Altering consciousness appears to be a basic human need…

When I walked in, I was instantly overwhelmed: Why I’d been asked to do an “intervention” during a “welcome home” luncheon was beyond me.  Although I was apprehensive, I introduced myself, sat down next to the person who invited me, and ordered my lunch.  The “target” was a thirty-five (35) year old male who had just been released from prison.  He served five (5) years after getting busted for a fifth DWI that also carried a heroin possession rap.  Even though it was a non-violent offense, he was prison-hardened and stared at me with switch-blade eyes.  His cold expression told me that he had no interest in me or what I had to say.

Still, I went ahead with my plan to discuss his drug and alcohol use.  Since the whole table was aware of the purpose of the luncheon, everyone was free to ask questions both of me and of the target.  Though at first disinterested and perhaps a bit antagonistic in his manner, he loosened up with the way I spoke of heroin and of drugs, in general.  He even joined in the conversation and shared some of his “war stories.”  I’d heard a lot of similar stories to those he shared; but I really wanted to know what made him start using drugs in the first place.

My query gave him pause.  He sat his fork down and looked off into space.  After a few seconds, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I guess I just wanted change the channel. I didn’t like the way I felt so I picked something up and I felt better. Drugs changed the channel for me.”

His comment struck me and has driven my work ever since.  The thought of someone watching TV, then not liking what’s showing, and then switching until he or she finds something acceptable was the perfect metaphor for using drugs.  But what’s proven more striking is that some “channels” are accepted, while others, are not. What’s more is that the process of altering consciousness has a dimension that must be reviewed in some detail, especially as it pertains to the acceptability of some substances over the others.

People have always changed their respective channel.  Even primates have shown preferences for fermented fruits that contain alcohol over fresh fruits.  What’s more, even though I fight the horrors of Addiction, I start each day with a couple of cups of coffee – really, it’s like I need caffeine to get my juices flowing.  To me, that’s a perfect example of my own need to “change the channel.”  I don’t like the grogginess of first waking up so I guzzle down caffeine in order to shake the grogginess and fully wake up.  I prefer to be fully aware of what’s going on around me; that is, I like to be fully conscious.  My consciousness preference requires the full capacity of all of my senses and caffeine provides a shortcut to getting my consciousness fully fired up.

As illustrated in Figure 1, below, people change their channels in three primary ways: 1) If they want to “go up,” they take a nervous system stimulant (“uppers” for short); 2) If they want to “go down,” they take a nervous system depressant (“downers”); and if people want to expand, they take a hallucinogen.  While the first two ways to change the channel, or alter consciousness, contain both acceptable and unacceptable drugs.  For example, the two (2) most commonly accepted “uppers” are caffeine and nicotine.  There are other, unacceptable drugs in the uppers category. For example, cocaine and crystal meth.  The most common acceptable downer is, of course, alcohol.  Sometimes, a downer can be both acceptable and unacceptable, as in the case of opiates, which are both medically useful in treating pain and also are very addictive.  Therefore, opiates like morphine or hydrocodone are medially acceptable, but opiates like heroin are destructive and unacceptable.


But what about in the case of wanting to not go up or down, but rather, expanding consciousness all together.  In this case, there’s one hallucinogen that carries so much controversy, that it’s hard to tell If it’s acceptable or unacceptable: Marijuana.  While it’s also classified as a depressant, it’s provides a euphoric response to reality that is similar to other (unacceptable) hallucinogens such as ‘shrooms (psilocybin), or LSD.  There’s conflicting evidence about marijuana’s harmful effects, but I can’t think of any other substance that creates such controversy as weed.

To me, the whole acceptability or unacceptability of a way a substance changes the channel is more about hypocrisy and sheer stupidity than it is about either the substances or about the apparent human need to “change the channel” from time to time.  But the stupidity and hypocrisy is a topic for another time.  For now, it’s enough that we begin to recognize that the acceptability of a way to alter consciousness is cultural and not necessarily about the substance.  This problem recognition is also at the heart of the marijuana legalization debate: We need to see that altering consciousness occurs in many ways; that is, we change the channel in both healthy and in unhealthy ways and we need to somehow find a way to eliminate the hypocrisy in defining what’s acceptable and what’s not.


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