A future with legal recreational drugs

"In my interview with Paul (late-teens, university student), he described Ecstasy as a ‘futuristic drug’ because it provides, in an easily consumable form, effects that are often desired in social situations—energy, openness, and calmness. He felt that his generation had grown up taking pills as the quick-fix answer to physical sickness and that this pattern may now be extending to other areas of life, in this case, sociality and pleasure."

The above quote is from Anna Olsen’s paper Consuming e: Ecstasy use and contemporary social life published in 2009. Based in Canberra, Australia, her paper relays personal experiences from two people who have used the drug ecstasy. In talking with the participants about their experiences and listening to their personal values, ecstasy was described as giving value to social relations. The drug often connotes "ideologies about vitality, leisure, and the importance of being social and energetic without impinging on one's other social responsibilities."

Not only has ecstasy gained more attention and use in the millennial generation, but many recreational drugs that are deemed “illicit” are becoming more common in modern societies. Marijuana is usually the first drug that comes to mind when thinking of illicit drugs that are mainly used in youth drug culture, and public policy has started to respond to this trend. In the United States, the list of states that have legalized marijuana includes Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. Additional states have also begun considering legalization, or have started the decriminalization process. Similarly, Canada plans on introducing marijuana legislation in the spring of 2017 – one of the promises Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wanted to fulfill.

This article intends to outline the current state of marijuana and ecstasy in contemporary society and youth culture, as this is the generation that will be determining the path of the future. Recreational drugs in general will be considered, but the focus will be on the two substances mentioned above, ecstasy and marijuana. The current social and political state will serve as background to determine the potential future path marijuana, ecstasy, and other recreational drugs will take.

Recreational drugs in society and youth culture

Why the increased use?

There have been numerous attempts to prevent the use of recreational drugs like marijuana because, simply put, “drugs are bad.” Multiple attempts have been made around the world in hopes of decreasing drug use among the youth, for example commercials on TV and online ads demonstrating the slippery slope of drugs. But clearly, it hasn't done much. As Misty Millhorn and her colleagues note in their paper North Americans’ Attitudes Towards Illegal Drugs: “Although schools have provided drug education programs, such as D.A.R.E., the number of adolescents who abuse drugs has not dramatically decreased.”

Researchers have begun looking at statistics from surveys and work done by other researchers in hopes of finding the answer to a specific question: why do youth and young adults continue to use drugs despite the warnings given to them at an earlier age?

Howard Parker from the University of Manchester has done incredible work in an attempt to tease out the reasons for increased drug use among the youth. He is one of the leading proponents of the normalization thesis: that youth and young adults have slowly made drug use a “normal” part of their lives due to changes in culture and society. Cameron Duff fleshes out the idea some more, for instance, the “normalization thesis” can be viewed as “‘a multi-dimensional tool, a barometer of changes in social behaviour and cultural perspectives’. The normalization thesis is, in this sense, as much concerned with cultural change – with the ways in which drug use is constructed, perceived and sometimes tolerated as an embedded social practice – as with the study of how many young people consume illicit substances, how often and in what circumstances.”

Making time for leisure in a busy world

The concept of the “normalization thesis” is the foundation for which many researchers perform their studies. Instead of relying on statistics, researchers are instead looking for a qualitative view in order to grasp the “true” reasons for why drug use in younger generations has become so prevalent.  It’s common for individuals to assume that recreational drug users are delinquents and do not contribute to society, but Anna Olsen's work has proved otherwise: "Among individuals I interviewed, Ecstasy use was moderated, and this was closely related to moralistic norms about illicit drugs and leisure time. Participants' accounts of when and where they used Ecstasy included moral narratives about when and where it was appropriate to take the drug. They presented Ecstasy as a pleasurable or fun tool used by people in their leisure time, but that is not suitable for consumption outside of venues and times employed for entertainment and socializing." Though her work was based in Australia, it's common to similarly hear this sentiment from Canadians and Americans.

Cameron Duff conducted a survey that was also based in Australia, consisting of 379 “bar and nightclub” patrons by using an “intercept method” of choosing random and willing participants inside the bars and nightclubs in order to get a true cross-section of people rather than one particular group. The survey found that 77.2% of the participants know people who take "party drugs," the term used in the paper to refer to recreational drugs. Moreover, 56% of participants confirmed that they had used a party drug at least once in their life.

Duff also makes a note of how well-grounded individuals seem to fit the mold of this new young generation of recreational drug users. He mentions that "around 65% of this sample are employed, the vast majority in a full-time capacity, whilst a further 25% reported a mix of employment, formal education, and/or training.” He emphasizes that individuals who use recreational drugs can’t simply be assumed to be deviants or unproductive members of society; nor has it rendered these recreational drug users anti-social or socially isolated.  Instead, “these young people are integrated into a broad range of mainstream social and economic networks, and appear to have adapted their drug use behaviours to ‘fit in' with these networks." This appears to be consistent with Olsen’s work with respect to the idea that it’s not just “bad” people getting involved with recreational drugs, but youth and young adults that have goals and aspirations, and who go on to succeed in their personal and professional lives. Thus, the need for pleasure and leisure in this day and age can be found through the use of recreational drugs, so long as they are used responsibly and recreationally.

How the others feel

General attitudes towards recreational drugs seem to differ depending on where you go. The legalization of marijuana, in particular, seems to remain controversial in the United States while Canada has a much more liberal view on the matter. Millhorn and her colleagues note in their discussion that, "This research found that the majority of Americans believe that marijuana should remain illegal, but that there has been a slow increase in the belief that marijuana should be legalized.” While the use of marijuana often tends to carry a stigma in certain American and Canadian societies, “It was not until 1977 that Americans started to support the legalization of marijuana. Their support increased slightly from 28% in 1977 to 34% in 2003,” and a slightly greater increase of support in Canada, “from 23% in 1977 to 37% in 2002.”

A future with legalized recreational drugs

What would our society look like with official policy lining up with pro-legalization views? There are, of course, benefits to legalizing marijuana, ecstasy, and other recreational drugs. But, there is the potential for the entire ideology to go south. Some bad news first.

The bad and the ugly

Battle preparations

Peter Frankopan, the director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and a senior research fellow at Worcester College, Oxford, wrote an excellent essay on Aeon titled, “War, On Drugs”. In it, he discusses the history of taking drugs before battle. The Vikings from the 9th to 11th centuries were particularly noted for this: “Eye-witnesses clearly thought that something had elevated these warriors to a trance-like state. They were most likely right. Almost certainly, the superhuman strength and focus was the result of ingestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms found in Russia, specifically of the amanita muscaria – whose distinctive red cap and white dots often features in Disney movies. […] These poisonous fly agaric mushrooms, when parboiled, produce powerful psychoactive effects, including delirium, exhilaration, and hallucination. The Vikings learned of the amanita muscaria in their travels along the Russian river systems."

However, the history of drug use before battle doesn't stop there. Pervitin or "panzer chokolade" made its way through the German front lines in World War II: "It seemed to be a wonder drug, producing feelings of heightened awareness, focusing concentration and encouraging risk-taking. A powerful stimulant, it also allowed men to function on little sleep." The British also partook in its use: "General (later Field Marshal) Bernard Montgomery issued Benzedrine to his troops in North Africa on the eve of the battle of El Alamein – part of a program that saw 72 million Benzedrine tablets being prescribed to British forces during the Second World War."

CNN reported in November 2015 of ISIS fighters also taking drugs before battle. Captagon, an amphetamine which is supposedly popular in the Middle East, became the drug of choice. Dr. Robert Kiesling, a psychiatrist, was quoted in the article saying: “You can stay awake for days at a time. You don't have to sleep. […] It gives you a sense of well-being and euphoria. And you think that you're invincible and that nothing can harm you.”

Knowledge in the wrong hands

The consequences of legalized recreational drugs aren’t just limited to battle. Legalizing recreational drugs would dissolve the barriers for proper and extensive research on their chemical structure and effects. Scientific knowledge and findings are published for both the scientific community and the public. Given these circumstances, it can lead to undesirable consequences. There is already a trend of new “designer drugs” coming out at a rapid pace. As noted by the WebMD article “New Black Market Designer Drugs: Why Now? a DEA agent was quoted saying: "'What is really a different factor here is the Internet -- information, right or wrong or indifferent, gets disseminated at lightning speed and changes the playing field for us. […] It is a perfect storm of new trends. Before the Internet, these things took years to evolve. Now trends accelerate in seconds.'" Designer drugs, as defined by “Project Know” are, “specifically made to fit around existing drug laws. These drugs can either be new forms of older illicit drugs or could be completely new chemical formulas that are created to fall outside of the law.” Legalizing recreational drugs, therefore, would allow for certain information to be more readily accessible, and those who would be looking to make extremely potent drugs would likely be able to do so.

The Good

At this point, it may seem like there should be a reconsideration on whether recreational drugs ought to be legalized. However, the bad side doesn’t tell the whole story.

As was mentioned earlier, there are currently barriers on certain research interests due to the status of some commonly used recreational drugs. But, privately-funded groups were able to commission some small-scale research projects involving only a few participants. They were able to determine some of the potential benefits that recreational drugs like marijuana, ecstasy, and even magic mushrooms have for treating ailments ranging from pain to mental illness.

Spiritual, to treat the mental

German Lopez and Javier Zarracina gathered as many studies as possible for their article titled The fascinating, strange medical potential of psychedelic drugs, explained in 50+ studies. In it, they show multiple papers published by researchers involved in the exploration of using psychedelics for medical treatment. They also bring up personal accounts from participants explaining how much better they felt after receiving treatment. As pointed out, the research is still trying to get off its feet. Their studies have a small sample size, and there are no control groups to determine whether the effects shown are really a result of the psychedelics. Nevertheless, researchers are optimistic since participants demonstrate a positive reaction during the treatment process.

Reduction in cigarette smoking, alcoholism, end-of-life anxiety, and depression are just a few of the big problems mentioned that people saw improvement in after taking a dose of magic mushrooms or LSD. Researchers aren’t sure what’s causing this effect, but some believe it’s due to the powerful mystical experiences that psychedelics can trigger. Lopez and Zarracina argue that the participants had “profound, meaningful experiences that can sometimes help them make new insights into their own behaviors and also to reconnect with their values and priorities in terms of what’s important to them in the grander scheme of things." Albert Garcia-Romeu, another Johns Hopkins researcher, similarly said that, "When they have those kinds of experiences, it seems to be helpful for people to be able to make behavior changes down the line, like quitting smoking.”

A certain strain, to treat the pain

In a paper published in 2012 titled Medical Marijuana: Clearing Away the Smoke by researchers Igor Grant, J. Hampton Atkinson, Ben Gouaux, and Barth Wilsey, the effects of marijuana used for treatment of different ailments are observed from the rounding up of several studies. For example, marijuana inhaled by smoke consistently resulted in significantly reducing the feeling of chronic pain in one study. A greater proportion of individuals involved with this specific study reported at least 30% in their reduction of pain while using marijuana. The researchers emphasized this point because a “30% decrease in pain intensity is generally associated with reports of improved life quality.”

In regards to synthetic THC, which is taken orally, AIDS patients also showed positive reactions to one type of substance, dronabinol: "Trials in AIDS patients with clinically significant weight loss indicated that dronabinol 5mg daily significantly outperformed placebo in terms of short-term appetite enhancement (38% vs. 8% at 6 weeks), and that these effects persisted for up to 12 months, but were not accompanied by significant differences in weight gain, perhaps because of disease-associated energy wasting."

Patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) were also involved in certain trials. Analgesia, the inability to feel pain, is something people with MS look for in medicine to help with their condition. They, too, reacted positively: one study with a 12-month follow-up found that 30% of patients treated with a certain form of marijuana for MS-related pain could still maintain a feeling of analgesia and reported continued "improvement" on a maximum dose of 25mg of THC daily. Researchers, therefore, conclude that, “pain relief may be sustained without dose increases.”

