Graham Hancock on freedom of consciousness
Posted In: Ayahuasca, Legality, Prohibition, War On Drugs
Comments: 5 Responses
In this frank testimony Graham calls for the legalisation for all drugs. He also queries whether we can call ourselves a free society when we have such regressive policies regarding altering our own consciousnesses, talks about the hidden dangers of the War on Drugs and shares his own experiences with the visionary shamanic plant ayahuasca.
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Graham Hancock’s website can be found at http://www.grahamhancock.com
GRAHAM’S WORDS IN TEXT
I am doing this interview because I believe that drugs and drug policy are one of the
great unaddressed issues in our society and it needs a fresh look.
It’s a matter of concern when we live in a society that punishes people, sometimes very
savagely, for drug use: it makes it a difficult subject to be open on. It’s important to be
open on it otherwise we can never have a clear and honest discussion.
Looking at the broad expanse of history, what I see in the western civilisations has been
a gradual trend over hundreds and thousands of years towards increased individual
freedom, towards removing the unreasonable power of the state to intervene in our lives.
This seems to be the direction, except in one area where we’ve gone back rather than
forwards in the last 40 years: the personal, individual use of drugs. It seems to me that if
we are not sovereign over our own consciousness then we can’t meaningfully claim to
be sovereign over anything. It’s useless – a complete waste of time – to indulge
ourselves in all sorts of self congratulation about how free we are, about how our
democracies are a model of freedomn when we are prepared to send people to prison
for exploring that most intimate, that most precious, most sapient part of themselves
which is their own consciousness.
I feel that the war on drugs, the persecution of individuals for exploring their own
consciousness with drugs, has set in motion a huge reverse in the true direction of
western history, has pushed us away from the quest for individual freedom and into a
place where we are empowering the state to control the most personal aspect of our
lives, and I don’t think that can be good. I feel that it is a negative historical trend, and
we need to wake up and do something about this because the struggle for individual
freedom is perhaps the most important thing that western culture has given to the world.
We can’t just let that go now because of some ideological hatred of drugs.
First of all let me be clear that when I talk about the right to use drugs I am referring to
adults, I am not referring to children. I am quite persuaded by the research that indicates
that marijuana use, particularly heavy marijuana use, amongst teenagers can have
extremely detrimental effects, I think the evidence for that is quite compelling, and I
would not be urging or encouraging teenagers to smoke marijuana. Unfortunately at the
moment teenagers, especially, don’t believe the information that’s given about drugs: it’s
seen to be tainted and coming from a source that they do not trust and do not believe in.
I am not surprised that, despite the dangers to their health, huge numbers of teenagers
are continuing to smoke marijuana.
I would like to see an honest and open debate on the subject with full information
available to all members of the public. One of the reasons why I am convinced that full
honest information is the way to go is what’s happened with tobacco in our societies
over the last 20 years. In precisely the period that we have seen a dramatic escalation
in the use of almost all illegal drugs, we’ve seen a dramatic decline in the use of the
highly addictive legal drug called tobacco, and that decline has not come because
people have been sent to prison for using tobacco, it’s not come because their homes
have been broken into by agents of the state, it’s not come because there are draconian
laws that prevent the use of tobacco. The decline has come solely for one reason:
because people have believed the good information that has been put out there that has
shown them that tobacco use can be very bad for your health and they have made
choices not to use tobacco.
I believe the same level of information should be made available on drugs; as long as
those who take drugs are set in opposition against the state, feel themselves in danger
of attack and harassment by the state, see the state effectively as their enemy, they are
not going to believe what the state has to tell them. If it is true that certain drugs are
genuinely very harmful to our health, as we know is the case with tobacco, then it seems
obvious to me that we need to remove this whole subject from the issue of criminal
sanctions, and we have to throw it out to public common sense. We have to give people
information they can trust, and they will act on that information. For adults, if they choose
not to act on that information, that’s also their business, but the most important thing is
that the information should be there, it should be trusted, and it should be honest. We
have definitely seen the evidence where one harmful drug is concerned: when good
information is provided on tobacco it does result in a reduction of use.
