Harm Reduction Victoria

The Charles Shaw Interview Transcript

Charles shaw interveiw header

This interview was conducted by Dan in late 2013. Certain parts of the interview were published in “Whack!”magazine No. 31 as part of the “Emerging trends” issue, but due to size restraints we couldn’t publish it in its entirety. Due to popular demand, we have uploaded the entire transcript in its entirety for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!


I recently had the opportunity to chat with Charles about his book and about the healing properties of many psychedelic drugs. Here is some of what we spoke about.

I wanted to start by mentioning that a lot of the time when I hear you speak I’m reminded of Bill Hicks in the way that you speak and some of the things that you say – is he someone that you identify with?
Definitely. In fact the 3 biggest influences I have in that regard are Bill, and George Carlin, and Lenny Bruce.

I don’t know Lenny Bruce.

Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, all those guys never would’ve been able to do what they did if it wasn’t for Lenny Bruce. He was the first person to challenge free speech laws as far as stand up goes and he was the first person to start talking about government and religion and sex. It’s a really complicated story but basically performers used to be regulated in New York and California through this thing called cabaret cards. And you couldn’t get a cabaret card unless you were in good with the police and so he challenged the constitutionality of it and he won. But they also drove him crazy because of it and drove him to his death.

So your book Exile Nation tells quite a brutal story about your battle with crack addiction, incarceration and healing. What was your motivation to tell that story?

Well, I think ultimately it was a catharsis. When it all happened I was working as a journalist and, you know, everybody in my life said ‘oh, what an amazing opportunity you have to write about this’. And I think that my approach and my attitude in the beginning was not to write the kind of book that actually ended up being written. It was going to be more of, you know, a political treatise and just a hard investigatory book, less of my personal story. I mean I’m not really entirely sure ‘cause it took on so many different forms. But it wasn’t until I got out of prison and had to start the real process of healing and reintegrating, becoming suicidal, and having to fight through that, that I actually really confronted writing the book. I mean, I had started in prison, but the but then it sat for a couple years afterwards and then I just got this overwhelming need to finish it after a couple years of healing work and traveling and finding myself and going to festivals and shit like that. It was time to buckle down, and so I did. And so the couple of years I had gave me some perspective and it allowed me to write it in a very different kind of voice that I would have written it if I’d done it right away. And so it ended up being more of the therapeutic process – a catharsis of everything that I’d gone through and a way to put it all down in my own terms. And ultimately the alternate reason was to try to humanise people like myself to a larger audience and to tell their stories.

I can imagine the catharsis that you’d experience writing that, and did that continue when you put that out into the world?

Yeah, it was actually the most empowering thing I had ever done.  I had carried a lot of fear about the secrets that I had or people finding out about my past and all this shit. And I had seen that type of fear destroy a bunch of other people and I just realised that that the best way to hide is in plain sight. That was really my attitude to it. I was like, well fuck it, I wanna keep speaking out, I wanna keep trying to make a difference, I wanna try to rebuild my life, I don’t want anybody holding me back, so if I just put it all out there then what’ll they have to complain about or what’ll they have to come at me with. So it was a strategy.

So it’s interesting that that can provide that healing when you could say that it was use of MDMA for healing that put you there in the first place.

Uh, it was the first step, I had a big fifteen year gap in between psychedelic use and it was mostly filled by a crack addiction. So MDMA was the first step, first thing I was reintroduced to, and then the second thing was LSD, and then the third was DMT, and then the fourth was ayahuasca, in that order. But MDMA, LSD and DMT all came within a two week period…


Yeah, it was pretty intense. And then it was a whole other year until I found the ayahuasca.

In the book you seem to celebrate the medicinal applications of MDMA, LSD and other psychedelic substances, so what is it that you got out of these and how did they help you with your PTSD?

I think the best way to describe that is very simple; it re-awoke and reconnected me with my heart and my ability to feel. And I just didn’t have that – PTSD makes you numb. The only thing you really feel is anger or fear. So it allowed me to open up and in the opening up process it allowed me to start confronting so many of the things that had happened in the past and start healing them. It turned me around and turned me back into a feeling human being again. And it allowed me to do some very intense processing work that would have taken many years in other forms of therapy.

Yeah, it certainly opens you up to that experience and those feelings. Do you feel like there were times where it was not so healing and rather possibly damaging or holding you back? In the book you talk about the way that you were using MDMA and people not wanting to just get on it with you.

Yeah, I mean that was just in the first two months. And basically I was like a born again Christian who had just been saved and I was just out their trying to just preach the lord’s goodness to everybody. So it was a phenomenon that happens to a lot of people; particularly people who have been suffering for so long and then suddenly they’re opened up again with something like MDMA, and they really just want to share that feeling with everybody. So what that did was… it’s not that I was abusing the drug, it’s that I was abusing the respect that I should have paid to it and realising that I was making myself vulnerable. And that’s ultimately what happened because I had this ongoing battle with the Chicago Police going on and they took advantage of me not being on top of my shit, to be perfectly honest. And so I was very careless. But I think that the overall intent behind it all was still the same.

