The New School's "Altered States of Consciousness" Conference

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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.

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