The Pursuit of Oblivion:
Like countless fellow Americans, I know a thing or two about the pursuit of oblivion. I’ve abused drugs, illegal and otherwise, and I’ve been abused by them. I’ve smoked marijuana, hash, and PCP; snorted and freebased cocaine; gobbled Quaaludes, Placidyl, Valium, Librium, Percodan, Percocet, thorazine (at a Devo concert, no less), Darvon, and many other uppers and downers whose names I can’t remember; snorted crank; inhaled nitrous oxide; sniffed amyl nitrate; eaten magic mushrooms; done LSD and mescaline; and guzzled all manner of over-the-counter and prescription cold medications and cough syrups, not to mention enough beer, wine, vodka, tequila, gin, whiskey, and mescal to fill a community swimming pool. Drugs have fucked me up and down and sideways, but throughout my 20s, I always came back for more, because—well, they were mood-altering, and if anybody’s mood needed altering, mine did.
But here’s the instructive part: Never once did I care that they were illegal. That getting caught with drugs could fuck up my life. I just didn’t give a shit. I did them anyway—and so did just about everybody I knew. We all had our reasons, and that’s all we needed. It’s this simple, incontrovertible, firsthand knowledge—that not once did I, a relatively law-abiding citizen in other respects (seldom unemployed, unfailingly kind to children and other living things, helpful to little old ladies in need of crossing the street), let the laws of the land hinder my pursuit of chemical bliss—that convinces me that America’s “war on drugs” is doomed to fail.
I don’t do drugs anymore, but I still believe that America’s drug policies are stupid, Draconian, hypocritical, and counterproductive. And they’re not going to change, not in my lifetime. Too many politicians can drum up too many votes from too many frightened people desperate to do something about a problem that, as Richard Davenport-Hines makes abundantly clear in The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics, is endemic to the human condition: I think, therefore I think I’ll get fucked up.
Davenport-Hines is an Englishman and a realist. The way he sees it, drugs will be here as long as there are “people for whom existence seems to be an implacable enemy.” In this regard, he seems to follow in a long tradition of British thinkers, who, far from joining their American cousins in the war against drugs, have decried it as a simplistic and unworkable solution to a complex problem. Take, for example, Walter Dixon (1870-1931), who as a League of Nations adviser on addiction opined that “we can no more stamp out addiction by prohibition than we can stamp out insanity.” Or the Scottish physician Walter Elliott, who labeled the American prohibitionists behind the Harrison Act as “barbarians of the West.” Many thoughtful Europeans have long rejected the puritanical and stoical beliefs that prop up much of American thinking. As Davenport-Hines, in discussing the Royal Commission on Opium, which began to hear evidence in 1893, puts it, “Most of the Commissioners and officers regarded chronic and inescapable sobriety as an affliction.”
But The Pursuit of Oblivion isn’t primarily a critique of what Davenport-Hines calls America’s “neo-colonialist” drug policies, which he says “have failed and failed again and still continue to fail.” It’s a history of all “illicit” drugs—the term “narcotics” in the title is misleading—their use, and societal attitudes toward their use, from man’s first discovery of opium some 8,000 years ago, to the current penchant for “designer drugs” such as Ecstasy, ketamine, and even the drug menace that wasn’t, Cat.
It’s an ambitious task, and Davenport-Hines cheats some; though he purports to provide a global history, his primary emphasis is on Europe and the United States, with a secondary focus on supplier regions such as China, India, Africa, and South America. Even so, the book’s scope is dizzying. Davenport-Hines whisks us across centuries and continents, and cites hundreds of written accounts. We hear from users (both famous and not), their friends and families, doctors (including a fair share of cranks and quacks), dealers (both legal and otherwise), commentators, missionaries, prohibitionists, anti-prohibitionists, politicians, CIA agents, government officials—you name it. He also references countless government and medical studies, works of fiction, government reports, and drug laws that have helped shape the way we look at drug use.
The effect is sometimes overwhelming, but never pedantic—when the narrative begins to drag, Davenport-Hines never fails to liven things up with some fascinating trivia. I learned, for example, that “American junkie soldiers could score morphine on the Normandy beach-head after the D-Day invasion”; that during the drug shortages of World War II, the English choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton “doped himself with ‘Calm Doggie,’ a canine tranquilliser used to prevent barking during air raids”; and that the University of Texas at Austin “routinely provided amphetamines” to its students—including “even the straightest students”—come exam time in the early ’60s.