So there’s the evangelising newcomer and then there’s the ego traps that happen when people start taking a lot of psychedelics. And that’s basically just because we haven’t had a lot of time with them to realise the full arc of growth and integration. Instead people just… it gives you a new identity because it liberates you but then you get trapped in that ego type. That’s why a lot of people that get prone to narcissism just get really, really, REALLY narcissistic when they start taking psychedelics.

One thing that I was drawn to in the book was your story of your K and DMT experience. You obviously go over it quite a bit in your book and it was fascinating to read, I was wondering if you could add anything to that? And I suppose as an addition to that, using ketamine in that healing space, do you have any opinion on what’s going with the research into ketamine as a treatment for depression?

Umm yeah, I’m all for any kind of rigid clinical study of a drug for its potential and I believe all of these drugs have potentials for certain things. I don’t particularly like ketamine. I didn’t mind it in this injectable intramuscular experience I had; that wasn’t too bad. But I’ve actually had a couple of really bad experiences with ketamine. And I also watch a lot of people abuse it and that’s a real concern for me. People really withdraw and they lose their ability to function normally, to deal with people, to communicate, you know, they just slip away from reality. And that kind of thing is dangerous under any circumstances. But for me, the limited experience I’ve had with it, I was really grateful for it when I had that DMT shot because it cut the hairiness of the DMT back and it made it really pleasant and beautiful. It is the single most beautiful visionary experience I’ve ever had. I’ve never experienced anything like that. Even with years of drinking ayahuasca and trying ibogaine and huachuma and what have you, I still have never seen anything like that. So I credit it with the proverbial breaking open of my soul. It cracked me open and started the whole process. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

That sounds incredible.

If you saw BBC’s Drugs Inc. which was a series of 45 minute episodes dedicated to a particular drug in each, it was actually really informative in most episodes but K was one that they really just kind of hammered down on it and highlight all the health and dependence issues.

Yeah, I mean let’s remember that it’s a fricken animal tranquilizer. It’s meant to take animals and incapacitate them. It’s a complete dissociative. So if you’ve got problems connecting with reality to begin with, having a dissociative drug in your system is not exactly the most wise choice you can make.

Absolutely, there’s certain drugs that don’t agree with certain people and that’s a prime example.

I mean, I’m of the mind that every drug has its benefit. It’s not the drug it’s the usage and the potency that is the problem. We have entire civilisations built on the poppy or the coca plant but once you turn it into an alkaloid…

So ketamine, again it has some amazing stuff. MAPs is looking into it, Beckley [Foundation]’s looking into it. But I guess the overarching concern is that I always get concerned when people think that drugs are a fix all. And they’re not. They were an amazing tool in my journey and without them I wouldn’t be here today but I don’t really take them anymore. Because, it’s the Alan Watts thing, once you get the message hang up the phone. I really enjoy being present in the moment and my life these days. I do a lot of work and I’ve done all the playing that I need to do. It did the work it was supposed to do, and then I was like ‘okay’. And it was even ayahuasca that made me kind of not want it anymore.

Two years ago was the last time I drank ayahuasca, it was three weeks in the jungle. I came out of it I quit smoking, I quit drinking, I pretty much quit everything that I was doing and have stayed relatively clear since. So you know, that’s what I recommend for everybody; go through the process of exploration, go through the process of healing but ultimately become so that you don’t need to rely on anything.

Yeah, and I think that’s where some people get stuck, they don’t get through to that, do they?

No, because it’s too much fun and they’ve been raised in a culture of partying and celebration and they just don’t realise that it’s a tool. And then that’s where the ego comes in and says ‘oh you drank this, you’re special’.

So, do you see a place for recreational drug use alongside the medicinal use?

Sure, oh yeah, absolutely. Altering our consciousness is basically our fourth primal drive, right behind eating and sleeping and reproducing. We have an inherent need to transcend our consciousness. So I don’t call it recreational, I actually think it’s part of our very consciousness itself. We need to flip consciousness states to be able to compare and contrast. We need an escape from stress and pressure. We need ecstatic times. We need times where we’re anaesthetised; where we’re not feeling things. We need to be stimulated at times. It’s a perfectly natural thing – we’ve watched animals do it for 40,000 years. That’s how we learned how to get high, by watching animals.

So yes, absolutely there’s a place for; there will always be a place for it. And I think that most of the problems that we have is just simply that we’ve lost, you know, that kind of tribal support systems and the type of familial support systems that help people in times of crisis. People are really just alienated and alone and suffering these days. And, you know, substances are readily available for them to ply themselves with rather than actually get help. I mean, dude, once I had done the work to get at the core of what had caused me to become a drug addict, what I was covering up, once I got at that I didn’t have any need to use drugs in the same way anymore. Even, like, the drugs that I was totally addicted to, like, cocaine, I don’t even like it anymore. All it has now is negative associations for me. So it doesn’t even work bio-chemically in the way that it did. It’s a trip, man, it’s a trip, but it’s good.

