Oct 2007

Pot again

With the obvious exception of elected politicians, a significant majority of the people who smoke cannabis will enjoy it. It’s a biochemical thing. Dopamine and what have you. It’s like eating chocolate… for most of us it’s an actively pleasurable experience. But you’ll meet people during your life who simply don’t like the taste of chocolate all that much. Which is fair enough… maybe it’s blue cheese that floats their boat. Whatever.

Of the majority who do enjoy a toke or a toblerone, almost all will do so in moderation — or at the very least know their limits. Very few will become chronic pot heads and/or morbidly obese due to yorkies. If you doubt this (with regards to pot anyways) then I suggest you read Tim Worstall’s fine examination of the statistics. Despite the large number of recent newspaper headlines warning of the sinister harm wrought by cannabis, it turns out that a tiny percentage of regular users experience that harm… somewhere between 0.01% and 0.2%. Now, I don’t know what percentage of regular chocolate consumers suffer serious ill-health because of chronic usage. Whether it be diabetes or high cholesterol or the myriad other problems we’re told are associated with bad diet. But I do know that nobody, quite rightly, is suggesting that possession of a bar of dairy-milk should be considered a criminal offence. Imagine sending someone to share a cell with a rapist because they were caught eating chocolate.

My chocolate analogy also has another aspect to it… there are those (the UK Conservative Party for instance) who still trot out the “gateway theory” as a rationale for criminalising cannabis. The theory being that those who use cannabis will be more likely to use harder drugs due to some undefined biochemical conditioning that occurs in the brain. This is simply absurd and — when taken to a logical conclusion — rests upon the assumption that our neurochemistry is aware of which drugs are legally proscribed and which can be legally prescribed.

Seriously… think about it…

– “Cannabis leads to heroin!”
Wow, really? So does alcohol lead to heroin?
– “Of course not!”
Well, does tobacco lead to cannabis maybe?
– “Not a bit of it! Cannabis leads to heroin which leads to speed, ecstasy and cocaine.”
Er… do any of them lead to prozac?

In reality the “cannabis gateway effect” (which does exist in many places) has been demonstrated to be sociological rather than biological. It is the prohibition of cannabis which places it into the same supply-system as the harder drugs. Those who smoke cannabis are more likely to have regular encounters with those who sell hard drugs than those who do not. It’s all quite easy to understand when you actually think about it rationally for a second.

But yeah, the chocolate thing. You see, there’s a very coherent and convincing argument to suggest that some kind of “psychological / biological gateway” theory may have merit, though not in the sense the tories would have you believe. Essentially our very early experiences with drugs will shape — not only psychologically, but also neurochemically — our relationship with drugs throughout our lives. And, so far as western culture is concerned, the first substance most of us encounter that can truly be considered a recreational drug… is chocolate. If you’re interested in this, I recommend Andrew Weil’s From Chocolate To Morphine which is very informative, though he does descend into polemic from time to time.

So much stronger

Another theme in the recent race to see which media outlet can publish the most one-sided drug-policy story, is the claim that today’s pot is vastly more potent than ever before. This claim is false and is a simple result of journalists failing to do any research and instead reprinting “the official line” as fact. Usually the claim rests upon data produced by the University of Mississippi’s Marijuana Potency Monitoring Project. However, as this project is funded by, and falls under the jurisdiction of, the US National Institute on Drug Abuse which is itself part of the government’s Drug Policy Office, it’s difficult to conclude that it constitutes “independent” research (the organisation funding it has a clear and overt bias after all).

I too have a clear and overt bias (I’m strongly in favour of significant reform of our drug laws and the controlled legalisation of all currently prohibited drugs) but I hope that the following discussion of cannabis potency will be transparent enough to make my claims relatively uncontroversial.

Firstly let’s establish what is meant by cannabis potency. The composition of any plant is extremely complex with many hundreds, if not thousands, of identifiable constituent chemicals. In the case of cannabis, there’s only one we’re interested in — Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. This is the primary active component; the chemical that gets you high; and the potency of a given sample of cannabis is expressed via the percentage of THC found in that sample.

Now, according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA):

Marijuana is much stronger now than it was decades ago. According to data from the Potency Monitoring Project at the University of Mississippi, the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content of commercial-grade marijuana rose from an average of 3.71 percent in 1985 to an average of 5.57 percent in 1998. The average THC content of U.S. produced sinsemilla increased from 3.2 percent in 1977 to 12.8 percent in 1997.

