Norway perhaps bringing back LSD and other psychedelic drugs as legal

Pal-Orjan Johansen, right, a Norwegian researcher, and his wife, Teri Krebs, founders of EmmaSofia, the psychedelics advocacy group, with their children in Oslo, Norway.image

Pal-Orjan Johansen, right, a Norwegian researcher, and his wife, Teri Krebs, founders of EmmaSofia, the psychedelics advocacy group, with their children in Oslo, Norway. Photo: New York Times

Oslo, Norway: In a country so wary of drug abuse that it limits the sale of aspirin, Pal-Orjan Johansen, a Norwegian researcher, is pushing what would seem a doomed cause: the rehabilitation of LSD.

It matters little to him that the psychedelic drug has been banned here and around the world for more than 40 years. Mr Johansen pitches his effort as a battle for human rights and good health.

Advocates tap into Norway’s long tradition of nature-worshiping shamans and Vikings.

In fact, he also wants to manufacture MDMA and psilocybin, the active ingredients in two other prohibited substances, ecstasy and magic mushrooms.

pleasure receptors in the brain image

Pleasure receptors in the brain

All of that might seem quixotic at best, if only Mr Johansen and EmmaSofia​, the psychedelics advocacy group he founded with his American-born wife and fellow scientist, Teri Krebs​, had not already won some supporters, including a retired Norwegian Supreme Court judge who serves as their legal adviser.

The group stands in the vanguard of a global movement now pushing to revise drug policies set in the 1970s. That it has gained traction in a country so committed to controlling drug use shows how much old orthodoxies have crumbled.

The Norwegian group wants not only to stir discussion about prohibited drugs, but also to manufacture them, in part, it argues, to guarantee they are safe.

“I helped myself with psychedelics and want others to have the same opportunity without the risk of arrest,” said Mr Johansen, 42, a researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. He said, as a young man, he defeated an alcohol problem, a smoking habit, post-traumatic stress and depression by taking psilocybin and MDMA.

But even politicians who support the cause, all of them quietly, caution that it will be a long struggle.

Ketil Lund, 75, the retired Supreme Court justice who advises EmmaSofia on its legal strategy, said he had never used psychedelic drugs and had no interest in trying them. But, he said, he supported Mr Johansen’s campaign as part of a “bigger struggle” against anti-drug policies in the West that he described as “an absolute failure”.

“The present narcotics policy in the West has so many detrimental effects,” he said. “These have to be balanced against detrimental effects of the drugs themselves.”

EmmaSofia has nonetheless succeeded in making its cause an issue, with Mr Johansen appearing in debates on NRK, the state broadcaster, and in a lengthy profile in a leading news magazine.

Eager to sidestep the tight rules in Norway, Mr Johansen and his supporters tap into a more freewheeling side of this button-down Nordic nation and point to a long tradition of nature-worshiping shamans, particularly among Norway’s indigenous Sami people.

Also lending a hand are the Vikings, who, at least according to fans of psychedelic drugs, ate hallucinogenic mushrooms to pep them up before battle.

Cato Nystad, a 39-year-old drum maker, EmmaSofia supporter and organiser of traditional ceremonies that involve psychedelic potions, said many Norwegians wanted to get in touch with their wilder, more spiritual sides.

Steinar Madsen, the medical director of the Norwegian Medicines Agency, said he had no objection in principle to what he called EmmaSofia’s “interesting project”, but cautioned that “it is a very long shot”.

He scoffed at the argument that Norway needs to reconnect with its shamanistic past. “I don’t believe this stuff,” he said, adding that “drugs were not part of this tradition in Norway.”

Ina Roll Spinnangr, a Liberal Party politician who supports a more relaxed policy on drugs, said the best way to bring about change was not to attack Norway’s paternalistic government, but to turn it on its head.

“You have to use a nanny argument: the government needs to take control and regulate the market, instead of leaving it to criminals,” she said. “The argument that you decide yourself what you put in your own body will never work in Norway.”

As a result, she added, “I would never use the word ‘legalise’, but talk instead about regulating, not liberalising.”

The taboo in the West on psychedelics, however, is deeply entrenched – a legacy of government campaigns against drug use and a long backlash against the counter-culture of the 1960s, when Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor and zealous promoter of LSD, urged Americans to “turn on, tune in and drop out”.

“LSD terrifies governments; it is their ultimate fear, because it changes the way people look at the world,” said David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London. He was fired in 2009 as the British government’s drug policy adviser after he told a radio interviewer that alcohol was far more harmful than LSD and other psychedelics.

He praised EmmaSofia and other groups for helping to lift the stigma and fear long attached to psychedelics, adding “there has definitely been a renaissance” of medical research in recent years after decades of science-killing “paranoia and censorship” based on scare stories about psychedelics that fed public panic.

“We are not in the 1960s any more and have moved on,” Mr Johansen, a clinical psychologist, said. “This is a question of basic human rights.”

LSD, which was first synthesised in a Swiss pharmaceuticals laboratory in 1938, and MDMA, which was patented in 1914, won wide acceptance in Europe and the United States in the middle of the last century when they showed early promise against alcoholism and other maladies.

But initial euphoria over their medical use was then swamped by deep alarm as recreational use of psychedelics surged, leading to a cascade of horror stories in the news media.

The US banned LSD in 1970. A year later, the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances classified LSD and MDMA as “Schedule I” drugs, those that pose a serious threat to public health.

The US convention banned their use “except for scientific and very limited medical purposes by duly authorised persons”. It also exempted psychedelics contained in plants “used by certain small, clearly determined groups in magical or religious rites”.

Mr Johansen said the dangers connected with psychedelic drugs had been exaggerated by stories that did not take into account probability. “Everything carries a risk. If you walk in a forest, a tree may fall on your head, but does this mean you should never go in the woods?”

Dr Madsen, of the Norwegian Medicines Agency, conceded there “are a lot of myths” about psychedelic drugs, such as claims that “if you use LSD, you will jump from the roof”.

All the same, he sees no quick way around a thicket of laws and strict regulations on their use. “Everyone sees we have to be very careful with these drugs,” he said. “I don’t think the time is ripe.”

New York Times


Henry Sapiecha

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