The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972

Chapter 66. Alternatives to the drug experience

Staff members of the indigenous institutions just described are concerned with the roles that drugs play in the lives of youth drug scene participants, and the human needs that drugs satisfy. Two roles and needs are of particular significance. Drugs are used, on-the-scene observers quite generally report, for mood-altering and for achieving altered states of consciousness. As several chapters in this Report have demonstrated, Homo sapiens over the centuries has employed drugs to attain those effects. Recently, some observers-and some drug users-have considered a provocative question: can other methods be found to alter moods and to achieve altered states of consciousness-methods not dependent upon drugs?

Dr. Vincent Nowlis, psychologist at the University of Rochester, provides one thoughtful answer.. A change in mood, he points out, is a "change in the way in which the individual is disposed to feel, to think, to evaluate, and to behave.... A drug which alters mood alters the self. . . . Man is frequently dissatisfied with his present self, with the current status of his mood, and seeks to change this mood-at least temporarily." 1

This normal, natural, human desire to alter mood from time to time, Dr. Nowlis continues, is not limited to dnig users, "A search through the literature shows that throughout history man has found many ways to change mood-through physical exercise, spiritual exercise, prayer, sex, diet, health nostrums, rest, recreation, bathing, massage, travel, rehabilitation, active and passive participation in all art forms, commercial entertainment, rituals, games, and drugs." 2 Television is perhaps the mood changing nostrum in most common use today.

Much the same, Dr. Nowlis adds, is true of the common human desire -among abstainers as well as drug users-to achieve altered states of consciousness:

There are gradations of the intensity of such states and in the amount of behavior and experience which is affected. Some trance states are defined negatively, as in highway hypnosis, when you suddenly realize even though you are driving the car you seem to have paid no attention to the highway or thruway for the preceding 50 miles and you don't know whether you are now between Rochester and Syracuse or Rochester and Buffalo. Or as in playing the piano, you suddenly realize that you have been aware neither of the printed notes nor of the sounds you have been producing for the preceding 5 or 10 minutes, but no one listening to you has been aware that you were in a trance. Most trance states are more positively defined, in terms of the presence of some phenomena. In the hypnogogic state, for example, just before failing asleep, strange, symbolic images may appear, like amoebae, or towering figures; or in the break-off phenomenon, you suddenly find yourself above your bed or outside your airplane looking at yourself there in the bed or there in the plane. Recent studies by Shor, As, Lee, and others find that these and other trance-like phenomena occur normally and spontaneously in a majority of adolescent and adult Americans, sometimes to the level of intensity which Maslow calls a peak experience or even to the very intense level called ecstasy. Here the person reports that be found himself "completely immersed in nature or art and had a feeling of awe, inspiration and grandeur sweep over" him and felt that his whole state of consciousness was somehow altered. Some of the more common circumstances in which these intense experiences occur spontaneously involve love, religion, the contemplation of art, landscape, music, moving colored lights, deep involvement in cooperating with others, and other conditions leading to strong motivation or a high level of concentration.

In other words, spontaneous trances or trips (without drugs) are not rare and are psychologically normal in many Americans.:

The falling-in-love experience, the ecstasy of sexual fulfillment, and the mystical religious experience are familiar examples of such "altered states of consciousness." Dr. Andrew T. Weil adds that in his opinion this desire to alter consciousness is an innate psychological drive arising out of the neurological structure of the human brain. Strong evidence for this idea comes from observations of very young children, who regularly use techniques of consciousness alteration on themselves and each other when they think no adults are watching them. These methods include whirling until vertigo and collapse ensue, hyperventilating and.. . . fainting. Such practices appear to be universal, irrespective of culture, and present at ages when social conditioning is unlikely to be an important influence (in two and three years olds, for example). Psvchiatrists have paid little attention to these activities of all children. Freud noted them and called them "sexual equivalents," which -they may be, although that formulation is not -,,cry useful.4

Adults offer children many mood-altering and consciousness-altering trips," of course-ranging from the cradle, the merry-go-round, the swing, and the teeter-totter to the roller coaster and the ski slope. Anyone who has watched a four-year-old on a swing can see for himself the delight produced by consciousness alteration. 'Me child is experiencing a "high."

"Until a few years ago," Dr. Weil adds, "most children in our society who wanted to continue [in adolescence] to indulge in these states were content to use alcohol, the one intoxicant we make available legally. Now, large numbers of young people are seeking chemical alterations of consciousness by means of a variety of illegal and medically disapproved drugs." To understand this change, society must "listen to what many drug users, themselves, say: they say they choose illegal drugs over alcohol in order to get better highs." 5 And, we might add, fewer fights, fewer accidents, less devastating hangovers.