That’s interesting because it’s said that once you’ve experienced that kind of addiction that it’s something that never really gets switched off but you’ve found that it isn’t really there anymore?

Um… It’s not that it isn’t there; it’s just that addiction is like organism. Or look at it like a herpes infection, that’s a great way of looking at it; you rarely have outbreaks but when you do they’re pretty nasty. But mostly it lays dormant or it’s in a non-transmissible form. Addiction waxes and wanes over time if you actually try to get better; if you follow a harm reduction plan. And so over time we get less and less, it becomes less and less central over our lives. That’s a better way.

So following on from healing, you said recently that if not for the stigma applied to all psychoactive substances, your sister, Suraya could have been helped with the aide of plant medicines. Would you mind expanding on that?

Sure. My sister was Native American. We had adopted her at birth but she was full blood Native. When she followed the same path as most of the people in our family and developed a really bad addiction I had told her, and I kept telling her and my mother that I had these amazing plant medicines that could heal her. And so my mother who worked for a traditional rehab talked to people there and my sister talked to people in her AA group and they all said ‘wow, you’re crazy that’s a drug! And not only that but it’ll make you crazy if you do it.’ And so they both listened to the wrong people and didn’t even consider it as an option. Despite the fact that I was living proof that this stuff worked, you know, I could parade an endless stream of people that had had their lives changed. It was the prevailing stigma and the kind of mainstream conventional approach that really prevailed, and it dominates the entire recovery industry. And it’s terrible! And who knows what could have been? But I’ve got a pretty good idea. So I make a point of that. I make a point of people knowing; listen, if there was just the slightest bit of support behind this I might have saved her life. But it was just nothing but derided, you know, how was I supposed to convince someone who was already scared.

It reminds me of cluster headaches which can be prevented with LSD or psilocybin. In a documentary I once watched they spoke to a sufferer whose kids wanted him to use these treatments but he said that he would never use an illegal drug.

Yeah, it’s a common story. The fact that people would rather live in pain and misery than explore their own consciousness is the key symbol and sign that we’ve just lost our way, you know? It greatly concerns me, so that’s why I do a lot of what I do. Part of this is trying to break the stigma with intelligent discussion and hard hitting personal stories.

Yeah, it’s making it personal and not just about ‘those bad drug using people over there’. It puts a face to it.

Do you think we’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole of the demonization of drugs for politicians to turn around and say that they were wrong?

No. In fact they’re already changing. I mean South America’s already basically banded together and revolted against U.S. policy. India’s doing the same because India’s now complaining about the fact that the the U.S. has imposed its policy on them to stomp down on cannabis users and this is where cannabis use was invented! So, you know, people are just, they’ve had it. Not to mention in the last year alone we’ve watched two states legalise marijuana and the federal government decide that they’re not gonna pursue it, they’re not gonna crack down on it. Which tells me that the government’s getting ready to go legal itself.

So you see an end to the ‘War on Drugs’?

I don’t see an end to the ‘War on Drugs’. I see cannabis becoming legal, I see psychedelics becoming prescription, and I even see small changes. But the people that are benefiting the most from the drug trade, besides the actual traffickers themselves, is the entire Western banking system and the Western economy. And without the elevated prices that prohibition causes and without the high volume traffic that prohibition creates, there wouldn’t be that money. And they don’t have any way to actually formally tax and regulate it so it’s much easier to manage it as a black market business and then just reap the benefits. So I don’t see anything changing. Not to mention that all the great intelligence agencies of all the great powers have used drug proceeds to fund black operations going back to the British Empire and the Opium Wars. So this is nothing new and this is not a power that they want to give up.

End the war and end that power, huh?

Yup, not to mention that there is 2.5 million people sitting in prison cells in the United States right now and there’s 2.5 million people employed by the criminal justice system keeping them there. What are you gonna do with those 2.5 million people, throw them out of work?

Can you tell me about Exile Nation: The Plastic People, what’s it about? When can we see it? And what can we expect from your appearance at Rainbow Serpent?

Uh, Plastic People; I’m just about to start screenings in major cities, particularly major cities with heavy immigration issues. So I’m working on DC, LA, San Diego, Boston, Chicago, New York, Miami and Mexico City. So we’re setting up some private screenings with organisations and groups; we are talking to distributors right now trying to get it sold, so we’re hoping by the end of the year it will be out to the public. We’ll be showing it in Australia when I come out there so you’ll have to look for one of the events that I’ll be at either Melbourne or up in Byron [Bay].

And yeah, I’ll be out for [Rainbow] Serpent and Earth Frequency, so hopefully the folks’ll come out and see me, I’ll be doing talks. And if you liked my talk at Eclipse Festival last year you’re gonna love what I’ve got in the works for this year.

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Find more about Charles Shaw at the exile nation site and Charles Shaw Facebook page