We live in a funny culture here in the United States—but not funny “ha ha.” We have an almost religious phobia about certain drugs. If you use them, you’re immoral. If you continue to use them, you’re sick—and we prescribe other drugs for you to use. We’ve waged a war on drugs for so long now (the War was started by Richard Nixon in the late 1960s) that we’ve raised a generation of kids so drug-phobic that some of them won’t take antibiotics when they’re sick—because antibiotics are drugs. Meanwhile, the United States has experienced a population boom: more than one percent of adult Americans are in prison (one of the highest incarceration rates in the world), three-quarters of those for drug crimes. One in a hundred citizens doing time for doing what, many anthropologists and biologists would argue, comes naturally to the human animal. Not funny at all.
While Western Europe and Canada have seen a decrease in the use of illegal drugs due to a long-term effort to educate and decriminalize dope, the U.S. has gone in the opposite direction and seen drug use increase. We lost the best minds of most of a generation due to crack. Thankfully, recent studies indicate that crack is a one-generation fad. Perhaps the effects of addiction to crack are so mind-bogglingly devastating that younger witnesses to the harm have turned their backs on the insidious white powder. Maybe—but methamphetamine use is on the rise, and showing up in places it has never been seen before, like the rural South and Midwest (for decades meth was strictly the demon of the Southwest).
The only way to describe the insanity of American drug policy is to deploy the image of the ostrich with its head in the sand. Thing is, whenever someone comes along and tries to pull the stupid bird’s head out of the dark place its been in, that well-wisher gets a kick in the gut from the ostrich’s sharp-clawed foot.
Paul M. Gahlinger’s book Illegal Drugs is a subtle case in point. If, as we invariably do, we judge a book by its cover, then Illegal Drugs is designed for the marginal and marginalized of our society. There’s the declarative title, which certainly caught my eye, and the psychedelic purple and chartreuse cover. There’s the subtitle, too, promising “a complete guide” to the “chemistry, use, and abuse” of drugs. Sounds like an upscale version of The Anarchist’s Cookbook, with the promise of step-by-step instructions for manufacturing meth and god knows what else.
But that’s not what this book is up to at all; it’s just another case of designers and marketing-types lying (the blunt word is the only accurate one) to sell product. What Gahlinger is up to in Illegal Drugs is education. Like Andrew Weil (From Chocolate to Morphine), Gahlinger thinks with all the information on the table, Americans will make better-informed choices. “Just Say No” has failed, with both drug use and the spread of AIDS (the Bush administration’s policy of sexual abstinence to stop the spread of disease).
Illegal Drugs, despite the lurid cover, is more of a textbook than a salvo from the “tune in, turn on, and drop out” crowd. The book is divided into two long parts, with a third, shorter section on “Self-help Resources” appended to the end. The first part, “Forbidden Fruit,” is both a history of drugs (of both use and origins), as well as a head-on collision with existing drug policy. For instance, Gahlinger’s blunt answer to the question, “Will the ‘drug problem’ ever be solved?” is “No.” Drugs, the author says, have a history, if it can be called that, which stretches back to the dawn of Homo sapiens. “Ninety-five percent of the adult U.S. population,” Gahlinger points out, “is currently using some type of psychoactive drug, including prescription drugs.” Indeed, humans aren’t the only animals that like to get high: cats love catnip, elephants love fermented fruits—the list goes on and on. Part of the reason for this is neurochemistry: we’ve got dopamine, opioid, and cannabinoid (sometimes called anandamide) receptors in our brains, which help produce the “natural high” that runners, meditators, fasters and others experience. When we find a substance lying around that gives us the same kick, it’s very hard to resist. “The question then becomes not whether drugs will be used, but which drugs will be used.”
Which drugs get used seems to be directly tied to which ones are prohibited. In the 1930s, for instance, when alcohol was verboten, the use of cannabis soared in the U.S. Likewise, when the federal government cracked down on the use of barbiturates and cocaine among school kids, the use of MDMA (Ecstasy) and other drugs rose “dramatically.”
