Have we Blown our Chances of Getting Mainstream Support for Psychedelic Medicine?

This article was originally published in the Psychedelic Press UK print journal (2013 Vol.2)

Photographed by George Rex

Photographed by George Rex

At a party recently, I had a chat with a good friend of mine who works within the British civil service. His role is loosely connected with party politics, but he is more widely aligned with whatever the government of the time happens to be. He said some very challenging and, at the time, upsetting things about my work with psychedelics. Initially, I was defensive and angry, but now I have given his words a lot of further thought.

My friend, we will call him Josh, talked to me with authority about the ‘great moral majority’; this peculiar, faceless population, traditionally made up of white, middle class, middle aged, middle England Daily Mail readers – known in political circles as ‘swing voters’. They make up around 12% of the electorate and crucially change their vote between elections. Under our current system (which Proportional Representation could perhaps change someday,) these swing voters carry far more clout than their fair share. Politicians therefore tend to target their policies towards this group, as it’s only by appealing beyond a party’s core vote that it can hope to form a government. So when it comes to elections Middle England, says Josh, is the raison d’etre of all politicians. They listen to, respect, follow and are lead by these people.

In a heated conversation, fuelled by the UK’s favourite legal drug, I became very animated as I told Josh of my frustration with the current drug classification laws. I explained my close working relationship with professor David Nutt, my admiration for David’s brave approach in tackling the archaic drug laws and – above all – my support for the clear evidence base that says the current laws are unfit for purpose and need to be tackled.

Josh did not dispute that the current drug laws are old-fashioned and ineffective at reducing the harms of drug use. He did not defend the ridiculous situation whereby we criminalise otherwise law-abiding citizens, spend millions on police, court and prison time and deny people the right to alter their consciousness safely. He agreed we are in a senseless situation whereby the drug laws hamper medical research, delay the development of potentially useful new therapy regimes and hold back our greater understanding of the brain and consciousness—all because the Home Office has such severe and arbitrary restrictions on which drugs we are allowed to use and which we are not. Furthermore, he concurred that the legal drugs alcohol and tobacco are arguably more damaging for people than cannabis and ecstasy. He was in full agreement with me on all those points.

So you can imagine my frustration when, in a scene reminiscent of A Few Good Men, I exclaimed, (by this point exacerbated), “Well then, lets just give the politicians, and the Middle England swing voters, the truth, the evidence-based truth! We do the studies, we get the data in and… bosh! How can anyone possibly support the Drugs War after that?”

“They don’t want to hear the truth,” was his answer. “The truth doesn’t matter. Truth, evidence-based reality, has nothing to do with this argument.”

Josh then proceeded to undermine my ‘evidence-based’ approach, with his point – gained from twenty years experience on the edge of politics – that there is a clear unwritten rule that one does not attempt to change or alter these Middle England swing voters with any radical policy that may risk a politician losing their crucial support. It doesn’t matter how ‘right’ or evidence-based an issue is; it is simply not advisable to rock the boat. The sad truth is that despite apparent progress on tackling the drug laws one may read about in the tiny, insignificant circulations of Guardian and Independent readers, (just a paltry combined readership of about 280 thousand; a drop in the ocean compared to the 4.5 million readers of The Sun and The Daily Mail), the Middle England camp is just as entrenched and anti-change as it has ever been.

According to Josh, despite David Nutt’s support in these cosy corners of the media, within the political classes – across all parties – he is deeply distrusted. Back in 2009 Nutt ran, petulantly many politicians feel, to the newspapers and gave them information with which to beat up his employer rather than use his advantage within the system. Josh, who understands the minds of his policician friends, says this was interpretted in Westminster as an ego driven act that showed little understanding or sympathy for the environment in which the people he wanted to affect change operate. It could be argued therefore that David’s approach had precisely the opposite intended outcome in terms of changing opinions about drug laws within the political classes.

The message is essentially: if you want proper, effective change of political policy then attack politicians at your peril. Especially when it comes to such an ingrained issue as drugs.

My conversation with Josh marked an important moment of realisation for me. Have I got it all wrong? Have we all, in the psychedelic research community, with our glorification of archaic plant spirits celebrated at our conferences alongside serious neuroscientists’ attempts to change political hearts and minds, got it all wrong?

“So what do I do?” I asked. “If giving people the ‘truth’ about the stupidity of prohibition is not the way forward, what do we do? How do we effect political change? Indeed, if I ever got the chance to sit a room with David Cameron – in order to propose the importance of MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy for treating PTSD – (my current primary topic of research), how do I go about it?”

The answer I got back was along the lines of ‘play the game according to their rules’. One must remember, said Josh, that if a politician is going to be persuaded to back me by taking on such a politically hot subject he or she must also need some kind of buffering angle with which to placate the Middle England Daily Mail readers. It is fantasy to expect a politician to simply adopt all of what I am saying, with my global left-wing agenda, without there being some hit or sacrifice on my part. So, what am I going to give the politician in return? What can I offer him or her that they can take back to their constituents in Middle England, to placate them, to sugar the pill, when they bravely agree to back my highly controversial proposition?