Let’s take these figures at face value though, as Brian C. Bennett writes, the methodology used is extremely dubious (I urge you to read the first three paragraphs on that page). Not only that, the DEA have been very selective indeed in the figures used. The comparison of 1977 (3.2%) and 1997 (12.8%) seems extremely dramatic. But if we were to take the figures for 1978 and 1993 (i.e. much of the same period) there’s a clear decline in average potency (from 6.28% to 5.77%). What are we to make of that?

Anyways, taking the figures at face value as I promised to do, the first thing that needs to be pointed out is that they have restricted the study to “U.S. produced sinsemilla”. This is despite the fact that (according to the New York Times magazine, reprinted here):

Fewer than 20 years ago (article published in 1995 – Jim), virtually all the marijuana consumed in America was imported. “Home grown” was a term of opprobrium, “something you only smoked in an emergency,” as one grower old enough to remember put it.

So while modern US-grown cannabis is probably as strong as that grown anywhere else in the world (with perhaps the exception of Thailand), thirty years ago it wasn’t. However, cannabis grown elsewhere and then imported into the USA during the 1970s (or Ireland or the UK) was sometimes just as strong (or almost so) as these supposed new super-skunks* that everyone’s getting into a lather about these days. According to a United Nations survey, for instance, the average potency of Thai cannabis seized in the U.K. in 1976 was 9.3%. And in 1980 the average for both Thai and Indian cannabis (again, seized in the U.K.) was 11%. (source) Neither of these are far from the “new high strength” numbers trotted out by the DEA and subsequently parroted in the media, and as they are average values we can safely assume that some individual samples were even more potent.

Something has changed, however, and that’s the relative availability of stronger cannabis. It’s easier to track down super-skunk today than it was to get your hands on thai-stick in 1977. Thanks to prohibition however, it’s impossible for someone to be aware of the strength of the cannabis they are purchasing. So a person who tends to smoke low-strength ditchweed may get a far stronger batch than they’re used to without being aware of it. As a result their first smoke from it may well be extremely stressful (imagine drinking a pint of beer only to discover afterwards that it had the same alcohol content as wine). Subsequently, however, the smoker will be aware of the higher strength and will simply smoke less of it in a session. Just as a wine drinker consumes less (in fluid ounces) than a beer drinker but still gets the same buzz.

In fact, because a smoker will consume more weak cannabis to get the same buzz as they would from a stronger strain, it’s likely that the weak stuff will have a greater negative impact on their health (through inhalation of more particulates) than the strong stuff. It’s simply misleading to suggest that a person will get higher from smoking stronger pot. The tendency of almost every pot-smoker is to smoke just enough to get them to the comfortable high that they enjoy, and in order to reach that they’ll smoke more or less depending on the potency.

And finally

Unlike many commentators I am completely unsurprised by the news that the UK’s reclassifaction of cannabis from Class B to Class C has been followed by a very significant fall in the number of people using the drug; particularly young people. Nor am I surprised by the news that the government is planning to reverse that policy.

After all, just as elected politicians appear to have a specific brain-chemistry that prevents them enjoying pot, they are also well known to be unable to distinguish between sensible and nonsensical drug policies.

* Incidentally, “skunk” and “super-skunk” are just the new names (for sensi, thai-sticks and the various other strong strains that have been available for many years) and not new plants.

5 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Oct 2007

A dream conversation from two nights ago

“We’re living in a civilisation in decline.”
– You really think so?
“I do.”
– So when did it begin… this decline? When did we peak, as it were?
– Whoa! Really?
“Yep. That was the peak of European civilisation. Western civilisation if you want.”
– Wow. That long ago? For some reason I thought you were going to say 1969 and Neil Armstrong… y’know, how we gave up looking outwards after that and started retreating from the frontiers instead of pushing at them? But I guess I was thinking more about American civilisation than European…
“American civilisation? There’s no such thing. European civilisation became globalised… geographically detached. By 1909 the civilisation that emerged from the European Dark Ages had spread to every corner of the planet. It was at its height. After that… well… the rush towards World War One began. And so the decline began. Modern America is — in many ways — merely the final stage of that decline.”
– I know a couple of hundred million Americans who would probably disagree with you there…
“Well, wouldn’t be the first time a couple of hundred million Americans have been wrong, now would it?”
– Ooooh, bitchy. They told me you were anti-American. I assumed they just meant anti-Bush…
“Politically anti-American. Politically. America is the overheating engine of latter-day globalised capitalism… you could say I’m ‘anti’ the role it plays and has played in the acceleration of our decline into barbarism. And that’s something that goes far deeper than which middle-aged rich guy is currently sitting in the White House.”
– What are you saying? That all Americans are the problem?
“Of course I’m not saying that. Mind you, it’s hard not to make a wise-crack about how getting the government you deserve. If it really is ‘Of The People’, then presumably the people need to accept responsibility for its actions.”
– Oh come on! You know it’s a little more complicated than that.
“Is it? I dunno… yeah, maybe you’re right.”
– No ‘maybe’ about it. Take me for example… I’ve spent my whole adult life campaigning for complete nuclear disarmament. But when it comes to choosing the leader of the country, I’ve never once been able to vote for someone who shares my position. Not once.
“No you’re right of course, I agree with you. I was deliberately winding you up.”
– 1909 though? I really didn’t expect that.

