The Straight Dope - The Pursuit of Oblivion

Discussion in 'Marijuana News from The USA' started by Superjoint, Dec 22, 2002.

  1. Reviewed by Sidney W. Mintz
    Source: Washington Post

    In this stern and sustained history of certain mind-altering drugs, Richard Davenport-Hines marks off for us a historical moment when the concept of "addiction" seems to have coalesced. The "desire for pharmaceutical improvement of the human experience," he writes, "occurred at a time of great changes in the mentalities of educated western Europeans. . . . Human character did not suddenly become depraved; but . . . there arose a new mentality that was to have increasing influence over human attitudes toward hallucinatory, stimulating, narcotic and inebriating substances."

    The date he proposes for this important shift is the first quarter of the 17th century. Soon after (though he does not refer to it) the new, exciting, exotic hot beverage substances – coffee, tea and chocolate – swept Europe and began to become the favorites of the proletarian poor.
    Davenport-Hines divides "drugs" into five categories, but his work here is principally concerned not with hallucinogens or inebriants or hypnotics but with the group called narcotics, including opium and heroin. (He also treats cocaine, which is not a narcotic but a stimulant.) Because the use of drugs is so widespread today, what complex modern societies choose to do about the negative consequences of their availability is of immense economic and political importance. Davenport-Hines has robust opinions about what should be done, and the history of U.S. drug policy bulks large in his analysis. This is partly because the United States is powerful, rich and hence internationally persuasive; but it is also because the United States is resolutely puritanical.

    Through time, the U.S. government has consistently chosen prohibition over regulation. The Harrison Act of 1914, which installed drug prohibition here, "provided the model," Davenport-Hines asserts, "for drug prohibition legislation throughout the Western World." In 1920, Britain followed suit, after hardly any debate, with the Dangerous Drugs Act. Davenport-Hines cites a lone dissenter, a Scottish physician named Walter Elliot. Elliot raged against American prohibitionists, those "barbarians of the West," as he called them: "In their treatment of people who disagree with their social theories, there are none more violent or more ill-judged than the people of the United States." One might leap to the conclusion from this that Davenport-Hines is on some sort of anti-American kick. That would be a grave misreading of his book.

    This copiously documented study of drugs and addiction is first-rate scholarship and, considering its heft and detail, good if not easy reading besides. The author has looked seriously at several major drugs, at much of their history, and at some controversies marking the evolution of the prohibition and regulation of their use. He has also studied the lives of a great many addicts – artists, doctors and even ungifted mortals – and provides some intriguing, often tragic, accounts of their misfortunes. As a result of his research, he takes a militant stand against prohibition or suppression and in favor of a careful blend of regulation and treatment. Meanwhile, he provides a very full account of the odd commercial successes of particular substances, even in the face of the most draconian measures to ban them.

    To some extent, this book is a testament to frustration, as well as to the quaint pleasures that pigheaded governments afford those officials chosen to carry out their policies. Among policymakers, there seems to be some synaptic or logical obstacle to understanding at work: Somehow, attacks on the supplies of drugs never seem to reduce demand. For Davenport-Hines, drug use is not exceptional but thoroughly normal human behavior. His discussion of individual (and group) cases of addiction (as, for instance at one time, among physicians) makes clear its terrible consequences. He does not argue (how could he?) that all drug use is free of pathology. But the worldwide consumption of caffeine and alcohol, for example, provides powerful evidence for the author's claim that drug use should not be approached primarily as an antihuman or abnormal deviance, so much as rather ordinary human behavior.

    Beyond this, Davenport-Hines deals with the uncomfortable matter of what prohibition always seems to bring in its wake: higher prices and higher illegal profits. The basic relationship seems to be quite simple. Outlaw any desired substance, and its price – transformed into its illegal price – rises. With any luck on the part of the sellers, the profit margin rises, too. Make it legal again, and its price falls. This unfortunate truth, which appears to be controverted in no important drug-related instance, is crucial to the author's case.

    This comes through most clearly in his concluding chapters, on recent British and U.S. drug policies, drug wars, drug czars and drug use. Much of this deals with particular figures. Among them, for example, is William Bennett, the famous American moralist and drug czar. In several pages, the author shows how Bennett's failed war on drugs could be spun into a smashing success. In his report on that success, Bennett drew no distinctions among different sorts of drug users, and nowhere defined what a "drug" was. This makes more enjoyable Davenport-Hines's failure to mention how valiantly Bennett struggled to give up chain-smoking (for reasons of propriety) before the first President Bush made him the drug czar.

    But make no mistake, dear reader; Clinton and Gore on drugs fare no better here than their opposite numbers. Davenport-Hines's insistence on the cultural reasons why Americans want to prohibit those drugs from which they make no money is an important addition to now-familiar arguments. Surely the value differences between Americans and, say, Frenchmen or even Englishmen must be taken into account in any estimate of their different approaches to human behavior. Could it be that the Iranians have no monopoly on moral ayatollahism?

    This book promises to make few people happy, and a good many sore. But it is a powerful indictment of mostly failed policy. At the very least it is an excellent additional reason why that policy must one day be seriously debated – and the sooner the better.

    Sidney W. Mintz is an anthropologist of food and eating whose translation of the Puerto Rican novelist Cesar Andreu's "The Vanquished" has just been published.

    Jonathan Yardley is on vacation.

    Note: 'The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics' by Richard Davenport-Hines - Norton. 576 pp. $29.95

    Source: Washington Post (DC)
    Author: Sidney W. Mintz
    Published: Sunday, December 22, 2002; Page BW02
    Copyright: 2002 Washington Post
    Contact: letterstoed@washpost.com
    Website: http://www.washingtonpost.com
     

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