By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Along with mistaking Earth and Fire for ravenous drug fiends, people often assume that they’re radical libertarians on the issue of drug legalization. “No controls?” counters Earth. “That seems crazed to me. I like government controls in a lot of ways. I think stop signs at four-way intersections are fantastic.” What concerns the couple is how prohibition distorts the understanding of our world’s psychoactive reality. “Consciousness is a chemically mediated process,” says Earth. “The pretense of the drug war is that, if we could just get rid of all these crazy chemicals, people wouldn’t be faced with the choice of whether to take strong psychoactives. In fact, today I can buy all manner of antidepressants, anxiolytics and stimulants. From a very early age, we are faced with caffeine, which our society only pretends isn’t a powerful psychoactive.”
And we ain’t seen nothing yet. According to Earth, we are now witnessing the early stages of what will be an explosion of more or less approved mind-altering technologies — not just drugs, but powerful digital technologies as well. “In the next 20 years, we will be faced with some very sticky issues. By oversimplifying the complicated moral, ethical and medical questions surrounding such technologies, the authorities infantilize the general public. They don’t provide tools for people to make rational choices. Instead they manipulate emotion through fear. They present a model where there is only a
Earth and Fire are the first to admit that Erowid’s philosophy is a gamble. “There isn’t anything that I don’t question about our work,” Earth admits. “Every piece of information that we put up is potentially misusable.” Dangerous recipes and “pseudo-facts” permeate the site. But Earth and Fire argue that important discussions should not be limited by the specter of what an uncorked or foolish person might do in its vicinity. “People do stupid things no matter what,” says Fire. “The drug war started long before the Internet, and there’s no reason to believe that people’s actions have become more stupid due to the online availability of information about psychoactives.”
Still, Earth readily admits that one of Erowid’s major problems is that crackpot or out-of-date documents, included for the sake of diversity or historical interest, could easily be misinterpreted by a naive user as gospel writ. One of the main goals of Erowid 3.0, a massive upgrade that the couple are coding this summer, is to provide users with quick in-house ratings of documents as well as a way to track their history and origin. But the real issue is not the quality of Erowid’s data, which is largely published elsewhere and which even critics like Boyer acknowledge is pretty high. The real issue concerns the cultural consequences of creating a handy, one-stop online database of such tantalizing lore. The experience reports, for example, are a veritable PenthouseForum of psychoactive escapades — a “virtual peer group” in Boyer’s terms, and one that certainly
But prohibition eggs people on, too. David Franklin, a counselor at a private high school in Richmond, California, who works with at-risk kids, tells the story of two boys who decided to try pot simply because they knew they were getting a fish story. “A lot of kids realize that they’ve been given false information about drugs,” says Franklin. “They don’t know what’s a lie or what’s a truth. They think everything is false.” Unlike the government, Franklin believes that, when presented with real options and solid information, kids are generally able to make good decisions. He was once faced with a depressed 15-year-old girl who wanted to try LSD. Along with explaining the potential dark side of acid, he sent her to Erowid to read about other people’s experiences. After poring through the material, she decided that her visit to electric ladyland could wait.
Even Boyer admits that online information may turn off as many potential partiers as it turns on. At NIDA’s behest, he is currently studying the relationship between the Internet and illicit drug use among at-risk kids. So far, the results are ambiguous. “We’ve had people who are not drug users read about Salvia divinorumand thought it was cool and started using it. By the same token, we’ve had people who used to snort Ritalin get on the Web, find out that it was bad, and quit.”
The role the Internet plays in psychoactive use is also complicated by the steady trickle of new designer drugs, or “research chemicals” as Erowid calls them, many of which, like 2C-I, modify known psychoactive molecules. Because of this close resemblance, most of these substances are, arguably, restricted under the Analogue Act of 1986, which prohibits drugs that are “substantially similar” to scheduled compounds. Given the vagueness of this language, though, a steady stream of quasi-legal powders provide highs that stay one step ahead of the DEA’s scheduling process. Often based on the chemist Alexander Shulgin’s magisterial research work with his wife, Ann, in their catalogs of firsthand experiences, PiHKALand TiHKAL, these chemicals begin their life circulating through “boutique markets” or what Fire calls “family networks” of dedicated psychonauts. Some of the more fun ones then move into a larger gray market, where they overlap or supplement established club drugs. As with the well-known (and loved) 2C-B, synthesized by Shulgin in 1974 but not marketed until the late 1980s, these more popular compounds often become controlled substances themselves. In 2002, 2C-T-7, 5-MeO-DiPT (a.k.a. “Foxy”) and the obscure but venerable AMT all wound up scheduled alongside acid and heroin.