Note: There’s no doubt in my mind that the above dream was heavily influenced by the fact that I’m currently reading Pynchon’s wonderful novel, Against The Day.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements

Oct 2007

Freud reclaimed

Aye, it’s been a fine few weeks and no mistake. The M.Phil is going very well, I’m happy to report. Lots of very interesting reading and discussion. And the people all seem pretty groovy. Actually, the seminars are currently a bit “exposition by tutor with brief comments by the rest of us” as opposed to genuine discussion… but that’ll change as the weeks go on (as indeed it has already begun to). The topics for the first semester are Existentialism & Psychoanalysis, Jung, The Interpretation of Dreams, Klein, and Metapsychology. Initially, if I’m honest, I expected all of them to interest me with the exception of the Klein stuff (though I was still eager to study her work as part of an overall view of the subject). But as I’ve started to learn a bit more about Melanie Klein, I’m beginning to feel my initial fears were unjustified. Whatever one may think about her theories and methods (Klein, for those who are unaware, focussed her psychoanalysis on children and infants), the last word I’d use to describe her is “uninteresting”. Controversial, fascinating, discomforting and puzzling. Those would be better ones.

However having, thus far, only read a solitary paper by Klein (Psychological Principles of Infant Analysis), I’ll hold off on saying much more about her for now. Except that if even half her theory is correct, it’s nigh miraculous that any of us make it through childhood.

One thing that’s struck me most about the course in general is the attitude towards Freud. Or rather, I’ve been struck by how slanted my own attitude is. Though I’m pleased to say I’m overcoming my preconceptions. Merely recognising your own biases is not enough to negate them, but it’s a good first step.

You see, my view of Freud was formed in a rather specific academic environment. Back in the early 90s in the University of North London the philosophy degree was probably amongst the best anywhere. It’s never been recognised as such, of course, but having now gained enough distance to be semi-objective about it, I honestly believe that to be true (and I’ve been known to go on at some length about why that’s the case so I’ll try not to get started on that subject). However, if it had a flaw, it was the radical feminist slant that seeped into certain subjects. Which, as slants go, isn’t as bad as most others incidentally but, it’s probably fair to say that the radical feminist reading of Freud is somewhat less flattering than most.

Over the years I’ve had people tell me that perhaps I wasn’t being altogether fair (most notably Gyrus who convinced me that I probably didn’t have the most balanced view of Freud), but it’s only now that I’ve really gotten round to reading his work (rather than that of commentators) in any depth and I’ve discovered that — just as I’d been told — he’s not the faintly preposterous dogmatist that I’d been led to believe. Far from it.

Rarely, for instance, will you ever read anything like the equivocation expressed in the opening paragraph of Mourning and Melancholia (the text of which I’d like to link to, but can’t*). The second sentence of the text reads “… we must begin by making an admission, as a warning against any over-estimation of the value of our conclusions.” And a little later he informs the reader, “We shall, therefore, from the outset drop all claim to general validity for our conclusions, and we shall console ourselves by reflecting that, with the means of investigation at our disposal today, we could hardly discover anything that was not typical, if not of a whole class of disorders, at least of a small group of them.”

Of course, it’s been pointed out that this equivocation was almost certainly as much an attempt to seduce and disarm the critical reader as it was an attempt to downplay the significance of the work. Freud, after all, is nothing if not a fine writer and has more than enough skill to induce a sympathetic attitude in his readers. Nonetheless, he does seem to have been aware that he was a pioneer in a new and exciting field, and that — as such — some, if not much, of his work would eventually be superseded. After all, Freud was a scientist and was attempting to work in a scientific fashion. So he was obviously aware that from an historical perspective scientific theories constantly evolve and eventually get incorporated into more complete theories (or replaced entirely).

No fairer destiny could be alloted to any […] theory, than that it should of itself point out the way to the introduction of a more comprehensive theory, in which it lives on as a limiting case.