So, talking about use of drugs by adults – I am in favour of restricting use to children, but
I think that will operate most effectively if children believe the information given to them
about drugs, which is not the case at the moment – I believe we are moving in a strange
direction which in a rather sinister manner is minimising adult responsibility. More and
more we find the state stepping in and presenting itself as taking responsibility for
decisions that we as adults should really be making for ourselves, and one of those
decisions is, as a responsible adult, whether to use drugs or not. I would guess that,
even in a regime where all drugs were completely legal, the vast majority of adults
would not partake. I think that would be their choice and I respect that choice, I think we
are talking about a minority interest here, but such statistics as are available do show
that it’s a substantial minority interest of the order of millions of people in Britain and tens
of millions in the US who are, as adults, interested in exploring their own consciousness
with drugs. The way the drug issue has been cast in our society up to now, particularly
by the media and politicians, is as a totally frivolous, worthless lightweight recreational
I personally don’t view the subject that way. If we use words like freedom, we have to
use them in their full meaning and, where adults are concerned, if we want to imagine
that we are free we have to imagine a society in which we are free to use drugs even if
they may be harmful to us: that has to be our choice. After all, our society already
accepts the principle that individuals may do things that are harmful to themselves – it’s
clear from the fact that we tolerate and keep completely legal the use of alcohol and
tobacco, both of which are known major health risks far more so than most illegal drugs.
But it’s not only that. We put young men into the army – when they join the army they’re
taking a job that may put their lives at risk, people go skiing, people go bungee jumping,
people jump out of aeroplanes for the excitement of so doing. Let’s not pretend that
that’s completely free of danger; there is risk in that adventure, and I would say – I’ve
never done it myself, but when somebody jumps out of an aeroplane I would imagine it
has an extraordinary effect on their consciousness. It must be a tremendous feeling.
Why else would so many people do it? They must get something special out of it, and
they’ve decided as adults that getting that special thing is worth the risk of jumping out of
that plane. I’m not going to go to them and say “Look, I know this is a really special
experience for you but it’s a bit dangerous, so I’m sorry, you’re not allowed to do it and
actually, if I catch you doing it I’m going to send you to prison.”
I know that some drugs are much more dangerous and risky than others; I know for
example that tobacco and alcohol are extremely dangerous and risky drugs. Personally
I do not use and have never used heroin or cocaine, I have no idea what the cocaine
experience is like. People have told me about it and what they’ve told me makes me feel
this isn’t for me, this is not my drug. I don’t mean to put down people who use cocaine,
that’s their business, but for me it sounds like a short, noisy, busy, meaningless
exchange, I don’t see any depth in it and that’s also part of my freedom as an adult: not
to consume certain drugs. What I’ve heard about cocaine from people I trust tells me
that it’s not for me. I haven’t broken my finger either, but when someone who has tells
me that it hurts, I believe them. I don’t need to break my finger to learn that experience.
That’s why I’m not at all attracted to cocaine, not attracted to heroin either, or any
powerfully addictive drug, because I feel that if I become absolutely habituated and
addicted to a substance then, again, I am losing control of my personal sovereignty.
I have worked with the visionary shamanic plants, for example Ayahuasca, which is a
mixture of two different plants found in the Amazon jungle. There is archaeological
evidence of the use of Ayahuasca, which means the ‘vine of souls’, going back more
than 3,000 years in the Amazon. It’s a powerful visionary hallucinogenic brew in which
the active ingredient is DMT (dimethyltryptamine) which in the US is a schedule 1 illegal
drug and Britain is a class A illegal drug, possession of which can send you to prison for
a long time.
Fortunately, throughout South America and increasingly in other countries, the use of
Ayahuasca for religious purposes is being recognised, and in fact, in all the countries
bordering the Amazon basin, it’s totally legal and its use is actually protected under laws
of religious freedom. I applaud this as the way forward on this particular debate. I have
found Ayahuasca, which I have drunk more than 30 times over the last several years, to
be an enormously helpful influence in my life, and I would not like to think of a situation
where I could never have approached Ayahuasca or learnt the lessons it has taught me.
