How an All-Time Great Guitarist Opened his Mind with Acid

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How an All-Time Great Guitarist Opened his Mind with Acid.

Though it doesn’t seem like something the Journal of Drug Abuse would print, the publication put out a report in 2016 arguing for a sensible drug policy. The argument was built not on science or research but on, of all things, the testimony of British jazz guitarist John McLaughlin. Grammy winner McLaughlin is considered a pioneer of jazz fusion and was ranked 49th on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. He is credited with inspiring Miles Davis to explore fusion and played on five Davis releases, including the double-album Bitches Brew (track two on side three is named after McLaughlin).

In the article, Self & Society co-editors Richard A. House and David Kalisch asked then-76-year-old McLaughlin about his cross-cultural experiences playing world music when they stumbled upon an answer that turned their attention to hallucinogens. McLaughlin discussed going to China and India for inspiration, and the typical self-actualization plan for a classic ’60s musician included, “LSD, mescaline, and other mind-expanding substances. Taking LSD in the 1960s,” the interviewers said, “helped McLaughlin realize that what he needed to do was develop [and enhance] his life.”

McLaughlin explained, “I saw that if my music were to be enriched, then my interior life needed to be enriched. It’s my personal conviction that I cannot have a poor interior life and a rich musical life.”

These experiences influenced his art, and along with culturally specific “approaches to finding the answers,” they helped him broach existential questions. These were matters, he said, of “personal identity… the nature of God and the infinite Universe in which we exist and why.”

“Onwards,” House and Kalisch reported, “he had no further use for [hallucinogens].” By the 1970s, McLaughlin told Rolling Stone that he was into only “yoga [and] meditation, no drugs.” He said of narcotics like heroin and cocaine, to which he “lost dear friends,” that “apart from the ‘high’ they confer, [they] are essentially absolutely useless.”

But despite his personal opinions, he thinks that it’s crucial that the government develop a sensible drug policy for all substances (some of which, he pointed out, are beneficial for medicine). He said,

“People will continue to take every possible kind of drug whether they’re legal or not, [and] at some point in the future, governments will have no choice but to legalize all drugs with strict accompanying quality control [so as to close off] the whole field [from] drug lords and criminals.… Prohibition has never worked—and it never will.”

McLaughlin has “a fundamental problem” with the mainstream approach to drug policy and discourse, taking issue even with the word itself, which he calls “obscure” with often “ominous overtones.” Cannabis is ascribed the label while alcohol is not, even though, he says, “[Pot is] much less harmful to humans.… Perhaps the main problem is that governments simply don’t discriminate between drugs that are very useful and those that are addictive.”

McLaughlin hinted at what House and Kalisch called the “wider cultural context” of the War on Drugs, saying, “Look at the world we are leaving to our kids! It’s a gigantic mess…. We are reaping the harvest of the horrific acts our grandparents and great-grandparents committed against so many people, and these acts continue to be committed by the same governments today!”

House and Kalisch explained that it’s not just doctors and lawyers who should help shape a sensible drug policy, it’s also the people like McLaughlin whose lives have been shaped by mind-altering substances.

“It’s a strange thought,” they wrote, “that drug policy should in the main be made, pronounced upon and enacted without the input of people who have actually had experience with different classes of drugs, and all the discernment and insight that such experience brings.… [For we are] otherwise stuck in the moribund realms of what is essentially a ‘moral panic.’”

And perhaps as more renowned artists like McLaughlin speak out about their experiences, people might start to turn against prohibition—at least the sorts of folks who enjoy jazz fusion, although they might already be on the right side of history. I mean, have you heard that guitar?

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