Drugs & the Internet: Cyberdellic (R)evolution

Science & Technology — POSTED BY Charlotte Walsh on February 4, 2010 at 1:25 pm

This is a transcript of a talk by Charlotte Walsh at Retox Seminar earlier this month:

Drugs & the Internet are inextricably and symbiotically entwined. Indeed, the very origins of the Internet are bound up with the exuberant experimentation with psychedelic drugs that took place in Silicon Valley from the 1960s onwards. The use of both psychedelic drugs and the Internet can be conceptualized as attempts to augment human capacity, as technologies through which minds can be opened and society reformed.

As testament to the significance of psychedelic drug use amongst many of the Silicon Valley pioneers, Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers, maintains that taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he has ever done. Jobs is far from being alone in attesting that LSD can help human thought processing, particularly in tackling the challenges of computing: ‘Experienced and intelligent trippers are often characterized by a fluid sense of perception, and a sensitivity to … “The pattern that connects” – just the kind of mental gymnastics that come in handy when you’re crafting the giddy complexities of information space’ (Davis, 1998: 170). The Internet is a system with the hippies’ fingerprints all over it, with the psychedelicized counterculture’s scorn for centralized authority providing the philosophical foundations of the leaderless Internet.

Just as drugs have helped to propagate computers, so computers have helped to promulgate drugs. Indeed, no sooner had ARPAnet – the precursor to the Internet – been invented, than it was co-opted in the service of drug commerce by Stanford students with their MIT counterparts: ‘Before Amazon, before eBay, the seminal act of e-commerce was a drug deal. The students used the network to quietly arrange the sale of an undetermined amount of marijuana’ (Markoff, 2005: 109). This trade was the first of many, as the Internet is a medium through which ‘white’, ‘grey’ and ‘black’ drug markets flourish, with the boundaries between these markets shifting and amorphous, fluid and arbitrary.

The ‘white’ market in psychoactive substances that are legally available in the West – alcohol and tobacco – turns grey, as the restrictions on their advertisement, such as marketeering targeted at the young, seemingly dissolve online. When it comes to taking advantage of the advertising opportunities presented by new media, the alcohol industry is no slouch: this is a world, after all, where alcopops have Facebook entries, along with signed-up friends.

There also exists a burgeoning grey market in drugs sold through online pharmacies, a smattering of which are legitimate, whilst the rest operate without the bother of genuine prescriptions, those magic pieces of paper that transubstantiate the molecule from drug to medicine. The Internet creates a global village, leaving people free to obtain ‘prescription’ medicines from countries with markedly different drug laws. Cyberpharmacists are drug dealers for the Internet age, supplying pharmaceutical, recreational and ‘lifestyle’ drugs.

The driver behind this latter, the lifestyle drug market, seems to be a reluctance to accept not having the sexual prowess of the most virile person on the planet, not being as happy as the most joyous individual, nor as thin as Cheryl from Girls Aloud. Thus, drugs developed for impotence transmogrify into pills for sexual enhancement, Prozac is swallowed by people hoping for a smoother come down from Ecstasy, whilst Ritalin is diverted to become an appetite suppressant. Paradoxically, potentially lethal growth hormones are sold as the fountain of youth, the key to longevity. Whilst Google acts as an ‘external memory prosthesis’ (Pesce as quoted in Sirius, 2006: 218), drugs that enhance our memories, developed to tackle Alzheimers, bleed into enhancing cognition in the healthy: ‘[P]sychoactive drugs can be revisioned as simply another technology for change, as citizens of the postmodern world reject one of life’s “givens” after another’ (Lenson, 1995: 187). Interestingly, the drug-taking here is often more about conformity than it is rebellion.

Probably the most dangerous aspect of the online pharmaceutical trade is the understandable yet insidious assumption – the result of a life-time’s indoctrination with false distinctions – that prescription drugs (even when purchased off-label) are inherently safer than street drugs: in reality, of course, ‘the risk for overdose and dependence derives from the potency of the drug, the mindset of the person using it, and the environment in which they are ingesting – not the source of the drug or its brand name’ (Harvard Law School, 2006: 13).

So-called ‘legal highs’ are also ostensibly a branch of the online ‘white’ market in drugs, though they, too, have a tendency to morph into the ‘grey’. The substances sold as ‘legal highs’ are unregulated by default rather than design, through an inability of the would-be prohibitionists to keep up with the countless psychoactive substances, whether ‘natural’, ‘synthesized’, or somewhere in between. Even discounting human intervention, the planet pushes out psychedelics in a plethora of different forms, too multitudinous to be swept under the purview of prohibition.

Plants previously ingested by indigenous tribes in remote locations are being gathered up by the long tentacles of the Internet, delivered globally in vacuum-packed parcels. Illustrative of this phenomenon is ayahuasca, a brew traditionally used in shamanic rituals along the Amazon, made from combining two plants: whilst the primary psychoactive constituent – DMT – is a Class A drug in the UK, the relevant plants themselves are not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act and are widely sold through online ‘legal high’ shops.

