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Don’t Get High Without It 

The Vaults of Erowid supplies the ultimate trip buddy: information

Thursday, Apr 29 2004
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Page 5 of 7

Earth explains that Erowid satisfied an archival urge he traces back to Dungeons & Dragons, which he once played religiously. The role-playing game exploits the fetish for mapping and collecting stuff and presents, like drug lore, a curious balance of the fantastic and the technical. Fire also used to write stories with her friends and draw detailed pictures of the floor plans of the characters’ homes. “It was very D&D but from a different angle.”

“From a girlie angle,” Earth adds.

“It wasn’t that girlie.”

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But it was geeky. Earth calls the commonality “an idle-ish, paperwork, detail-oriented kind of systems thinking — a kind of externalization of memory. That’s a huge part of what Erowid is. There is no way to keep track of that amount of information without a robot assistant.” In other words, arranging and programming a good database actually makes the information more intelligent.

Initially, the Erowid robot had the modest goal of supplementing Hyperreal, then the largest purveyor of drug data online. The couple were particularly drawn to obscure and highly technical information about extraction techniques, alkaloid contents and improvements in psilocybin cultivation. In 1996, the administrators for Hyperreal ceased maintaining the site, and within two years, Erowid moved onto the Hyperreal server and absorbed the older site, instantly doubling its traffic. Though another site, called the Lycaeum, also provides a healthy, if wilder, brew of data (at www.lycaeum.org), and scores of sites devote themselves to individual compounds, Erowid comes closest to a comprehensive archive of contemporary psychoactive-drug information.

It’s not an easy place to be. The couple are perpetually overwhelmed by the need to manage, update and publish a torrent of information. “It doesn’t take an informed person five minutes to find huge gaps,” says Earth. Their tobacco and caffeine vaults are tiny, and the MDMA FAQ is horribly out of date. Large tracts of their site lie fallow. “Areas like ‘Ask Erowid,’ where visitors can ask questions that aren’t addressed on the site, are a source of unending suffering,” says Fire. “Months go by without a question being answered. If I think about that, I start to feel sick.”

But Erowid now has more-pressing demands. E-mails from emergency medical technicians and physicians attest that Erowid has saved lives, and scores of health professionals have made the site their primary online source when dealing with unfamiliar drug problems. And young adults are turning to it in droves. “When we first started, we were interested in documenting the cutting edge of information about psychoactives,” says Fire. “That had to change as it became clear that people were using Erowid in a way we had not originally intended. Not having the basic background information seemed dangerous in some ways.” The flip side of this public service is a mountain of responsibility — pressure that makes for the sort of high-minded workaholism that, combined with empty coffers, can easily lead to burnout. Paranoia also waits in the wings. Though the couple keep the site free from the sort of tasty bits useful to law enforcement, and will literally turn away from conversations that tell them more than they want to know about individuals involved in manufacture and supply, Earth and Fire sometimes fear they will get harassed simply out of spite.

 

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
single answer.”

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