As we might find to be true more often than we’d think at first, a popular song’s lyrics capsulise some of the central issues of today’s essay. Jorma Kaukonen, of Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane fame, sang these “Prohibition Blues” lines, except for one or two instructive alterations that show up for purposes of this investigation.
I’ll tell you brother, and I won’t lie
What’s the matter with this land:
Toke at will and vote it dry,
And hide it if we can.
The rich they party, and they all get high,
And they call it society.
But if they catch you with a joint, good morning penitentiary!
We live with the split personality that these lyrics from Blue Country Heart illustrate. This affects us spiritually. It colours our ethics and whatever sense of integrity that people have. It means that, psychologically, we are both as often as not living against our better selves, and unable to avoid states of deeply experienced, almost insufferable, anxiety and stress and panic—not for nothing is ours ‘the age of terror.’
In no other realm than in relation on the one hand to contraband and on the other hand to so-called ‘medications’ do these tendencies more profoundly express themselves in the contemporary arena. We live with these contradictions and little hypocrisies about ‘substances’ almost every second that we breathe.
Reports and analyses from sources as diverse as Interpol and the United Nations, on the official side, and private think tanks like the Soros Justice Initiative and the Drug Policy Alliance, on the Non-Governmental Organisation side, detail and document such complicated skeins. Often enough, scholars who have served to advance agendas of ‘fighting narcotics’ or ‘developing treatments’ have opened their hearts and their files to reveal the venality and profiteering at the root of such duplicitous policing battles and pseudo-scientific ‘healthy-living’ campaigns.
These and many other decidedly suboptimal effects—combining repression and malfeasance—of what lying thugs call ‘The War on Drugs’ or that self-serving ‘authorities’ label diagnostic and therapeutic intervention are not the heart of our problems, however. This core conflict appears as a three-part dynamic that rules the present moment, an overarching ubiquity that confronts us with a choice either to accept it and live in misery or to face and deal with it and transform the world.
Despite their intricacies, these interlocking and interdependent components are fairly easy to state. First*, a ruination of civic virtue or political comity occurs; second, individual alienation and ennui become widespread enough to appear essentially indomitable; third, and finally, elite representatives intervene to dispense ‘cures’ for our blues*. Though an expansion of this analysis follows, in which multiple subtexts and sidebars proliferate, its rudimentary statement is straightforward enough.
The first part of this pattern consists of the corruption, and ultimately the destruction, of every single thing of a civic nature that we say that we value. That which might be honorable in service of governance all too often ends up tarnished and fraudulent; police, soldiers, politicians, administrators, doctors, lawyers, every field and profession that stands for social management or improvement devolves into frequent bribery and double-dealing and brutality.
The Drug Enforcement Administration worries about Central Intelligence Agency enforcers. The Mexican State police and the Chicago/Atlanta/Any-City-or County-USA cops all include key components that are ‘on-the-take.’ The only exceptions are jurisdictions that have followed a decriminalizing path, and for the most part even these venues insist on a ‘medical model’ for dealing with most social friction.
The entire ‘Defense’ establishment also contains huge blights, so that from Vietnam to Colombia to Afghanistan, black markets in drugs have become central to ‘freedom’s’ foreign policy. As analysts like Robert Parry make obvious, Iran-Contra’s cocaine, assault-rifles, and money-laundering troika is a tiny tip of a massive iceberg of coldly calculated murder and contraband. Bless Rand Paul’s Libertarian heart, full of fantasies about markets and freedom, he nonetheless sees these difficulties as if he were scanning them through clear glass. Rotten, violent gendarmes will always remain so long as drug-war protocols prevail.
Moreover, every element of individual rights, whether it concerns privacy or trust or some other aspect of appreciating personal responsibility and human development, dissipates and eventually disappears, so that the snitch and the victim proffer the supreme expressions of our social relations. Elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, colleges, and universities dole out strong drugs as if they were vitamins or candy. They explicitly insinuate that ‘good sons and daughters and good friends’ tell on parents or acquaintances who do not follow regimens that either prescribe or proscribe certain chemicals.
When the students become dependent on, or decide that they hate, their own force-fed substances, and a marketplace develops in selling the pills and potions, police swoop in with paid informants and arrest the now ‘criminal’ youngsters, whom they offer leniency in return for participation in this noisome “money-making machine.” Inner city and suburban and rural academies and communities, obscure institutes and elite universities, all have their well-established underground distribution networks, the chief principles of which pay protection money to narcotics and other enforcement agencies.
Tens-of-thousands of times each year in the U.S. alone, citizens lose their money or their property to seizures in these arenas that involve no charges. Because someone has cash or goods that in one way or another elicit official attention, such a hapless person faces arrest and loses coin or cars or whatever the raiding authorities believe is easiest to resell at auction or divvy up among themselves; only those who suffer this fate and who also have the resources and courage to engage in lengthy, complex, and expensive legal actions can sometimes retrieve what was rightfully theirs.
Furthermore, quite commonly, additional erstwhile honest transactions in our lives—in our schools, in our factories, in our service organizations—also suffer from the taint of these corrupting strokes of proscribed ‘drugs’ and prescribed ‘medicines.’ Principals get grants to hire substance-abuse-counselors and psychologists and heavily-armed police, so long as they practice ‘zero-tolerance.’ Illegal suppliers and licensed doctors both make sure that construction sites and assembly lines can hire employees with the necessary stamina and aplomb to carry out draconian drudgery for fifty hours each week or more. Churches and YMCA’s and ‘social welfare’ organizations of every stripe garner more funds and greater approbation if they too make themselves a part of this pipeline of delivering ‘medicines’ and prohibiting herbs and emoluments that have been part of human culture for thousands of years but which have now ‘scientifically’ transmogrified into poison and criminality.