What are the consequences of these vines having been rent from the ritual, of the fact that anyone with Internet access can now become their own shaman? Despite ayahuasca losing its meaning as a ‘diagnostic tool and force for healing’ as it travels out of the Amazon along the web, it still does not fit easily into established Occidental paradigms of drug use; indeed, the radical shifts in world-view frequently precipitated by drinking the brew pose ‘a challenge to modern Western drug policies and laws, which are premised on a rationalist/positivist ontology that constructs the psychoactive substances essentially as chemicals and their effects as simply mechanistic’ (Tupper, 2008: 300).

Experience has shown that clamping down on one type of ‘legal high’ achieves little save to stimulate interest in replacements. As has been poetically pointed out, ‘our law is a machine law, a gridwork, clockwork law, and it is obviously unable to contain the fluidity of the organic’ (Wilson, 1996).

It is not just organic substances that the law seems unable to contain: ‘Advances in technology that enable tiny changes to be made to the molecular structure of substances … have blurred the distinction between licit and illicit manufacture’ (INCB, 2009: 10). This has led to the creation of an online ‘grey’ market in euphemistically named ‘research chemicals’, hallucinogenic analogues that skate the perimeters of legality, due to their similarities to (but essential differences from) regulated substances. As the US Drug Enforcement Agency have commented, ‘the formulation of analogues is like a drug dealer’s magic trick meant to fool law enforcement’ (DEA, 2004).

Meant to, and, indeed, sometimes doing exactly that, with some such websites serving thousands of customers and clandestine chemists racking up fortunes over prolonged periods before being discovered. As with organic substances, would-be prohibitors can be conceptualised as doing little more than chasing their tails here: tweaking the chemical compound – with the aid of computers – produces a drug different enough to evade the regulations, and on it goes, ad infinitum. Alongside being fruitless, this rigmarole of prohibition is potentially dangerous: it results in people using novel substances about which little is known.

There is also a thriving online market that is more incontrovertibly ‘black’. Drug forums transform into street corners, and you can even access a helpful ‘crack dealer locator service’ online: ‘the fluidity of cyberspace is ideally suited for illicit drug transactions’ (Stetina et al, 2008) and ‘the new trade is thriving … filling up the stash boxes of users who want the same convenience buying their weed that they have purchasing books and CDs at Amazon’ (Goldberg, 1999). Indeed, an interesting cyber-twist in the tale is that – just as with Amazon – the Internet fosters communities of users who rate drug dealers and their performance online. Will the sheer force of consumer demand, in combination with the ‘unpoliceability’ of the Internet, be the unmaking of global prohibition?

Perhaps, but it is arguably the use of the web as an information source that may offer the greatest challenge to the paradigm of prohibition. There is a plethora of incredibly diverse drug information websites, showing the many what only the few used to know: namely, that portals to the psychedelic state are ubiquitous, found in the most unlikely to the most mundane of places. All it takes is the click of a mouse to find directions to the best sites for fungi-foraging, advice regarding which ornamental cacti to chow down on from the local garden centre, and instructions on how to extract psychedelic milk from toads. Drug prohibitionists could no more seal these egresses than harvest the moon.

One of the most respected online drug information sources – particularly amongst psychedelic drug users – is Erowid: this site is the first port of call for most psychonauts before they embark on an adventure with a new substance.  Erowid is famous for its ‘trip reports’: information imparted horizontally from fellow travelers with direct experience is accorded far greater weight than the (often moralistic) dry pronouncements on drug effects handed down vertically from on-high. A participatory culture, where users generate their own content, is creating a collective intelligence about drugs, far superior to the propaganda of yesteryear. It is unsurprising that an approach to imparting knowledge that presents people with as full a picture as possible, letting them balance pleasures against risks, has greater successes. The human survival instinct is strong: by definition, hedonists truly love life and want to continue living it.

Drugs themselves are reconstituted online. To illustrate, rather than being viewed as a menace to society, drugs might be constructed as religious sacraments or as therapeutics. In this latter category, the work of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is paramount: on their website psychedelic drugs are (re)configured as psychotherapeutic tools. MAPS sponsor MDMA assisted psychotherapy in the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder in, for instance, victims of sexual trauma, with promising results. This offers an alternative construction of MDMA, alongside liquifying the boundaries between controlled drugs and therapeutics.

Further, the essential contributions that psychedelics can make more broadly in society are regularly detailed in MAPS’s online journal. A recent such missive had the relationship between psychedelics and ecology as its overarching theme: ‘The essence of the mystical experience is a sense of unity woven within the multiplicity … This common bond can generate respect and appreciation for the environment, for caretaking and wonder’ (Doblin, 2009: 2). Given the looming ecological crisis, there is a strong argument that anything which helps reveal humanity’s essential inner-connectedness with our environment should be embraced rather than sanctioned.

As well as acting as a conduit for information, the Internet provides a sense of community that can be difficult to find offline, particularly for those involved in relatively obscure psychedelic drug use and/or domiciled in remote locations. Whilst old-style communities could be experienced as stifling, virtual commune-ities of like-minded souls with shared ideals can form. This virtual haven has many names, one of which is the entheosphere, a mind-space concerned with entheogens, psychedelic drugs that are ingested with a view to consciousness expansion, to spiritual enlightenment.

