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<nettime> Erowid.org: Drug Info Online
Erik Davis on Sun, 30 May 2004 14:18:10 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Erowid.org: Drug Info Online

A piece I wrote about culture jamming and online drug info for the LA
Weekly, April 30, 2004:

Don’t Get High Without It
The Vaults of Erowid supplies the ultimate trip buddy: information
by Erik Davis

Early last February, a 19-year-old sophomore dragged himself into the
psychiatric emergency ward at a large American university hospital,
complaining that his friends and family were plotting against him.  
Though the fellow knew his thoughts were irrational, he could not shake
his bout of paranoia. He also told the receiving staff that six weeks
earlier he had swallowed an unknown amount of 2C-I, a recreational drug
that, in his case, produced bright colors and swirling patterns and a
suffocating onslaught of cosmic dread. The bad vibes had recurred with
increasing ferocity in the intervening weeks, until he finally decided to
check himself in.

When a third-year medical student named Jack Ludlow showed up for his
shift, the receiving staff were asking themselves the same question that
probably just crossed your own mind: What the hell is 2C-I?  Luckily,
Ludlow knew something about the esoteric world of substance use and abuse
among young adults, and identified 2C-I as a rare hallucinogenic
phenethylamine. But his search of the usual medical databases for more
detailed information turned up zilch. Then he aimed his Web browser toward
The Vaults of Erowid (www.erowid.org), where he found data about the
chemical structure of 2C-I and a link to the EU’s recent scientific review
of the substance. “This information helped us to treat this patient’s
symptoms,” Ludlow wrote in a letter thanking Erowid. “We expect that his
symptoms will resolve completely.”

Ludlow’s tale is a conventional enough story of medicine in the age of the
Internet, except that Erowid is not your conventional medical database. It
is an independent Web site run by a couple of neo-hippie data geeks
without Ph.D.s, institutional backup or government funding.  Two longtime
partners who go by the names Earth and Fire (she’s the Fire), they’ve
built the most comprehensive encyclopedia of psychoactive substances
online. Erowid holds 4,500 archived images and over 25,000 individual
documents, including dosage charts, indexes of research articles, FAQs and
legal briefs. You can feast your eyes on detailed pharmacological charts,
JPEGs of freebase pipes and mushroom spores, a vibrant vault of
psychedelic art, and thousands of links to everything from the Salvia
Divinorum Research and Information Center to the DEA. But Erowid is more
than a vast library of documents concerning those plants, powders and
poisons that continue to bedevil and enchant the human nervous system. The
Web site is also an example of online culture jamming at its most rigorous
and mature.

The topic of psychoactive drugs is a many-headed beast, encompassing
pharmacology and federal law, dirty needles and God. The structure of
Erowid reflects this multidimensional approach: You open the vault for a
single substance, like AMT or heroin, and from there branch out into
chemistry, health, history, legal issues and personal testimonies. By far
the most entertaining vault contains thousands of “experience reports”
logged by psychonauts flying high (and taking notes) on exotic cacti,
prescription pharmaceuticals, and newfangled phenethylamines like 2C-I. At
once formulaic and bizarre, these reports provide details about dosage,
timing and body load largely lacking in the hazy trip tales of yore. An
individual going by the name of Fu, for example, reports that s/he
consumed one gram of Harmala extract, followed 40 minutes later by 60
grams of fresh psilocybe cubensis mushrooms:

     From 7:00-7:45 I began to progressively watch my ego disintegrate
itself into the aethyr. This process of ego dissolution started out as a
delicate web-like structure that appeared to be made of silver
illuminating threads of silk emanating from the center of my field of
vision. This web continued to increase in detail and otherworldliness as
multi-colored translucent tentacles began to spiral around each silver
thread of this “web.”

Strange and sometimes hilarious, these mad-science micro-memoirs recall
nothing so much as 19th-century toxicology, when scientists routinely
tested poisons and psychoactive compounds on themselves while
systematically recording subjective effects.

Though Earth and Fire post many pieces themselves, Erowid is basically a
collection of other people’s documents, many of which contradict one
another. Psychoactives are a deeply confounding dimension of the human
experience, and the site lets these loose ends dangle in plain sight,
avoiding pat generalizations and absolute claims. They do not attempt to
vet every wild and wacky claim, though they strive to maintain an overall
tone of caution, pragmatism and healthy skepticism. Warnings of known
dangers are prominently posted, but moralizing is abandoned in favor of
fact and reasonable conjecture. The site will not tell you, for example,
whether MDMA will damage your brain. What you will learn is that a guy
named BJ Logan didn’t detect any neurotoxicity in randomly bred albino
rats injected with 25 mg/kg MDMA, while another researcher found that Dark
Agouti rats showed serotonin depletions at doses as low as 4 mg/kg. The
rest, as they say, is up to you.

