Let's get stoned

Dec 11, 2002 at 12:00 am
Out of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication
Stuart Walton
Harmony Books, 366 pages, $24

Drugs fuel our culture. Billions of dollars of legal and illicit substances infiltrate the mainstream and our bloodstreams to keep us alert, alive, aroused, asleep, or just addicted. Drugs alter our perceptions, both personally and politically, reflecting the world through a kaleidoscope of anxieties that can range from getting hooked to getting busted. The legal ones can make us think that cigarettes taste good, alcohol makes us funnier, and old men need erections. And the illegal ones can make us think how much we want them and, if we're lucky enough to consider it, why they're illegal in the first place.

Richard Davenport-Hines' The Pursuit of Oblivion and Stuart Walton's Out of It offer salvos against the so-called war on drugs. Both efforts, originally published in England in 2001 and recently released here, examine the origins and side effects of 80 years of prohibitive policies initiated by the United States and imitated the world over. They cover similar ground, but approach it from very different perspectives. And when taken together, they reveal the value of moderation when taking drugs or taking on drug policies.

Davenport-Hines, a historian, presents an exhaustively researched account of the international origins of the modern-day drug trade, estimated by the United Nations to generate $400 billion annually. He begins with the first documentation of English sailors sampling the cannabis-laced bhang in 17th-century India and covers a cross-section of society indulging, enjoying, and endangering themselves in various forms of escape.

This history of narcotics briefly touches on the origins of products such as Bayer aspirin and Coca-Cola — which would be outlawed if reintroduced in their truly "classic" incarnations — as well as the attitudes and actions of icons such as Arthur Rimbaud, Allen Ginsberg, and Dizzy Gillespie. But Davenport-Hines also outlines the history of typically anonymous users to reveal patterns of gender, class, and race playing out across Western civilization: The 19th-century women who were offered morphine and other opiates to treat menstruation and boredom are the matriarchs of the 20th-century housewives popping amphetamines. Soldiers combating the horrors of war through self-medication returned from battlegrounds such as Gettysburg, Normandy, Korea, and Vietnam. And U.S. drug policies initially prosecuted every offender, regardless of whether they were Chinese, Mexican, or black.

When the author discusses the drug habits and policies of the United States, he points to the attitudes that set this nation apart:

"[T]he frequenting of opium shops . . . was seen as an issue of adolescent rebellion against parental authority. . . . This development, which seems to have been unprecedented in the Western world, was not constructive in forming calm and mature views about illicit drugs. . . . [And the] high expectations raised in the USA by a right to happiness were unrealistic. . . . Some Americans have numbed their disappointment by taking drugs. . . . [Others] have sought artificial happiness in drugs. . . . The 'self-evident' truths of 1776 are central to American culture, and can seem an inducement to act on self-indulgent impulse. Moreover, the introspective American puritan tradition . . . has aggravated the tendencies to self-absorption."

Despite these tendencies, or perhaps because of them, criminal convictions became more important than medical treatment by the 1920s. And throughout the 20th century, U.S. drug policies became international policies. More drugs were criminalized, more criminals were put into jail, and more profits were earned on the black market. But with his insightful approach, Davenport-Hines demonstrates that some of the biggest criminals profiting from addiction are the overzealous politicians and journalists who distort the facts about drug use rather than present the more moderate (but often just as heartbreaking) reality.

Even though he's promoting the joys of intoxication, Stuart Walton is equally guilty of pandering to the sensational aspects of drugs in Out of It. An author whose previous books have included An Encyclopedia of Spirits and Liqueurs and How to Cook With Them, Walton makes a rhetorical misstep and a great mistake — at least according to conventional wisdom — when he declares in his introduction that most drug use "has no negative medical or social implications."

After briefly describing some of the consequences that may be caused by the minority of drug users unfortunate enough to experience overdoses and addictions, he says:

"This book, though, with respect, is not about them. . . . It is rather about the broad, open field of intoxication in which most are able to disport themselves without sustaining anything more serious than the odd grazed knee or sprained ankle. Or thundering hangover."

While rejecting the detrimental effects of drugs on the majority of users, he also dismisses the need for traditional research: "I have deliberately avoided the usual sociological fieldwork methods — questionnaires, interviews and so forth — because I strongly feel that as soon as research of this sort is cloaked with the trappings of official inquiry, you stop hearing the truth."

Fair enough, but the "truth" that follows is a bit muddled. Walton divides his book into thematic questions that don't deliver the cultural history he promises. After dabbling in early attitudes about intoxication, ranging from the Greeks and Romans to the Christians, Jews, and Muslims, he questions whether intoxication is inherently disruptive to society, how prohibition influences intoxication, and whether or not intoxication can be equated with inspiration.

And the author is frequently oblivious to the flaws in his own arguments. For example, after describing the research of one Ronald Siegel, "who has experimentally drugged everything from hornets to the higher primates in the pursuit of understanding intoxication behavior," Walton addresses the way different animals appeared to be anti-social while on LSD. He later notes that Siegel has since renounced his own methodology, but that doesn't stop the author from interpreting the research without addressing why Siegel no longer trusts his work.

Such skewed logic reveals how Out of It tries to cover such a large and complex topic by substituting sound bites for insight. Even when discussing the history of drugs, excess can be disastrous.

Frank Diller writes for the City Paper, where this review first appeared.