Most nauseatingly, perhaps, bankers and other finance-professionals take in plus-or-minus a trillion dollars each year, up to five percent of the entire world economy, as currency and other fungible assets that result from drug dealings or controlled substances of one sort or another. And this does not even take into account the not-quite-as-massive but still vast income that results from licit psychotropic substances that governments promote as fervently as they pretend to want to interdict the coke and crack and pot and speed and ice and ecstasy and skag and so on and so forth that their agents duplicitously and hypocritically and opportunistically conspire to finance and market.
The second element of this woven quilt of deceit and pretense reveals itself as a passive, and in the end utterly resigned, psychosocial demeanor, a universal shrug at the possibility of decency and kindness. In one sort of coping mechanism, people focus on their diagnoses rather than on the organic and social causes of the symptoms that they experience. As just one example, in any given year, ‘patients’ fill plus-or-minus two hundred million anti-depressant prescriptions in the United States; tens of millions of these are for children and young adults, who as ‘minors’ have no option but to swallow additional hundreds of millions of doses of methamphetamine derivatives, to ‘treat’ their deficient capacity to attend their lives.
Supplementing the copious literature about such a pass, I have personally witnessed such situations—as a parent, as a tutor, as a teacher; as a random observer or acquaintance or friend—so many times that I couldn’t possibly count them all. With only a few instances that go against the common grain, the way that the subjects of these uncontrolled ‘experiments in social control’ have responded is to become knowledgeable about the fakery that passes as science in their cases, so that to me or juvenile judges or probation officers or school counselors or whoever else is at hand and interested, the participants are capable of mouthing the official verbiage—occasionally ‘science,’ but more likely pablum—that underlies their labels and their ‘treatments.’
In a seemingly divergent fashion, that in fact links unmistakably with this initial psychic pattern, folks also manage this social swamp by blaming the ‘behaviors’ and choices—more often than not on the part of young people or ‘addictive personalities,’ otherwise on the part of ‘gangsters’—of their children or compatriots or shadowy underworld figures for the way that society increasingly seems to fall to pieces in a morass of violence and chaos. Once again, in no fewer than thirty cases—as in being able to list the parties and places—I have seen such incrimination and casting of aspersions on human beings who had no more power over these situations than did those who were pointing accusing fingers.
Multiple accounts, in growing numbers, evidence this demonization of the individuals—again overwhelmingly young and more often than not ‘of color’—who are undeniably the victims of a ‘prohibitionary’ scheme that has nothing more than a fantastical connection to human good or social benefit. This so clearly typifies the current context, and is therefore so common, that it as often as not escapes notice or comment. Except on the part of critical ‘outsiders,’ thoroughgoing critique of these eventualities is very rare indeed.
Perhaps the most insidious effect of this pattern is also an aspect of the precipitous decline in civic rectitude that readers viewed just above. This dark schema, an ugly mosaic, appears when—despite an almost infinite variety and volume of incriminating facts—citizens feel chary about accusing and holding accountable either their erstwhile ‘employees’—in other words, politicians, administrators, and police—or the rich gangsters whose operations behind the scenes are what manages this system’s daily routines.
People probably have complex reasons for not insisting on confrontation-with-the-powerful in these matters. They likely hate the thought that their patriotism has so little of probity to support it. They almost certainly hate to feel like such chumps. They definitely detest how little they know and understand and how small that arrogant experts make them feel if they seek to intervene. Perhaps most obviously, this recalcitrance about speaking out starts with fears for their personal safety: jail, injury, or death has certainly been a clear outcome for others who have been unable to contain their outrage and anguish.
In case anyone fails to note, this missive will state quite directly one idea that inherently flows from this assessment. These first two prongs of this examination of our present life and times mean that neither personal power nor happiness will be possible for almost all common folk.
Our sons and daughters will go to jail or die. They will lapse into terminal sadness and intractable alienation. They will assault and kill themselves and others in a manner that has never before been a part of human history.
In the United States, prisons will oversee plus or minus three people of every hundred, **almost all of these incarcerated prisoners behind bars or otherwise in the thrall of a ‘prison-industrial-complex’ due to a ’War-on-Drugs’ or something similar that is, most charitably, criminally insane, all of which destroys most hope of citizenship or mutuality. Every relation of diverse cultures or nationalities will have about it a threat of hatred or dehumanisation; organised criminal networks will characterise both government and commerce. The potential for democracy or human solidarity in such a pass will approach zero.
Victimisation and misery will prevail everywhere. Since the two things that these rubrics destroy—personal power and happiness—are the two things that every sentient body on Earth wants more than anything else, we might imagine prioritising analysis that pays attention to these matters.
In any event, if we do not elect to act on our own behalf, those who rule the roost fully intend to ‘come to our rescue’ in regard to the sadness and castration that the dynamic itself brings to pass. This third component of the current scheme of things, then, the pharmaceutical-industrial-complex’s fascination with, fetishization of, and—increasingly—forceful prescription of—various ‘medicines’ for various ‘disorders,’ will further the ruin and horror in our lives at the precise moment that it also makes this ruin and horror seem okay, seem not-all-that-bad, seem not too depressing.
The profits from this aspect of the enterprise, like the take from illicit markets, will be huge. While proclaiming their dutiful concern for other humans, the practitioners of these schemes, literally and figuratively, will ‘make a killing.’
From before Thomas Huxley to beyond the Rockefeller Institute, behind-the-curtain ‘authorities’ have created knowledge and networks that serve up ever more of these substances and analyses. Professional agents insist on Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals that, at the very least in relation to mental health, have little more rigour in their imprimatur than did any Grand Inquisitor’s accusations of witchery or heresy or demonic possession.