There are side effects, of course, but it seems that, through the multiple research trials, patients don't reach a point of severity that leads to hospitalization: "In general these effects are dose-related, are of mild to moderate severity, appear to decline over time, and are reported less frequently inexperienced than in naïve users. Reviews suggest the most frequent side effects are dizziness or lightheadedness (30%-60%), dry mouth (10%-25%), fatigue (5%-40%), muscle weakness (10%-25%), myalgia (25%), and palpitations (20%). Cough and throat irritation are reported in trials of smoked cannabis."

It’s clear that with proper physician direction, recreational drugs open the door to better treatment and management of some ailments that are increasingly affecting society. Drugs like marijuana and magic mushrooms aren’t physically addictive but can be psychologically addictive. Though, of course, one’s local doctor would be prescribing doses that are within moderation. Instead of typical pharmaceutical drugs which are much more dangerous, sometimes ineffective, and can lead to severe addictions like with Xanax, oxycodone, or Prozac, the possibility of having access to the aforementioned alternative drugs have shown to have great potential and would be a boon to society. Moreover, increasing research involving drugs like marijuana, ecstasy, and psychedelics would yield more knowledge about how to use and develop better rehabilitation and wellness programs.


Perspectives on commonly used recreational drugs like marijuana and ecstasy are changing as the younger generation becomes more involved in these socio-political discussions, where eventually, the view on such subjects will become quite the opposite from that of the prevailing, older generations.  

But, should the notion of legalization finally become realized, the impact would be huge: the legal implications involved with legalized recreational drugs, according to George S. Yacoubian Jr., would be global. In his paper Beyond the Theoretical Rhetoric: A Proposal to Study the Consequences of Drug Legalization, heallots a small section to explore some of the potential benefits that would come about should legalization occur. He fleshes out what a future world with legalized recreational drugs would potentially look like:

“First, in lieu of spending billions of dollars in the war against drugs, a war that they contend is an exercise in futility, drug legalization would allow state and federal governments to collect billions of dollars in taxes annually. Currently, funds are dispersed for law enforcement efforts, for interdiction efforts, and for the prosecution and incarceration of drug perpetrators, all of which potentially benefit those involved in the illegal drug trade. […] While a causal relationship between drugs and crime remains nebulous, there are several criminal justice-related consequences that could result from legalization. The most obvious is that all drug-related offenses—possession, purchase, sale, and manufacturing—would cease to be crimes for adults. This would have monumental benefits for an already burdened criminal justice system. Second, individuals who commit income-generating crimes (e.g., theft, robbery, and prostitution) to secure monies for the purchase of illegal drugs may no longer have to do so. Given the reduction in drug prices that would necessarily accompany legalization, the need for additional funds would dissipate as well. Third, the elimination of an illegal drug subculture may contribute to the reduction of illicit subcultures in general. […] Fourth, legalization would eliminate the need for illegal drug traffickers, and, with them, the violence associated with their enterprises. As Goldstein suggests, a legalization approach would almost certainly divert the violence associated with illegal drug markets.”

In other words, legalizing certain recreational drugs would provide wore money for the government which can be spent on more in depth research, drug education programs and well-equipped wellness centres. It would also result in a reduced prison population where criminals with more severe crimes are being indicted. Moreover, reduced drug prices and reduced violence would likely occur because of a legal drug trade. We are a society that is becoming more progressive and liberal, and the legalization of recreational drugs aligns with the views of many people who are part of this movement.

Will the potential outcomes outlined in this paper be actually realized? A sentiment echoed by most of the researchers discussed above have one thing in common: barriers on research should be broken down, subjective experiences with drugs should be part of the debate and not excluded, and we should be doing more to depict a more holistic view of this debate. Most research is still in its early stages, but the amount of research done is increasing as society begins to take another liberal stance to recreational drugs.

As Yacoubian Jr. notes, “While proponents and opponents of legalization are clear with respect to their antithetical opinions, some common ground is shared. Both are willing to admit that no one knows how society would be affected if drugs were legalized. Proponents of both legalization and prohibition have outlined their positions carefully with arguments that are theoretically sound. The next step, however, is to put these assertions to the test and attempt to ascertain to what extent they are empirically valid.” 

Forecasted start year: 
2017 to 2020


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