Erowid is an enormous hit. The site serves an average 400,000 page views
to over 30,000 unique visitors a day, and recently logged more than half a
million page hits in one 24-hour period. Surfers view an average of 13
pages each, which significantly outpaces most Web sites.  Based on
Erowid’s own surveys, its visitors include teachers, cops, chemists and
pediatricians. By far the largest chunk are students, 3 million or so in
2003, the bulk of whom are undergrads. That’s why Erowid’s server traffic
dips noticeably during summer and December vacations.

“Erowid is the trusted source for young people who want to get information
that’s as uncontaminated by hidden agendas as possible,” says Rick Doblin,
president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies
(MAPS), which maintains close ties to the site. As an example, Doblin
compares Erowid to Freevibe, a sassy anti-drug Web site created by Disney
and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). “Freevibe is
designed to attract young people, but their MDMA page is bullshit. By
providing misinformation or inaccurate information, you destroy your
credibility. Kids go elsewhere.” Doblin believes that Erowid is performing
a public service by providing information that citizens can use to make
good choices. “Erowid shouldn’t have to do what it’s doing. In an ideal
world, it wouldn’t exist. This work would be done by the government.”

Inside the psychedelic, rave and harm-reduction communities, Earth and
Fire are considered leaders, even heroes. But they insist they’re just a
pair of librarians — archivists and “Internet dorks” who believe that
better access to better information just makes for better decisions in the
long run. “Basically, we act as if there isn’t prohibition,” says Earth.
“We are trying to publish this information as if the world were already
making rational choices around this complicated area.”

Rationality, however, rarely claws its way into the public discussion of
drug use in this country. Despite widespread disgust with the war on
drugs, the dominant American narrative hasn’t budged much since Reefer
Madness, which assumed that people are defenseless lemmings unable to
withstand the seductive and all-consuming call of horribly damaging drugs
and their demonic proponents. After years working under the radar, Erowid
is now being painted into this patronizing, B-movie tableau. A year ago,
CBS News ran an “Eye on America” that focused on the Web site, which they
faintly praised as “the encyclopedia of altered states.” Their flash case
was a 17-year-old who fell unconscious after taking a combination of
5-MeO-DMT, a mighty psychedelic tryptamine, and Syrian rue, a plant rich
in a monoamine-oxidase inhibitor, or MAOI, called harmaline. By
temporarily squelching enzymes that metabolize organic amines such as DMT,
MAOIs significantly extend the tryptamine’s flight time. The fellow
learned about this rather risky combo from Erowid, which CBS claimed had
given the fellow “a brand-new way to flirt with death.” Later that year,
Fox News ran a predictably hysterical piece about online drug information
that showed screen shots of Erowid, although the site’s name had been
blurred out. Perhaps Fox knew that CBS’s earlier spot had doubled Erowid’s
server traffic for days.

These reports cast Erowid as little more than cheerleaders proffering
recipes for gray-matter mischief. “Erowid are presented as somehow
opposite the government, as totally positive rather than constantly
negative,” says MAPS’s Doblin. “But that’s just wrong. They’re not
pro-drug. They’re pro-choice, and the choice should lie with the
individual who has access to good information.” Doblin points out that
only an idiot could mistake the 5-MeO-DMT vault for a pusher’s hard sell.
Tales of crystalline entities and the implosion of space-time abound — and
these are the positive reports. Add this to the prominent list of
contraindications (which includes MAOIs), and most reasonably responsible
people would think very hard before embarking on the good ship 5-MeO-DMT.

But that’s the rub: How many of Erowid’s users can be said to be
reasonably responsible? Leaving aside the fact that many people turn to
drugs to escape the world of reason and responsibility, Doblin’s
pro-choice argument requires that users are already capable of critical
thinking — not to mention navigating the basics of pharmacology. “Most
people who get on Erowid are bright and well educated,” says Edward Boyer,
the toxicologist and emergency-room physician who treated the young man in
the CBS story. “But not everyone is. I mean, how many people know what
‘contraindication’ means? When I started medical school, I didn’t know
what it was.”