The predictable results are apparent in all aspects of contemporary culture. Zombies and vampires and terrorists and sociopaths—in all sorts of ways inseparable from erstwhile ‘fiendish’ habits—dominate everywhere one looks. Both their ‘opponents’ from the laughably false ‘criminal justice’ sector, and their ‘saviours’ from the traitors to Hippocrates who fill our scrips, with a pretense of righteousness and actual hypocrisy of the most venal sort, pay their way with our taxes and cloak themselves duplicitously in ‘best-practices’ that supposedly emanate from incontrovertible data, knowledge that much more often than not is at best merely self-interested doublethink. Hope, which our canons tell us ‘springs eternal in the human breast,’ for many people takes a permanent powder.
Perhaps we want to live this way. If not, we might elect to consider the research and thinking that this essay embodies and presents. It certainly does not hold out any single simple prescription for fixing things. Nevertheless, it does proffer argumentation and facts that could start many conversations, a necessary step in the old directive: “Physician, heal thyself!”
Jorma Kaukonen sends us forth from this initial sally into today’s topic.
Pro-hie-bition has killed more folks
Than Sherman ever seen.
If they can’t get whisky,
They’ll take to dope, cocaine and morphine.
This whole country it sure ain’t dry,
And dry will never be seen.
Pro-hie-bition is just a scheme, a fine money-making machine.
The past, in the form of our individual genes’ predecessors and in terms of the collective expressions of human individuality that have held sway for tens of thousands of years, completely determine the real parameters of this discourse and activity. Yet we mostly dismiss or are almost completely unaware of this readily discernible history.
To an extent, at least quite plausibly, our characteristics in the universe of ‘special substances’ are at least somewhat common among other mammals. Cats will imbibe their catnip; dogs slurp up fermented foodstuffs; the ungulates have plants that send them spinning on occasion.
Whether any of this activity among our evolutionary kin is volitional, Homo Sapiens in any event in some sense almost universally choose to or need to ‘get high.’ The ineluctable actuality of this statement is possible to illustrate in many, many ways, three of which form the primary focus today. In the first place, anthropological, archeological, and forensic science point out the omnipresence, over a hundred thousand years or more, of consciousness alteration in the overall species formation of human social bonds. In the second place, mythic and legendary and other early storytelling sources reveal this same tendency. Finally, historical proof also elicits the same or very similar conclusions.
Robert Graves, in his 1958 forward to still-iconic volumes, provides a place from which we can briefly convey all of these contextual components. “Since revising The Greek Myths…, I have had second thoughts about the drunken god Dionysus, about the Centaurs with their contradictory reputation for wisdom and misdemeanour, and about the nature of divine ambrosia and nectar. These subjects are closely related, because the Centaurs worshipped Dionysus, whose wild autumnal feast was called ‘the Ambrosia.’ I no longer believe that when his Maenads ran raging around the countryside, tearing animals or children in pieces…, they had intoxicated themselves solely on wine or ivy-ale. The evidence suggests that Satyrs(goat-totem tribesmen), Centaurs(horse-totem tribesmen), and their Maenad womenfolk, used these brews to wash down mouthfuls of a far stronger drug: namely a raw mushroom, amanita muscaria, which induces hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, and remarkable muscular strength. Some hours of this ecstasy are followed by complete inertia.”
Graves goes on to admit that contemporary rituals in Mexico parallel what he describes. He himself partook of these rites, which in the Western Hemisphere utilise psilocybin. The Maenad’s ‘tearing of the heads’ of their victims is easily imaginable as a symbolic beheading of the mushroom itself, which in both ancient Greek and present-day Tlaloc bears the moniker, “food of the gods.”
Terrence McKenna, both much maligned and much worshipped but in any event a credentialed scholar who knew how to gather and present evidence, titled his ‘magnum opus’ with the same phrase. Food of the Gods advances a thesis that hallucinogens, particularly psilocybin mushrooms, impacted human cultural and social development. He essentially sees what Riane Eisler labels a ‘partnership’ model as having been possible during many millennia when these little fungi were a regular part of human meals.
“The primate tendency to form dominance hierarchies was temporarily interrupted for about 100,000 years by the psilocybin in the paleolithic diet. This behavioral style of male dominance was chemically interrupted by psilocybin in the diet, so it allowed the style of social organisation called partnership to emerge, and … that occurred during the period when language, altruism, planning, moral values, aesthetics, music and so forth — everything associated with humanness — emerged… .
About 12,000 years ago, the mushrooms left the human diet because they were no longer available, due to climatological change, and the previous tendency to form dominance hierarchies re-emerged. So, this is what the historic dilemma is: we have all these qualities that were evolved during the suppression of male dominance that are now somewhat at loggerheads with the tendency of society in a situation of re-established male dominance.
The paleolithic situation was orgiastic and this made it impossible for men to trace lines of male paternity, consequently there was no concept of ‘my children’ for men. It was ‘our children’ meaning ‘we, the group.’”
Wanton wildness; indiscriminate orgies; explosive expression of music and dance and elocution; sacred ‘partying’ that went on for days and days: these were our ancestors’ annual bows to nature and themselves. Having never attended an ‘ecstasy rave,’ I could not say first hand, but a certain descriptive resonance, based on recorded observations, feels approximately accurate.
In any case, that our type of creatures inaugurated their ‘social conquest of Earth,’ as E.O. Wilson put the case, in the presence of such activity is unquestionably likely and arguably certain. As often happens when such a point-of-view gets closer and closer to a sure bet, the story or intellectual history of the proposition itself is quite interesting.
Just a cursory glance at this chronicle is possible today, but even this briefing will contain high points, so to say, well worth further investigation. In any event, both sites of collected assessments and individually composed monographs and aggregated materials are now ubiquitous in scholarship, spiritual thinking, and otherwise.
ANTHROPOLOGY & SUCH
Friedrich Engels not only worked alongside and supported financially the lifelong efforts of Karl Marx. He also was, in his own right, a groundbreaking researcher on several fronts. One of them was establishing the social bases and implications of the whole human story, essentially part of the initiation of an anthropological perspective.
