Open, Inclusive Drug Research/Education: high chance or pipe dream?

How did you learn about drugs? From your school, your government, your friends? The internet? Was what you learned useful? Was it trustworthy?

There are more drugs available today than at any time in history. Global connectivity has allowed unprecedented access to psychoactive plants and fungi from all over the world, while ever more synthetics, from Shulgin‘s tryptamines and phenethylamines to myriad cannabinoids and beyond, are discovered and disseminated. These are powerful agents of transformation, capable of healing, destroying and inspiring. Sadly, the shock induced by so many mutagens acting simultaneously upon the macroorganism of white colonial society led to an autoimmune response that has largely pre-empted credible public education and research. We are left to investigate for ourselves the effects, uses and dangers of those drugs we encounter in our social milieux, under threat of imprisonment.

The internet, thankfully, has made knowledge production and consumption far easier than they have ever been before. Websites such as Erowid and Wikipedia provide access to massive databases of information and operate largely beyond the coercive control of our reactionary immune system (law enforcement, the judiciary, mental health professionals, etc). Wonderful as these may be, they are also inherently fragmentary and limited: to make use of them you must already know both what to look for, and how to assess the credibility and relevance of whatever you stumble across. Harm reduction organisations such as TRIP! and Dance Safe have also provided invaluable services, but insofar as their mandate is specifically to prevent harms, their role is not to provide truly comprehensive education, which must be about far more than harms. I believe that we are in need of a curriculum which fully explains why and how people alter their consciousness, that prospective drug users might have the tools to make informed decisions, whether to use or to abstain. Such a curriculum must strive to eliminate any ideological or institutional biases which could threaten its comprehensiveness or credibility. Neither “pro-drug” nor “anti-drug,” it must acknowledge the complexity of the subject matter, and must be made both freely available to and usable by those who need it.

What form it should take, and who may be trusted to design it, are open for discussion. My proposal is below. If you agree with the above, but not with what follows,* then I urge you to consider the problem carefully and perhaps come up with a proposal of your own.

If not us, who? If not now, when?

Proposed curriculum structure:
Open ended and multi-modal, resting on web articles, print materials (pamphlets and zines to be made freely available through as many venues as is feasible), videos and seminars. A website will be built to serve as a platform for videos, graphics, articles and participatory research tools.

Using these media, we will seek to systematically answer the following questions:

  • Why do people alter their consciousness?
  • What are the different states or forms of consciousness?
  • How do people try to navigate between them?
  • What are the consequences of those methods?

The first question — that of why — I have already answered, and it is on the basis of that work that I now submit myself for consideration as someone who could be involved in the design and implementation of such a project. My CV is available here. If you like what I’ve produced in my spare time with no funding, how about what we could do with a budget and a research team?

The research team:

We will establish a team of researchers and artists – free from the constraints of government, corporate and academic institutions – to develop resources and models. By fostering collaboration between researchers and artists, we will provide the best information we can find or produce in the most beautiful and engaging ways possible. We will collaborate and share resources with extant harm reduction organisations, such as the TRIP! Project (with whom I have a pre-existing relationship), without focusing on either harms or rave culture. Researchers will be selected for possessing a diversity of skills, interests and training, so as to mitigate or avoid biases inherent to any one style of thought or analysis. In the interest of maximising flexibility, we will begin with a core team of no more than five members, allowing for both diversity and the viability of consensus building.

How much funding we are able to procure (crowd-sourced through IndieGoGo plus other donations and any relevant grants) will determine the scope and extent of the project, such as how many people can be hired and in what capacity. I estimate that salaries for a small but robust research team, plus costs (printing of educational literature to be distributed at health centres and elsewhere; web development; honoraria for non-salaried contributors and respondents), could be adequately provided for by an annual budget $250,000, with no annual salary to exceed $50,000 regardless of funding level. My hope is to obtain a one or two year mandate, and to see what we can produce in that time, after which a new project (or phase) can be proposed. If we receive less or more funding, the project can be scaled accordingly.


  • Catalogue forms of consciousness, techniques of consciousness alteration, precautions and recommendations
  • Formulate models that usefully order the information so as to maximise both comprehension and concision
  • Track outcomes, comparing stated intentions, techniques employed and consequences

Research methods:

  • Review of extant and emerging literature (books, pamphlets, websites and scientific journals)
  • Semi-structured interviews: the research team will agree on a basic interview guide to be supplemented with questions pertaining to avenues of investigation unique to each researcher. Each will select respondents according to different criteria, to be collectively discussed and agreed upon. Target populations will be various subsets of the loosely defined “cognitive fringe:” those who are not neurotypical.**  For example, one researcher might focus on self-medication by people with ADHD, while another might look at drug use in relation to social exclusion/inclusion and identity production among those who self-identify as “freaks.” All respondents will be asked about variations and alterations in conscious experience, what drugs or other techniques they have used or are considering using and why, and so on
  • An online survey, to be combined with interactive infographics and analytic tools, all open to the general population

Qualitative/ethnographic research methods may be supplemented by quantitative tools, for example in tracking health markers and outcomes, although details cannot be confirmed until the funding level is known and researchers can meet and build consensus. As much data will be made publicly available as quickly as possible, within the limits necessitated by ethical considerations.

