View attachment 44043 OSLO — In a country so wary of drug abuse that it limits the sale of aspirin, Pal-Orjan Johansen, a Norwegian researcher, is pushing what would seem a doomed cause: the rehabilitation of LSD. It matters little to him that the psychedelic drug has been banned here and around the world for more than 40 years. Mr. Johansen pitches his effort not as a throwback to the hippie hedonism of the 1960s, but as a battle for human rights and good health.
In fact, he also wants to manufacture MDMA and psilocybin, the active ingredient in two other prohibited substances, Ecstasy and so-called magic mushrooms. All of that might seem quixotic at best, if only Mr. Johansen and EmmaSofia, the psychedelics advocacy group he founded with his American-born wife and fellow scientist, Teri Krebs, had not already won some unlikely supporters, including a retired Norwegian Supreme Court judge who serves as their legal adviser.
The group, whose name derives from street slang for MDMA and the Greek word for wisdom, stands in the vanguard of a global movement now pushing to revise drug policies set decades ago in reaction to the abuses of the 1960s. That it has gained traction in a country so committed to controlling drug use shows how far old orthodoxies have crumbled.
The Norwegian group wants not only to stir discussion about prohibited drugs, but also manufacture them, in part, it argues, to guarantee that they are safer. It recently began an online campaign to raise money so that it can, in cooperation with a Norwegian pharmaceuticals company, start quality-controlled production of psilocybin and MDMA, drugs that Mr. Johansen says saved and transformed his life.
“I helped myself with psychedelics and want others to have the same opportunity without the risk of arrest,” Mr. Johansen, a 42-year-old researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, said. He recalled how, as a young man, he defeated an alcohol problem, a smoking habit, post-traumatic stress and depression by taking psilocybin and MDMA.
The drugs are banned in Norway as in most countries but can, under tight supervision, be used for medical purposes and also in scientific research. While it took decades for pro-cannabis campaigners in the United States to shift public attitudes and government policy, Norway’s psychedelic champions insist that they already have science and even the law on their side. But even politicians who support them, all of them quietly because of the extreme sensitivity of drug policy, caution that it will be a long struggle. EmmaSofia has nonetheless succeeded in making its cause an issue, with Mr. Johansen appearing in debates on NRK, the state broadcaster, and in a lengthy profile in a leading newsmagazine.
Eager to sidestep the strictures of Norway’s intrusive “nanny state,” Mr. Johansen and his supporters tap into a more freewheeling side of this button-down Nordic nation and point to a long tradition of nature-worshipping shamans, particularly among Norway’s indigenous Sami people. Also lending a hand are the Vikings, who, at least according to fans of psychedelic drugs, ate hallucinogenic mushrooms to pep them up before battle. Cato Nystad, a 39-year-old drum maker, EmmaSofia supporter and organizer of traditional ceremonies that involve psychedelic potions, said many Norwegians want to get in touch with their wilder, more spiritual side. “I have been researching the Vikings,” he said.
Steinar Madsen, the medical director of the Norwegian Medicines Agency, said he had no objection in principle to what he called EmmaSofia’s “interesting project,” but cautioned that “it is a very long shot.” Even powerful pharmaceutical companies, he noted, have a very hard time getting approval to produce and distribute drugs, never mind illegal ones. He scoffed at the argument that Norway needs to reconnect with its shamanistic past. “I don’t believe this stuff,” he said, adding that “drugs were not part of this tradition in Norway.”
Ina Roll Spinnangr, a Liberal Party politician in Oslo who supports a more relaxed policy on drugs, said the best way to bring about change is not to attack Norway’s attachment to rigid state control in the interest of public well-being but to turn it on its head.
“You have to use a ‘nanny’ argument: The government needs to take control and regulate the market, instead of leaving it to criminals,” she said. “The argument that you decide yourself what you put in your own body will never work in Norway.” As a result, she added, “I would never use the word ‘legalize,’ but talk instead about regulating, not liberalizing.”
