It starts out, like all good things, as a pulse. The pulse transforms to a beat; beat to rhythm, thus: crescendo. And before you even know it, you’re in paradise - as it sweats, heaves and dances.

Last Saturday, American DJ Thomas Wesley Pentz, known by his stage name Diplo, performed in Islamabad, just as Lahore decided to throw “Beats Not Bombs”, also known by the acronym BNB; an underground rave that took it upon itself to rewrite Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception”. And whereas Huxley, in his book, details his experiences when taking mescaline, the principal agent of the psychedelic cactus peyote, and the insights he experiences, which range from the “purely aesthetic” to “sacramental visions”. The hedonistic mass at BNB was to prove a study in MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine) and LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) - albeit in a similar way.

MDMA enhances physical sensations. The sense of touch is heightened, food may smell and taste different to normal, and many people say that music begins to sounds truly divine. There’s more awareness of the moment and more contentment with whatever that moment might be. People feel positive about both themselves and the wider world around them (a state known as entactogenesis, from Latin word, meaning “to touch within”). Inhibitions are loosened, egos dissolve, and people experience a close emotional bond with others (empathogenesis). Everyday social defences are weakened and communicating with strangers is no longer taboo. Thus, it can alter the state of our consciousness.

Now, I cannot risk oversimplification by defining Consciousness - after all, there is a reason it is named the ‘Hard Problem’ in the sciences, and in philosophy. Because we don’t know what it is; we don’t know its essential properties; we don’t know if it is fundamentally coherent and unitary; whether consciousness can ever be explained mechanistically; whether non-human consciousness exists - actually, we don’t really know much about it all. In fact, we don’t even have an agreeable, inter-disciplinary definition of Thought! What is pretty clear, however, is that we don’t have a way of speaking absolutely literally, in language that other people understand, about our own consciousness. All our representations of the contents of consciousness are metaphorical in way or another. Look at the language we use; we don’t talk about the nature of consciousness but always about how consciousness appears to us, we say: “It is as if”, or “I feel like”, or the philosopher’s favourite, “what is it like (to be).” Although because of recent developments in science and technology, consciousness has, again, become a significant topic of research in psychology, neuropsychology and neuroscience within the past few decades.

In 2006, at John Hopkins Medicine, Roland Griffiths research showed that given single high doses of psilocybin, two-thirds of the participant rated their experiences as one on their top five most meaningful life experiences - equivalent to the birth of their children, for example. In 2010, UCLA Medical professor Charles Grob showed evidence of his work using psilocybin to treat anxiety in late-stage cancer patients, and psychologist Allan Ajaya will shared his findings from his research in LSD-assisted myofascial pain therapy. However, if one were to pick a favourite in leading the research on psychedelics and human consciousness, it would undoubtedly be Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris at the Division of Brain Sciences, at the Beckley/Imperial research programme in London, whose research into psychedelics helping patients in dealing with comorbid depression, PTSD, anxiety and schizophrenia has been paradigm challenging.

A government then, through its policy of banning all and every psychedelic (synthetic or otherwise), and all and every ethical experimentation with ones own consciousness, professes to control behaviour in a complex social setting, and becomes the sole arbitrator of our conscious experience when, in fact, it can hardly be trusted to manufacture a quasi-decent education, health or economic policy. By limiting our access to drugs, especially psychedelics, that might help individuals in changing their information processing and minds, the government sees society as an irrationally unified, and hierarchically organised whole, and sees itself as the only rational-agent able to parent a raving, wild, hellenistic mass. Without realising, of course, that raving, wild, and hellenistic are neither immoral nor black-hearted adjectives. Terrence McKenna, an ethnobotanist from Berkeley, and one of the leading authorities on the ontological foundations of shamanism, who penned down the first and the “Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third story window. Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behaviour and information processing.” And while all drug use, recreational or otherwise, carries with it some probability of harm, pure MDMA is one of the least dangerous drugs known. Indeed, it is much less dangerous than drugs like alcohol, tobacco or cannabis, and, as the current wave of research shows, is remarkable for working with difficult emotional experiences that would otherwise be less likely to treat.

You could rightfully argue that some users can’t manage intake, so as to make sure it is healthy. And if doctors can ration it, it just opens up too many doors. But when we engage in the social sciences, and in democracy, we assume the agent to be a rational actor, to be able to access his or her own higher cognitive capacities, and apply them to their own decision making schemas; it a belief shared by every elected government of the world. Otherwise these artificial gardens we construct with our ‘general will’, and water with our taxes, will end up usurping all our sovereign power by making all the policies and all our choices on our behalf. And end up controlling the private contents of our minds; which we must never secede. Surely people drink and die, fall in love and commit crimes of passion, smoke and invite cancer, but we don’t ban alcohol, love, or smoking. Instead, functional democracies choose to regulate them, compartmentalise them, have a mechanisms for checks and balances. But it should not take anything away from the claim that when the governments become the sole arbitrator of the conscious experiences we choose to have, then we’ve given up not only bodily autonomy, but also the very seat of Liberty, our minds. This is not say psychedelics should be distributed willy-nilly, but to say that they can be recommended with serious caveats.

What is holding back legalisation of psychedelics and other drugs in the majority of the world is the marriage - tacit or otherwise - of literal interpretations of Judeo-Christo-Islamic religions with policy. Which, in turn, result, in creating a culture in which there is a general uncomfortableness with the private moral choices of others. And our culture, like every culture, which we put on like an overcoat, is the collectivised consensus about what sort of neurotic behaviours are acceptable.

To summarise the point I make, I leave you with the words of Stanislav Grof who has pioneered the dawn of a new psychedelic research era in the world:

“Psychedelics, used responsibly and with proper caution, would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology or the telescope is for astronomy. These tools make it possible to study important processes that under normal circumstances are not available for direct observation.”