher’s hard sell. Tales of crystalline entities and the implosion of space-time abound — and these are the positive reports. Add this to the prominent list of contraindications (which includes MAOIs), and most reasonably responsible people would think very hard before embarking on the good ship 5-MeO-DMT.
But that’s the rub: How many of Erowid’s users can be said to be reasonably responsible? Leaving aside the fact that many people turn to drugs to escape the world of reason and responsibility, Doblin’s pro-choice argument requires that users are already capable of critical thinking — not to mention navigating the basics of pharmacology. “Most people who get on Erowid are bright and well educated,” says Edward Boyer, the toxicologist and emergency-room physician who treated the young man in the CBS story. “But not everyone is. I mean, how many people know what ‘contraindication’ means? When I started medical school, I didn’t know what it was.”
Boyer first started tracking online drug sites in 1996, after treating two fellows who poisoned themselves with a batch of GHB they had whipped up after discovering a recipe online. In 2001, the New England Journal of Medicine published his letter accusing Erowid and other “partisan” Web sites of providing dangerous misinformation. (Unfortunately, the research and methodology Boyer used were not included in his letter, nor did the Journal deign to print Erowid’s rebuttal.) Though Boyer has since come to cautiously admire Earth and Fire, and no longer refers to their site as “partisan,” he still argues that Erowid minimizes adverse effects and includes too much dodgy — and potentially harmful — data in its quest to present all sides. “Erowid is so comprehensive, and so much of the information is correct, that unless you’re an expert in medical toxicology you may miss the dangerous information that’s close to the surface.”
Boyer wants the assurances provided by the professional system of peer review and expertise. The problem is that, when it comes to recreational drugs in America, politics have largely hijacked these noble mechanisms. Last year, for example, the Johns Hopkins neuroscientist George Ricaurte, a prominent and tireless critic of MDMA, issued a retraction of a controversial and widely hyped paper published the previous year in the prestigious journal Science. Ricaurte’s original study reported that monkeys shot up with only moderately strong doses of MDMA experienced “severe” damage to their dopamine systems, leading to Parkinson’s-like symptoms and some deaths. Embarrassingly, it turned out that Ricaurte’s grad students had actually been shooting up the animals with methamphetamine. Though some interpreted the retraction as evidence of the self-correcting nature of science, the real question — posed by the prominent British medical researchers Colin Blakemore and Les Iversen, among others — was why Ricaurte’s report was published in the first place, given that its results were so out of whack with what we know about the very real neurotoxicity of MDMA. If Ricaurte’s study were true, then ravers would routinely be forced to dance over the corpses of their triple-dosing peers.