Chemical journeys to spiritual destinations

In search of the ultimate high: Spiritual experience through psychoactives by Nicholas Saunders, Anja Saunders and Michelle Pauli (Random House, £12.99)
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The Independent Culture

Drugs are back in the spotlight. Last week the Home Office rejected recommendations by the Police Foundation calling for reforms of the Misuse of Drugs Act. The proposals would have helped police to cope with current patterns of drug use by re-classifying drugs according to their relative risk to health. The report suggested cannabis use should no longer lead to a prison sentence. One week after the Home Office dismissed this expert opinion, Home Secretary Jack Straw told the country he did not object, in principle, to legalising cannabis for medicinal use.

It seems that if you take a drug because you are ill, that is acceptable. If you take a drug for fun, that is definitely not on. What about taking drugs for spiritual reasons? Or to explore your own consciousness? To many, the idea that drug use may have a positive impact remains inconceivable. While the boundary between illegal and legal drugs has become blurred for a significant percentage of the population, the law makes no difference between use and abuse.

In search of the ultimate high takes a step beyond the usual arguments surrounding the use of drugs. In some chapters, this book takes the reader to a whole new paradigm of thought. The book is illustrated with personal accounts of people who use psychoactives for a spiritual purpose. The accounts do not glamorise drug use, most involve a high degree of physical discomfort. In fact the common theme linking the stories is the purgative nature of the substances used. These spiritual journeys are not for the faint hearted, vomit and diarrhoea seem a necessary part of the experience. Yet the destinations reached by the contributions are profound, making this book a fascinating read.

Drug legislation has always been based within a medicinal framework. Drugs are bad for you, end of story. Severe reprimands for drug use protect people from themselves. For whatever reason, and against mounting evidence proving their detrimental effects, tobacco and alcohol remain excluded from this line of thought. A growing number of people have begun to question whether, in regard to drugs, the nanny state really does know best.

Against a backdrop of highly publicised medical blunders, self-diagnosis is on the increase. Sales of herbal remedies are flourishing and complementary medicine is big business. Ignoring the Government's reticence to comment on the safety of GM foods, comsumers are voting with their wallets. Nation, heal thyself.

The argument this book presents, that drugs can be used for spiritual means, is nothing new. Archaeological finds can prove that various substances have been used to alter consciousness throughout history, right around the world. The book looks at some of these examples from the use of peyote cactus in America to iboga by the African bwiti cult and other shamanic traditions. Added to these examples is a discussion of the use of psychoactives within world religions, with many being based within a Christian framework.

Drug literature is filled with argument over the relative merits of drug-induced mystical experiences over more 'worthy' routes. The risks are great. In search of the ultimate high does not gloss over the fact that most of the substances discussed are illegal, and some are down-right dangerous. Rather, the book provides basic information so the reader can make an informed decision on whether to follow this route themselves.

The cost of getting to such far-flung places are high. It seems unlikely that hedonists will be tempted to follow in the authors' footsteps to remote parts of the Amazon just for a laugh. The book also highlights more everyday examples of spiritual experience through psychoactives. The chapter on rave culture illustrates how right across the country a combination of music, dancing and drugs lets thousands explore a spiritual dimension every weekend.

In search of the ultimate high was completed after the death of Nicholas Saunders, author of several ground-breaking books including Alternative London and E for Ecstasy, who was killed in a car crash. Although in places it is hard to establish which of the three authors' voices one is reading, there is no doubt this book was a labour of love. Throughout, the reader is drawn into extremely personal detail so, for example, we are witness to Anja Saunders' feeling of inadequacy when she unpacks her mascara and hair gel in the Brazilian rainforest.

This book will appeal to anyone who has ever questioned the epistemological assumptions of Western belief structures. Contributors recallencounters with alien beings, other worlds and deities beyond so far from imagination that the meetings somehow ring true. It seems the war on drugs will continue to rage. Away from the corridors of power, however, this book represents the voice of a movement gaining momentum. The "just say no" campaign can never work, it is time to "just say know".

Mary Anna Wright is a founder of Psychonaut UK, a discussion group about psychoactive substances. For more information mail