I have elsewhere described three broad categories of drug use: inebriation, enhancement and psychedelia. Of these, inebriation is simultaneously the most basic and the most reviled. Whereas the cultural struggle for acceptance of psychedelia revolves around acknowledgement that it exists at all, inebriation is typically taken to be self-evident, and self-evidently distasteful. I do not share this opinion. In excess, inebriation can certainly be very dangerous (or just plain ugly), but I believe that it has its own time and place, its own legitimacy and its own benefits.
Inebriation is fancy-speak for getting fucked up. The feeling is that normal, sober existence is too frustrating, stressful or just plain boring, and that if we can just do something — anything — to change how we’re feeling, things will be better. Pretty much any drug can accomplish this, as can practices such as fasting, eating, holding your breath, meditating or masturbating.
Of course, you can’t simply have your consciousness be arbitrarily different: depending on what technique of consciousness alteration you use, you’re going to get a particular cluster of effects, with widely varying degrees of predictability. The classic psychedelics, for example, are extremely unpredictable, and can do just about anything. That makes them sound appealing to somebody who’s bored and wants a change, but the change could easily be a lot more dramatic than had been intended: just because you want reality to be altered doesn’t mean you want it to be destroyed completely. Careful practices like meditation on the other hand may come with a host of other benefits and be well worth pursuing, but require a good deal of motivation, effort and discipline, likely to be lacking when we’re in the uncomfortable place of craving an alteration.
A prototypical inebriant therefore will reliably turn down the volume on neurotic self-consciousness, and not do too much else. Despite various well documented adverse effects, alcohol is by far the most popular drug for this purpose, and for good reason: it’s effective, predictable and general in its effects, providing readily scaling levels of inebriation from a slight fuzziness to total annihilation. Cannabis is also highly popular as an inebriant, and is generally safer than alcohol, but is far less predictable.
Why would anybody seek impairment?
Getting “fucked up” sounds like an entirely bad thing. Society highly values lucidity, which it associates with sobriety, so anything which alters consciousness in a way that’s not obviously and directly beneficial is seen by some as categorically unacceptable. This line of thinking is common among high achievers and religious puritans, but may also be informed by experience with problematic drug use such as alcoholism, or for other reasons. It typically comes down to the fear of lost possibilities, the idea that when you drink, you could have done something else instead, like read a book or make a painting. This is generally not actually the case. Those who reject the legitimacy of consciousness alteration generally do so from a privileged position in which consciousness is stable, manageable and positive. Even a common phenomena like stress (experienced very differently by different people) is sufficient to undermine this, let alone variation in life situation or psychological makeup.
Maybe you’ve been working hard all day, or maybe you’re really worried about something, and you just need a break from it all. Obviously, if you get fucked up all the time that’s just going to make things worse if you never take care of whatever problem was stressing you out in the first place, but if you’re past the point of being able to do something about the problem right this minute and can’t get it off our mind, doing something to take the stress off makes total sense, and might actually lead to more productivity or clearer thinking later. A nice bath, a massage or a good orgasm are generally healthier options than getting wasted, but there’s nothing wrong with taking something to help you kick back and relax, as long as you’re reasonably safe about it and get things done at other times. For a lot of people, smoking a joint serves as a great adjunct to a bath, massage or orgasm! Learn how you react to things (both at the time and in the days to follow), and do what seems to produce the most benefit with the least negative effects.
Alterity and Breaking from the Everyday
In speaking of change, we assume a conception of “normality,” a sober “baseline” against which alterations can be compared, and to which we can return. This is, of course, merely a convenient fiction: like history, consciousness does not repeat itself (though it may often rhyme). Further, identifying with the state of consciousness you find most familiar tends to exaggerate the illusion of yourself as static and separate from the Other, an illusion which inebriation may subvert by highlighting variability and hinting at the tenuousness of control. Promoting variety of experience can therefore be inherently useful, a way of “playtesting” reality, allowing for what I have described as “psychic triangulation:” considering a single topic, concept or image in various states of consciousness and comparing the results to get a more robust, multifaceted understanding of it than any one state of consciousness alone could provide. This also relates to our capacity to empathise with a greater diversity of people, and it renders our identity constructs more fluid, revealing their arbitrariness and dynamism, working to disentangle Self from the Everyday.
This break from the everyday is not exclusively about variety: it is also central to the capacity of religion to unite practitioners through the production of sacred space and sacred time. Although they frequently have other meanings as well, religious rituals tend to consist of elements which alter consciousness. Incense, chanting, unusual acoustics or lighting conditions, special clothing and sounds all contribute to the production of an “axis mundi” in which the divine can be experienced. This, I would argue, is essentially the same as entering into a group drug experience, and explains the use of drugs to mark special occasions, such as holidays, graduations or marriages. Through the act of ritually consuming a similar amount of the same drug, collective feeling within the group is established, fostering intimacy and unity. Alcohol and cannabis both to serve in this capacity: cheering commences convivial conversation, connoting comaraderie and cooperation. When a joint is passed around a circle of friends, they share in each other’s spirit and enter into a sacred space together, qualitatively separate from the Everyday that came before. Cannabis may have additional spiritual benefits, but inebriation is all that is required for this type of ritual to function.
Inebriation describes any drug use where the change in consciousness the drug produces is the objective of its use. Whereas enhancement pertains to some sort of connection between subject and object, and whereas psychedelia seeks the discovery of potentially lasting insights, inebriation is about the experience itself: a desire for something out of the ordinary. This has significant ritual and psychological applications which ought not to be casually dismissed.
To me, the point of consciousness manipulation is to find a dynamic balance. Experimentation is crucial to the process of self discovery, and having tools with which to break out of complacency and ennui can be very valuable. That said, as we try to break out of our patterns it’s easy to end up creating new, more toxic patterns. That is the meaning of addiction: becoming stuck in one way of experiencing reality, and being unable to flow easily through others. Experiencing inebriation occasionally may be highly beneficial, but do so too often and things might get really bad, really fast.
Embrace variety; don’t get stuck.
After publishing this, I received two criticisms almost simultaneously. One was that I talked too much about death, and the other was that I didn’t talk enough about danger. Seems death isn’t the point for the one person, and danger is the point for the other. Inspired by these diametrically opposed critiques, I sat down and refined my model. I now have Inebriation as consisting of three subcategories: Disinhibition, Sedation and Variation (Disinhibition bleeds into the Enhancement subcategory of Ability, and Variation bleeds into the Psychedelic category of Insight). Disinhibition is the one about “danger” (and freedom, and shenanigans) which I didn’t adequately cover in this article. This addendum is to note the theoretical alteration, and to point out that danger/disinhibition is important even though I didn’t get into it much above. This will be more fully addressed in a subsequent article.