Among the book’s potential surprises is the fact that the criminalization of drug use is relatively recent. The moral majority of the 19th century may have tsk-tsked drug users, but it didn’t otherwise punish them. Indeed, the first laws to “criminalize users rather than regulate substances” were not passed until the 1870s, when 11 states in the western United States passed legislation against opium smokers, largely because of fears that the habit was beginning to spread from the “social margins” to the white youth of the middle and upper classes. Thus began, says Davenport-Hines, “the transformation of our view of drug-users from eccentrics with a specialised vice into evil criminals and menacing enemies of society.”
Indeed, opiates were widely available throughout much of the 19th century, without prescription, to just about anybody who wanted them. In the mid-19th century, for example, Davenport-Hines notes, sufferers from all manner of ailments in England had only to travel (or send a child) to the local chemist, wherein were “stocked opium pills, opium soap, lead and opium pills, opiate lozenges, opiate plasters, opium enema, opium liniment, and other products such as vinegar of opium.” Both opium and cocaine found favor among such eminent Victorians as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and William Gladstone, the latter of whom “often took laudanum in his coffee before addressing the House of Commons.” He wasn’t alone. Drugs were at that time a popular and acceptable way of coping with the psychic and physical rigors of public speaking; indeed, the British pharmaceuticals company Burroughs, Wellcome advertised “tabloids containing cocaine for singers and public speakers wishing to improve their voices.” And Davenport-Hines recounts the case of a British politician who daily injected himself with morphine while sitting in the House of Commons.
Davenport-Hines argues that prohibitionist policies have boomeranged, turning “licit, if dangerous, medicines into the world’s most lucrative and tightly organised black market,” marshaling evidence of, how time and time again, efforts to restrict the flow of a drug have either (a) driven the price up, thus making the lure of trafficking in it even stronger, or (b) driven users to other drugs that were, in many cases, far more dangerous. He argues that “the primary role of [antidrug] laws is as business incentive.” As an example, Davenport-Hines details Ronald Reagan’s ill-fated South Florida Task Force, which led drug suppliers to abandon marijuana trafficking in favor of cocaine. According to Davenport-Hines, Reagan’s strategy “resulted in high-purity cheap cocaine becoming available in US inner cities, and fuelled the booming crack cocaine economy of the late 1980s.”
Finally, Davenport-Hines illustrates the ways the pharmaceuticals industry has managed to remain above the fray, despite the fact that it produces scores of drugs that make marijuana look like baby aspirin. He duly notes that U.S. drug “czar” William Bennett’s National Drug Control Strategy report provides “no discussion of amphetamines, barbiturates and other [pharmaceutical] substances” and that the United States’ drug-scheduling schema reinforces the notion that drugs such as marijuana and LSD are more dangerous than amphetamines and other legally produced drugs. He also notes that in Bennett’s introduction to the report, the bureaucrat dismissed any suggestions to divert money from law enforcement to addiction treatment: “The 1989 report’s certainty that ‘drug use is a moral problem’ enabled it to proceed on all the failed old lines.”
Davenport-Hines provides copious counterarguments to many of the propositions put forth in the efforts to keep drugs illegal. He’s especially hard on arguments against marijuana. As regards the much-vexed reasoning that pot is a gateway to harder drugs, he notes, “Politicians never considered that cannabis, rather than pre-eminently introducing people to harder drugs, might filter off a number who might otherwise have turned directly to them.” Furthermore, he notes, “The majority of heroin-users may start on cannabis; but the number of cannabis-users who move on to heroin is minute.”
In an ideal world, our elected officials might look to books like this one for balance in their deliberations on the laws and policies regarding drugs and their users. But America remains in many ways the boobocracy that H.L. Mencken railed against, not to mention a nation of hysterics—which is probably why we need so many drugs in the first place. And, as any good politician will admit, nobody ever won the vote of a hysteric by telling him to calm down.
The truth is that human beings like, want, and will do just about anything to get out of their heads. Drugs serve this purpose, and admirably. Sometimes their users have fun, laugh at the dog, even learn things. Or they may suffer a terrible hangover, get addicted, or die horribly. In any event, there will always be people intent on sampling the full array of illicit substances, no matter how many laws, jeremiads, threats, “This is your brain on drugs” ads, and Minor Threat songs get thrown their way. As Davenport-Hines puts it: “Drugs remain dangerous, but they can also be rewarding to both suppliers and users: accordingly they remain ineradicable.” CP