In any case, in his Origins of the Family, Private Property, & the State, he drew liberally from Lewis Henry Morgan’s seminal work. While Engels did not himself infer ethnobotanical facts, he certainly implied that the natural foundations of Native American ritual included plants and their use.
“The possession of common religious conceptions (Mythology) and ceremonies—After the fashion of barbarians the American Indians were a religious people.’ Their mythology has not yet been studied at all critically. They already embodied their religious ideas—spirits of every kind—in human form; but the lower stage of barbarism, which they had reached, still knows no plastic representations, so-called idols. Their religion is a cult of nature and of elemental forces, in process of development to polytheism. The various tribes had their regular festivals, with definite rites, especially dances and games. Dancing particularly was an essential part of all religious ceremonies; each tribe held its own celebration separately.”
Marx himself took up the fascinating challenges that his colleague had laid out. His final work, interrupted by mortality, was largely to be a study of Native American social lives. When he went to his grave, he had already collected hundreds of pages of notes that included multiple entries about employing exalted plants, most often tobacco that councils smoked together in ritual fashion.
As alluded above, Engels based much of his thinking, as did Marx, on the efforts of pathfinding American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. Though Morgan’s primary intention was to depict the lineage models and relations of aboriginal power that developed in the Americas, and to some extent around the world, he too also noted and implied that universal holy practices existed, essentially group rituals and shamanism. Moreover, these were omnipresent in a way that inherently fit human use of herbal and other earthen substances that people had concluded were sacrosanct.
Decades hence, after many other intervening investigators had added their assessments, Bronislaw Malinowski also wrote extensively on these matters, often taking as his locus of observation Australia and the archipelagos of the Pacific. He is squeamish about some of what he learned. He labels as ‘boasting’ what indigenous inhabitants have conveyed to him. But the content of what he does include in his writings again and again establishes, in his Sexual Repression in Savage Society and elsewhere, that rites that initiated young people as adults, sexual animals who would sire and bear children, also involved secret rituals, formulas, and holy plants.
A chillingly evocative recounting tells of a legendary sister’s seduction of her brother and how their death resulted from this transgression, even as they discovered a key element of their clan’s magic and persistence. ”’The two are dead in the grotto of Bokaraywata and the sulumwoya is growing out of their bodies. I must go.’ He took his canoe, and he sailed across the sea between his island and that of Kitava. Then from Kitava he went to the main island, till he alighted on the tragic beach. There he saw the reef-heron hovering over the grotto. He went in and he saw the sulumwoya plant growing out of the lovers’ chests. He then went to the village. The mother avowed the shame which had fallen on her family. She gave him the magical formula, which he learned by heart.”
This same sulumwoya, in his The Sexual Lives of Savages, Malinowski portrays as the basis for a love elixir specifically and for “love magic” generally. Other oils and the stimulant, Betel, also bear mention.
In the years since this monograph’s publication in 1932, hundreds of other volumes and thousands of articles have considered this minty herb alone, at the same time that different scholars, apparently in the hundreds of thousands, have delved hallucinogenic mushrooms and various other growths from Earth’s bountiful stores that have played this role, a central component of erotic ritual and performance, around the world. Most of these volumes eventually touch on the issues at the heart of Malinowski’s inquiry—the borders and connections among magic and science and religion. Inescapably, our examination in this report also ponders such matters.
James Needham, who anthologized Malinowski’s work, gathered a dozen thinkers around him to discuss and inasmuch as possible discern the conflicts and possibilities for rapprochement between science and religion. Though nearly a century old, the discussions in the collection might easily have originated yesterday; truly, they might just as well have come from a hundred years hence, should humanity manage not to immolate itself.
In his introductory passage, Malinowski speaks to what traditional values brought to a so-called primitive culture. Stripped of any lingering supremacist bias, these arguments have power still. And, to those who would overturn a hundred thousand years of human sacred practice in order to achieve some temporary political economic goal or objective of social dominance, they might carry at least the echo of a warning.
Although he is speaking about the coming-of-age ceremonies in the lines below, his point is that the inculcation of the reality of the dependence of the present on past generations lies at the heart of what happens in those circumstances. That these transitional rites involved altered awareness goes without saying: that was the purpose. For our ends, we might at least acknowledge that forgetting, lying about, or otherwise so distorting our past as to make it unrecognizable ought to seem at least of dubious utility given the way that beginnings lay the basis for completion, come what may.
“The primitive man’s share of knowledge, his social fabric, his customs and beliefs, are the invaluable yield of devious experience of his forefathers, bought at an extravagant price and to be maintained at any cost. Thus, of all his qualities, truth to tradition is the most important, and a society which makes its tradition sacred has gained by it an inestimable advantage of power and permanence. Such beliefs and practices, therefore, which put a halo of sanctity round tradition and a supernatural stamp upon it, will have a ‘survival value’ for the type of civilisation in which they have been evolved.
We may, therefore, lay down the main function of initiation ceremonies: they are a ritual and dramatic expression of the supreme power and value of tradition in primitive societies. There, they also serve to impress this power and value upon the minds of each generation, and they are at the same time an extremely efficient means of transmitting tribal lore, of ensuring continuity in tradition and of maintaining tribal cohesion.
We still have to ask: What is the relation between the purely physiological fact of bodily maturity which these ceremonies mark, and their social and religious aspect? We see at once that religion does something more, infinitely more, than the mere ‘sacralising of a crisis of life.’ From a natural event it makes a social transition; to the fact of bodily maturity it adds the vast conception of entry into manhood with its duties, privileges, responsibilities, above all with its knowledge of tradition and the communion with sacred things and beings. There is thus a creative element in the rites of religious nature. The act establishes not only a social event in the life of the individual but also a spiritual metamorphosis, both associated with the biological event but transcending it in importance and significance.”
