January 9, 2002
Liberty & LSD

By John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and member of the CCLE's Board of Advisors

Over the last 25 years, I've watched a lot of Deadheads, Buddhists, and
other freethinkers do acid. I've taken it myself. I still do occasionally,
in a ritual sort of way. On the basis of their experience and my own, I
know that the public terror of LSD is based more on media propagated
superstition than familiarity with its effects on the real world.

I know this, and, like most others who know it, I have kept quiet about it.

Shortly after the Bill of Rights was drafted, the English philosopher John
Stuart Mill said, "Liberty resides in the rights of that person whose views
you find most odious." The Buddha was wise to point out that people must
be free to work out for themselves what is true from actual experience and
express it without censure.

I will go further and say that liberty resides in its exercise. It is
preserved in the actual spouting of those odious views. It is maintained,
and always has been, by brave and lonely cranks.

Lately it seems that our necessary cranks have been falling silent, struck
dumb by a general assault on liberty in America. This is no right-wing plot
from the top. Like most totalitarian impulses, it has arisen among the
people themselves. Terrified of virtual bogeymen we know only from the
evening news, we have asked the government for shorter chains and smaller
cages. And, market-driven as ever, it has been obliging us.

This is what is now taking place in our conduct of the War on Some Drugs.
In this futile jihad, Americans have largely suspended habeas corpus, have
allowed the government to permanently confiscate our goods without
indictment or trial, have flat-out discarded the Fourth Amendment to the
Constitution, and are voluntarily crippling the First, at least insofar as
any expression might relate to drugs.

In my gloomier moments, I wonder if the elimination of freedom in America
is not what the War on Some Drugs was actually designed to accomplish.

Certainly we haven't engaged this campaign because the psychoactive
substances we are so determined to eliminate are inherently more dangerous
than those we keep in plentiful and legal supply. Indeed, the most
dangerous, antisocial, and addictive drugs I've ever taken-the ones I'm
afraid to touch in any quantity today-are legal.

Alcohol, nicotine, and prescription sedatives do more American damage every
day than LSD has done since it was derived in 1942. Each year, alcohol
kills hundreds of thousands of Americans, many of them violently. Alcohol
is a factor in most murders and suicides in America. It is a rare case of
domestic violence or abuse where alcohol plays no role.

Yet I don't hear people calling for its prohibition, nor would I support
such an effort. I know it won't work.

It's not working for LSD either; and it's even less likely to. Lysergic
acid diethylamide-25 is active in doses so small you can't see them. It's
colorless, odorless, and it doesn't show up in drug tests. And you have to
be pretty high on acid before anyone's going to notice you being anything
but extremely alert.

Does this mean that I think LSD is safe or that I am recommending its use?
Hardly. I consider LSD to be a serious medicine, strong enough to make some
people see God or the dharma. That's serious medicine. There are two points
that need making: First, by diminishing the hazards inherent in our
cultural drugs of choice and demonizing psychedelics, we head our children
straight down the most dangerous path their youthful adventurism can take.
Second, LSD is dangerous but not in the ways generally portrayed. By
dressing it up in a Halloween costume of fictitious dangers, we encourage
our kids to think we were also lying about its real ones. And LSD is dangerous.

It is dangerous because it promotes the idea that reality is something to
be manipulated rather than accepted. This notion can seriously cripple
one's coping abilities, although I would still argue that both alcohol and
advertising do that more persuasively than LSD. And of course, if you're
lightly sprung, it can leave you nuts.

But LSD is not illegal because it endangers your sanity. LSD is illegal
because it endangers Control. Worse, it makes authority seem funny. But
laugh at authority in America and you will know risk. LSD is illegal
primarily because it threatens the dominant American culture, the culture
of Control.

This is not a sound use of law. Just laws arise to support the ethics of a
whole society and not as a means for one of its cultural factions to impose
power on another.

There are probably 25 million Americans who have taken LSD, and who would,
if hard pressed in private, also tell you that it profoundly changed their
lives, and not necessarily for the worse.

I will readily grant that some of these are hopeless crystal worshipers or
psychedelic derelicts creeping around Oregon woods. But far more of them
are successful members of society, CEOs, politicians, Buddhist meditation
teachers, ministers, and community leaders.

This is true. Whether we want it to be or not.

But the fact that so few among these millions dare utter this truth is, in
a supposedly free country, a symptom of collective mental illness.

I neither expect nor ask any young person to regard me as a role model.
There are easier routes through this world than the one I've taken. But I
do like to think of myself as someone who defends his convictions. And I
hope to raise my three daughters to be brave enough to own their beliefs,
no matter how unorthodox, and to own them in public, no matter how risky. I
dream of a day when anyone's daughters will feel free to do that.

The most I can do toward a world in which their liberty is assured is to
exercise mine in this one.

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