Boyer first started tracking online drug sites in 1996, after treating two
fellows who poisoned themselves with a batch of GHB they had whipped up
after discovering a recipe online. In 2001, the New England Journal of
Medicine published his letter accusing Erowid and other “partisan” Web
sites of providing dangerous misinformation.  (Unfortunately, the research
and methodology Boyer used were not included in his letter, nor did the
Journal deign to print Erowid’s rebuttal.) Though Boyer has since come to
cautiously admire Earth and Fire, and no longer refers to their site as
“partisan,” he still argues that Erowid minimizes adverse effects and
includes too much dodgy — and potentially harmful — data in its quest to
present all sides. “Erowid is so comprehensive, and so much of the
information is correct, that unless you’re an expert in medical toxicology
you may miss the dangerous information that’s close to the surface.”

Boyer wants the assurances provided by the professional system of peer
review and expertise. The problem is that, when it comes to recreational
drugs in America, politics have largely hijacked these noble mechanisms.
Last year, for example, the Johns Hopkins neuroscientist George Ricaurte,
a prominent and tireless critic of MDMA, issued a retraction of a
controversial and widely hyped paper published the previous year in the
prestigious journal Science.  Ricaurte’s original study reported that
monkeys shot up with only moderately strong doses of MDMA experienced
“severe” damage to their dopamine systems, leading to Parkinson’s-like
symptoms and some deaths.  Embarrassingly, it turned out that Ricaurte’s
grad students had actually been shooting up the animals with
methamphetamine. Though some interpreted the retraction as evidence of the
self-correcting nature of science, the real question — posed by the
prominent British medical researchers Colin Blakemore and Les Iversen,
among others — was why Ricaurte’s report was published in the first place,
given that its results were so out of whack with what we know about the
very real neurotoxicity of MDMA. If Ricaurte’s study were true, then
ravers would routinely be forced to dance over the corpses of their
triple-dosing peers.

The unspoken reality is that, in today’s America, politics overwhelms the
scientific investigation of recreational drugs. Ricaurte, for example,
receives the bulk of his large research funds from the National Institute
on Drug Abuse (NIDA), while researchers interested in exploring the
positive aspect of drugs like MDMA not only face a lack of funding or
federal approval, but professional suicide. As Earth explains, “The people
who know the most about this subject don’t talk about it publicly, because
they are legitimately afraid for their careers.”

By creating an anonymous and evolving space of discussion, debate and
trust, Erowid has not abandoned peer review, but precariously extended its
boundaries. Published research findings cohabit with postings from
anonymous research scientists and the interpenetrating comments of
freelance alchemists, wackos and all manner of drug nerds. Earth calls it
“grassroots peer review,” a process that involves self-selecting
contributors whose collective intelligence increases through the dynamics
of a highly networked and committed community.

Though it largely ignores policy debates, Erowid is a striking example of
guerrilla information war. Millions of people, particularly young people,
regularly access a repository of data whose very accessibility erodes the
coercive exaggerations, hysteria and outright lies common to government
and mainstream-media discussion of drugs. In addition, the very form of
Erowid, which presents a model of an honest and open-minded psychoactive
culture, encourages intelligent decision making. Earth and Fire don’t take
up guns in the drug war; they blanket the battleground with leaflets.


I met Earth and Fire a few years ago through a rave collective that held
its parties in an Episcopal church in San Francisco before the hedonic
glee broke the limits of divine tolerance. Now in their mid-30s, the
couple have been together since they were teenagers. Both are recognizably
Midwestern: Fire’s Björk-ish moon face is framed by straight brown hair,
while Earth has a towering Nordic frame, shoulder-length blond hair and a
firm, determined jaw decorated with a wispy goatee. She speaks with a
clipped, fiercely intelligent directness that might come off as oddly
masculine were it not for Earth’s equally fierce, if more verbose, ray-gun
patter. In both their dress and their self-possessed manner, they seem
uncannily symbiotic.  In person and even on the phone, they often finish
each other’s sentences.

This conviviality is a good thing, since they spend nearly all their time
together, slumped side by side before their monitors, cranking away at
their Web site for up to 80 hours a week. They work out of a rambling
ranch house in the foothills of the Sierras, with two cats named Circe and
Pan and a growing library of drug books. Their mind-altering substance of
choice is not mushrooms or pot but caffeine, which they consume in rather
enormous quantities. Erowid, they joke, is fueled by Mountain Dew.

