What exactly is the difference between a drug, medicine, food or vitamin?
The legal distinctions are important; they are the written words that determine whether the user is jailed or accepted into mainstream society. Cannabis users today are alternately jailed or treated; depending on which side of the law they live. And, as the cannabis plant reenters the legal American landscape, legislators, doctors and law enforcement are struggling to understand and make sense of these blurred lines.
Humans have always used drugs, but which humans use which drugs has long been a form of societal control, exercised by history’s victors.
Dr. David Bearman, a physician and medical cannabis specialist from Santa Barbara, California, has chronicled civilization’s relationships with drugs, plants, medicines and foods and how they were used to “other” minority groups in the name of greed. “Drugs Are Not the Devil’s Tools: How Discrimination and Greed Created a Dysfunctional Drug Policy and How It Can Be Fixed” is a two-part history written in vivid and exciting detail of humanity’s sordid history with drugs, greed, religion and plant medicines.
Part One chronicles humanity’s history with substances, religion and drug policy beginning in 3,000 B.C.E. through President Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act of 1970 C.E., which was the formal declaration of the War on Drugs. Part Two looks at current American wartime drug policies from 1970 until the present day and offers prescriptions for what Bearman sees as a more rational drug future.
“U.S. drug policy, such as it is, is a maze of counterproductive inconsistencies, which sprang up from Western Europe’s long heritage of those with the power using the drugs, superstitions and myths as some of the tools to demonize, discriminate, dominate, scapegoat, marginalize and control people seen as different. Some have described this process as othering, or generating fear and loathing towards others,” Bearman says in “Drugs Are Not the Devil’s Tools.”
Bearman has worked for the last 40 years as private physician and was one of the first waves of doctors to recommend medical cannabis in California. He has been a pioneer of free and community clinics, harm reduction and pain management. Through his work in pain management and with the free clinics, Bearman has seen up close how domestic drug policies have negatively impacted America’s poor and minorities, adding to the urgency for harm reduction and compassionate policy change.
“Drugs Are Not the Devil’s Tools” is eye opening and perhaps one of the most important texts for any cannabis advocate to become familiar with. Not only is it an exciting read full of wildly entertaining historical relics (fun fact: Santa Claus’s red and white robes are modeled after the infamous psilocybin mushroom A. Muscaria), it is a mirror from the past for current policymakers and stakeholders to reflect on just the exact impact drug policy — particularly prohibition — has on society.
Bearman is a proponent of allopathic medicine, or alternatives, and is supports a theory popularized by Dr. Andrew Weil and others in the 1970s — that perhaps altered states of reality, referred to as recreational drug use, are actually beneficial to coping with the human experience and could be considered a healthful practice.
“[Humans] see the use of psychoactive drugs as one way of dealing with the pain and ambiguities of life. Humans are keenly aware that they and all their loved ones will be on this worldly sphere for only a short time. We do not know if the universe has been here forever or was created from nothing — neither concept fits human logic. We must take our purpose — our meaning — on faith,” Bearman says in Part One.
Humans have used psychoactive drugs throughout history for religious purposes. When drugs are used to experience spirituality in any form, they are referred to as entheogens. Entheogens such as peyote and ayahuasca were outlawed in the colonial Americas to control native populations, who used these plants for spiritual and personal growth.
“Arbitrarily labeling certain substances as bad, some not too bad, and some pretty good, provides some cover for the American values of fairness and equality. Labeling people ‘drug dealers’ can satisfy bigotry without acknowledging the labelers as bigots,” he says in Part Two.
Dr. Bearman asks the reader to look at the entirety of the human drug experience and question current policies. Which circles back to current American drug policy, where opiates are legally prescribed to some and illicitly obtained by others. Regardless of the policy, users find the substances they want. So, from a historical and medical perspective, what is the safest way to allow humans to commune with the plant and drug worlds?
I sat down with Dr. Bearman at Seattle Hempfest to find out:
What is the ideal scenario to legally allow safe access to cannabis for whoever wants it? Legalization? Decriminalization? State laws?
There is a split between what the ideal situation is and what realistically you can do. Ideally, why shouldn’t we have it the same way it was from 1854 to 1941? At that time it was an over-the-counter medication, doctors wrote prescriptions for it and it was recreationally available. It seems to me that was a pretty good way of approaching it.
If you are gonna use as a pharmaceutical, it’s nice to have it standardized, it’s nice to have specific dosages and it’s nice to have specific strains but whether or not the FDA should have any role at all in that is arguable, questionable.
The FDA was not set up to deal with plants. I mean, you don’t hear them talking about taking a look at other plants we know have medicinal value. Why should they look at this plant? The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 is a farce, when you take a look at it scientifically. Why should CBD be schedule II when THC [Marinol] is schedule III? For that matter, why should a plant even be scheduled?
