How Do You Quantify a Hallucination? And Why Are They Illegal?

10/24/2011 11:32 am ET | Updated Dec 24, 2011

50%. In a recent Gallup poll, half of all Americans are now in support of legalizing marijuana, a huge jump from 36 percent just five years ago. Last year, 70% of Americans polled favored making it legal for doctors to prescribe it medically to reduce pain and suffering. But currently, marijuana remains illegal on a federal level, costing taxpayers billions of dollars a year, while arrests for simple possession are still made in staggering numbers -- over 850,000 in 2009 and showing no signs of slowing down. So who is for and against legalization? For the most part, the majority of men, moderates, independents, Democrats and liberals back legalization, while conservatives and Republicans do not. But according to that poll, the main split is fairly generational, with majorities of those under 50 in support and those over 65 against. (The 50-64 range could go either way). If you note that 56% of 30- to 49-year-olds and 62% of 18- to 29-year-olds approved of legalization, the direction towards a future majority acceptance is clear, especially as those currently 65 and older shrink as an overall group and the next generations replace them.

The 65 and older folks were once the under-50 set, watching their elders hold on to ideals that didn't jibe with their burgeoning generation, such as civil rights for women and minorities. It may take a few more electoral cycles to work out but the prohibition of marijuana is destined for the same history as the prohibition of alcohol: a vast failed war on users that prop up both criminal syndicates and a prison industrial complex. There is enough money in this arrangement that those involved stand to lose a fortune if marijuana is decriminalized or outright legalized. Mexican drug cartels. Law enforcement. Prisons and prison guard jobs. Big Pharma, Big Chem and Big Oil. But the example of alcohol prohibition has been lost for too long. We need to revisit the reasons why it didn't work and how much damage it caused while in effect. If we remade our drug policy to reflect empirical data and facts, the scientific reasons for scheduling marijuana as a Schedule I drug would be hard to defend. Could the government prove marijuana is as dangerous as they claim? Where is the hard science to back up their current scheduling of marijuana? Currently, the DEA lists Marijuana as a Schedule I Controlled Substance. For the record, here is how the DEA defines Schedule I drugs:

Schedule I Controlled Substances
Substances in this schedule have a high potential for abuse, have no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.

NOTE: Drugs listed in schedule I have no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States and, therefore, may not be prescribed, administered, or dispensed for medical use. In contrast, drugs listed in schedules II-V have some accepted medical use and may be prescribed, administered, or dispensed for medical use.

So who do we have hanging out in the Schedule I lounge? Well, we have opiods like heroin, for starters. GHB, PCP and MDMA (Ecstasy) as well. And don't forget LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Psilocybin (Mushrooms) and other "hallucinogens," including the quaintly spelled "Marihuana" and separately, the Tetrahydrocannabinols, defined to cover the plant and all synthetic equivalents of the substances contained in the cannabis plant. And for the record, here is their definition of "marihuana":

The term "marihuana" means all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L., whether growing or not; the seeds thereof; the resin extracted from any part of such plant; and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such plant, its seeds or resin. Such term does not include the mature stalks of such plant, fiber produced from such stalks, oil or cake made from the seeds of such plant, any other compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such mature stalks (except the resin extracted therefrom), fiber, oil, or cake, or the sterilized seed of such plant which is incapable of germination.

Well at least we know that they know which plant they are dealing with. What they don't know is this:

How do you define a hallucinogen?

The DEA has a nice hallucinogen page, though it's sorely lacking in footnotes to back up their "facts". Nor does it tell us why hallucinogens are so dangerous as to be banned from use. They say "the most common danger of hallucinogen use is impaired judgment that often leads to rash decisions and accidents," which may give rise to the rumor that the subprime mortgage debacle occurred because Wall Street got their hands on some bitchin' shrooms back in '07. But it doesn't answer why hallucinogens are deemed to be so dangerous that their legality and scientific testing can't even be discussed, which makes me wonder what the government's official rationale is for keeping them out of our hands and referring to any use as "abuse." Here is their description of what happens when you "abuse" a hallucinogen:

Taken in non-toxic dosages, these substances produce changes in perception, thought, and mood. Physiological effects include elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, and dilated pupils. Sensory effects include perceptual distortions that vary with dose, setting, and mood. Psychic effects include disorders of thought associated with time and space. Time may appear to stand still and forms and colors seem to change and take on new significance. This experience may be either pleasurable or extremely frightening. It needs to be stressed that the effects of hallucinogens are unpredictable each time they are used.

Perceptual distortions? Sensory and psychic effects? Time standing still while colors change? New significance? Where do I sign up?! These reasons are exactly why people TAKE drugs! As to "either pleasurable or extremely frightening," I'd like to quote a TV theme song: "You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have the facts of life." If the only reason that these drugs are illegal is that they make you have hallucinations (sometimes) and they can be scary (sometimes) but are often pleasurable and enlightening, how is that grounds for banning them?

Let's hone in on two points the DEA makes on their own hallucinogen page:

  1. The biochemical, pharmacological, and physiological basis for hallucinogenic activity is not well understood.
  2. Even the name for this class of drugs is not ideal, since hallucinogens do not always produce hallucinations.

So they are admitting that the substances listed are not well understood on a variety of scientific levels, they might not even been correctly named and that they don't even always work. If you refuse to test and understand them, how can you justify making them illegal? Without correctly defining them, how can hallucinogens be accurately applied to a scheduling chart full of quantifying statements? And furthermore, how can they refuse to let said substances be tested for the kind of empirical data they would need to properly schedule them? Do they not want to test hallucinogens and have to schedule them honestly?

Or is it that you can't quantify a hallucination?

Perhaps it is time to reschedule ALL drugs to create policy based on scientific rationale and empirical data rather than propaganda and fear.


A few more relevant pieces from my archives can be found here, here and here.

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