I believe that my life would be narrower, meaner and less full of meaning if I had not had
An Ayahuasca journey is a complex and difficult process. First there’s the physical
effect: it is a beverage, a brew, and it tastes absolutely disgusting. It is hard to imagine a
more horrific and unpleasant taste, and you have to brace yourself physically and
mentally before pouring this beverage down your throat – I certainly do, it’s very, very
hard work. Secondly, within about half an hour to an hour of drinking the brew most of
us start to feel pretty ill. You’re vomiting, you have diarrhoea, it’s physically a most
uncomfortable ordeal that you have to go through before the powerful visionary effects
begin to take place. Those effects typically have two levels, one of which concerns what
you might call personal developments. In the Amazon they believe there is an intelligent
spirit that lies behind Ayahuasca, they don’t think they are dealing with just plants and
who are we to say they are wrong? They believe that an intelligent entity, a spirit being,
lies behind the Ayahuasca beverage, and that her – they always regard her as a female
presence – her business is the planet and the betterment of human beings. Strange
idea, but this is what they believe in the Amazon and they know a damn sight more
about it than we do.
One of the ways this works is that Ayahuasca will typically show you your own life in an
extremely clear and unconfused way. Normally we protect our own behaviour with all
sorts of little personal explanations and reasons for why we behave as we do.
Ayahuasca will show you, absolutely clearly and honestly, why you behaved in the way
you did. Sometimes you may have been mean or harsh to another person and passed
that off as ‘absolutely the right thing to do under the circumstances’, Ayahuasca will
show you that it was the wrong thing to do, it will show you that anger and ego and
arrogance and pride in your own personality are not serving you and are not helpful, and
it will keep teaching you these lessons again and again and again, showing you starkly
and honestly how you are until you start fixing your behaviour and improve the way you
function in the world and work hard to become a less toxic and more positive person.
Ayahuasca has done this for me, and it has done it for countless other people that I
know. It’s a mystery but there it is. It puts you through that psychological process where
you start examining your own life and asking questions about the way you behave.
The second thing that Ayahuasca does is take you on a journey into parallel realms. Of
course many scientists would say this is just brain candy, just an illusion of your own
brain, disturbed brain chemistry. I don’t agree with those scientists, I can’t prove they’re
wrong but when I look at the burden of evidence, and particularly the huge body of
knowledge that shamanistic cultures have brought together on the use of visionary
plants, I am inclined to believe the shamans are right and that reality is much more
complicated than we imagine, that we are surrounded all the time by a vast invisible
reality, normally invisible to our senses. And what I’ve found, and many others report this
with Ayahuasca, is that it seems to retune the receiver wave length of the brain and
allow those normally invisible realms to become visible for a brief period so it connects
us to a much wider reality. This can be deeply disturbing, but it is also incredibly
nourishing to realise that we are not just this finite little dot, we are part of a much huger
and wider awe-inspiring reality.
The third thing that happens with Ayahuasca, and it’s very curious, is that if you have
some aspect of your life that’s creative, say writing poetry or painting, Ayahuasca again
will enhance that.
All over the world now we’re seeing incredibly visionary art produced by people who’ve
been inspired by Ayahuasca. Now this is not news to the shamans in the Amazon
because they create incredible visionary art and have done for thousands of years,
documenting their Ayahuasca journeys. But it’s happening in the West now – I’m
thinking about people like Alex Grey, Bob Venosa, Martina Hoffman – who have brought
into being incredible works of art inspired by their Ayahuasca experiences. It seems to
enhance certain aspects of human creativity. All of these things are available to us
should we choose to drink Ayahuasca. We do not have to, it’s a personal choice. I
would like to live in a society where that personal choice can be made free of fear, free
of ideology, free of propaganda, simply a decision that an adult makes about his or her
I’m not claiming that I’m a better person because of Ayahuasca, but what I am saying is
I’m trying to be a better person because of Ayahuasca. It’s shown me serious faults in
my personality which need to be fixed. Life is a journey, I’m 59 years old and I only have
so much longer on this planet – with the time I have left I’d rather do it right than do it
wrong and I’m grateful for Ayahuasca for showing me where I’ve been doing things
wrong. It’s very hard to change deeply ingrained old habits but I am trying and I shall
continue to try while I’m on this planet.