Immediately a shift in language is apparent, reflecting the fact that the entheosphere allows for alternative discourses on drugs and the meanings ascribed to them. In being given a voice, drug-takers have exposed the fallacy that they are not sufficiently drug aware, that, if they only knew the facts, they would stop. Rather, many know exactly what it is that they are getting themselves into; in short, the decision to expand one’s consciousness is likely to be a conscious choice.

In this alternative discourse … ‘[d]rugs can take one closer to truth, can reveal, through hedonistic self-exploration, the real, authentic self, buried beneath capitalism and social convention’ (Moore, 2007: 357). Drug-takers can construct their own identities, after many years of being silenced whilst others weaved negative depictions around them. What is revealed is that psychedelic culture is about so much more than the drugs, which are best understood as catalysts to alternative states of consciousness: the insights, life-style changes, art-works and music generated by such ontological shifts create an entire way of life, both within and beyond the entheosphere.

To conclude, the Internet is a bottom-up technology, heralding a new way of doing things, and a new world, where top-down systems of regulation – such as prohibition – are losing their power. Birthed as a military technology, will the Internet bring an end to the ‘War on (Some People who use Some) Drugs’? This possibility has not gone unnoticed, with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, referring to the Internet as a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ (UNODC, 2009: 3). Whilst this organization still clings to the belief that this time-bomb can be defused by smothering it with cyber controls, an alternative reading sees the Internet as the death knell of global prohibition. The Internet is as beautifully and anarchically impossible to govern as psychedelic drug use itself, with both throwing up similar questions about the acceptable reach of State control and concomitant restrictions on cognitive liberty:

‘[The] notion of cognitive liberty … says that you own your own body, you own your own brain, you have freedom of thought – so why don’t we have the legal right to use psychedelics? These are the same issues that are occurring in technology. What represents our freedom? What represents what the government is allowed to regulate, and for what reason?’ (Herbert as quoted in Reiman, 2008: 19-20).

The dismantlement of global prohibition is likely to be just one of many breakthroughs precipitated by this technology, with the possibility that it may even have implications for human evolution itself. Just as psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna saw plant-based hallucinogens as having been pivotal in the development of anthropoid awareness in the past, so the Internet looks set to generate exponential expansions of human consciousness in the future. Consciousness can be envisioned as an emergent property of neurons chattering, the Internet as an emergent property of our collective consciousness, and global consciousness as an emergent property of the Internet. The Internet is engendering global consciousness through bringing us together as a swarm of humans: just as bees use ‘waggle dances’ to communicate information, so the human swarm has the Internet via which to share memes and dreams. The need for a global consciousness has never been greater than in our current (changing) climate.


DEA (2004) ‘DEA Announces Arrests of Website Operators Selling Illegal Designer Drugs’, News Release, 22nd July, URL (consulted June 2009): http://www.usdoj.gov/dea/pubs/pressrel/ pr072204.html.

Davis, E. (1998) Techgnosis. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Doblin, R. (2009) ‘From the Desk of Rick Doblin PhD’ MAPS Bulletin XIX(1): 2.

Goldberg, M. (1999) ‘World. Wide. Weed.’ Metro, July 22nd, URL (consulted June 2009): http://www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/07.22.99/cover/ marijuana-9929.html.

Harvard Law School (2006) The Internet and Adolescent Non-Medical Use of Prescription Drugs, URL (consulted June, 2009): http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/criminal-justice/kinsnida.pdf.

INCB (2009a) Report of the International Narcotics Control Board for 2008. New York: United Nations.

Lenson, D. (1995) On Drugs. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Markoff, J. (2005) What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. London: Penguin Books.

Moore, D. (2007) ‘Erasing Pleasure from Public Discourse on Illicit Drugs: On the Creation and Reproduction of an Absence’ International Journal of Drug Policy 19(5): 353-358.

Reiman, L. (2008) ‘An Interview with Kevin Herbert’ MAPS Bulletin XVIII(1) 19-21.

Sirius, R. U. (2006) True Mutations. California: Pollinator Press.

Stetina, B. U., Jagsch, R., Schramel, C., Maman, T. L., and Kryspin-Exner, I. (2008) ‘Exploring Hidden Populations: Recreational Drug Users’ Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace 2(1): article 1, URL (consulted June 2009):  http://cyberpsychology.eu/view.php?cisloclanku=2008060201&article=1.

Tupper, K. (2008) ‘The Globalization of Ayahuasca: Harm Reduction or Benefit Maximization?’ International Journal of Drug Policy 19: 297-303.

UNODC (2009) World Drug Report 2009. New York: United Nations.

Wilson, P. (1996) ‘Cybernetics and Entheogenics: From Cyberspace to Neurospace’, paper presented at ‘Next Five Minutes’ Conference, Amsterdam, January, URL (consulted June 2009): http:// www.hermetic.com/bey/pw-neurospc.html.12

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