By Isabel Fava Bean
On a sunny Saturday in the spring of 2015 I found myself talking to a redwood tree. I was tripping on mushrooms at a local park with a couple of UC Berkeley students and one of them, a bio major, was trying to convince me that plants don’t have feelings. Naturally, I abandoned the group I was with and walked off to converse with some plants. And who better to converse with than the tallest plant on earth, the coast redwood? I sat down in the gnarled roots of one redwood, my back against her bark, and gazed up at her neighbor. I began to listen. “Mushroom Isabel,” she intoned, as the blue sky behind her swirled, “You need to tell Sober Isabel to stop fuckin up.” I understood immediately that Mushroom Isabel was my shrooming self, and Sober Isabel was myself when I wasn’t on shrooms, though that Isabel was hardly sober. The tree told me I needed to refocus on what I truly cared about — learning sustainable living skills, learning to grow food — and stop distracting myself with partying, social media, and working in foodservice. It happened to be layout weekend for Slingshot #117 and the culmination of my trip was wandering into the Slingshot office and falling asleep on the couch while the rest of the collective was scrambling to get the paper laid out.
It was during that spring that my friends started talking to me about their experiences of boundary violations and rape. I read that 1 in 3 women are raped or abused in their lifetimes. I couldn’t help but feel it was only a matter of time until I went through the same. The one common factor in each of my friends’ experiences was intoxication. Both they and their rapists were under the influence — usually alcohol, sometimes molly or another drug. And intoxication wasn’t just incidental — it was sometimes part and parcel to the rape: “He kept offering me alcohol until I was too wasted to resist.”
Around this time a sober coworker gave me a zine called “Toward A Less Fucked Up World: Sobriety and Anarchist Struggle” by Nick Riotfag. Holy shit! Reading this zine blew my mind. It drew connections that hadn’t occurred to me before — connections between intoxication culture and violence towards women, oppression of people of color and queer people, and general societal malaise and apathy. My mom had always told me not to use drugs and alcohol for my own health and safety, which, as a teenager, was easy to disregard — it’s my body, I’ll do what I want! But to see that my substance use fit into large scale social patterns of oppression and violence was, for me, a compelling reason not to partake.
I had been working the night shift at a bakery, going out a lot, drinking and dabbling with other drugs. I broke my dad’s trust by throwing parties at his house and got formally called out at work for using drugs on the clock. All of the above had been building in my mind, I guess, because around my 20th birthday, I quit my job, stopped drinking, and set off on a 450-mile bike tour down the California coast. It’s been over two years and I haven’t touched drugs or alcohol since then, but I often think of what that redwood told me during that mushroom trip, reminding me to stay focused on what I know is important.
I had originally intended to write an article condemning any use of substances, restating many of the arguments in “Toward a Less Fucked Up World”. But I realize that nobody who uses and enjoys substances wants to read about how everything they’re doing is wrong. And I do see some positive aspects of substance use.
So, after discussions with a few of the people closest to me who enjoy substances, I attempted to step outside my judgements and brainstormed a list of the potential positive impacts of intoxication culture on our lives. I acknowledge and respect the sacred roles that some substances play in many traditional cultures. Substances can be wonderful medicines. I think it can be healthy and positive to conscientiously use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate for struggles we face that we cannot change, or that we need help to change. Alcohol might act as a social lubricant that helps us get out of our shell as we build the confidence to eventually express ourselves without it. And when being constantly aware of the pain and injustice in the world incapacitates us, substances might help us take a break and relax just long enough to gather our strength and jump back into radical projects. I think it’s important to recognize how fucking insane the world is right now, and not hold ourselves to rigid standards of sanity and logic all the time — we need to chill, to be goofy, to be wild sometimes — and in a culture that puts everything in tight boxes, substances can give us a taste of freedom, however short-lived. I do want to work toward a world where everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves and feels free without any substances. But of course we’re not there, and probably won’t be for a long time.
I know substances have been radicalizing and mind-opening for many folks. Psychedelics in particular have sparked friends of mine, and I’m sure many others, to open their eyes to the beauty of the natural world and our place within it and to question social norms and the values and lifestyles they were raised with.
I also brainstormed a list of the negative impacts of intoxication culture in our society. The connections between intoxication culture and rape culture are sharp. According to The Scientific American, when compared to people with XY chromosomes (“men”), people with XX chromosomes (“women”) are deficient in an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase that helps us metabolize alcohol. This, coupled with an average lower body weight, means “women” are more likely to have lower alcohol tolerance. Amongst young people, especially punks and bros, drinking more, faster is a point of pride, which pushes the most vulnerable people to drink past their limits. In my mind, some rape and boundary violations are the inevitable result of the combination of a culture of heavy drinking, the differences in the way that alcohol affects people, and the social expectations around sex. Logical ways to address this on a personal level are to reject social norms and redefine our sexualities using the language of consent, and to drink less or not at all, especially in spaces where rape is rampant, like on college campuses. Directing this suggestion just at female-identified folks echoes victim-blaming narratives — I direct it equally at male-identified folks. And of course we must continue to fight rape culture on all levels, not only in our personal choices.