A modern onlooker might find tempting a phrase like “polymorphous perverse” as a descriptor of these forebears of ours. The types of practices that passed on secrets of sacred acts, that made the sexuality that we treat as shameful a part of a public rite, under the influence of plants with godlike powers, must strike the prudish prudence of “just say no” as positively salacious.
However, such a judgment is far outside of any rooted reading. In the context of often the thinnest of margins of existence, such developments were the opposite of prurient. They were survival techniques that affirmed the need to love and create in the most fundamental way, as procreators in the teeth of beasts and other daunting components of the world and its creatures. In any case, judged harshly or not, this juicy jettisoning of inhibition has acted as an ineluctable bedrock that founds human socialization and coming-of-age.
Of course, dozens of other investigators also contributed to this early outpouring of anthropological ideas. One might go on if one wanted to conduct thorough research in this arena. In any event, the contemporary scene has not only for the most part confirmed the extended outlines of these earlier conclusions, but they also have broadened the scope of study and deepened both the empirical basis and theoretical richness of this area of knowledge, the focus of all of which is a reality-based description of our own nature.
Thus, as such scholars as Helen Fisher state frankly, one upshot of ruminating on these issues is that we cannot avoid the conclusion that humanity’s has been a sex drive that is rich and potent. And this longing to couple has for tens of thousands of years connected with eating, drinking, and smoking what those in charge of today’s societies now insist are criminal acts merely to possess.
Fisher—who absolutely abhors the hideous sexual and neural and amorous ‘side-effects’ of the serotonin-absorption-inhibiting ‘drugs of choice’ of the present pass —may only elliptically make this conjunction about aphrodisiacal effects of various drugs, but others do so very explicitly: the popularly-invoked formulation, “sex and drugs and rock-and-roll,” in fact forms an interconnected threesome that underlies, at many levels, essential aspects of being human.
One way of thinking about this invokes a deep analysis of language itself, where even a quick look reveals simply countless ways that, for example, psychedelic fungi evoke sexual meaning. Entheogens—plants that bring contact with God or the infinite—in this view act as a catalyst to culture’s deepest delvings.
“This mushroom on the wick is called snuff in English, but ‘snot’ in former times. …In Greek ‘snot’ is muxa but also the nose or nozzle of the oil lamp. The mushroom was linked with nasal mucous because the membrane virile discharges a mucous liquor of magical potency. The lamp-nozzle with its dripping wick carries the same idea with fire involved. Ancient medical writers and Pliny attributed a sexual character to Amanita muscaria. There is a startling association in the complex of words and figures of speech for fire, the nose and its mucous, and mushrooms, and various erotic connotations. The same fossilized figures survive in French, Spanish, and English. ‘Punk’ in English…is the name applied to a powdered fungus…; it also means a harlot who sparks her client. In French, the word for ‘punk’ is amadou. ‘Spunk’ in colloquial English means seminal fluid. It is a doublet for ‘punk’ and both are cognate with Greek spongia/(or) ’sponge ’(and Latin fungus).”
In Spanish, the association is even more graphic. There, “the word for snuff or the burnt end of a wick is seta, meaning mushroom, and also moco, meaning mucous.” In addition to linguistic, one can readily locate scores of citations that employ spiritual, sociological, psychological, genetic, sociobiological, and interdisciplinary ideation to espouse and explain the intertwining of Eros and a plant world as much a part of human engagement with sexuality as is copulation itself. Overall, tens of million*s* of sources probe these interesting matters.
Not that sexual accoutrements of universal deployment of sacred plants were exclusive or primary in these affairs, quite the contrary, the ritual and therapeutic use of hallucinogens or other botanical specimens that had ‘mind-blowing’ effects impacted many realms of early humans’ lives. Malinowski and countless other sources have pointed out this truth. People gained confidence from their imbibing. The ‘magic’ applied in the spheres of domestic production, hunting, and dealings between clans, as well as in various healing ways.
As with Cupid’s and Psyche’s play, a truly, massively vast trove of documents deal with the ways that occasional, ritualised, sacral drug use served as a substrate to enculturation, maturation, and different aspects of human life for a hundred millennia. Such experiences in a real sense made life possible; that is why they were both so extensive and so persistent. Logically, their continued—police and sold-out, so-called scientists might chime in, “intractable”—clinging to human behavior is inviting us still to affirm our lives rather than snuff them out.
A modern scholar synthesises many of these ideas, in The Evolution of Paleolithic Cosmology [and Spiritual Consciousness and the Temporal and Frontal Lobes](http://journalofcosmology.com/Consciousness155.html). Of course, as one of many threads about such conceptualisations makes plain, psychoactive plants and their ritual use attended every step in this evolutionary journey. The general point is important to expand on at some length.
“Complex mortuary rituals and belief in the transmigration of the soul, of a world beyond the grave, has been a human characteristic for at least 100,000 years. The emergence of spiritual consciousness and its symbolism, is directly linked to the evolution of the temporal and frontal lobes and to the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon peoples, and then the first cosmologies, 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. These ancient peoples of the Upper and Middle Paleolithic were capable of experiencing love, fear, and mystical awe, and they carefully buried those they loved and lost.
They believed in spirits and ghosts which dwelled in a heavenly land of dreams, and interned their dead in sleeping positions and with tools, ornaments and flowers. By 30,000 years ago, and with the expansion of the frontal lobes, they created symbolic rituals to help them understand and gain control over the spiritual realms, and created signs and symbols which could generate feelings of awe regardless of time or culture.
