Laing on Ecstasy
Dr. R.D. Laing, who died recently, probably did more to challenge our understanding of the human psyche than anyone since Freud. His writings, teachings and actions were, by turns, revered and reviled. Here Peter Naysmith presents Laing's views on the drug MDMA
The interview from which this article sprang, took place in 1986. I'd visited Dr. Laing at his north London home while researching an article on MDMA for 'The Face' magazine ('Ecstasy' published October 1986). However, the man and the interview seemed to merit story in themselves, so I wrote this additional Ecstasy piece, uncommissioned, along with the original. Unfortunately, at that time, nobody was interested in Laing. Editors in 1986 tended to regard him as something of a lapsed 60's guru; unfairly in my opinion. The article here is the same, save for a few minor updates.
Perhaps it also serves as a small tribute to the man who threw such highly charged dust into the conventional face of psychiatry. A man arguably too inspirational for the time of his profession. I remember walking away from his home carrying that same impression; as if encountering a child-like form of genius struggling inside a stiff parental pen. His shuffling impatiently as he spoke, standing up suddenly, picking something off the mantlepiece, pacing around then sitting down again. Unsettled under the brunt of his own passionate beliefs. Perhaps he was placed into a profession too unsure of itself to accommodate such unruly behaviour... His early death robs us of ever really knowing.
"There's very little you can expect me to say about this subject without becoming party or privy to criminal offences ..."
The canny Scots eyes looked up over their glasses. Even to a radical in the field of psychiatry like Dr. Ronald Laing, some questions exceed the limits of invasion. Or can be made to appear so.
Because, of course, he knew he'd be committing no offences. The topic of indiscretion - the psychotropic drug MDMA or 'Ecstasy' - was fully legal when he'd tried it in California, 1984, (criminalised only in July 1985) and had gained no official therapeutic uses in Britain or Europe before or since.
However, mystifying reports of a new 'safe psychedelic,' or 'a love drug' circulating within blue collar professions demanded some experienced clarification. His remark was either a blanket attempt to fend off any further journalistic attacks on his reputation, or simply to re-emphasise the seriousness with which he regarded a scientific chemical now so tainted by wine-bar folklaw.
Either way such cageyness is an unfortunately frequent occurrence in many of those entrusted to distribute the public pharmacopoeia. Under the present social climate of drug hysteria, uncritical statements on substances listed under 'Class A' in the Misuse of Drugs Act are not encouraged.
But, whether the resulting barrage of bad publicity, as in the case of heroin, or silence, as in the case of Ecstasy (until 1988 in Britain), are effective as deterrents remains questionable. For those with a curiosity, one sided reportage provokes distrust- and distrust is a pernicious spur toward experimentation. Might Dr. Laing, whose voice still wears some credibility on both sides of the law, add a few cautious words of insight?
He shuffled in his seat - a man never quite reconciled to any social confinement - then suddenly his face relaxed, as if realising there's no point in withholding what you believe to be true. He took off his glasses and leaned forward. Yes, he would address the question.
"The first point to be made on this subject is, there's a lot of global research going on to come up with more and more useful, precise, and harmless chemicals.
The same tradition that 30 years ago produced Drinamyl (Purple Hearts)... then later Mandrax, both widely prescribed on the British National Health Service because they seemed to reduce agitation and listlessness among housewives, only to be withdrawn because of their side-effects or addictive qualities. Now we have the so called 'tranquillisers' like Largactil; the 'anti-psychoactive' drugs, Depixol, Stellazine, Haloperidol; 'anti-depressants' like Imipramine. I say 'so called' because the headings don't really refer to their effects. What scientists have always been looking for, as Arthur Koestler suggested, is a drug which is not a tranquilliser, an upper or downer but a stabiliser, just a help to keep one's balance throughout the day. The Californian scientist who synthesized MDMA in the 70s, Dr. Alexander Shulgin, thought he had found such a drug. All I can say is that within the context that I knew of its use, amongst very careful and responsible professionals and therapists in America ... all direct reports, including my own experience, were positive."
Laing had taken MDMA, or 'Adam' as he calls it, at Esalen, California's new-age headquarters, just as it hit its peak as an intriguing new mediator in couple counselling. In these settings it showed marked abilities in unlocking adult defensiveness and offering a temporary truce to warring spouses. But it also offered some less temporary dollar signs to those with an eye for market forces.
In the month before its U.S. ban, an estimated 30,000 doses were manufactured and sold in the Dallas region alone. It could be bought in bars, charged to any credit card, and came with a discount coupon for the next purchase. With such a rude finger held in its face, the Federal Drug Administratior responded with its heaviest ban, Schedule One. Their reasoning, not that people were having too much fun, but that Adam could just as easily swing the door away from Eden as toward it.
Subsequent reports from both the self-prescribed and American therapists vary from emotional breakthroughs to breakdowns, to heightened tactile awareness - hence the 'love drug' tag (questionable since it inhibits male orgasm), to disappointment even boredom. A subtle drug and, like all psychedelics, contingent on the mood of the recipient. And here Laing had his own Ecstasy tales.
" ... then I started to hear less favourable stories, like the California police computer picking up this drug in the blood of overdoses and suicide cases about people staging 'love-ins' in Holiday Inns; that the margin between a dangerous overdose - to life that is - and recommended amounts, is considerably less than with alcohol, barbiturates, or aspirin. The trouble is, neither myself nor anyone can make a general statement about its dangers because there are almost no statistics published."
Unfortunately for the psychiatrist hoping for new, prescribable drugs, it's the 'overdose' effect sought by the buying public that has ruined its chances The American central government had to act, but to many they chose over-kill.
Now its Schedule One classification declares it of 'no medical use' and severely restricts research authorisations. Ironically, self-prescription had ruined the supervised application.
"It's my opinion that government agencies, instead of slapping a total bar on this drug should explore it like they do others. It's a subtle chemical. The effects of 50 mgms on me would be nothing at all, or rather I might just feel allright. Rather smooth and open hearted not soggy, sentimental or stupid. Now, it could be used in that way as, say, a pi limited to 10 mgms and not anything that is called a 'trip' (100/200 mgms) - which from that perspective, is already an overdose - and if it passes the exacting filter as a prescribable drug, there's definitely a place for it. It's a pity to see being cut out like that."
But the only exacting tests at the moment are in the Acid House parties and Professional 'New Age' living room undertaken by those able to pick up the pill's œ8 to œ25 premium. And while such experimentation spreads influence only to unofficial bodies, conversation with existential psychiatrist inevitably turns the question of human curiosity itself. Research within its own secret laboratory beyond the reach of legislation. Why the need for so many love potions? How deluded can one be in the throes of pleasure, or even "Ecstasy"? Dr. Laing nods, looking as if this should have been asked for sooner.
"Well ... most of us live within a sort of crypto-delusional structure as to our needs; we haven't quite got it right about love and loving and what other people feel about us ... which is part of the popularity of this drug. It changes your feeling. But this can also be a danger. Its said as a joke, if you take Adam with your girlfriend, you shouldn't get married for six weeks. Under its influence you'd be unwise to make any decisions there and then about future emotional ways of living. Just as it would be foolish for any of us to make such decisions over say ." he thought for a second then a slightly guilty Glaswegian smile, " ... a bottle of whiskey."
Peter Nasmyth is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on MDMA use.