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What do we know about psychedelics? We’re asking Latin America.

13/11/2014

in Opinion,Policy Featured

There is more information out there on psychedelics than most people seem to know about; but much less than there could or should be. The Beckley Foundation has won the opportunity to enquire about what Latin Americans know about psychedelic drugs with a series of questions to be included in an upcoming transnational survey.

 

Traditional use.

We know civilisations throughout history have used psychedelic substances with spiritual or social purposes. Some specialists suggest that our relationship to psychedelics might have started as early as the Bronze Age. Some of these uses have survived to our days in the form of practices involving iboga, by the Bwiti (in Central and West Africa); psychedelic mushrooms, by the chukchis (in Russia); or peyote, by the Tarahumara people (in Mexico).

 

The 20th Century: Expansion, Progress and Censorship.

Most of us are also aware of the rise of psychedelic drug use in the Western Hemisphere during the 1960s through to the beginning of the 1970s, when it became inextricably linked to the ‘hippie’ counter-culture and its ‘flower power’.

Less known, is the fact that between the 1940s and 1970s, a huge wave of studies started investigating these compounds and their effects on the human mind. To many in the field, it quickly became obvious that the potential of psychedelic agents to contribute to our understanding of the human psyche was significant. The design of therapeutic applications to aid the treatment of addiction, anxiety, depression and other disorders soon followed.

This progress came to an abrupt halt when the recreational use of psychedelics came to be perceived as a threat to government and society, leading quickly to a outright ban which was as strict as it was irrational. Substances with arguably low potential for harm (both to the self and society) came to be classified alongside chemicals with a demonstrable high potential for misuse, such as heroin or cocaine, and medical uses and experiments with psychedelics were carelessly thrown into the same prohibition bin.

 

A psychedelic renaissance?

The recent erosion of the prohibitionist paradigm, partly instigated by organisations like the Beckley Foundation, has led to scientific interest in these substances resuming. In the last few years, we have observed an exponential increase of interest and clinical/pharmacological trials on the mechanisms underlying the action of these substances. Our studies, developed by the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme, have shed light on these matters, greatly advancing our understanding.

However, psychedelics remain a taboo in the public sphere and we know very little about public opinions on this topic, regardless of hints that their use is widespread. We know, for example, that in the USA, the generations that came after the ‘baby boomers’ did not shun psychedelic use. And the situation is similar in Europe, if we are to follow figures by the EMCDDA or the Global Drug Survey 2014.

 

What about Latin America?

In Latin America, there is very little information about the levels of psychedelic use. The Andean Community (CAN) has produced research on university students that suggests these substances are more prevalent than cocaine and other stimulants. But most survey instruments systematically exclude psychedelics, raising many questions about the behaviours, perceptions and knowledge on psychedelics and their therapeutic use in the region.

The Beckley Foundation, collaborating with the Latin American Observatory of Drug Policy and Public Opinion (Asuntos del Sur), is about to fill some of these gaps. We are pleased to announce that our survey module on psychedelics, developed in partnership with Prof. David Nutt and Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, has been selected by the OPDOP as one of the two that will be included in its annual survey.

The survey, one of the few in the region with a transnational focus, will be carried out in collaboration with local partners in eight Latin American countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, México y Uruguay). The other module that has been included on the survey, on crime and justice, has been designed by a team from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at the University of Birkbeck – London.

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