Happy New Year's Eve! 2015 has been yet another interesting year to follow psychedelic news—both the factual representations and wildly inaccurate media "reports" have brought a lot to the table. This article will present the major themes and trends that were found in the latter half of the year, beginning on the June 5th, which corresponds with this year's first This Week in Psychedelics article.
First, I want to provide a bit of background on what it took to get here. I have been an avid Reality Sandwich reader since 2007, and I looked forward to each new edition of Neşe Devenot's This Week in Psychedelics column. Every week, she posted links to news articles from the mass media that referenced psychedelics and other similar psychoactive substances.
Each week's collection of links attempted to be as unbiased as possible, demonstrating how various forms of mass media represent psychedelic culture and psychoactive substance use. This always included articles that shed psychedelics in a positive light as well as articles that demonized their use (including many articles that are factually incorrect and/or misguided representations of psychedelics).
Devenot gave up "This Week in Psychedelics" more than two years ago to pursue what has proved to be an extremely successful career in academia. This year I was able to successfully bring the column back—first on Think Wilder, and then on Reality Sandwich as well. The following is my analysis of this year's coverage of psychedelics and similar psychoactive substances.
Cannabis was in the news a lot this year, with articles being published on topics including drug policies, newly-discovered medical applications, cannabis scientific research, the fledging cannabis industry, a slew of hilarious poorly-executed drug delivery attempts, and more.
To begin, there were pro-cannabis drug policy movements at the state level across the United States of America, as well as on the international stage in countries like Italy, Australia, Mexico, Iran, and Colombia. Canada legalized cannabis oils and edibles, and its new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has proudly announced plans to completely legalize the plant.
Stories about cannabis oils and their affinity for helping young children with a variety of needs were aplenty. The medical uses for cannabis expanded even further, with focuses on cannabis benefits for ailments such as epilepsy, colon and kidney cancers, low sex drives, broken bones, social anxieties, celiac disease, insomnia, schizophrenia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Cannabis was also found to help with weight loss, pain management, and drug addiction treatment. Cannabis research included studies on cannabis-involved driving and an upcoming study that will look into cannabis for assisting military veterans that have PTSD.
In the area of cannabis-related crime, London police were astonished to find a cannabis "forest" as big as a soccer field. Cannabis dealers missed the mark at least three times this year, including the time that $10,000 of cannabis fell out of the sky onto a family's home, when 50 pounds of pot were accidentally mailed to the incorrect address, and when a man found cannabis stashed in an Arizona Iced Tea can that he purchased at Walmart. The FBI released data showing that there is a cannabis-related arrest every 45 seconds in the U.S.
Candidates involved with the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election have had to confront the cannabis issue several times, and this will most likely continue into next year as the election cycle continues. The cannabis industry was covered thoroughly, with topics including how women are finding success in the industry, cannabis-themed vacation resorts, and tons of cannabis expos. Cannabis churches began popping up to encourage and celebrate the spiritual use of (and argue for the religious right to use) cannabis. Hemp began to once again make its way as a popular building material. Russia threatened to block Wikipedia over a specific cannabis article. And finally, Australia's pitiful anti-cannabis "stoner sloth" campaign backfired terribly and was ridiculed on social media.
The main story about LSD throughout the year involved the concept of microdosing, which is not exclusive to LSD but usually involves one of the classic psychedelics (LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and mescaline-containing cacti). The media seemingly could not get enough of headlines comparing tiny doses of LSD to cups of coffee, and the topic was covered in a generally-favorable manner.
A man died after being left hogtied for an hour by police following a Widespread Panic show, and there have been conflicting evidence found by various autopsies performed as to whether he died from LSD toxicity (which would literally be the first occurrence of a lethal LSD dose) or from rough treatment by the police officers. In fact, LSD was blamed for several fatal "overdoses" this year, although those deaths would likely be more accurately attributed to psychoactive research chemicals like 25i-NBOMe.
Scientific studies showed that LSD can enhance the emotional response to music. Other studies looking at the potential efficacy of LSD that are currently ongoing focus on the treatment of depression, cluster headaches, and smoking cessation.
Compared to cannabis and LSD, there wasn't as much media coverage of psilocybin mushrooms (or "magic mushrooms" in general) this year, but two highlights include Russia banning Reddit over a single 'shroom thread and a lot of articles detailing the connection between amanita muscaria mushrooms and the origins of Christmas, including one I published last week.