Because they believed souls ascended to the heavens, the people of the Paleolithic searched the heavens for signs, and between 30,000 to 20,000 years ago, they observed and symbolically depicted the association between woman’s menstrual cycle and the moon, patterns formed by stars, and the relationship between Earth, the sun, and the four seasons. These include depictions of … the 13 new moons in a solar year. Although it is impossible to date these discoveries with precision, it can be concluded that spiritual consciousness first began to evolve over 100,000 years ago, and this gave birth to the first heavenly cosmologies over 20,000 years ago.”
A compilation that looks at science and technology as a hundred thousand year continuum recognises the use of hallucinogenic plants as a technique worthy of mention. It proposes that a rational contextualisation of human advance would have no choice but to consider the inclusion of such activities, which in any event almost certainly accompanied humanity’s relatively rapid spread to every corner of the planet outside of Antarctica.
Another recent study has noticed the central role of herbs and other plants in the production of magic and knowledge, empirical medicine and divination. From the highlands of Northern Europe and the British isles to the New Guinea wilds, such rubrics have appeared, schematics that in multiple ways evidence ancient roots.
In practice, social problems have led groups, from the dawn of the human day, so to speak, to “consult healers, who usually belong to distant communities and even non-[ethnic] groups. These ‘dream men,’ whom we would label mediums, enter altered states of consciousness through the rapid inhaling of tobacco and the use of other plant materials that produce trances and hallucinations. Information is also gleaned from dreams. Such diviners are then able to identify” correct courses of action or guilty parties or complex compromises as a result of such chemically-mediated foresight and insight.
Investigating these kinds of phenomena and then labelling them as shamanism, meanwhile, has become both a popular and important corner of the scholarly enterprise. Many anthropologists and archaeologists who participate in this undertaking have noted the obvious longevity of these practices and the concomitant probability that drug-induced hallucinations accompanied such designations of ‘guiding spirits’ within the clans or bands from which we and our immediate forebears have sprung.
The capacity for this kind of ‘second sight’ is “of great antiquity,” probably hundreds of thousands of years at least. As a South African professor stated the point, “The widespread appearance of shamanism results not from diffusion but…from universal neurological inheritance that include the capacity of the nervous system to enter altered states and the need to make sense of the resultant hallucinations within a foraging community. There seem to be no other explanations for the remarkable similarities between shamanic traditions worldwide. It is therefore probable that some form of shamanism…was practiced by the hunter-gatherers of Upper Paleolithic Europe.”
More recent scholars, putting into practice advances in forensic science—dating and identifications of molecules and more—can now say without equivocation that aboriginal human networks from tens of thousands of years ago frequently engaged in devotions that involved heightened consciousness, often including hallucinatory and other states of arousal. Such evidence comes from around the planet.
It indicates the role of such ‘expanded awareness,’ for example in The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves, in the production of magnificent artistic output tens of thousands of years old. It countenances the probability that imbibing one or another psychoactive plant or fungus contributed to, or formed a bedrock of, the rites both that defined early social development in aggregate and that related to the use of these grottoes and caverns so filled with an evocative, creative mystery that astounds us to this day.
From the Americas, one finds that these patterns have characterized past human groups from the Amazon to Mexico at the very least. Psilocybin and Ayahuasca’s use are, at a minimum, thousands of years old.
Such practices were medicinal. They as elsewhere frequently pertained to both carnal relations generally and to the sexual initiation of pubescent members of the social group. Some data indicates that these substances played a part in the rites of human sacrifice that came to characterize Aztec and Mayan cultures at the ends of their ecological ropes.
From throughout the European neck of the **[Eurasian land mass](http://www.pearsonhighered.com/assets/hip/us/hip_us_pearsonhighered/samplechapter/0205744222.pdf), artistry of different sorts proves the presence of organically induced hallucinations. Graves have contained residues of psychoactive materials placed with the corpse, as in cannabis at a burial site in Siberia.
“Buried with the ‘princess’ were six saddled-and-bridled horses, bronze and gold ornaments - and a small canister of cannabis. She is not known to be a ‘princess’, as her name implies. Experts are divided over whether she was a poet, healer, or holy woman.”
From East Asia, one finds evidence of marijuana gathered in quantity from five thousand years or more ago. Moreover, hallucinogens have a many sided and ancient lineage in Japan. “Magic mushrooms references in Japan are often referred to as dance-inducing(Odoritake and Maitake) or laughter-inducing (Waraitake) mushrooms. These “laughing mushrooms” are the subject of a number of folktales as well as the names of ancient dance forms in Japan.”
From before the dawn of history, various hallucinogenic or otherwise intoxicating plants were present in China as well. Wherever one looks in these particular ‘cradles of civilization,’ their forebears took part ritually in gatherings at which participants took into their bodies the basis for transformed consciousness and vision.
From the Pacific and South Asia, we have already seen extensive documentation regarding cultures and peoples of Oceana. India attests to ancient usage of Soma, a plant-based substance that led to reputedly almost omnipotent experiences. “The identity of the ancient plant known as Soma is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in the field of religious history. Common in the religious lore of both ancient India and Persia, the sacred Soma plant was considered a God. When Soma was pressed and made into a drink, the ancient worshipper who imbibed it gained the powerful attributes of this God. The origins of Soma go back into the shadowy time of prehistory, back to the common Aryan ancestors of both the Vedic Hindu religion of India and the Persian religion of Mazdaism.”
Thus, when plus-or-minus five thousand years ago, Aryan conquerors came on the scene in the subcontinent, they brought with them an already well-formulated and long-practiced drug dynamic. This ‘Soma’ included many aspects of the soon-to-predominate culture
. It related religiously to the powers of the gods to grant strength to believers. It related to political control. It informed the musical tradition of Rig Veda.
