Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Pursuit of Oblivion

by Richard Davenport-Hines

I'm in love with Kinokuniya, a bookshop here in central Sydney. I've made so many impulse buys there over the last year that there's a 'to read' stack as high as my bed in my room. The very first time I walked in there this book caught my eye, and although I had to wait a few months until my finances had stabilised to go on the book buying orgy I longed for, it was the first one I picked up when I did.

The subtitle of the book is 'A social history of drugs', and the first half covers drug use in traditional societies and the advent of the first synthetic drugs (namely opium and cocaine). It's very interesting to learn about how social attitudes towards these substances evolved, but it's presented very dryly and wasn't quite as full of prurient details as I hoped. The second half, while still broadly following the same subject, takes a sudden and impassioned turn in style as the author's outrage at the incredible harm done by the western world's (and most notably the USA's) drug policies can no longer be hidden behind guardedly passive non-fiction prose.

And it's hard not to get angry yourself while reading it. It makes sense when you think about it but I was surprised to learn that making drug use a criminal act is a convention that has only been around for a little over a century. Before then opiate and cocaine addiction were primarily afflictions of the middle and upper classes (at least in Europe) and it was treated (rightly) as merely a health issue. The only reason this approach failed was because of the poorly thought out medical decisions made by the doctors of the time:
“It was his [Dr. Alexander Wood, 1817-1884] idea that taking opiates through the mouth, and the act of swallowing, created an appetite, like other forms of food and drink. He became convinced that if the drug was injected rather than swallowed, patients would not hunger for it. He was wrong.”
Other shining moments of exemplary medical science documented in the book include deciding to wean patients off opium by switching them over to cocaine.

Another interesting insight is that every traditional culture in the world has it's own method of getting fucked up, based on the available plantlife; in Europe this was alcohol, in the middle east it was marijuana, in South America it was cocoa leaves and in Asia it was opium. Guess which one is acceptable in western society and which ones are regarded as deviant and dangerous. Also consider the nature of the puritanical anti-drugs campaigns when these drugs were first introduced to America; the dirty Mexicans raping white women while high on marijuana and the shifty Chinese creating hives of sin in their opium dens. From this perspective, the motives behind drug prohibition are often quite racist.

But despite the vitriol directed towards the various figureheads of prohibition (Thatcher and Reagan get pretty bad thrashings, but not the worst) the book gives us little insight into why this culture of finger waving wowserism came about so suddenly. There have always been religious nutters and Jim Andertons around, but they never succeeded in having their way until the late 1800s. Understanding what truly drives these people would seem to me to be an important part of engaging with their ideas, but it is left unexamined here.

Nevertheless the points the book does make are good ones. Firstly, that the common media caricature of the drug user, lower class, living in a dirty hole in the wall, not caring about anything but his or her next fix, has never been accurate. The middle and upper classes have always enjoyed indulging and most (but of course not all) manage to do so without ruining their professional or domestic lives. Secondly, that any level headed look at drug use must admit that besides the obvious bad effects that it has, humanity has and always has had a natural inclination towards getting fucking out of it (the titular pursuit of oblivion) and most, if not all, attempts at prohibition do not even acknowledge this fact, betraying their lack of grounding in any kind of interest in practical realities. Lastly, history and economics both show that any attempt to prohibit an intoxicating substance desirable by a large number of people is fighting futilely against the laws of supply and demand. Any success in restricting the supply simply increases the profitability for the criminal organisations importing it, and a significant number of end users will pay any price to get it, perhaps by resorting to crime, but more probably just because those who can afford it will always put a premium on having fun.

But tell all that to the Jim Andertons of the world. They haven't listened for the past hundred years, while they've squandered billions on an unwinnable war against (some) drugs, and they're not likely to start now.

1 comment:

Andrew Brown said...

Ah a topic close to my heart. You're right, prohibition doesn't work and the only sensible answer is education and some system like a drug licence where you must sit a test.

Some people see it as a moral issue, and fundamentally disagree with the right to do it to yourself, and others don't believe in personal freedom totally, and in the end, those people suck