Current research studies are looking into the application of psilocybin to treat depression, general anxieties, cluster headaches, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), smoking cessation, end-of-life anxiety in terminal cancer patients, schizophrenia, and the effect of psilocybin on longterm meditators.
MDMA and ecstasy experienced a bit of both sides this year, with a lot of negative media coverage focused on things like overdoses and deaths as well as positive reports concerning the findings of ongoing MDMA scientific research studies.
There were many articles covering MDMA-related overdoses and deaths, although it is not certain that MDMA was the actual substance involved in every one of these articles. The media tends to over-report deaths that might possibly be related to MDMA, which are actually few and far between, while ignoring the deaths and other issues caused by alcohol. Due to these incidents, there were many efforts made by authorities to ban raves entirely, which is a bit odd because that seems a bit like throwing the baby out with the bath water. There were also warning about ecstasy tablets being "too pure", which sounds confusing at first but ultimately makes sense within the full context. Although drug users would most likely appreciate receiving extremely-pure drugs, if they are accustomed to taking a large dose because all they have been acquiring in the past is not actually the drug they thought it to be, then when they receive the real thing and take the same dose, it can be too large and cause several issues. As happens every year, parents were warned in October that their children may be given ecstasy tablets disguised as candy, an assertion that doesn't make any sense, as drug dealers sell drugs to make profit, not to give away for free to children.
Regarding MDMA-related scientific studies, the DEA approved a study that will look at treating anxiety with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, and ongoing studies include MDMA's potential role in helping people on the autism spectrum and sufferers of PTSD. There was definitely more negative coverage of MDMA than positive coverage, but the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is well on its way to legitimizing MDMA in the eyes of the FDA due to its it's decades-long dedication to psychedelic research, and is still on target to legalize MDMA to be used for psychotherapeutic use by 2021.
A Hebrew professor set forth an argument that Moses was under the influence of DMT when he saw the "burning bush". There have been claims of a legal ayahuasca church in the U.S., but the church's actual legal standing has been called into question.
Sadly, as has been the case for the past few years, ayahuasca was involved in the death of at least two people this year. One man died in Peru as a result of a tobacco purge ceremony, but ayahuasca was mentioned in the story because he was also in Peru to experience the medicine. And another man was stabbed to death by a fellow ayahuasca ceremony participant in a rare display of ayahuasca-related violence.
Ongoing scientific studies regarding ayahuasca include the treatment of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. A study also found that ayahuasca drinkers regularly have improved mental health.
Iboga and ibogaine were mainly presented as detox treatments for opiate and methamphetamine addictions, which has been found to be extremely successful for many. There was also a powerful account of how iboga helped a schizophrenic drug addict reclaim his life.
Aside from being announced as another potential plant useful for treating substance abuse and addictions, salvia divinorum didn't show up much in the media at all this year.
Synthetic Cannabinoids/Psychoactive Research Chemicals
There was quite a bit of media coverage earlier in the year a scourge of the synthetic cannabinoid blend called "spice" (also known as "K2") in the northeast, but that story has mostly died off as of late. There has been a lot of negative coverage of the compound 25i-NBOMe (also known as "N-Bomb") and there was an interview with the man who originally synthesized it. "Legal highs" have been making their way into jails and prisons by being soaked into letters and pages of books. And a homeopathy conference ended terribly after attendees erupted in panic after being dosed with 2C-E.
Protesters in the United Kingdom staged a demonstration against the Psychoactive Substances bill by inhaling nitrous oxide in front of the Parliament building. Basically every PCP story was framed in a negative light and played up an illegal act performed by someone high on the substance.
Ketamine had a lot of favorable coverage due to studies showing that it is helpful in treating depression. And due to the increased media coverage, governments around the world began considering placing ketamine under a stricter class of illegal drugs, which has worried veterinarians, pharmacists and medical health professionals because that may prevent them from being able to access the drug, even for legitimate medical reasons. Finally, a lot of time was spent arguing about whether or not a man fed ketamine to a seagull, even though he denied having done so.