Should any drugs be scheduled?
Yeah I think so. How to deal with pharmaceuticals is really a difficult question. I think that most of our drug laws are wrong-headed and don’t accomplish what they are set out to accomplish.
Why get involved with free clinics rather than the mainstream healthcare system?
I felt, when I was about 16-years-old, that I wanted to find the meaning of life. I realize as I have gotten older that I was very naïve and I am still very naïve. I think that comes from growing up in a very bucolic setting in a small town in Wisconsin.
I figured while I was trying to figure out the meaning of life that I would try to do something I could feel good about. I suspect there is something to my generation [Baby Boomers]. I think we did want to make the world a better place.
Well some of your generation…
When I saw that Dave Smith had started the Haight-Ashbury free clinic [in 1967] in San Francisco I thought, “Wow, what a great idea.” I was an intern at Marina Hospital in Seattle. I saw that there were some people, most of whom were graduate students in the school of social work, that were going to start the Seattle Open Door Clinic. I went to them and said I would like to be involved, they said oh great, you are a real doctor! I said I was an intern and they said that was the closest they had to a real doctor.
What I saw was that doctors were horrified about the recreational use of psychoactive drugs, they didn’t know anything about it and they set up walls between them and young people as a barrier to the doctor-patient relationship. I felt that people who were using psychoactive drugs needed to have physicians who empathized with them, who could understand what they are talking about and who could deal with these drugs in a more scientific more medical way and less emotional culture war kinda way. That’s what got me into that, the Seattle Open Door Clinic.
Two of the themes of your book are definitely blame and greed. There is a lot of money being made by people who were not the ones getting the blunt end of the prohibition right now.
It is something I have thought a lot about but I haven’t come to a lot of conclusions. I think Lester Grinspoon has come to the conclusion that the pharmaceuticalization of the drug is absolutely wrong. I am a little bit more to his right, I think, and that is I think that we can have home grows and pharmaceuticalization side by side.
I don’t think it has to be an either-or choice. I would certainly like to see the people who have gone to jail for no good reason or been hassled or have done a lot of the original work get financially compensated and I think some of them are, at least, the more entrepreneurial oriented.
I am willing to settle with there being a certain amount of unfairness. What I would like to see happen is for the industry to not become an industry. That it not adapt the cutthroat ruthlessness we see in the American capitalistic system and that we have more of a cooperative effort. Whether or not that is possible in the culture we have all grown up in, remains to be seen.
How much is the cat out of the bag? California has had medical cannabis for 20 years, when there are already dispensaries in many places where people have access to such a diverse cannabis market, why would they want a standardized pharmaceutical style medicine like Epidiolex?
I think the answer is yes; there is a viable market, particularly at this point in time.
The reason is they are not teaching about the endocannabinoid system in medical school and doctors like to prescribe something for which there are standardized doses. I am no exception, but I am not that uncomfortable with people self-dosing. I think GW Pharmaceuticals is actually doing a service by bringing this into the mainstream. I can live with multiple pathways rather than an either/or situation. What I can’t live with are laws that make it illegal for people to grow vegetables.
As far as natural products are concerned, the natural products we produce ourselves, that’s nobody’s business but our own.
When you go from pharmaceutical drugs to accepting marijuana as a medicine, it’s a bit of a leap. Once you start looking at cannabis — a botanical — as a medicine you naturally would need to look to other plants as medicines as well. Do you think cannabis could open the door to a change in how we look at all plant medicine?
We have already gone through this change once before and that was after the Flexner Report, and as the doctors who were trained before that got older and died off you had physicians who saw manufactured medications as being superior to plant-based medicine. It doesn’t seem that unreasonable that we would go back and take a closer look at that. I remember reading a few years ago, some researchers were saying, “Let’s go to the Amazon, talk to the medicine men there, take a look at the plants they are using and then extract the pharmacologically most active ingredient and make that into a drug.”
I think if that is what happens, we haven’t quite learned the right lesson here. I think if saying, “Let’s take the plants where they are at for what they are and see if we can improve them,” I don’t see any problem with that. Will that happen? I think it might.
Cannabis has been responsible for the integrative medicine movement and I do think we are going to see the integrative medicine movement continue to grow. Whether it will capture the imagination of all medical schools and all specialties, right now I think is unlikely.
Do you think all drugs should be legal? Or decriminalized? Or a variation thereof?
I think that a policy of looking at substance abuse as a medical issue and not a criminal issue is far superior to the current way we are doing things. I think that Jefferson was right that it causes tyranny to have laws against what you put in your body. When it comes to synthetic products there may be good and reasonable justification for having some structure around that and certainly for drugs made by pharma companies. Over the counter preparations have certain regulations as far as claims that they can make as to cures or effectiveness. There is always gonna be a certain amount of regulation, but there is no question that we are over regulated.