Pubdate: Tue, 05 May 2015
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2015 The New York Times Company
Author: Andrew Higgins


OSLO - In a country so wary of drug abuse that it limits the sale of 
aspirin, Pal-Orjan Johansen, a Norwegian researcher, is pushing what 
would seem a doomed cause: the rehabilitation of LSD.

It matters little to him that the psychedelic drug has been banned 
here and around the world for more than 40 years. Mr. Johansen 
pitches his effort not as a throwback to the hippie hedonism of the 
1960s, but as a battle for human rights and good health.

In fact, he also wants to manufacture MDMA and psilocybin, the active 
ingredients in two other prohibited substances, Ecstasy and so-called 
magic mushrooms.

All of that might seem quixotic at best, if only Mr. Johansen and 
EmmaSofia, the psychedelics advocacy group he founded with his 
American-born wife and fellow scientist, Teri Krebs, had not already 
won some unlikely supporters, including a retired Norwegian Supreme 
Court judge who serves as their legal adviser.

The group, whose name derives from street slang for MDMA and the 
Greek word for wisdom, stands in the vanguard of a global movement 
now pushing to revise drug policies set in the 1970s. That it has 
gained traction in a country so committed to controlling drug use 
shows how much old orthodoxies have crumbled.

The Norwegian group wants not only to stir discussion about 
prohibited drugs, but also to manufacture them, in part, it argues, 
to guarantee that they are safe. It recently began an online campaign 
to raise money so that it can, in cooperation with a Norwegian 
pharmaceuticals company, start quality-controlled production of 
psilocybin and MDMA, drugs that Mr. Johansen says saved and 
transformed his life.

"I helped myself with psychedelics and want others to have the same 
opportunity without the risk of arrest," said Mr. Johansen, a 
42-year-old researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and 
Technology in Trondheim. He recalled how, as a young man, he defeated 
an alcohol problem, a smoking habit, post-traumatic stress disorder 
and depression by taking psilocybin and MDMA.

The drugs are banned in Norway, as in most countries, but can, under 
tight supervision, be used for medical purposes and in scientific research.

While it took decades for pro-marijuana campaigners in the United 
States to shift public attitudes and government policy, Norway's 
psychedelic champions insist that they already have science and even 
the law on their side.

But even politicians who support them, all of them quietly because of 
the extreme sensitivity of drug policy, caution that it will be a 
long struggle. EmmaSofia has nonetheless succeeded in making its 
cause an issue, with Mr. Johansen appearing in debates on NRK, the 
state broadcaster, and in a lengthy profile in a leading newsmagazine.

Eager to sidestep the tight rules in Norway, Mr. Johansen and his 
supporters tap into a more freewheeling side of this button-down 
Nordic nation and point to a long tradition of nature-worshiping 
shamans, particularly among Norway's indigenous Sami people.

Also lending a hand are the Vikings, who, at least according to fans 
of psychedelic drugs, ate hallucinogenic mushrooms to pep them up 
before battle.

Cato Nystad, a 39-year-old drum maker, EmmaSofia supporter and 
organizer of traditional ceremonies that involve psychedelic potions, 
said many Norwegians wanted to get in touch with their wilder, more 
spiritual sides.

Steinar Madsen, the medical director of the Norwegian Medicines 
Agency, said he had no objection in principle to what he called 
EmmaSofia's "interesting project," but cautioned that "it is a very long shot."

He scoffed at the argument that Norway needs to reconnect with its 
shamanistic past. "I don't believe this stuff," he said, adding that 
"drugs were not part of this tradition in Norway."

Ina Roll Spinnangr, a Liberal Party politician who supports a more 
relaxed policy on drugs, said the best way to bring about change was 
not to attack Norway's paternalistic government but to turn it on its head.

"You have to use a nanny argument: The government needs to take 
control and regulate the market instead of leaving it to criminals," 
she said. "The argument that you decide yourself what you put in your 
own body will never work in Norway."

As a result, she added, "I would never use the word 'legalize,' but 
talk instead about regulating, not liberalizing."

Ketil Lund, 75, the retired Supreme Court justice who advises 
EmmaSofia on its legal strategy, said he had never used psychedelic 
drugs and had no interest in trying them. But, he said, he supported 
Mr. Johansen's campaign as part of a "bigger struggle" against 
antidrug policies in the West that he described as "an absolute failure."

"The present narcotics policy in the West has so many detrimental 
effects," he said. "These have to be balanced against detrimental 
effects of the drugs themselves."

He said he was not qualified to adjudicate a raging debate over the 
possible hazards and benefits of psychedelic drugs like LSD. But he 
had been impressed by research suggesting that they were less harmful 
than alcohol. "People have used psychedelics for centuries," he added.

The taboo in the West on psychedelics, however, is deeply entrenched 
- - a legacy of government campaigns against drug use and a long 
backlash against the counterculture of the 1960s, when Timothy Leary, 
a Harvard professor and zealous promoter of LSD, urged Americans to 
"turn on, tune in and drop out."

"LSD terrifies governments; it is their ultimate fear because it 
changes the way people look at the world," said David Nutt, a 
professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. He 
was fired in 2009 as the British government's drug policy adviser 
after he told a radio interviewer that alcohol was far more harmful 
than LSD and other psychedelics.

He praised EmmaSofia and other groups for helping to lift the stigma 
and fear long attached to psychedelics, adding that "there has 
definitely been a renaissance" of medical research in recent years 
after decades of science-killing "paranoia and censorship" based on 
scare stories about psychedelics that fed public panic.

"We are not in the 1960s anymore and have moved on," said Mr. 
Johansen, a clinical psychologist, adding, "This is a question of 
basic human rights."

LSD, which was first synthesized in a Swiss pharmaceuticals 
laboratory in 1938, and MDMA, which was patented in 1914, won wide 
acceptance in Europe and the United States in the middle of the last 
century when they showed early promise against alcoholism and other maladies.

But initial euphoria over their medical use was then swamped by deep 
alarm as recreational use of psychedelics surged, leading to a 
cascade of horror stories in the news media.

The United States banned LSD in 1970. A year later, the United 
Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances classified LSD and MDMA 
as "Schedule I" drugs, those that pose a serious threat to public health.

The United Nations convention banned their use "except for scientific 
and very limited medical purposes by duly authorized persons." It 
also exempted psychedelics contained in plants "used by certain 
small, clearly determined groups in magical or religious rites."

Mr. Johansen said the dangers connected with psychedelic drugs had 
been exaggerated by stories that did not take into account 
probability. "Everything carries a risk. If you walk in a forest, a 
tree may fall on your head, but does this mean you should never go in 
the woods?"

Dr. Madsen, of the Norwegian Medicines Agency, conceded that there 
"are a lot of myths" about psychedelic drugs like claims that "if you 
use LSD, you will jump from the roof."

All the same, he sees no quick way around a thicket of laws and 
strict regulations on their use. "Everyone sees we have to be very 
careful with these drugs," he said. "I don't think the time is ripe."

Henrik Pryser Libell contributed reporting.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom