Hey Kids, Some Drugs Are Good for You

The U.S. “war on drugs,” besides failing to meet its goals, has demonstrated a stubborn ignorance of the effects that different drugs have in the human body. Granted, some drugs cause degeneration and are properly outlawed. Opiates such as heroin and stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine take a harsh physical toll and leave users addicted to the chemical. But classified along with these truly dangerous drugs are some of nature’s most mysterious medicines. New research shows how marijuana, psychedelics, MDMA and even ketamine have positive physiological and psychological effects that can persist even after the drug has worn off.

The marijuana flower, of course, is the nearest of these drugs to public and political acceptance, and the transformation of its image over the decades is very instructive. Stuck with a Spanish name in the 1930’s to excite American xenophobia, marijuana has long been demonized as causing “reefer madness.” In fact, new research shows that marijuana has potent neuroprotective and neuroplastic properties, in addition to its power as a non-addictive painkiller.  Marijuana contains at least 85 cannabinoid chemicals, including the well-known THC, and the lesser known CBD.  New research shows that CBD, administered thirty minutes after a devastating loss of oxygen in mice brains, totally circumvented brain damage.  Cannabinoids are currently being studied for a wide range of therapeutic applications, including the fight against cancer.  Their potency should come as no surprise since all mammals have cannabinoid receptors in their brains.  According to Salon, these receptors evolved in animals 550 million years before the marijuana plant.

Psychedelic drugs are very different; the most popular ones are psilocybin, mescaline, and LSD.  Psilocybin and mescaline occur naturally, in certain mushrooms and cacti, respectively.  LSD must be made in a laboratory.  These drugs have differing effects, but the psychedelic experience has many features in common.  A new study in PLOS ONE showed no correlation between a lifetime of psychedelic use and negative mental health outcomes.  In fact, “in several cases psychedelic use was associated with lower rate of mental health problems.” Ongoing research on psilocybin suggests that it can help terminally ill patients come to terms with their mortality in healthy and beneficial ways.  Meanwhile mescaline, in the form of peyote, is exempt from DEA regulation when taken under certain religious circumstances.  Mescaline and psilocybin have been used in tribal cultures for thousands of years as tools for understanding the self and the world. If you try them just once your life can change drastically. After marijuana, magic mushrooms and peyote cactus should be decriminalized as natural, non-addictive, safe substances.  LSD on the other hand can cause psychedelic effects for up to 16 hours (about twice as long as psilocybin) and may present a bigger danger to public health.

Similar in effect to psychedelics, but also demonstrating stimulant properties, is MDMA or Ecstasy.  While conflicting research suggests that long term or heavy use of MDMA may cause brain damage, a 2011 study at UCLA “found that persons with autism using the drug often report an increase in socialization and strong feelings of empathy that last even after the drug has worn off.”  Perhaps one day this darling of dance culture will be available for therapeutic use by prescription.

Finally, there’s a drug you may not have heard of: Ketamine, best known as a horse tranquilizer and club drug.  In sub-anaesthetic doses “Special K” causes very strange psychological effects unlike those of pot or psychedelics.  It’s a type of drug known as a dissociative, along PCP and dextromethorphan.  But while these latter drugs can cause psychosis and brain damage, Ketamine turns out to be pretty gentle, and may even have a future as an antidepressant.  According to Scientific American, “the enthusiasm for ketamine is such that physicians, often working out of small clinics, have already started prescribing low doses of the generic anesthetic off-label […] and drug companies are contemplating whether to get into the act by creating new drugs based on ketamine’s biochemistry.”

A word of warning: these drugs are illegal for recreational use, they often have unpleasant effects, and it’s always possible to get too much of a good thing.  Many drugs are truly dangerous and deserve to remain tightly regulated or illegal.  One needs only to read about the emergence of krokodil, a street form of mesomorphine cooked up from codeine and toxic chemicals, to be reminded of the horrors of drug addiction.

But the prohibition of safe, non-addictive, psychologically inspiring, and medically promising substances is not the answer.

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Spoiler Alert: Riddick

After thirteen years and three films, it’s still hard to know what to think about Richard B. Riddick.  No one calls him Dick.  His luminescent mother-of-pearl cat’s eyes allow him to see in the dark, when they’re not protected by an iconic pair of black welding goggles.  He is very talented at killing people and animals, especially with melee weapons or hand-to-hand. He’s not based on any literary or comic-book character. Judging by his conversational abilities, he may be brain damaged or developmentally disabled.  He is extremely strong.  He is played by Vin Diesel.

In Pitch Black (2000), Riddick, a convict, crash-lands on a planet with his guardian bounty hunter and a dozen civilians who had been in cryo-sleep on an interstellar voyage.  The planet is infested with flying, hammerheaded flesh eaters who only live underground unless you’re unlucky enough that it’s every twenty-two years and all three of the planet’s suns are about to be totally eclipsed. The film’s tagline is “fight evil with evil,” so the “good” guys uncuff Riddick to defend them from the ravenous monsters.  He takes advantage of his infrared vision, and pronounces the occasional badass monosyllable or epigram. Hack, slash, blast, get chewed on.  Riddick and two others escape the planet alive.

Then there’s The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), which stepped away from the small-galaxy, human-centric, Alien-esque aesthetic of the first film for full-blown space opera.  Riddick, the Furyan hero of prophecy, is destined to overthrow the mighty Necromonger king.  Grunt, shoot, stab, take goggles on and off lavishly.  Judi Dench plays an “Air Elemental” who can turn invisible and swish around through space.  With the Grand Necromonger Army overrunning the galaxy planet by planet, “evil” must again fight “evil,” even though Riddick is really a giant teddy bear and the Necromongers are pompous pretenders to villainy. The Necromongers have a code which says “You keep what you kill,” so when the Necromonger king, who can also worm his way through space, chooses (in a pinch) to be impaled by Riddick rather than cleaved in two by his ambitious lieutenant Vaako, Riddick becomes lord of the Necromongers, and they all bow before him.  The film ends with a rather interesting question: what would an outlaw do with a dark army?

But in Riddick (2013), we don’t get an answer.  Instead we get an essential remake of Pitch Black, complete with the lone planet, the stranded crew, the flesh-eating monsters that don’t like sunny weather.  All the grandiose elements of space opera are gone as unexpectedly as they were introduced.  And while it’s not uncommon for different films in a franchise to take different directions, it’s worth noting that all three films were at least co-written and directed by David Twohy.  Also, if you recognize Karl Urban reprising his role as Vaako, it’s because he’s also starring in Star Trek sequels as Dr. McCoy.

Riddick wakes up in a pile of rubble, nearly dead.  He claws his way to water, fending off wild dogs, then kidnaps one of their puppies to raise as his own.  For a while it’s all dog-training and domestic bliss: bounty hunters and superpredators seem worlds away.  In flashback we see that Vaako left Riddick on this planet for dead, keeping what he (quite reasonably) thought he had killed.  Now Riddick’s only way off-world is to activate an emergency beacon at an unmanned mercenary co-operative convenience store and motel.  The beacon scans and identifies Riddick, and soon a crew of bounty hunters swoops in for his head, followed by another ship with more mysterious interests.  As the two crews try to outposture each other, Riddick steals the fuel cells from their ships.  He’s willing to let them all squeeze in to one as long as he gets to leave in the other.  Then it starts to rain and the monsters come out.  Flex, pivot, stab, degoggle, you know the drill.

Still, Riddick is the best Riddick movie yet.  It’s popularity has improved production values tremendously.  It is starting to discover the pleasures and possibilities of a blockbuster franchise.  If it could follow in the footsteps of that other Vin Diesel picture frame, the Fast and Furious, so much the better.

But you have to wonder…who is Riddick?  Will we ever know anything about him?