However, Dr. Weil continues:

Most societies, like our own, are uncomfortable about having people go off into trances, mystic raptures, and hallucinatory intoxications. Indeed, the reason we have laws against possession of drugs in the first place is to discourage people from getting high. But innate, neuropsychological drives cannot be banned by legislation. They will be satisfied at anv cost. And the cost in our country is very great: by tr ing to deny young people these important experiences, we maximize the probability that they will obtain them in negative ways-that is, in ways harmful to themselves and to society.6

At youth drug centers throughout Western civilization, the obvious moral of all this is being put to practical use. From San Francisco and Vancouver to London and Amsterdam, innovative institutions serving youthful drug users have begun to introduce nonchemical ways of "turning on" or "getting high"-nonchemical routes to altered states of consciousness. Here are a few:

Sensitivity training

Encounter therapy

Zen Buddhism


Transcendental meditation


Hypnosis and self-hypnosis


One youth drug center is even contemplating the introduction of a program of parachute-jumping.

Ordinary religious services appear to have little appeal in this connection. But special services stressing ritual, mystical insight, and the emotional aspects of religion-"religious highs"-attract large audiences in the youth drug centers. The Eastern religions at first appeared to have the greatest appeal; but recent reports suggest that esoteric and fundamentalist forms of Christianity such as Jehovah's Witnesses are also attracting some youthful drug users. In the Jewish tradition, a return to the Chassidic mode of "singing and dancing God's ecstasy" is enjoying a revival; and the Catholic Mass has on occasion been similarly adapted to the ecstatic goal. Long-haired denizens of the youth drug scene who have turned from drugs to Christianity became numerous enough by the early 1970s to earn a distinctive title-Jesus freaks." These nonchemical routes to mood altering and to altered states of consciousness, of course, may bring their own problems.

These and other "alternatives to the drug experience" are gaining favor among young people primarily because they are superior to drugs, not because they are safer than drugs. An experienced drug user, Dr. Weil points out, "often finds that some form of meditation more effectively satisfies his desire to get high. One sees a great many drug takers give up drugs for meditation, but one does not see any meditators give up meditation for drugs." I (Italics supplied.) "Once you have learned from a drug what being high really is, you can begin to reproduce it without the drug; all persons who accomplish this feat testify that the non-drug high is superior." 11

Canada's Le Dain Commission places similar emphasis on alternatives to the drug experience as a superior form of high: "One student [witness] said that he did not feel any desire for drugs for two weeks when he was on a canoe trip in the Canadian north.9

Dr. Allan Y. Cohen reported in 1969:

Perhaps the most understressed objective in any public health [drug] campaign is the provision of alternatives. In a sense, we have been hampered by taking a defensive posture, trying to eradicate drug abuse without providing for those opportunities which could reduce the desire for drugs. . . . It might be extremely wise to reorient our public health approach in home, school, and community so that we put special priority on developing and implementing nonchemical alternatives to the search for meaningful interpersonal relationships, enduring values, and inner experience. . . . Whenever attention is redirected to this kind of orientation, viable prospects begin to pop into view. Whether it involves broad curriculum changes, opportunities for political and social involvement, study in practical mysticism growth-oriented individual and group counseling or whatever, the fact is that young people will cease using drugs if they are provided with some better nonchemical technique."10

At a board meeting of one crisis intervention center visited in the course of research for this Report, the evening's discussion was focused primarily on a drive to improve the local ecology and to curb pollution. just why an institution set up to face "the drug menace" should wander off on an ecological tangent gradually became apparent: participation in this hot local political issue, which was raising tempers all over town, was itself a mood-altering and consciousness-altering "alternative to the drug experience." It was giving these young people a sense of commitment to something other than drugs.

A detailed review of the many possible alternatives to the drug experience falls outside the scope of this Report. But a word about their success is in order.

Several years ago, Dr. Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School and Thorndike Memorial Laboratory, Boston City Hospital, trained monkeys to control their own blood pressure, and wondered whether a technique known as transcendental meditation might not similarly lower the blood pressure of humans. To find out, he brought into the laboratory twenty young male volunteers aged twenty-one to thirty-eight, all of whom practiced this techniques simple routine of sitting quietly and pondering in a prescribed manner for fifteen or twenty minutes twice a day. In talking with these men about their drug use, Dr. Benson turned up facts so astounding that he reported them in a 1969 letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Nineteen of the twenty volunteers told Dr. Benson that they had used drugs-marijuana, barbiturates, LSD, amphetamines, and in several cases heroin-before taking up transcendental meditation. Since they had begun meditating, however, "all [nineteen] reported that they no longer took these drugs because drug-induced feelings had become exceedingly distasteful as compared to those experiences during the practice of transcendental meditation." Perhaps, he added, "transcendental meditation should be explored prospectively by others ... primarily interested in the alleviation of drug abuse." 11

In the same year a graduate student in psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, Tbomas Winquist, prepared a report entitled The Effect of the Regular Practice of Transcendental Meditation on Students Involved in the Regular Use of Hallucinogenic and "Hard' Drugs. Winquist questioned 484 students ' who had been practicing transcendental meditation regularly for a minimum of three consecutive months. Out of the 484, he identified 143 (30 percent) who had been regular drug users and who reported the following changes in their drug use following their adoption of transcendental meditation: 12

* None of the subjects was addicted to heroin or opium.