In terms of my creativity Ayahuasca has really done something quite extraordinary for
me. For my whole working life I have been a non-fiction writer. My background is in
mainstream journalism and my last journalistic job was as East Africa correspondent for
the Economist based in Nairobi back in the early 80s. I was very much involved in
current affairs, in facts, in information, and this continued even as I moved out of
journalism and into writing books. I became deeply interested in historical mysteries
particularly: could there have been a lost civilisation, could there have been a forgotten
episode in human history? This was a mystery that intrigued me, and from the late
1980s through until the early 2000s I was focused totally on very detailed explorations of
historical mysteries and in everything that’s involved in writing a thorough non-fiction
book: including a thousand footnotes, documenting and explaining my sources in every
case, bullet proofing every argument against critics. This was normal to me; this was
the way that I had been used to working for very many years. After encountering
Ayahuasca, something else happened. I began to feel an urge to express myself in a
different way, not just to write non-fiction – I suddenly found that I wanted to write a
novel, I wanted to create something out of whole cloth and initially I wasn’t sure what.
And here’s the strange thing: once I’d established that intent, that I wanted to try to write
fiction rather than nonfiction all the time, on a series of Ayahuasca journeys in Brazil in
2006 I was given – I can’t put it any other way – I was given a story. The story came to
me in the visions. I saw clearly two characters, one 24,000 years ago, one today,
connected in a battle of good against evil that unfolds through time. I don’t know where
this idea came from, it literally came to me in a vision, under the influence of Ayahuasca,
and it wasn’t just one, it was a series of visions. At the end of it I felt like I had almost
downloaded an entire story, and I came back to England motivated to write that story.
Like so many things with Ayahuasca, the inspiration is only the first part of what
happens; then you need to do the hard work, and I have been doing the hard work for
the last three years, but now I have written that novel. I don’t believe I ever would have
written it if it hadn’t been for my encounter with the visionary vine of the Amazon, the
vine of souls.
It’s a controversial view but I am in favour of the legalisation – not just the
decriminalisation – of all drugs for personal use. I’m in favour of this for lots of reasons.
First of all philosophically: I believe adults must be free to make decisions about their
own consciousness, even if those decisions are harmful to them, for me that’s a
fundamental philosophical issue about the kind of society I want to live in. Secondly, it’s
clear after more than 40 years of the so-called war on drugs, after the expenditure of
billions and billions of pounds and dollars and other currencies all around the world to
suppress and persecute drug users, it’s clear that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work at all.
It’s not just that it works badly, it actually doesn’t work. In terms of its stated objectives
the war on drugs has achieved nothing, it seems to have made the problem worse.
We are creating a situation – wilfully it seems – whereby the most horrendous people on
the planet – criminal gangs – are being entrusted with the consciousness of our children.
What a huge mistake. What a gift we are giving to criminality by making drugs illegal.
It’s time to recognise that there is a fundamental human urge to alter consciousness. It is
basic to being human, it’s not there for everyone but it’s there for some people. It might
be a minority urge but it’s there. We have to create a society where that minority who
wish to alter their own consciousness in a responsible manner using ‘drugs’ have the
right to do so. The kind of society that we have now, where we have created huge
armed bureaucracies to break into people’s homes to punish them, to send them to
prison, to shame and humiliate them, and all the apparatus of the state that that
involves, the empowerment of the state that that creates, the very notion that the state
has a right to decide what we as adults may and may not experience in our own
consciousness, is so negative and so wrong that it has to be opposed.
So the war on drugs hasn’t worked. It’s empowered criminals, it’s empowered state
bureaucracies. We need a new way forward and that only way forward is going to
require great courage on the part of politicians. We have to remove this legal structure
and make drugs legal, put the criminal gangs out of business. By all means tax drugs, I
am totally in favour of that, but at the end of the day we have to leave adults free to
make decisions about their own lives.
The government position on this is so mistaken because despite the war on drugs and
the violent penalties that are imposed, drugs are everywhere available in our societies.
Our governments are not protecting anybody against using drugs by making them
illegal; if they were then drugs would not be available, but drugs are available
everywhere. This is a reality and we have to accept that fact. What we have to do is
create a legislative framework where we recognise that drugs are available and that
people can get access to them and seek to minimise the harms as effectively as we can
with honest and open information.
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