Albert Einstein | Relativity (Chapter XXII, Inferences)

I’ve been told that there’s a great deal of wry humour in the original German, much of which fails to come across in the English translation. Nonetheless, I can only applaud the translators who have rendered what I assume is Freud’s beautifully written German into beautifully written English.

[Aside: while reading Freud I was struck again by something that I’ve noticed in the past. Of the writers I’d say I’ve read fairly extensively, two of them originally wrote in German; Nietzsche and Einstein; and I’ve always perceived a strange similarity in their writing styles which — knowing how radically different in disposition they were — I attributed to some peculiarity in the way German translates into English. Freud goes a little further in confirming this hypothesis.]

Next: What exactly IS psychoanalysis?

* Can I just point out that it’s an absolute outrage that Freud’s papers are not archived online. I’m not interested in getting into the whole “copyright” / “intellectual property” debate here. What I’m talking about is on is a whole ‘nother level, as the man said. There are certain individuals whose writing is simply too damn important not to be freely available to everyone who wants it. Sigmund Freud is one of those individuals. If some philanthropist wants to do the world a real favour, then buy the publishing rights to the works of Freud (and a few others while you’re at it. I’ve got a list…) and bequeath them into the public domain. Set up a website and make them available for download in every format under the sun.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Oct 2007

Climate change and some other links

For reasons I’m at a loss to explain, I absolutely love the fact that this exists.

This one is from a while ago, but I think the headline is a classic… Rich ‘can pay poor to cut carbon’. Because it’s the poor doing all the emitting, right? Like most soundbites though, it actually provides an inaccurate characterisation of what Yvo de Boer, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) had to say. On the surface it sounds like he’s implying that “wealthy nations” can buy their way out of their responsibility to cut their own emissions. But that’s not what he’s saying at all, though you only get a hint of that fact from the BBC article when they quote the vital line:

… So it actually becomes economically quite attractive for a company, for example in the UK, that has a target, to achieve this goal by reducing emissions in China.

Yvo de Boer | BBC News article

Note the important word… “company”. This proposal isn’t in the context of a national carbon trading scheme, but as part of a direct carbon tax on corporations. And this is a man who clearly understands the reality of the global manufacturing industry. He knows that the products being bought by American and European consumers come from factories in China and India and Mexico. So don’t force Nike to spend money cutting emissions in the United States when all their carbon emissions are happening in Vietnam. Especially… and here’s the killer point… since a dollar spent reducing the emissions at an American factory won’t go half as far in cutting emissions as that same dollar spent on a factory in a nation with laxer environmental regulations. And it’s all about cutting the global total; it matters little whether the carbon dioxide is released into US or Mexican skies.

It’s not Americans and Europeans paying the poorer nations to clean up their factories. It’s Americans and Europeans paying the poorer nations to clean up our factories. And so long as the proposal is within the context of a corporate levy rather than a trading scheme, then I say let’s just do the damn thing right now. A simple, blunt law introduced immediately and applying to the current financial year. It will do as a stop-gap while the politicians faff about for a wee bit longer, and can be replaced by whatever they eventually decide on (once the IPCC have judged it to be at least as effective in cutting total emissions in the short, medium and long term).

Proposal: Every company that wishes to continue trading in Europe in any capacity must spend 25% of all profits made in Europe directly on carbon reduction measures within their own organisation. If cleaning up their Indonesian manufacturing plants would get the best “carbon value for money” then that’s what they should do. But they will be audited, and failures to comply will result in crippling fines.

Do I hear a second?

25% is probably a tad low, but you’ve got to pick a realistic starting point, right? I mean if this genuinely is the most important problem facing our generation, then let’s get serious about it. 25% off the net profit. I’m not talking about plunging companies into losses here. Only readjusting things a bit. It just means that shareholders will get a bit less money and yes, R&D will slow down a bit, as will the economy. But that’s a small price to pay, right? Or are we too cheap for even that? To safeguard a future for our children and all of theirs? Holy crap, we are, aren’t we?

Note: companies and projects working in areas that directly contribute to a reduction in carbon emissions (renewable energy projects, for instance) would probably be exempt from the 25% corporate-carbon levy; both to allow them to maximise inward investment and R&D spend, but also to make them more attractive to investors.

Just a thought.

And on the subject of climate change, it appears that here in Ireland our climate is “hotting up twice as fast as anywhere else in the world. It’s official.” Hard to know which is worse; the news or the copywriting.

In other news: I am dismayed. Though utterly unsurprised.

And although I know how cruel it is, for some reason I find myself grinning at the images conjured by this story here.

Oh, and lest you think climate change is the only thing you should be depressed about; read this and weep.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion