High Chats with Michelle Lhooq

Hello slurps and slurpettes,

I hope you are all fed, watered, vaxed (if so inclined) waxed (if so inclined) and for those in the Northern hemisphere, enjoying the shift to warmer climes and a less cloistered way of life. I’m coming in hot today with big news for the High Society community, as I drop my first interview with none other than iconic drugs, rave and counterculture journalist Michelle Lhooq. I first began following Michelle’s work last summer, as she reported from the frontlines of the protests for racial justice on her newsletter, Rave New World. Since then, I’ve imbibed her experiential, thoughtful writing on the Wild West of the psychedelic boom, the future of drugs and the politics of partying with delight. Let’s jump in…

TK: Hi Michelle! Thanks so much for agreeing to talk to me.

ML: Totally! The things you wanted to talk about are top of mind right now and I’ve been wanting to engage with more of my newsletter readers.

TK: So, in preparation for this conversation I listened to your interview on the Rave to the Grave podcast and was intrigued when you mentioned that you grew up going to international school in different countries and that your first partying experiences were “crazy rich Asians” vibes. What was your journey from there to your social justice oriented, countercultural party perspective?

ML: It was a really organic evolution. I was always enticed towards the coolest and most interesting scene around me. When I was a teenager in Tokyo and Singapore it was a lot of sneaking out and going to bottle service clubs. Back then, like for a lot of teenagers, drugs were just such a taboo and a form of rebellion. And then you just realize that a lot of the drug education you got through school doesn’t link up with your actual experience and you have this initial realization that a lot of what the dominant culture accepts as fact is propaganda.

From then, I was a student at Columbia University in New York. I was really attracted to the countercultural history of Columbia. I was obsessed with the Beat generation and Kerouac and Ginsberg and all these people who met at Columbia.

TK: I didn’t know they met at Columbia...

ML: Yeah, it was a huge part of why I wanted to go there! They created really groundbreaking writing about drugs, while on drugs. They were very method in that way.

New York is where I started infiltrating the rave scene and obviously drugs are a huge undercurrent to that culture. That was when I started forming relationships with people that were in some sense drug-based or drug-fueled. Again, it was this sort of dismantling of the idea that substance induced relationships are somehow not as substantial as sober relationships. I found myself so bonded to people through those experiences. I had my little rave family where we would dress up as candy kids in fur boots and go to all night raves in upstate New York. Everyone was on so much ecstasy and it was this complete breakdown of social walls between us. I started to understand the communal aspects of drugs through these scenes. From there, I graduated and started writing for VICE. They offered me a job as a music editor focused on dance music, which allowed me to dive into the history and global politics of rave cultures around the world, which are so often about fighting political or identity based repression.

A really pivotal shift happened when I left New York and came to California and drugs went from being the undercurrent to the main focus. Also, I started incorporating addiction and sobriety into my writing because that was something I was going through. Now I’m starting to understand that you can’t talk about drugs without talking about addiction. Sobriety is in its own way a drug state, or atleast still part of the spectrum. I don’t think you can understand sobriety on a deep level until you’ve done drugs.

That kind of brings me up to last year and this year, where there was another expansion in the work when I started incorporating psychedelics. Cannabis, MDMA, ketamine and all these drugs that are really close to legalization, if not already legalized, are becoming formalized by the psychiatric and mental health industries in really interesting ways. There is this science and research based literature that didn’t exist as much in the mainstream five years ago.

TK: So much to unpack! In terms of incorporating addiction into your work, I’m curious as to whether you intended “California sober” (sobriety from substances except for cannabis and psychedelics) as a response to addiction? It seems like a lifestyle that many people would be interested in: not just those battling addiction, but also people who want an experience of inebriation that may feel less hedonistic than alcohol or other drugs? And my other question is, does it feel like a big responsibility to bring addiction into your writing?

ML: I would not have found my way to Cali sober if I didn’t feel like I was left out or didn’t have a right to claim the dominant discourse of addiction. I used to feel like I couldn’t talk about my struggles with drugs because I wasn’t doing meth or having trouble maintaining my job, but I push back against the idea that only the most intense cases or those who are completely sober are allowed to talk about addiction.

Cali sober started because I was going to a lot of weed parties in LA and when people offered me drinks or other drugs that I wasn’t doing at the time, I would tell them I was sober but they wouldn’t understand. I was also fairly new to California and very enamored with the lifestyle of self-optimization and wellness and all these different orientations that are more positive than the typical discourse around addiction, which is so much about destruction and harm. I wrote this essay that was very off the cuff and it caught on like wildfire. I had given a name to a phenomenon that seemed unclear or ambiguous. Once you name something it can help people understand the cultural forces shaping a trend. I didn’t feel personal responsibility in the beginning because I didn’t think of this as a project.

TK: Yeah, and you weren’t saying that everyone should be Cali sober.

ML: No, I didn’t think anyone else was doing it but then I realized there are thousands of others out there. It’s kind of the story of addiction: you feel like you’re the only one until you find a community and realize others are having the exact same experiences. Since then, I’ve started thinking about sobriety more seriously with the help of a lot of communities, including the Club Sober Discord (an online community for Rave New World subscribers). That has come with more responsibility and more backlash from the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) community.

TK: Right, people who think AA is the only way to do it and you shouldn’t be recommending anything other than full abstinence?

ML: Yeah. Even Elton John recently said something! He said that Cali sober doesn’t work and the only way to do it is totally clean. It does make me anxious that I’m advocating for something that is an excuse for some people or might be harmful to people who really cannot engage with drugs. At the same time, so many people tell me that this has allowed them to live in a way that they were afraid to before because they didn’t feel seen. People just need options. Sobriety isn’t one size fits all. I think the most important thing is to get rid of the stigma, which is what makes people feel like they need to hide things which can be really dangerous.

TK: I think that the idea of a one size fits all cure to anything is crazy.

ML: I guess the underlying premise of Cali sober is that just because you want to sober doesn’t mean you have to give up your whole life as you know it, especially the social aspect. The central premise of what I’m trying to do is change rave culture to be more sober.

Partying is just a really human instinct. People stigmatize it in the same way they stigmatize drugs as a youthful, frivolous and ultimately meaningless endeavor. I think partying, connecting with people and allowing the physical release of trauma are really deep and transcendent experiences. There are so many types of parties. Hedonism will always be a part of it, but I’ve seen a move towards more chill, small and healing spaces.

TK: Totally. Another thing I’m interested in is how Cali sober sits with those in the drug community who oppose drug exceptionalism (the belief that some drugs, typically cannabis and psychedelics, are inherently “better” than others)?

ML: Yeah, I definitely see how one criticism of Cali sober is that it’s a form of psychedelic exceptionalism. This is the path I have found to be really beneficial for me. I find psychedelics to be very expansive and educational. My experiences with other classes of drugs like opiates and amphetamines have not made me feel like I’m transforming into a better version of myself, but I understand that’s just for me. Someone like Dr. Carl Hart has been such an important part of the conversation.

TK: You mentioned the Beat generation before. Obviously most of those early drug writers like Jack Kerouac, Aldous Huxley and Allan Ginsberg were white men and it’s not completely dissimilar today. How does your identity inform your writing on drugs?

ML: I definitely feel like white men are given so much allowance to be deviant without being delegitimized. There is also a class of female drug writers, but it tends to be white women. One thing I struggle with sometimes is people telling me that what I’m saying is SO OUTRAGEOUS or of questionable taste and I’m like, “What’s taste?” I’m not trying to be a controversy baiter, although some people think of me as a deliberate troll or shit-stirrer.

TK: I think if they actually read the writing, they’d see it’s thoughtful.

ML: Thanks. If anything, I think I’m almost too sincere! I think a lot about how Asian women are not at all allowed or expected to be druggy, edgy writers. I literally cannot think of anyone who I can look up to as a role model in this way. The tricky thing about race and gender is that you’re always being gaslit into thinking it’s something else, like maybe I’m not a good enough writer. You can never really pinpoint that it’s because you’re fighting this insane stigma or cultural expectation. As I get older I’m starting to accept that what’s important is to identify my audience and find the people who engage with my work in a meaningful way, rather than try to pander to institutions or people outside of the circles that I actually care about reaching.

TK: There are a lot of writers covering drugs with a more journalistic lens that is very different to your experiential position, where you’ve accepted some basic tenets of your life and scene.

ML: I think it’s important to believe in your reality, especially if you tend to be a little ahead of the curve. I do believe that I’m aligned with how the future is going to be, as are a lot of people who really inspire me. SOPHIE was a transcendent producer who was really controversial when she first released music. A lot of serious music critics could not fuck with what she was trying to do and then six years later she’s inspired an entire movement. The conversations I had with her were extremely influential to me, especially after she died. This process of grief really imparts lessons upon you in a deep way. What I got from her and other renegades that I look up to is to demand that your perspective is valid and wait for other people to catch up.

TK: I’m curious about how primarily publishing on Substack has changed your experience of writing?

ML: Up until literally this month I thought of the Substack as a side hustle and infiltrating mainstream publications as my main goal, but my thinking has really shifted. With all this energy around alternative media spaces, collectives and newsletters, I’m really excited to devote more of my energy to Rave New World.

The reason that newsletters feel so energizing is this sense of immediacy you get with your community. The newsletter has allowed me to reach this ecosystem of really cool people whose ideas I care about. I have this immediate feedback loop, which is what writers really live for, right? Reaching people and having your ideas fed back to you and discussed. At the same time, I’m definitely still interested in writing for big publications as there are a lot of benefits to working with institutions. Even having an editor is a huge safety net.

TK: On the note of institutions, how do you feel about the mainstreaming of psychedelics through legalization and medicalization?

ML: When I first became interested in drugs I had a very optimistic, borderline naive hope that I would witness this massive transformation of society on a consciousness level. It was so exciting to me to think about what would happen when everyone starts smoking weed and doing ‘shrooms. Were we all going to become more enlightened? Ofcourse, that wasn’t the story at all! It became more interesting to witness the ways that cannabis and now psychedelics are commercialized, packaged and commodified and reflect political or economic undercurrents. For example, there’s a whole debate now about patents, which is a reflection of the larger pharmaceutical industry and how it’s so driven by intellectual property over innovation. Cannabis has reflected the social justice industrial complex, with a lot of initiatives that are more about brands trying to convey wokeness than concrete change.

But, there’s always hope! Because these substances are becoming more institutionalized there’s this really unique opportunity to reform institutions from the inside. For example, there’s a lot of legislation going into effect that contains forms of reparations and things like clearing people’s criminal records. There’s a tension between commercialization and reform and that’s what keeps me interested, rather than just feeling totally cynical.

The other piece of that puzzle is that because drugs are becoming so mainstream and losing a lot of their subversive identity, it makes me more interested in sobriety as a form of counterculture.

TK: Wow, it’s wild to think of full sober as the truly countercultural vibe! One thing that I like about your writing is that you’re not overly moralizing and you’re able to engage with the more commercial side of weed with humor. You traverse that line, without saying exactly what is good or bad.

ML: Thanks. I think that the Cannabumps scandal that I wrote about is really indicative of this outrage mentality that I really oppose, where people just think it’s cool to get mad about shit!

TK: Yes, when I started reading that I was just like, why do people care about this so much?

ML: I think people don’t actually care so much, they just perform caring because they want to be seen to have the right opinions.

Tk: That’s social media, I guess. Last question! What are you excited about in the space and what is your hope for the future of drugs?

ML: I’m excited about how creating social environments and spaces around cannabis or other drugs is a possibility again, as the pandemic is ending. I’ve always been really interested in designing party spaces and how they affect the experience, stigma or fear around substances. I’m planning to go to New York this summer to investigate the whispers I’ve been hearing about legal weed. I’m really curious about the weed lounges, restaurants and clubs that will be opening in New York. We don’t really have models for what that would look like apart from Amsterdam, which is a very specific cafe culture. In LA there were starting to be legal weed restaurants but they got shut down during the pandemic. We have the opportunity to create a drug culture beyond alcohol.

Follow Michelle on Instagram and Twitter and read her work here and here.