Erowid accepts no advertising, and Earth and Fire’s shoestring budget is
based solely on contributions. Though their site receives outside
donations, Earth and Fire have no institutional support, and no trust
funds to draw from. For the last few years, nearly half of their costs
were floated by Bob Wallace, employee number nine at Microsoft and a
strong supporter of psychedelic research. But Wallace died unexpectedly in
his San Rafael home in the fall of 2002, and Erowid’s coffers are now
basically empty. The couple are trying to motivate themselves to
fund-raise. “One of the positive things about being broke is that we don’t
feel comfortable asking for money until we don’t have any,” Earth jokes.

Earth and Fire first met in high school near Minneapolis. Fire prefers not
to talk on record about her family, but Earth explains that his father was
an engineer who filled their house with computers way back in the 1970s.
His dad was committed to lifelong learning and believed that people should
hang out with folks of widely different ages. He also believed that
Coca-Cola makes you smarter. He encouraged the neighborhood kids to hang
out with him at their house, and calmed their somewhat puzzled parents
with the promise that the kids’ grades would go up — but only if they were
allowed to drink as much Coke as they desired. He was usually right.

 From the get-go, Earth developed a logical and fiercely independent turn
of mind. But he was not a rebel, and in junior high, he was actively
critical of drug use. The only stoner in his class was a jerk, and that
kid’s older brother had stolen Earth’s bicycle. “So the model I had was
that people who did drugs were losers and thieves.” This view was
confirmed by the Reagan-era “Just Say No” messages saturating the
educational system. Then one day, Earth’s health teacher claimed that
human beings were the only animals stupid enough to use drugs. This
contradicted a Science News story Earth had recently read about
belligerent African elephants tearing through large structures in order to
get their snouts into booze. “I started to realize that the information I
was getting was . . .”

“Tangential to the truth,” says Fire.

During senior year, Earth was asked by his fellow student-council members
to help man the door at the freshman dance. To spice up the evening, the
council president suggested they ‰ smoke pot together.  Earth was shocked.
Asking around, he soon discovered that most of the top students in his
class had experimented with cannabis but didn’t want him to know about
their delectation because of his hard-ass stance on the issue. Earth had
pierced through one of the many falsehoods presented by prohibitionist
propaganda, which is that balanced and successful people don’t use illicit

Earth and Fire started going out after high school, when both of them
attended a small university in Florida where they majored in humanities.
(Earth, who later designed scientific databases, had no interest in doing
computer science; the computers he had at home were much better than those
at school.) It wasn’t until after they graduated that the couple took acid
— or, in Earth’s typically more exacting description, “a random piece of
paper that I was given and told was LSD.” They briefly returned to
Minnesota, where they felt self-consciously freaky in their embroidered
jeans and long hair. So they decided to move to the Bay Area, where they
could be, as Earth puts it, “somewhat conservative normal people.”

It was 1994, and the Bay Area was riding high on the combined energies of
the Internet boom, the rave scene and an increasingly self-conscious
psychedelic revival. Earth and Fire met large numbers of psychedelic users
who broke the usual stereotypes. Earth once again confronted the lesson of
his student-council year. “I encountered people who were dynamic,
interesting and creative intellectuals — successful people who told me
that I should try taking these things. This was dissonant with the
government’s information.” (This, by the way, is how Earth talks.)

In order to resolve that dissonance, Earth and Fire started researching,
and soon found themselves hooked — not on the drugs, but on the work. “The
world is full of psychoactives,” says Fire. “When you see that it’s not
just LSD and heroin and cocaine, that there are plants everywhere, you
start to realize how deep the field is, and how much information there is
to keep track of. You also realize how lacking the government information
is. Not only was the minimal data we were getting on the Web contradictory
to government sources, but it was contradictory to itself.”

Their desire to organize and provide access to such a vast and
multifaceted field of data led them to found Erowid in 1995. “Each person
on the planet has something that fits them,” says Fire, who serves as
Erowid’s designer and information architect and writes many of the site’s
basic pages. “Very quickly after starting this project, it became clear
that it fit me. In college I found it difficult to get excited about
focusing on one discipline for the rest of my life.  Erowid is extremely
interdisciplinary, so it has allowed me to follow my interests in
chemistry, botany, history, anthropology and law.”

Earth explains that Erowid satisfied an archival urge he traces back to
Dungeons & Dragons, which he once played religiously. The role-playing
game exploits the fetish for mapping and collecting stuff and presents,
like drug lore, a curious balance of the fantastic and the technical.  
Fire also used to write stories with her friends and draw detailed
pictures of the floor plans of the characters’ homes. “It was very D&D but
from a different angle.”

“From a girlie angle,” Earth adds.