Heroin use is in America is way up and so are overdoses—in fact, heroin usage has been widely described as an “epidemic”. Since it is mainly affecting white and middle class folks, this year's victims of heroin addiction have been mostly pitied, rather than lambasted as in years past. Still, the heroin issue has thrust the horrors of the drug war into even more people's faces, and it may prove to have a positive effect on drug policies overall.
Fentanyl found in heroin has led to an increase in overdoses, and research is showing that legal prescription drugs are leading people to become addicted to heroin and in many cases, die from overdose. The overdose drug naloxone has been in the media spotlight—information about it has spread fairly rapidly, and the FDA approved a nasal spray version for easier application.
There has been a series of back-and-forth debates on the issues of safety and efficacy with regard to these plants, and kava in particular has been focused on recently with research into the effects of driving under the influence of the plant. Other than those topics the majority of coverage on these plants has been related to seizures by law enforcement.
Miscellaneous Psychedelics/Psychoactives/Drug Policy
Psychedelics have made their way into mainstream entertainment, being talked discussed in songs written by musicians like A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, and Miley Cyrus. Many celebrities and other well-known people came out of the psychedelic closet, admitting to past usage of psychedelics. These include John Cusack, musician Brian Wilson, Lindsay Lohan, the late neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah, radio personality Robin Quivers, CNN reporter Lisa Ling, musician Vanessa Carlton, former Apple employee Daniel Kottke, and Star Wars animator Phil Tippet. Many others have come out publicly against the drug war, including a strong assertion from David Nutt about why banning psychedelics has been the greatest censorship of medicine in human history.
Ross Ulbricht, the alleged founder of the Silk Road, was convicted and received two life sentences plus an additional 40 years. I encourage everyone to check out the website Free Ross Ulbricht, which has plenty of information about how his trial was mishandled and how he may have even been framed by the U.S. government. Even though the Silk Road is no longer in operation, purchasing illegal substances on the dark web continues to be in fashion and shows no sign of slowing down.
The DEA had an incredibly rough year in 2015. Current DEA Chief Chuck Rosenberg claimed that cannabis is "probably" not as bad as heroin and later corrected himself by admitting that it in fact is definitely not as bad as heroin. Later, he called medical marijuana a "joke", leading medical marijuana patients around the country to officially call for his resignation. DEA agents at JFK airport stole $44,000 from a legitimate nail salon owner who hadn't committed any crimes whatsoever. The two primary agents involved with the Silk Road investigation have been accused of stealing more than $700,000 in Bitcoin from the dark web site. Amtrak passengers have been routinely harassed by DEA agents. The DEA was sued by Human Rights Watch and Electronic Frontier Foundation over the illegal bulk collection of America’s telephone records and lost the case. The U.S. Senate voted to force the DEA to butt out of medical marijuana states. The DEA spent undisclosed millions of dollars the past ten years on cell phone tracking and has refused to release the acquisition documents. Agents were caught soliciting Colombian prostitutes that were supplied by the drug cartels that they are supposedly fighting. And finally, the daughter of a DEA head was busted for selling illegal drugs. So yeah, how long are we going to keep these bozos around, exactly?
Harm reduction has made headlines this year, with an emphasis on the need for drug users to test their substances before consuming them. NASA released a bunch of cool psychedelic images and videos from space. Google took it one step further and developed its "Deep Dream" code, which mimics the visual perception of a machine and resulted in some mind-blowing psychedelic videos. Oddly enough, the sale of Janis Joplin's "psychedelic Porsche" showed up in the news time and time again. Buddhism and psychedelics showed up quite a bit. It seemed to me that there was a moment in the year where there was almost nothing but positive articles about psychedelics, mostly in regard to the current state and findings of psychedelic research studies. The New Yorker published a fantastic interview with Earth and Fire, the creators of the drug education website Erowid. Perhaps most strikingly, Richard Branson leaked the news that the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) was expected to publish documents advising for the reversal of the drug war, and then it never did, allegedly because it received pressure from a country heavily involved in the drug war.
All in all, it has been quite a year! I am greatly looking forward to bringing you more news related to psychedelics and psychoactive substances in 2016. I hope that you will join me. Until next time, keep thinking wilder!
Disclaimer: "This Week in Psychedelics" does not censor or analyze the news links presented here. The purpose of this column is solely to catalogue how psychedelics are presented by the mass media, which includes everything from the latest scientific research to misinformation.