“A significant number of its hymns sing the praises of soma, a psychoactive potion that was made and consumed during a ritual sacrifice. Using 108 bricks, a hearth was constructed in the shape of a bird, within which priests would build a fire. An animal, tethered to a post was beheaded and the main part of the ritual began. The priests would lay out a leather mat and place upon it two circular grinding-stones. A certain plant was crushed between these stones with an admixture of milk or water to make an inebriating drink which was then consumed. As this process allows no time for fermentation we must infer that soma (also called amṛita “immortality”) was a decoction of a psychoactive plant, and not alcohol. Alcohol was certainly known to the Aryans but it was allowed only to the caste of warriors and kings (Skt., kṣatriya).”
The entire globe proffers scholarship, investigation, and knowledge of the folk roots of many of the drugs in the pharmacopoeia, a substantial portion of which served ‘ritual’ purposes and other ways of affecting consciousness. General accounts of the origins of language, religion, and culture now treat the contention as close-to-established theory. Such life forms as psilocybin and tobacco and coca and on and on and on, acted as a conduit to humanity’s unfolding persistence.
Moreover, the intake of these transformative lifeforms probably predated culture and anatomically modern humans as such. Its tendency is a much more deeply embedded phenomenon. According to some scholars, this pattern stems from the following of ungulates and the partaking of the fungal forms that proliferated in the herbivores’ stools. Such dietary choices likely came before primates en masse migrated from Africa and continued through successive waves of wandering that underlay the manifestation of people more or less just like us.
That such thoughts constitute components—and arguably core pieces of the overall construct at that—of science, of scientific knowledge, discomfits many folks. This is arguably especially true in the United States where at best puritanical positions all-too-often stubbornly continue. One recent scholar, whose works illuminate the inevitable conjunctions of magic, religion, and science, of actual awareness and fingers-crossed mumbo jumbo, speaks eloquently about these things.
His thoughts establish a sort of benchmark for this essay’s contention that a widespread and revered practice of psychoactive and psychedelic ritual emanates from every social sector of the world, past and present. Their ubiquity in his estimation both is only possible inasmuch as they worked for the peoples involved and proves that the substances themselves were part of a complicated web of problem and need, of human possibility and consciousness. He takes us from China to Europe, from Africa to Australia, from the Pacific islands to the Americas.
“[M]any Northwest Coast people…do have so intense an emotional feeling[about nature] that ‘love’ is the only word[for it]. …[They] feel that the trees, animals, and rocks of their areas are home and family—living spirit persons… .the result of thousands of years of having to take forests and animals seriously. If one has to interact with plants and animals over time, one cannot help developing emotional and moral feelings toward them. Humans simply do not remain neutral about things they have to take constantly into account. Interactions construct our world. Our very selves are born of interacting. Interactions with beings we take seriously are powerful emotional events, and, indeed, more than that; …Our selves are the products of our interactions… .
In the cases noted here, these Native American peoples must depend on the forests and animals, and must be responsible for caring for them. …A worldview grounded in this sort of involvement does not lead to cutting the world into magic, science, and religion. It leads, rather, to cutting the world into ethical versus nonethical behavior, into local versus nonlocal place, into factual versus nonfactual claims, into effective versus ineffective ways of living and working, into prosocial versus antisocial behavior(remembering that animals and plants are part of society), and into one’s immediate social world—including animals and plants” and everything else.
In such a context, one engages with all that nature proffers. One does not generally reject, let alone criminalize, those things that have through immemorial practice expressed rites of passage and transformation. To do so would seem not only bizarre but also immoral, perhaps wickedly insane.
Again, one could continue. However, perhaps the finding should seem plausible enough without venturing further. Currently-‘proscribed’ plants have served as chosen and beneficent coventurers on the paths that human ‘traffic’ has followed. Strong medicines, stalwart tonics, and useful stimulants that our ancestors have utilized ‘time out of mind’ are now the basis for ‘life-in-prison’ or worse.
In addition to this litany of both inaugural and contemporary anthropological assessments that make the point that humans seek out ‘expanded’ awareness, a process that has served as an adaptive attribute of our kind’s survival, multiple myths and other expressions of humanity’s early(Paleolithic or prior) narrative-bent also portray such usages. As above, one might take a few lifetimes merely to delve a substantial proportion of such accounts. Perhaps a mere précis of such items will serve to make our point: that people and psychoactive flora have coevolved, that our ‘wiring’—as we would see in our tales about ourselves—repeatedly uncovers that this swirling dance of a human consciousness, which incorporates various sorts of psychoactive stuff in its twirling turns, is inherent.
No chronicler of mythos in human culture is better-known than Joseph Campbell. His writings again and again touch on these aspects of our kind’s development. He conveys literally untold thousands of anecdotal portraits of human ritual and event that demonstrate the conjunction, even though he himself does not emphasize the revelation, of psyche and psychedelia, of human psychology and the ministration of ‘altering’ herbal concoctions, so to say.
He writes of a legendary couple from Southwest Asia who manage to live through their intended sacrifice because their stories and perhaps their comestibles so stupefy the ‘guests’—later, this yarnsmith’s words were “like the hashish that makes people happy when awake; then (they) became like the hashish of a dreamer“—who had come to arrest them that these erstwhile executioners slept past the dawn-hour appointed for the seizure to take place. Perhaps readers may note that this unfolds in a fashion that parallels Scheherazade’s legend.
“But when the sun rose and the tale of Far-li-mas closed, unspeakable astonishment filled the confused minds of all; for when those who remained alive looked about them their glances fell upon the priests—and the priests lay dead upon the ground.
Sali got up and prostrated herself before the veiled king. ‘O my king!’ she said. ’O my brother(who was on a schedule himself for upcoming elimination)! Akaf! Throw from yourself the veil; show yourself to your people and offer up your offering, now, yourself! For these here have been mowed down by the Angel of Death, Azrail, through God’s command. …And since that day, there have been no more human sacrifices in Napata.”