Gahlinger is perhaps at his best in writing of the history of psychoactive substances. He is lucid, compelling, always respectful, and occasionally humorous. We learn that cannabis is “one of the earliest cultivated plants, and is now perhaps the most widely grown species in the world.” The ancient Scythians, archeologists tell us, threw heaps of the sweet-burning herb on their braziers, and in ancient China, Gahlinger says, where it was cultivated 12,000 years ago, the characters for cannabis means “the big numb.” Opium, too, has an ancient pedigree. “The first evidence” of its use “was discovered in Mesopotamia… and dates to 4000 BC—about the time, coincidentally, that fundamentalist Christians believe the world was created.” There are also chapters on the so-called hallucinogens (which, in fact, rarely cause hallucinations), such as ergot mold, which grows on rye grain and is a precursor to LSD, and mushrooms (of some 5,000 species of mushroom, some “80 are considered hallucinogenic”).
The first part of the book ends with a breezy trip through those few substances which are both psychoactive and legal: alcohol, caffeine, catnip, coleus (which was used by the Mazatec Indians of southern Mexico and has effects “similar to… psilocybin” mushrooms), nutmeg, its relative, virola (a South American vine), and, of course, that most addictive of the killer weeds, tobacco.
The bulk of Illegal Drugs is the encyclopedic part two, which describes the chemistry, effects, use, abuse and manufacture of all Schedule I and II drugs. Schedule I drugs are those that federal legislators have deemed of no redeeming value, while Schedule II drugs are those that at least have some limited medical value. The scheduling of drugs, as either I or II, is controversial, to say the least. In 1970, for instance, cannabis was made a Schedule I drug, much to the consternation of medical researchers. The doctors fought back, and in 1988 cannabis was recommended for rescheduling, to Schedule II, only to be overruled by the DEA. This hasn’t stopped individual states to pass laws allowing the use of medical marijuana, though, and a limited amount of research continues under the auspices of “investigational new drug” laws.
LSD, too, is a Schedule I drug, even though investigators produced thousands of scholarly and medical research papers between the years of its discovery by Albert Hoffman in 1943 and its outlawing in 1966. Indeed, LSD was once considered the candidate most likely to succeed among a class of possible treatments for alcoholism and other forms of addiction (Gahlinger gives short shrift to the history of research using LSD). But the 1960s changed the perception of LSD, thanks in large part to Timothy Leary and other proselytizers of the psychedelic experience (ironically, before he “dropped out,” Leary and his colleagues were some of the main investigators, along with Humphrey Osmond in Canada, of treating addiction with LSD). As Gahlinger says, LSD and other hallucinogens are not addictive, and are “not a threat to the person, but to society,” and are “considered more dangerous than heroin” by most people.
Meanwhile, a group of real killers, the highly addictive amphetamines, are Schedule II drugs. Otherwise known as speed, the various amphetamines are prescribed (in ever new formulations, as the old ones kill off both the legal users and the illegal recreationists) as diet drugs. There’s a deep, sad irony at work here: while we addictively scarf fast food (and other sources of vast amounts of fats and carbs), and while we have become the fattest people on the planet (not that the Brits aren’t trying to keep up), indeed, while we’ve been killing ourselves with the fat of the land, we’ve been trying to burn off that fat with one of the deadliest chemicals around (just think of the recent banning of the latest diet pill, Fen-Phen, which caused numerous cases of heart disease before being outlawed). The amphetamines are derived from a rugged weed, ephedra, the stimulating effects of which have been prized for centuries by the Chinese as Ma Huang. Ephedra, too, has been recently outlawed. But it’s the white powder that does the damage: it’s injectable and easily manufactured in bathroom and kitchen sinks from cold tablets and allergy inhalers. The market for speed is huge; many dealers, and certainly manufacturers, are heavily armed and often violent. And, of course, the main effect of speed is to keep you awake: try going without sleep for a few days and see how socially responsible you remain. It’s not a pretty group of drugs, and, because there are so many analogs that are similar to amphetamine, it’s easy to test positive on a drug test when what one has been using is perfectly legal (Alka-Seltzer Plus or Triaminic, for instance). So much for enlightened drug policy.
The second part of Illegal Drugs is an eye-opener, with its catalog of all 178 banned drugs, from the date-rape drug, Rohypnol, to Ibogaine, a plant native to tropical Africa which has been used to treat addiction but, like LSD and the other hallucinogens, has been banned because of its psychoactive properties.
Illegal Drugs is lavishly illustrated with photos and drawings of the substances themselves as well as the characters who use them. If you’re looking for a comprehensive compendium of the entire illegal pharmacopoeia, you probably couldn’t do much better than this. There’s a solid index, and a lengthy bibliography. The author, an M.D. who has consulted with the FAA and NASA (yes, there are drugs in space; pilots and military personnel continue to be prime users of amphetamines) on substance abuse, has done his homework.