“It wasn’t that girlie.”

But it was geeky. Earth calls the commonality “an idle-ish, paperwork,
detail-oriented kind of systems thinking — a kind of externalization of
memory. That’s a huge part of what Erowid is. There is no way to keep
track of that amount of information without a robot assistant.” In other
words, arranging and programming a good database actually makes the
information more intelligent.

Initially, the Erowid robot had the modest goal of supplementing
Hyperreal, then the largest purveyor of drug data online. The couple were
particularly drawn to obscure and highly technical information about
extraction techniques, alkaloid contents and improvements in psilocybin
cultivation. In 1996, the administrators for Hyperreal ceased maintaining
the site, and within two years, Erowid moved onto the Hyperreal server and
absorbed the older site, instantly doubling its traffic. Though another
site, called the Lycaeum, also provides a healthy, if wilder, brew of data
(at www.lycaeum.org), and scores of sites devote themselves to individual
compounds, Erowid comes closest to a comprehensive archive of contemporary
psychoactive-drug information.

It’s not an easy place to be. The couple are perpetually overwhelmed by
the need to manage, update and publish a torrent of information. “It
doesn’t take an informed person five minutes to find huge gaps,” says
Earth. Their tobacco and caffeine vaults are tiny, and the MDMA FAQ is
horribly out of date. Large tracts of their site lie fallow. “Areas like
‘Ask Erowid,’ where visitors can ask questions that aren’t addressed on
the site, are a source of unending suffering,” says Fire.  “Months go by
without a question being answered. If I think about that, I start to feel

But Erowid now has more-pressing demands. E-mails from emergency medical
technicians and physicians attest that Erowid has saved lives, and scores
of health professionals have made the site their primary online source
when dealing with unfamiliar drug problems. And young adults are turning
to it in droves. “When we first started, we were interested in documenting
the cutting edge of information about psychoactives,” says Fire. “That had
to change as it became clear that people were using Erowid in a way we had
not originally intended. Not having the basic background information
seemed dangerous in some ways.” The flip side of this public service is a
mountain of responsibility — pressure that makes for the sort of
high-minded workaholism that, combined with empty coffers, can easily lead
to burnout. Paranoia also waits in the wings. Though the couple keep the
site free from the sort of tasty bits useful to law enforcement, and will
literally turn away from conversations that tell them more than they want
to know about individuals involved in manufacture and supply, Earth and
Fire sometimes fear they will get harassed simply out of spite.


Along with mistaking Earth and Fire for ravenous drug fiends, people often
assume that they’re radical libertarians on the issue of drug
legalization. “No controls?” counters Earth. “That seems crazed to me.  I
like government controls in a lot of ways. I think stop signs at four-way
intersections are fantastic.” What concerns the couple is how prohibition
distorts the understanding of our world’s psychoactive reality.
“Consciousness is a chemically mediated process,” says Earth.  “The
pretense of the drug war is that, if we could just get rid of all these
crazy chemicals, people wouldn’t be faced with the choice of whether to
take strong psychoactives. In fact, today I can buy all manner of
antidepressants, anxiolytics and stimulants. From a very early age, we are
faced with caffeine, which our society only pretends isn’t a powerful

And we ain’t seen nothing yet. According to Earth, we are now witnessing
the early stages of what will be an explosion of more or less approved
mind-altering technologies — not just drugs, but powerful digital
technologies as well. “In the next 20 years, we will be faced with some
very sticky issues. By oversimplifying the complicated moral, ethical and
medical questions surrounding such technologies, the authorities
infantilize the general public. They don’t provide tools for people to
make rational choices. Instead they manipulate emotion through fear. They
present a model where there is only a single answer.”

Earth and Fire are the first to admit that Erowid’s philosophy is a
gamble. “There isn’t anything that I don’t question about our work,” Earth
admits. “Every piece of information that we put up is potentially
misusable.” Dangerous recipes and “pseudo-facts” permeate the site. But
Earth and Fire argue that important discussions should not be limited by
the specter of what an uncorked or foolish person might do in its
vicinity. “People do stupid things no matter what,” says Fire. “The drug
war started long before the Internet, and there’s no reason to believe
that people’s actions have become more stupid due to the online
availability of information about psychoactives.”