What I could use help with:

  • Money. I am inexperienced at fund-raising and know little about how to move money around. I do not have a PayPal account (and don’t want one; they have a reputation for withholding funds for political reasons, and this is nothing if not politically controversial) or a credit card (I’ll get one if I need to; so far I’ve been happy without, but maybe it would make this easier?). I can receive email money transfers (to; I will publicly disclose any contributions I receive. If you can help me raise funds, or contribute in any way, I would be very grateful.
  • Talent. I have a pretty talented social network and some potential collaborators already lined up, but we could always use more. Visual artists, web designers, videographers, researchers and translators are all necessary. What funding will be available for compensation remains to be seen, but I hope to give ample honoraria to all who meaningfully contribute. I am uncomfortable with volunteerism, and do not wish to exploit anybody’s labour, particularly that of artists.
  • Publicity. The more people know about the project, the more donations and content we will potentially have access to, and the more people will access any materials we produce.
  • Content. What are the states or forms of consciousness?  What are the techniques of consciousness alteration? What advice or precautions should we include?
  • Connections. Know of a harm reduction initiative, research group or anyone else we should network with?
  • Criticism. What’s wrong with this proposal? I’ve tried my best but I’m sure there’s room for improvement. Point out any flaws! 

*If you agree with the proposal but not the introduction, then I must apologise for all the editorialising and “musts.” I promise I mean well.

**For ethnographic methods to be most effective, a narrowing of recruitment from “general population” is necessary. I expect that members of the cognitive fringe will be likely both to consider consciousness alteration to be important, and to have some very interesting — and potentially quite useful — things to say on the matter. These are also the populations I believe have the most to benefit from good quality drug education, and I am far more interested in exploring and representing diversity than homogeneity.

Explanatory Note:

The above is the current vision of a project I have had in mind for some time. It is not finished or perfect. I had intended to go public about it via a video funding pitch, but life circumstances forced a delay and that video still remains to be shot. I have made this post public at this time — despite the lack of either a video pitch or a ready means for making online donations — so that my long term intentions may be clear, and in case somebody might stumble across it and offer some assistance or advice. I am not 100% confident that I am ready or able to do something so ambitious, or that major changes to the proposal won’t be necessary. All I know is that this is important, and one way or another, we need to move forward as soon as possible. I should also note that I currently live in Toronto (an expensive city) and work as a landscaper, a good job which affords many opportunities to touch the earth and watch plants change over the seasons, but which pays scarcely more than I need to live in this city, and which often leaves me too tired to perform much in the way of research. The other reason I am seeking funding is because I do not want to do this alone, and cannot expect talented researchers to dedicate their time to the project without adequate compensation.

By putting myself forward for this task, I am not trying to suggest that I know everything there is to know about drugs, or that I know more about drugs than anybody else, or that either of these will ever be the case. I readily accept that I am not a paragon of truth and perfection — far from it; I have many times been embarrassed to find egregious errors in things I’ve written, errors I have sought to remedy but perhaps only compounded. I also exhibit the typology best known as “ADHD,” the diagnosis of which I bear, and which makes certain things that are easy for others very difficult for me. I accept also that to expect to completely revolutionise drug education may be sheer hubris. Nevertheless, I believe in the philosophy of “dream big, start small,” and I cannot think of a better application of what few skills I possess than this.

Want to help me try to change the world?

    • alex betsos
    • November 25th, 2012

    This sounds like a really great idea. I just wonder if the scope of the project is too large for a small group. Would the formatting of such a project be like a more organized erowid? With different drugs each listing pharmacology risks benefits etc. It sounds like a great and interesting multi media project that would be really helpful for teaching people about drugs and consciousness. Another group you might wasn’t tho contact is the Canadian students for sensible drug policy and also maybe MAPS Canada.

    • A more organised Erowid, yes.

      As for what a small group can accomplish, I suppose we’ll find out. As I said: dream big, start small. We don’t need to be “finished” after two years; we just need to do as much good work in that time as possible. And we will, of course, be relying both on collaboration and on pre-existing literature. We’re not working from nothing here… while we will be performing original research (I think that such is necessary — it can’t all be third party), we’ll also be standing on the shoulders of some very prolific giants. Our job will not to be to re-invent the wheel, but to explain the various types and uses of wheels.

      A large group might be good for gathering huge amounts of data, but a small group can be a lot more effective at doing original things with data that’s already available. Too many members and things can get rigid.

      Once we’ve laid some ground work, it could be expanded upon, and then the more participants the better.

        • Alex Betsos
        • November 25th, 2012

        Well it sounds like a really great project, and would add an interesting take on to drugs to bring the focus back on to why they are done rather than just the harms that are associated with it.

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