When asked why they gave up drugs or decreased their use, 115 of the subjects gave the following answers: 13

Participants were quoted as making remarks such as these: 14 "Drugs have naturally fallen by. I didn't try to stop-after awhile I just found myself not taking them anymore."

"Life after meditation finally became satisfying. I no longer needed drugs."

"Because all aspects of my life have become better; in school, at work, my inner personal life--everything."

Back at Harvard, meanwhile, Dr. Benson launched a study on an even larger scale. He began with 1,862 practitioners of transcendental meditation, all of whom had meditated daily for three months or longer; the average length of time they had been practicing daily meditation was about twenty months. In this population, marijuana smoking declined from 78.3 percent before entering meditation to 26.9 percent after meditating from four to nine months, and to 12.2 percent after twenty-two or more months of meditation. Moreover, only one subject who had meditated for twenty-two or more months reported that he was still smoking marijuana daily, as compared with 417 (22.4 percent) who reported smoking marijuana daily before entering transcendental meditation."'

The LSD results were similar. In the sample as a whole, 48.3 percent reported having used LSD; among those who had meditated for twenty-two or more months only 3 percent were still using LSD. For the sample as a whole, 132 subjects (7.1 percent) reported having used LSD once a week or-oftener before entering transcendental meditation; none of those who had meditated for more than twenty-two months was using LSD that frequently. Dr. Benson reported his findings in November 1970 at a University of Michigan International Symposium on Drug Abuse.

These studies are subject to a number of qualifications.

First, the participants in both the Winquist and Benson studies were mostly college students or ex-students; the effects on other groups have not been similarly studied.

Second, the participants in both studies were self-selected. They were the students attracted to transcendental meditation. The remarkable results cannot be generalized to apply to drug users who are not voluntarily attracted to transcendental meditation.

Third, applicants were expected to refrain from drug use for fifteen days before entering a transcendental meditation program; many confirmed drug users (and all or almost all addicts) are no doubt screened out of the program by this condition.

Fourth, both studies were limited to participants who continued to practice transcendental meditation. How many dropped out of transcendental meditation instead of dropping out of drugs is not reported.

Fifth, both studies lacked controls. As the Benson study itself points out, the number of similar college students who formerly used drugs and who dropped out of the drug scene during the same period without embracing transcendental meditation is not known.

Finally, neither the Winquist nor the Benson study establishes the superiority of transcendental meditation as compared with other alternatives to drug use. Transcendental meditation happens to be the only alternative for which such statistics are available. Perhaps sensitivity training, or Yoga, or Zen, or other alternatives are even more effective; no one knows.

It should further be noted that young people use drugs-just as their elders use drugs-in order to achieve such specific effects as relief from anxiety, or from boredom, or from depression, or, in many cases, just for fun or for "kicks." An alternative to the drug experience is most likely to be effective if it fulfills the same need for which the drug was previously used.

Despite their limitations, the Winquist and Benson studies are still landmarks in consideration of the youth drug scene. They indicate how fragile is the tie that binds many marijuana smokers to their joints and many LSD users to their acid.

At youth drug centers across the country, and especially in comprehensive centers, these and other alternatives to the chemical high and to the chemical induction of altered states of consciousness are currently being offered, and accepted. In the course of research for this Report, young people were encountered in drug centers from Vancouver's Fourth Avenue to Amsterdam's Paradiso who sat "stoned on life" while those around them sat stoned on marijuana or LSD. They looked and dressed like drug users and spent their time in drug centers with drug users-but their highs came neither from a pharmacy nor from a "pusher."

Meanwhile, in a few high schools and other agencies, especially in California, educators and others who have seen the results achieved by alternatives to the drug experience have begun to ask what is obviously the next question:

Why should illicit drug use be required as a ticket of admission to the achievement of nondrug "highs" and to nondrug approaches to altered states of consciousness? Why should not schools and other agencies make sensitivity training, encounter therapy, nature study, transcendental meditation, skiing, enjoyment of music, enjoyment of art, and other nonchemical highs available before students migrate, physically or internally, to the country's Haight-Ashburys?

In a growing number of schools, churches, and other agencies, such programs have been instituted. It is too early to evaluate them. But they are surely more promising than traditional approaches to prevention-the imprisonment of drug users, dire (and incredible) warnings against the hazards of drug use, and the other futile and counterproductive measures described at length throughout the earlier chapters of this Report.

Many thoughtful observers within the youth drug scene, however, view alternatives to the drug experience, like the drug experience itself, as at best mere palliatives. The alternatives can no doubt prove enormously helpful in particular cases. They may be necessary in many communities. But the ultimate goal, perhaps, should be a way of life free of dependence on alternatives to the drug experience as well as free of dependence on drugs.

A satisfying way of life is thus the ultimate prescription, and the immediate goal should be improvements in the quality of life-a topic that falls outside the scope of this Consumers Union Report.