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.
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
very little you can expect me to say about this
subject without becoming party or privy to criminal
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
first point to be made on this subject is, there's
a lot of global research going on to
up with more and more useful, precise, and harmless
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."
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
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.
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
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.
Schedule One classification declares it of 'no
medical use' and severely restricts research
authorisations. Ironically, self-prescription had
ruined the supervised application.
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."
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
8 to 25 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.
... 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. It's
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."