Ketil Lund, 75, the retired Supreme Court justice who advises EmmaSofia on its legal strategy, said he has never used psychedelic drugs and has no interest in trying them. But, he said, he supports Mr. Johansen’s campaign as part of a “bigger struggle” against antidrug policies in the West he described as “an absolute failure.”
“The present narcotics policy in the West has so many detrimental effects,” he said. “These have to be balanced against detrimental effects of the drugs themselves.” He said he was not qualified to adjudicate a raging debate over the possible hazards and benefits of psychedelic drugs like LSD. But he had been impressed by research suggesting that they were less harmful than alcohol. “People have used psychedelics for centuries,” he added.
In a statement of support for EmmaSofia’s efforts, Mr. Lund dismissed the ban on psychedelic drugs as “based on ignorance and prejudice.” As part of their push for a rethinking of the drugs, Mr. Johansen and his wife have pored over health data from the United States and elsewhere, publishing their findings in academic journals to support arguments that using psychedelics does not cause mental and other health problems.
The taboo in the West on psychedelics, however, is deeply entrenched, a legacy of government campaigns against drug use and a long backlash against the counterculture of the 1960s, when Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor and zealous promoter of LSD, urged Americans to “turn on, tune in and drop out.”
“LSD terrifies governments. It is their ultimate fear because it changes the way people look at the world,” said David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College in London. He was fired in 2009 as the British government’s drug policy adviser after he told a radio interviewer that alcohol is far more harmful than LSD and other psychedelics.
He praised EmmaSofia and other groups for helping to lift the stigma and fear long attached to psychedelics, adding that “there has definitely been a renaissance” in recent years of medical research after decades of science-killing “paranoia and censorship.” His own laboratory in London recently completed a pioneering effort to map the effects of LSD on the brain. Mr. Johansen, the Norwegian researcher, said LSD had been unfairly and unscientifically found guilty by association with the 1960s and early 1970s, when the deaths of drug-abusing musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin fed public panic over psychedelics, even though it was not LSD that killed them.
“We are not in the 1960s anymore and have moved on,” said Mr. Johansen, a clinical psychologist, adding, “This is a question of basic human rights.” He was speaking in the Oslo apartment of one of his most enthusiastic backers, Hege Grostad, a former prostitute and member of Mensa, the high I.Q. society. She says her life, too, changed for the better through the use of illegal psychedelic drugs.
Ms. Grostad, who is well known in Norway for her taboo-breaking public discussion of her experiences as a prostitute, said she had never experimented with drugs until she tried MDMA a year ago with a friend. She had such a joyous experience, she said, that “I wanted to do everything to make it available to everyone.”
She stopped drinking alcohol, left the sex profession and became an outspoken advocate of psychedelics, which, she said, “made me believe in life and love again.”
LSD, which was first synthesized in a Swiss pharmaceuticals laboratory in 1938, and MDMA, which was patented in 1914, won wide acceptance in Europe and the United States in the middle of the last century when they showed early promise against alcoholism and other maladies in a series of studies. But initial euphoria over their medical use was then swamped by deep alarm as recreational use of psychedelics surged, leading to a cascade of horror stories in the news media.
The United States banned LSD in 1970. A year later, the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances classified LSD and MDMA in “Schedule I,” a category reserved for drugs deemed to pose a serious threat to public health. The United Nations convention banned their use “except for scientific and very limited medical purposes by duly authorized persons.” It also exempted psychedelics contained in plants “used by certain small, clearly determined groups in magical or religious rites.”
Mr. Johansen said the dangers connected with psychedelic drugs have been exaggerated by scare stories that do not take into account probability. “Everything carries a risk. If you walk in a forest a tree may fall on your head, but does this mean you should never go in the woods?” he asked. Dr. Madsen of the Norwegian Medicines Agency conceded that there “are a lot of myths” about psychedelic drugs like claims that “if you use LSD, you will jump from the roof.”
All the same, he sees no quick way around a thicket of laws and strict regulations on their use. “Everyone sees we have to be very careful with these drugs,” he said. “I don’t think the time is ripe.”
By Andrew Higgins - The NY Times/May 4, 2015
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