Intoxication culture also has strong ties to consumer culture. The tobacco and alcohol industries are fat with the profits from our addictions and hold powerful positions in Amerika the Corporatocracy. The cannabis industry is set to take its place next to them, providing yet another packaged substance, taxed, regulated, and industrially produced and marketed. We all know that industrial, corporate food is killing the environment and the people who consume it, and that disadvantaged people and ecosystems are the hardest hit — let’s extend that critique to the systems that produce substances on a global, commercial scale. Some radicals see intoxication as a form of resistance to capitalist values of productivity, but this is a myth. Spending money on booze and drugs only ties us closer to the rat wheel. I know too many punks who work jobs they hate and spend much of their hard earned cash on booze, weed, and cigarettes — largely so they can forget about their crappy jobs for the weekend. Fuck that.
On a personal level, substances can be coping mechanisms for issues we might otherwise be challenged to address. They can numb us, keep us content and apathetic when faced with our own pain and trauma, global injustice, and environmental collapse. The popular narrative justifying intoxication culture says that we are using substances to “have fun” or “celebrate”. This avoids any awareness that attraction to substance use often comes from deep emotional wounds. Substances can help us cope with what we cannot change, and that is a beautiful thing, but we can’t let them keep us from facing the struggles that we can overcome.
Let me be clear that I do not wish to pathologize, criminalize, or condemn drug users, or to suggest that everyone should abstain from drugs or that sobriety is necessarily more radical than intoxication. Rather, I believe one can take a radical approach to intoxication, through self-awareness, and of course many people take a reactionary approach to sobriety, by stigmatizing and criminalizing drugs. I wholeheartedly believe in the decriminalization of drugs and freeing of those locked up for drug related crimes. I would like us to examine our substance use, or lack thereof, and consider the personal and political effects of our choices. Despite the prominent straightedge current within punk, I feel this subject largely goes undiscussed in radical circles — and I suspect that many of us are using substances not after thoughtful consideration, but merely because substance use is normalized and expected in our social circles.
Regarding approaching substance use through a radical lens, what can we actually do, tonight, tomorrow, to intoxicate in positive and conscientious ways? Here are some ideas — add your own!
Let’s DIY substances the way we DIY music, art, and radical organizing. Lots of us already do this. Brew your own beer. Distill your own booze. Mushroom hunt. Grow weed or opium poppies. If you gotta buy drugs, source them ethically. Decommercialize your drug use. Trade and give drugs away instead of buying and selling. Or barter for other goods. Dumpster dive for booze and drugs at college campuses on move-out day.
When we’re at bars and parties, let’s regulate our own levels of intoxication. Let’s watch those around us, and respectfully check in with people who are wasted, see what they need. Make sure they are safe. We can prevent individual instances of rape, drunk driving and other fucked up shit by being aware and taking care of each other. Cultivate safer spaces and spaces where intoxication is an option but sobriety is also socially acceptable. Let’s use substances to cope with what is beyond our control and to feel okay so we can stay engaged in radical struggle. Let’s let ourselves feel shitty sometimes and do that with substances when we need to. When we allow ourselves to feel shitty, we can begin to identify what is wrong and what we might need to change.
Sober people can frame their sobriety through a radical lens. Some ideas: We can respect everyone’s personal choices by not preaching. We can support comrades who are trying to use less substances by sharing our own experiences, and hanging out with them sober. Let’s consider how we could change our interactions so that people need drugs less often because they feel accepted, appreciated, and brave enough to face whatever demons they carry. Let’s learn harm reduction skills and support related programs, like needle exchanges and safer injection sites. Let’s continue to educate ourselves about the oppressive systems that target marginalized people by encouraging them to use drugs, and then victimize them further through a war on drugs that is really a war on drug users. Let’s acknowledge and examine our own dependencies, such as tobacco, coffee, pharmaceuticals, or refined sugar. Or buy coffee produced by a Zapatista collective.
I present these ideas less as a doctrine and more as a spark for discussion. A PDF of Toward A Less Fucked Up World is available online. Write to Slingshot and let’s talk! The most important thing is for all of us, whether we choose to use substances or not, to continue educating ourselves and each other about the ways in which those in power use intoxication culture to reinforce their dominance — and to fight that dominance on every front.