“Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Peder Clark. Dr. Clark is a historian of modern Britain, with research interests in drugs, subcultures, health, everyday life, and visual culture. He completed his PhD in 2019 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and currently holds a position at the University of Strathclyde.

“Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To”, the title of British indie band Spacemen 3’s 1990 album, sums up for many the symbiotic relationship between rock music and psychoactive substances. From “Cocaine Blues” to Jefferson Airplane and from “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” to Amy Winehouse, rock’s back pages are soaked in the celebration, inspiration, and (sometimes) repudiation of drug-fueled intoxication.

The conspicuous consumption of drugs—or winking allusions to drugs—is a tried-and-tested way for young musicians to illustrate their edginess, to promote their counter-cultural associations, and to make real the moral danger that they might feel is inherent in the art-form. No need, however, to bore Points readers with musings better suited to ghost-written Keith Richards memoirs.

What about musicians that aim for a more considered, less debauched approach to chemically-enhanced states of mind? This is all by way of introduction to a recent bubbling up of psychedelic consciousness amongst musicians of a certain vintage—and a renewed attention to the role of music in psychedelic therapy.

Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To Title Card
Left: Cover art for the forthcoming Jon Hopkins album, Music for Psychedelic Therapy. Image courtesy of Domino Music.

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E talking: MDMA Therapy & the “Psychedelic Renaissance”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Peder Clark. Dr. Clark is a historian of modern Britain, with research interests in drugs, subcultures, health, everyday life, and visual culture. He completed his PhD in 2019 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and currently holds a position at the University of Liverpool.

Popular perceptions of MDMA (3,4 Methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine) are of its identity as “molly” or ecstasy—a good-time party-drug for young people around the world. So, flicking through the Guardian newspaper a few weekends ago, I was intrigued to read a feature on a recently opened clinic in Bristol, UK, that intends to use MDMA for psychotherapeutic purposes. The bio-tech company, Awakn Life Sciences, led by consultant psychiatrist Ben Sessa and clinical psychologist Laurie Higbed, is not currently able to offer MDMA therapy, and the newspaper reports that the company is “hamstrung by the current global legislation, which says the drug can be used only in an experimental setting.”

Awakn Life Science's Laurie Higbed and Ben Sessa
Awakn Life Science’s Laurie Higbed and Ben Sessa. Image from Ben Sessa on Twitter.

Consequently, the clinic offers ketamine-assisted therapy, initially focusing on alcoholism with ambitions to eventually provide treatment for “depression, anxiety, eating disorders and most addictions.” As the article makes clear, Awakn’s clinic is part of a much wider interest in what, it calls, “psychedelic-assisted therapy,” leading to a veritable “psychedelics gold rush” as investors sense a growing market.

By coincidence, I also happened to be reading Lucas Richert’s latest book Break on Through: Radical Psychiatry and the American Counterculture. As its title indicates, Break on Through is situated in the 1970s and features, among other episodes, the early years of MDMA-assisted therapy. MDMA was first synthesized in 1912 as a hemostatic agent (i.e. to aid blood-clotting and prevent bleeding) in the laboratories of Merck, the Darmstadt, Germany, based pharmaceutical corporation. Patented that same year, the company only occasionally mentioned MDMA in internal company documents up until the 1950s. Despite these inauspicious beginnings, the patent also contained a clue to one of its further usages, alluding to its potential use “as an intermediate in the production of therapeutic compounds.”

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Challenging “The Great Disconnect”: The History and Changing Role of Psychiatry in Drug Use

(Editors Note: This post was written by Dr. Lucas Richert, a lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan.)

In recent years, the modification of marijuana laws in the United States, multiple doping scandals in professional sports (from Lance Armstrong to A-Rod), and the right-to-die debate have helped focus the public’s attention on drugs. At the same time, academia, policy-makers and interest groups all have a need for superior information about the complex role that recreational drugs and pharmaceutical products play in our lives.

According to Alan Leshner, “There is a unique disconnect between the scientific facts and the public’s perception about drug abuse and addiction. If we are going to make any progress, we need to overcome the ‘great disconnect.’”

Progress, whatever that meant for Leshner, will certainly be accompanied by a public discussion. And psychiatrists will continue to play a major role in shaping our understanding of drugs.

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The Points Interview — Michael E. Staub

Editor’s Note:  Michael E. Staub’s  Madness is Civilization: When the Diagnosis Was Social, 1948-1980 (University of Chicago Press, 2011) is bedecked with a number of favorable comments at its Amazon storewindow site.  Staub’s previously authored books include an oral history, titled Love My Rifle More than You, about a woman soldier who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.   The author suggested this work might also interest drug and alcohol historians. 

  1. Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

It would depend on how old this hypothetical bartender was. Is she old enough to remember the 1960s? Let’s assume that she is. Then I’d ask her to remember her reading of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Verge of Time or seeing Alan Bates in King of Hearts or listening to Arlo Guthrie’s riff in “Alice’s Restaurant,” where he discusses how he evaded the draft not because he yelled at the military psychiatrist that he wanted to “kill, kill, kill” but because he’d been arrested for littering. (Admittedly, this is a pretty cultured bartender I am concocting, but it’s my bartender and I’ll imagine who I want to.) So I’d tell the bartender how the 1960s are routinely remembered today for all kinds of things like hippies, Che Guervara, Tricky Dick, Neil Armstrong, Ho Chi Minh, Black Power, and SDS, among others. But what almost always gets left out of the history books is how much critical and popular attention in the 1960s and 1970s was lavished on issues relating to madness and the asylum. And I’d say that explorations into madness often became a means to address a host of other political and social concerns, ranging from the dysfunction of the nuclear family to the devastations of militarism to the problems of gender and race relations to the failures of the educational system. As one social psychologist put it in the early 1970s, and I am paraphrasing here, this was an era in US history when many Americans felt that the entire country had gone crazy, and the question for many was how to maintain their sanity in an increasingly insane society. That’s what my book is about.  

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