By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The unspoken reality is that, in today’s America, politics overwhelms the scientific investigation of recreational drugs. Ricaurte, for example, receives the bulk of his large research funds from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), while researchers interested in exploring the positive aspect of drugs like MDMA not only face a lack of funding or federal approval, but professional suicide. As Earth explains, “The people who know the most about this subject don’t talk about it publicly, because they are legitimately afraid for their careers.”
By creating an anonymous and evolving space of discussion, debate and trust, Erowid has not abandoned peer review, but precariously extended its boundaries. Published research findings cohabit with postings from anonymous research scientists and the interpenetrating comments of freelance alchemists, wackos and all manner of drug nerds. Earth calls it “grassroots peer review,” a process that involves self-selecting contributors whose collective intelligence increases through the dynamics of a highly networked and committed community.
Though it largely ignores policy debates, Erowid is a striking example of guerrilla information war. Millions of people, particularly young people, regularly access a repository of data whose very accessibility erodes the coercive exaggerations, hysteria and outright lies common to government and mainstream-media discussion of drugs. In addition, the very form of Erowid, which presents a model of an honest and open-minded psychoactive culture, encourages intelligent decision making. Earth and Fire don’t take up guns in the drug war; they blanket the battleground with leaflets.
I met Earth and Fire a few years ago through a rave collective that held its parties in an Episcopal church in San Francisco before the hedonic glee broke the limits of divine tolerance. Now in their mid-30s, the couple have been together since they were teenagers. Both are recognizably Midwestern: Fire’s Bj√∂rk-ish moon face is framed by straight brown hair, while Earth has a towering Nordic frame, shoulder-length blond hair and a firm, determined jaw decorated with a wispy goatee. She speaks with a clipped, fiercely intelligent directness that might come off as oddly masculine were it not for Earth’s equally fierce, if more verbose, ray-gun patter. In both their dress and their self-possessed manner, they seem uncannily symbiotic. In person and even on the phone, they often finish each other’s sentences.
This conviviality is a good thing, since they spend nearly all their time together, slumped side by side before their monitors, cranking away at their Web site for up to 80 hours a week. They work out of a rambling ranch house in the foothills of the Sierras, with two cats named Circe and Pan and a growing library of drug books. Their mind-altering substance of choice is not mushrooms or pot but caffeine, which they consume in rather enormous quantities. Erowid, they joke, is fueled by Mountain Dew.
Erowid accepts no advertising, and Earth and Fire’s shoestring budget is based solely on contributions. Though their site receives outside donations, Earth and Fire have no institutional support, and no trust funds to draw from. For the last few years, nearly half of their costs were floated by Bob Wallace, employee number nine at Microsoft and a strong supporter of psychedelic research. But Wallace died unexpectedly in his San Rafael home in the fall of 2002, and Erowid’s coffers are now basically empty. The couple are trying to motivate themselves to fund-raise. “One of the positive things about being broke is that we don’t feel comfortable asking for money until we don’t have any,” Earth jokes.
Earth and Fire first met in high school near Minneapolis. Fire prefers not to talk on record about her family, but Earth explains that his father was an engineer who filled their house with computers way back in the 1970s. His dad was committed to lifelong learning and believed that people should hang out with folks of widely different ages. He also believed that Coca-Cola makes you smarter. He encouraged the neighborhood kids to hang out with him at their house, and calmed their somewhat puzzled parents with the promise that the kids’ grades would go up — but only if they were allowed to drink as much Coke as they desired. He was usually right.
From the get-go, Earth developed a logical and fiercely independent turn of mind. But he was not a rebel, and in junior high, he was actively critical of drug use. The only stoner in his class was a jerk, and that kid’s older brother had stolen Earth’s bicycle. “So the model I had was that people who did drugs were losers and thieves.” This view was confirmed by the Reagan-era “Just Say No” messages saturating the educational system. Then one day, Earth’s health teacher claimed that human beings were the only animals stupid enough to use drugs. This contradicted a Science News story Earth had recently read about belligerent African elephants tearing through large structures in order to get their snouts into booze. “I started to realize that the information I was getting was . . .”
“Tangential to the truth,” says Fire.
During senior year, Earth was asked by his fellow student-council members to help man the door at the freshman dance. To spice up the evening, the council president suggested they ‰ smoke pot together. Earth was shocked. Asking around, he soon discovered that most of the top students in his class had experimented with cannabis but didn’t want him to know about their delectation because of his hard-ass stance on the issue. Earth had pierced through one of the many falsehoods presented by prohibitionist propaganda, which is that balanced and successful people don’t use illicit psychoactives.