Still, Earth readily admits that one of Erowid’s major problems is that
crackpot or out-of-date documents, included for the sake of diversity or
historical interest, could easily be misinterpreted by a naive user as
gospel writ. One of the main goals of Erowid 3.0, a massive upgrade that
the couple are coding this summer, is to provide users with quick in-house
ratings of documents as well as a way to track their history and origin.
But the real issue is not the quality of Erowid’s data, which is largely
published elsewhere and which even critics like Boyer acknowledge is
pretty high. The real issue concerns the cultural consequences of creating
a handy, one-stop online database of such tantalizing lore. The experience
reports, for example, are a veritable Penthouse Forum of psychoactive
escapades — a “virtual peer group” in Boyer’s terms, and one that
certainly encourages use.

But prohibition eggs people on, too. David Franklin, a counselor at a
private high school in Richmond, California, who works with at-risk kids,
tells the story of two boys who decided to try pot simply because they
knew they were getting a fish story. “A lot of kids realize that they’ve
been given false information about drugs,” says Franklin. “They don’t know
what’s a lie or what’s a truth. They think everything is false.” Unlike
the government, Franklin believes that, when presented with real options
and solid information, kids are generally able to make good decisions. He
was once faced with a depressed 15-year-old girl who wanted to try LSD.
Along with explaining the potential dark side of acid, he sent her to
Erowid to read about other people’s experiences. After poring through the
material, she decided that her visit to electric ladyland could wait.

Even Boyer admits that online information may turn off as many potential
partiers as it turns on. At NIDA’s behest, he is currently studying the
relationship between the Internet and illicit drug use among at-risk kids.
So far, the results are ambiguous. “We’ve had people who are not drug
users read about Salvia divinorum and thought it was cool and started
using it. By the same token, we’ve had people who used to snort Ritalin
get on the Web, find out that it was bad, and quit.”

The role the Internet plays in psychoactive use is also complicated by the
steady trickle of new designer drugs, or “research chemicals” as Erowid
calls them, many of which, like 2C-I, modify known psychoactive molecules.
Because of this close resemblance, most of these substances are, arguably,
restricted under the Analogue Act of 1986, which prohibits drugs that are
“substantially similar” to scheduled compounds. Given the vagueness of
this language, though, a steady stream of quasi-legal powders provide
highs that stay one step ahead of the DEA’s scheduling process. Often
based on the chemist Alexander Shulgin’s magisterial research work with
his wife, Ann, in their catalogs of firsthand experiences, PiHKAL and
TiHKAL, these chemicals begin their life circulating through “boutique
markets” or what Fire calls “family networks” of dedicated psychonauts.
Some of the more fun ones then move into a larger gray market, where they
overlap or supplement established club drugs. As with the well-known (and
loved)  2C-B, synthesized by Shulgin in 1974 but not marketed until the
late 1980s, these more popular compounds often become controlled
substances themselves. In 2002, 2C-T-7, 5-MeO-DiPT (a.k.a. “Foxy”) and the
obscure but venerable AMT all wound up scheduled alongside acid and

The role that information plays in this cycle is, as Earth might say,
nontrivial. Early on, potential users need to know that such substances
exist, and are reportedly interesting, before they face the task of buying
them online or getting a chemist friend to synthesize them. By providing
information about these compounds, especially in the pivotal matter of
dosage, Erowid inevitably drives the culture. A few years ago, the couple
decided to label new research chemicals with a fat yellow biohazard symbol
to indicate to potential psychonauts that, given the paucity of data, they
were taking their brains in their own hands. To Erowid’s considerable
chagrin, some gray-market vendors began using the very same symbol to hype
their latest wares.

Clearly, online drug information is another one of those escaped genies
that are now ravaging consensus reality. The best hope — and the one that
motivates Earth and Fire — is to force the evolution of intelligence
through good data, an ethos of responsibility and courage, and a seductive
culture of critical thinking. “The belief that got us started and carried
us forward is that everybody should have access to the same information,”
says Fire. “Then we can actually discuss what’s true and not, the problems
and benefits. But if law is working off one set of data, and users on
their lore, and physicians on journals that no one can afford to subscribe
to, then there’s no way to integrate the data and make better decisions.”

In any case, prohibition will never be the same. Erowid has already forced
government sources like NIDA and ONDCP to become more sophisticated as
they face a widening credibility gap with young people. In 2002, Earth and
Fire were flabbergasted to receive an invitation to speak at a small NIDA
conference on “Drugs, Youth, and the Internet.” The couple felt that the
meetings, though surreal, went well. During one discussion about possible
collaborations between NIDA and Erowid, one NIDA researcher argued
strongly that the two groups should not work together. Such collaboration,
he said, might ruin Erowid’s reputation.


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