The New School’s “Altered States of Consciousness” Conference

Written by Alan Cabal on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

The surest
way to make dope boring is to have a bunch of shrinks get up and talk about
it. Back in January I received a nice-looking pamphlet promoting a conference
at the New School on "Altered States of Consciousness." Being an unrepentant
aficionado of altered states myself, I figured I’d register and go check
it out, see if they had anything new to say. Maybe they’d discuss some
of the newer psychedelics and stimulants coming down the pike; at the very least,
I figured I could meet some cute college girls.

The conference
took place at the Tishman Auditorium on W. 12th St., Feb. 22-24. I’m not
a morning person, so I headed downtown on the 22nd for the afternoon show, a
presentation entitled "Alterations of Consciousness: Drug Ways," featuring
a panel moderated by Ethan Nadelmann of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation.
Nadelmann is one of the good guys, a perky young mensch with a lot of charisma
fighting against the wasteful and preposterous War on Drugs combine. Unfortunately,
his solution consists of handing the supply end of things over to the medical
industry. This seems to be a consistent agenda whenever you get MDs involved
in substance abuse. It might sound good to the layperson, but I’ve heard
that about eight times as many people die each year from prescription drugs
as from street drugs, so those letters "MD" at the end of somebody’s
name are no guarantee of safety. The medical industry is notoriously lax when
it comes to policing itself, whereas street justice is swift and terrible, so
I’m inclined to favor the street.

The panel consisted
of Virginia Berridge, an historian from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical
Medicine, Dr. Lester Grinspoon from Harvard Medical School and Dr. Bruce Cohen
from McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Ms. Berridge
went first with a very dry presentation comparing the evolution of social attitudes
and policy with regard to opium to the ongoing campaign against tobacco. I’ve
been saying for years that I fully anticipate the day will come when I have
to drag my geriatric ass down to some juvenile delinquent on some corner somewhere
to get a carton of smokes, so none of this is news to me or any other committed
smoker. I got distracted by the fidgeting of an exquisite little college girl
two rows in front of me. She had skin the color of Irish cream and the tiny
build of a dancer. I went out for a cigarette, and wound up ducking into a little
bistro around the corner for a Campari and soda.

I got back
in time to hear Lester Grinspoon, who has authored several lively texts on the
subject of drugs and actually exhibits the kind of savvy about the subject usually
found among the more articulate street users rather than among academics. His
presentation on "Psychedelics as Catalysts of Insight-Oriented Psychotherapy"
was not anywhere near as stimulating as his written work. It consisted of a
concise history of the very limited use of psychedelics and MDMA as an adjunct
of therapy in the treatment of alcoholism and depression peppered with anecdotes
related to various patients’ experiences. Based on my extensive experience
with various boobs and quacks in the psych industry and my mileage with sense-deranging
substances, I’d sooner drop acid with Squeaky Fromme than lay my head open
to a shrink.

The last panelist
was Dr. Bruce Cohen, whose presentation "The Mind and Medicine: Drug Treatments
for Psychiatric Illness" lost me early on when he attempted to draw an
analogy between so-called "mental illnesses" and diabetes and other
purely physical ailments. The current trend in psychiatry is to portray any
and all mental/emotional distress as the product of a "chemical imbalance"
in the body, requiring medication. The biodeterminists are the worst culprits
in this little pharmaceutical scam, with their neo-Calvinist ideas of genetic
preterition. This allows them to minimize time spent actually engaging with
patients and widens the door for grant moneys from the pharmaceutical industry.
A medical mediocrity can rise and shine in the hospitals, particularly the teaching
hospitals, if he or she can function as an effective grant machine. Hospital
administrators don’t give a damn about the patients; their only interest
is the bottom line. Addiction specialties are particularly effective cash cows,
and treating a drug addict with more drugs is patently absurd on the face of
it. The drugging of children currently reaching epidemic proportions in this
country is a national disgrace, and the doctors involved ought to be treated
the same way we treat any other predator who gives drugs to children.

There was a
reception afterward with the usual wine and cheese spread. I helped myself to
some brie and a few glasses of a passable white wine and wandered around, snooping
on conversations. An earnest young man with a ponytail and the unfortunate combination
of Birkenstocks and a suit handed out pamphlets urging people to join the Marijuana
Reform Party, yet another in the long list of single-issue groups busily pissing
up a rope in the carnival of American politics. The cute little college girl
I’d noticed was hanging out with some rave kids. Close up, she wasn’t
so cute: twitchy, bags under her eyes, very odd affect, all the hallmarks of
serious serotonin depletion. They were talking about MDMA and GHB. I chatted
it up briefly with a self-identified "queer activist" on the subject
of "trail mix," a drug combo very popular with the Fire Island crowd
consisting of crystal meth (or MDMA) and Viagra.

"I might
have enjoyed that quite a bit back during my circus days," I opined, "but
it sounds like a fast track to a heart attack for anybody who isn’t accustomed
to seriously strenuous physical activity." He walked away. I introduced
myself to Nadelmann. Grinspoon was nowhere to be found.

I split and
made my way home, where I smoked the last of my stash and knocked back a few
beers while watching Jimmy Stewart’s terrific performance as Elwood P.
Dowd in the film adaptation of Mary Coyle Chase’s magnificent Harvey.
It’s as true now as it was then.