The most important thing I, as a doctor, could give, says Josh, is total utter conservative sobriety, squeaky-clean image and a firm commitment that I will not damage my courageous political ally. Josh suggested, if I was ever in the fortunate position to meet Cameron face to face on this issue, I should say the following:

“Mr Cameron, I propose MDMA Therapy is the best way to provide effective treatment for our boys out in Afghanistan with PTSD. Furthermore, while I am here David Cameron, may I take this opportunity to say how much I support the war, support the troops and the many other progressive things you are doing with the Coalition Government.”

Then Cameron might, just might, listen. If I then backed that up with how much I detest the anti-Drugs War, how I promise to show unswerving support to the government for their effective continuing prohibition against all recreational use of substances and how I find the notion about ‘the right to alter consciousness’ ridiculus, then I might, just might, have Cameron’s ear, for a brief second, on my chosen topic of developing MDMA Therapy. But above all, says my friend, do not under any circumstances suggest that this (or any other) government has got the drug laws wrong. Because to do that would so vehemently fly in the face of the Middle Englanders that it would induce far too much ‘reputational risk’ for any politician to dare align themselves with my proposition for medical MDMA therapy.

And furthermore, says Josh, I must totally dissociate myself from ‘the psychedelic community,’ which I am so often heard to celebrate and support. I must completely, unreservedly, extract myself from Facebook discussions about alternative living, protest movements, Glastonbury, Stonehenge, Breaking Convention and interesting articles about the shamanic use of mushrooms. He also pointed out that my long-running monthly psychedelic radio show would definitely have to go.

So, as I understand it, in order for me to briefly get Cameron’s attention for a research study on the therapeutic use of MDMA I would effectively have to extinguish and deny my entire system of beliefs, interests and values. I would have to choose my battles. The voice, says Josh, that calls for MDMA Therapy for PTSD cannot be the same voice that celebrates the South American ritual use of Ayahusaca or who supports unilateral nuclear disarmament and dares to question the validity of Monsanto.

Play their game. Support the government on the issues of the day—except the one thing you want them to look at. That is the only way to do it. Cut your hair, denounce evil recreational drug use, broadly agree with the government’s drug laws—all except the one that prevents research that one day might lead to a licence for doctors to prescribe MDMA-Assisted therapy. So where does this put me? Can I really be the person who affects real change by ‘playing the game’, whilst also be known as the person who’s still true to his roots?

Dr. Ben Sessa

Dr. Ben Sessa

I think for a second, then, “I’m not prepared to do that!”

“Don’t then,” he calmly replies.

“But it’s not a level playing field!” I protest.

“No, it’s not,” he agrees.

“You are telling me to sell my soul to the devil!”

“Yes, perhaps,’ he agrees, “but if you truly want to influence the government, trust me, this is what you must do. There is no other way.”

What Josh says grates at my principles. I am convinced, not as a left-wing protestor or provacateur, but as a scientist, about the value of psychedelic drug-assisted psychotherapy for the relief of otherwise difficult to treat disorders of anxiety, trauma and addictions. Why shouldn’t people want to hear the truth and ‘do the right thing’? Why should Middle England be able to dictate and proliferate such a bad policy that goes against common sense and such a clear evidence base?

“Because that is how the system works,” says Josh. “Look, Ben, I’d love to see you succeed. But you need to wake up to reality. Everyone who’s made a real difference politically has had to face such moments as this. How many left wing firebrands have affected real change and still stayed heroes to all their original followers? The compromises you will likely have to make will not be easily understood or forgiven by some of those in the psychedelic community who’ve supported you to date. You have to decide if you can live with the repercussions or stay safe in the bosom of your community. Sometimes the bravest thing to be is to be never recognised as such.

“So by all means hang onto your values, your beloved ‘psychedelic community’ and your global sense of protest and insistance on what you think is ‘right’,” smiles Josh warmly. “But if you do, then forget effecting any meaningful change in the hearts and minds of politicians.”

On reflection I remain frustrated by Josh’s words. He is a good friend, I respect him immensely and I certainly recognise his considerable experience in politics. But by far the worst thing of all – and the reason why I cannot get this issue out of my head – is because, I fear, he may be absolutely right.

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1 Response

  1. Ben,
    Great article, stunning depiction of the state-of-mind of the consummate politician. He’s right, of course, as long as you consider the current political system immortal. He’s proudly displaying his survival techniques. No principles, change as needed, always agree with whatever way the wind blows.

    Civil rights of any sort would never have come about in the US at any scale without people disagreeing with the status quo.

    That being said, more sensational stories need to be aired in the Mail and the other rag. Stories first about the horrendous suicide and ptsd rate among soldiers returning from the war. In the US, it’s epidemic, and is softening the resistance to trying MDMA in clinical trials. Then “miracle cure” stories can be floated–“depressed soldier rescued from suicide” and such. “If it bleeds, it leads” is the journalistic formula. But first, I’d stress the epidemic. Then there’s the strategies of the two biggest movements since black integration: the marijuana lobby, which is now winning, and the gay rights movement, ditto. It can be done. Next question: those Middle Englanders: what’s their drug of choice? Sure, alcohol, but are they opiate addicted as well? More Blood for stories! Is that a problem in UK like it is here?

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