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The authors of Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs use a clever phrase to adorn their cover and to describe their mission: “Just say know.” “We believe,” they write, “that when provided with an unbiased and authoritative source of information about drugs and drug interactions, individuals will be empowered to make healthy decisions.”
This evenhanded approach makes Buzzed a valuable resource for curious drug users, as well as for petrified parents. In a country whose drug education is executed principally by uniformed men with guns strapped to their waists, it is also refreshing. The authors rightly point out that scare tactics (“drugs kill”) and horror stories (“Cocaine killed Len Bias”) can backfire: Since most of us know folks who have used cocaine and lived to tell about it, this message—and its messenger—inevitably stretch credibility.
But the “Just say know” approach is not as neat and easy as Buzzed makes it out to be. In Bill Moyers’ forthcoming PBS series on addiction, writer Maia Szalavitz—a recovering heroin addict—recalls the anti-drug lessons she learned in grade school. Tobacco “caused cancer and it was really really bad for you,” she recalls, “and it didn’t seem to get you particularly high. And I remember I was thinking, ‘Nah, I don’t think I’ll do that one.’ And alcohol, that makes you physically out of control—that doesn’t sound interesting. Marijuana—that sounds interesting.”
Szalavitz quickly graduated from marijuana to harder stuff, undoubtedly lured by descriptions like those that appear in Buzzed: “People under the influence of opiates will often say that they just don’t worry about their troubles anymore: they are in a special, safe place where cares are forgotten.”
The point is that being honest about drugs means explaining their tremendous appeal. Even graphic descriptions of the costs—”Death by overdose is a major possibility,” “Addicted men can become impotent”—are often lost in the tangerine dreams and marmalade skies.
Consider the case of Ecstasy, or methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). The college-age daughter of one of the authors in an introductory chapter quotes her father’s stern warning: “‘Ecstasy permanently alters your brain, Heather. It is a bad drug and, frankly, this is one that I would like to ask you, as a personal favor…not to try.’” Being scientists, the authors tend toward caution. “It is a miracle,” they write, “that in most of us, for most of the time, the brain maintains the delicate balance that permits a normal life.”
But in the chapter on “Enactogens”—the small group of drugs that enhance empathy and feelings of intimacy—the authors quote an X user explaining that “the drug takes away all your neuroses….You feel open, clear, loving….You have a lot of insights into yourself, real insights, that stay with you after the experience is over.”
So we have two different views of this drug. On the one hand, possible “irreversible changes in the brain.” On the other hand, a feeling of, well, ecstasy. Different people will balance these facts in different ways, but clearly many opt for the route of maximum pleasure. For those less than thrilled with their lives, irreversible brain changes might not sound too bad.
Buzzed is organized like a short encyclopedia, with chapters on different classes of drugs—from alcohol and nicotine to hallucinogens and opiates. It also features eight pages of full-color photographs—Mexican heroin, Philly blunts, methamphetamine, and every other drug you can imagine.
The drug histories are interesting: Opiate use stretches back to the Sumerian and Assyrian/Babylonian cultures of 4,000 years ago, and opium smoking is at least 2,300 years old. Heroin, meanwhile, is the brand name given to a headache medicine by the German Bayer Co. in 1898.
Hallucinogens have a long history, as well. Siberian hunters, apparently, tripped on the fly agaric mushroom, as did the writers of the Rig-Veda, an Indian religious text of about 3,500 years ago. The authors also include portions of the classic diary of Albert Hoffman, who, after synthesizing LSD in his laboratory in the 1940s, ingested it to record the effects and “saw my dead body lying on the sofa.” Another famous self-experimenter was Sigmund Freud, who so enthused about cocaine that he played a principal role in its popularity in early 20th-century Europe.
Buzzed is full provocative facts, such as those in the quiz offered at the outset: “Ecstasy was first popularized by Californian psychotherapists who tried to use it for ’empathy training’ in marriage counseling. True or false?” (“True!”) “What was the drug misinformation promulgated by the movie Pulp Fiction?” (Injecting adrenaline to the heart of someone having a heroin overdose is, in real life, “useless and dangerous.”) “Are crack babies doomed to mental retardation and behavioral problems?” (Actually, most problems ascribed to crack babies are likely due to poor prenatal health care and cigarette smoking by the mother, and even these problems are rarely severe or long-term.)
As the last example makes clear, the real need for drug education in this country isn’t on an individual level but among lawmakers and the information elite. When it comes to making policy, the basic facts of drug pharmacology are either ignored or twisted beyond repair. Crack is simply a product of powder cocaine and baking soda cooked together. Pharmacologically, it is nearly identical to its powder form, and yet possession of a mere 5 grams of the stuff is worth a five-year jail sentence—mandatory. To receive the same punishment, one would have to be holding 500 grams of powder. This simply defies logic and reflects the fact that drug laws have more to do with irrational, race-driven fears than science or reason. Buzzed is a fun and useful book, but it would probably do more good to buy a copy for your congressman than for your child or friend.