Wise Use of Substances that Alter Experience

This piece appeared in newspapers in late February, 2024.


A question I sometimes ponder: would humankind be better off, or worse off, if alcoholic beverages had never been available for people to use?

On the one hand, there is abundant evidence that alcohol can destroy lives. Prohibition proved misguided, but there was a legitimate impetus behind it in how many families were driven to disaster by the abuse of alcohol.

On the other hand, equally abundant is the evidence that the use of this drug – which can alter people’s consciousness in the direction of greater freedom of emotional experience and expression – is highly valued by many people whose lives are enriched, not destroyed, by their way of using it.

The challenge of finding the path of Wise Use – weighing of the costs and benefits of using a drug that changes a person’s experience – (or wisely choosing No Use—like to avoid becoming another opioid fatality) — can be applied more generally to how to deal with any substance that’s taken for its experiential effect.

And such questions are important, because experience is what matters.

Indeed, nothing can matter except as it registers in the experience of creatures to whom things matter. Were there nothing to experience some things as better and some things as worse, no evaluative terms could have meaning.
“Sacredness,” for example, must mean “experienced as sacred” by some being.

No surprise, therefore, that – within the nearly universal human practice of using available drugs to alter consciousness – many cultures have regarded experience-changing substances as sacred, and incorporated them into their religious rituals.

So it is that all around the Mediterranean, as wine-making spread through the region over the millennia, the fruit of the vine got incorporated into a whole diversity of the region’s religions – Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek, Phoenician, etc.

Not just the fermentation of the grape: across the globe a variety of substances that alter people’s experiences (emotionally, perceptually, cognitively) have been incorporated into the religious life of peoples:

• The ancient Hindu texts refer to some “sacred” drug called “soma” (whose identity remains uncertain);
• The Shamans of hunting-gathering bands in Siberia used mind-altering mushrooms as a central part of their religious life;
• Peoples of the Americas employed ayahuasca in their ritual life (made from jungle vines);
• While others built religious ceremonies around peyote (from the seeds of a cactus).
• And lately, archaeologists have found residues of cannabis in temple vessels of the Hebrews.

This culturally widespread incorporation of experience-altering substances into religious rituals tells us two things: first, that people intuitively understand that what’s of importance registers in the realm of our experience; and second, that it is wise to govern the use of “sacred” materials by rules that respect their sacredness.

Which brings us back to Wise Use.

The challenge of using such substances wisely can even pertain to a drug like caffeine.

Although caffeine – unlike, for example, alcohol – does not destroy lives, caffeine is not trivial. Not only do roughly 90% of the world’s adults imbibe caffeine daily – through coffee, tea, and other drinks – but, according to some historians, the arrival of coffee changed the “spirit” of Western civilization, and likely fueled the rise of rationality in Western thought, and helped bring about the American and French revolutions).

It is no small thing to make people feel more energetic, attentive, focused.

I’ve sought “Wise Use” regarding caffeine. The questions, as they generally are for such things, are: How much? How often? And for what purpose?

My purpose is clear: caffeine helps me to pursue my calling better by 1) increasing my interest in the world, and 2) making me more eager to write or talk about what I find interesting.

I’ve discovered if I use it daily, I lose much of what I value most in caffeine. (Caffeine is an addictive drug, which generally means one can develop a tolerance, getting less out of more.)

Wise Use for me, I’ve decided, is to have about 50 mg. of caffeine (about ½ cup of coffee) three days out of four, with the no-caffeine day the one just before I want to perform at my best. After I take even that one-day break, I can again gain that special quality of experience this drug has to offer.

Of course, in contemporary society, many other substances that impact the nature of experience – either legally or not, more or less safe or dangerous – are available to people. Lacking clear guidance from cultural rituals and norms, individuals must figure out matters of use or no use, wise use or foolish, for themselves.

This is a moment, moreover, when Western civilization – especially the United States – is becoming more open to the use of such substances for potentially meaningful purposes.

• The marijuana that used to be demonized into “Reefer Madness” has become as acceptable a path of changing consciousness as alcohol has long been. To being loosened up by alcohol or energized by caffeine, people can now legally use marijuana to alter their perceptions and understanding of the world around them.
• And psychedelics are increasingly being considered as a means to take people into meaningful “spiritual” experiences, with professional guidance, like using “magic mushrooms” to help people come to terms with their dying, or using MDMA (Ecstasy) to help people heal from trauma.

Wise Use remains the challenge with all these things, how to maximize the beneficial consequences while minimizing any damage.

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