Campbell presents a slough of tales and facts that suggest elements that contributed to the replacement of matriarchal, matrilineal groups with patriarchal and patrilineal standards. The primordial power of woman never completely disappeared, yet certainly the tales of the gods themselves illustrated the elevation of the male godheads to pride of place in the Olympian and other orders. In this scheme of things, the oversight of growing things—like herbs and mushrooms and grapes, oh my!—and the places where they dwelled nevertheless generally fell to the goddesses.
An exception to this gender tendency of course is Dionysus. And all of the versions and outlets of his multifaceted story certainly mesh with the thesis here, since his particular manifestation of divinity embodied a chaos that clearly invokes and uses all manner of elevating concoctions. The search, for example, < religion OR myths OR gods OR deities OR dionysus OR dionysos OR bacchus “altered state” OR “altered consciousness” hallucinogens OR hallucinogenic OR psychedelics OR amanita muscaria OR “magic mushrooms”> garners well over 20,000 citations, whereas a wider net, <prehistory OR paleolithic religion OR magic OR gods hallucinogen OR hallucinogenic OR “psychoactive plants” OR soma>, yields up just short of a million, seven hundred thousand hits.
Campbell, for his part, also notes in multiple places the way that drugs may have played a role in Paleolithic and early Neolithic practices of human sacrifice; at other times, more frequently, he pictures the use of stimulants and potions and alcohol and possibly much more as an accompaniment of such scary rituals. Nor do these rites equate with entertainment. They are at the core of the way that identifiable people constructed their identities—how they conceived children, reared young people, prescribed or proscribed all sorts of behaviors, and so forth.
In an observed case of such a ‘death orgy,’ in New Guinea, after riotous rites in which betel nut and palm wine, at a minimum, are constant, “(t)he particular moment of importance to our story occurs at the conclusion of one of the boys’ puberty rites, which terminates in a sexual orgy of several days and nights, during which everyone in the village except the initiates makes free with everybody else, amid the tumult of mythological chants, drums, and the bull-roarers—until the final night, when a fine young girl, painted, oiled, and ceremonially costumed, is led into the dancing ground and made to lie beneath a platform of very heavy logs. With her, in open view of the festival, the initiates cohabit, one after another; and while the youth chosen to be last is embracing her the supports of the logs are jerked away and the platform drops, to a prodigious boom of drums. A hideous howl goes up and the dead girl and boy are dragged from the logs, cut up, roasted, and eaten.”
In one way or another, this stunning tableau is a scene that played out—from equatorial Africa and the Americas and across the Pacific through Micronesia and South Asia—again and again. Its horror forces one to ponder why such things happened; not to justify them, obviously, but to comprehend from whence we’ve all come.
“The leading theme of the primitive-village mythology of the Dema is the coming of death into the world, and the particular point is that the death comes by way of a murder. The second point is that the plants on which man lives derive from this death. The world lives on death: that is the insight rendered dramatically in this image. Moreover, as we learn from other myths and mythological fragments in this culture sphere, the sexual organs are supposed to have appeared at the time of this coming of death. Reproduction without death would be a calamity, as would death without reproduction.
We may say, then, that the interdependence of death and sex, their import as the complementary aspects of single state of being, and the necessity of killing—killing and eating—for the continuance of this state of being, which is that of man on earth, and of all the things on earth, the animals, birds, and fish, as well as man—this deeply moving, emotionally disturbing glimpse of death as the life of the living is the fundamental motivation supporting the rites around which the social structure of the early planting villages was composed.”
Yet another aspect of Campbell’s outpouring of mythic restatement and interpretation remains the synthesis that the mythologist weaves from all these concatenations of the human pass through this veil of tears. In his summative Flight of the Wild Gander, he shows how close-to-omnipresent are these initiations that deal out experiences that quite often entail use of one mind-twisting chemical or another.
“But now, in every primitive society on earth—whether of the hunting or of the planting order—these inevitable imprints and conceptions of infancy are filled with new associations, rearranged and powerfully reimprinted, under the most highly emotional circumstances, in the puberty rites, the rites of initiation, to which every young male(and often every female too) is subjected. …A fundamental motif in such ceremonials is that of death to infancy and rebirth to adulthood.” The great mythologist suggests that grottoes and caves—filled with ancient art—almost certainly were theaters in which these kinds of activities played out.
In the Primitive Mythology volume of the series, The Masks of God, Campbell concludes that in essentially all cultural, spiritual approaches to human existence, myths and their component rites and ‘magic’ contribute indisputably to the pleasure principle, the power principle, and the desire for ordered and systematic sustainability. He goes on, however, to argue persuasively that the shamanistic, transcendent expressions of mythic acts produce a ‘higher-level’ of awareness, an expanded consciousness on which human advances have likely always rested.
“(I)n the earlier periods of the Paleolithic and Mesolithic gatherers, hunters, and primitive planters, a sense of awe before the closely watched wonders of the animal and plant domains had produced the mimes of the buffalo dance and the sacrificial seed. Through such half-mad games and plays ordered human societies were constellated in which the mutually contradictory interests of the elementary and social urges were resolved.
And the higher principle according to which they were thus resolved was not in any sense a function or derivative of any one of them or of their combination, but an actually superior, superordinated principle sui generis…that principle of disinterested delight and self-loss in a rhythm of beauty…which used to be called, more loosely, spiritual, mystical, or religious. The biological urges to enjoy and to master (with their opposites to loathe and to fear), as well as the social urge to evaluate (as good or evil, true or false), simply drop away, and a rapture in sheer experience supervenes… .The mind is released—for a moment, for a day, perhaps forever—from those anxieties to enjoy, to win, or to be correct, which spring from the net of nerves in which men are entangled.”
Campbell’s capacities to excavate the human psyche so close to roots of consciousness emanated from those of earlier writers such as James Frazier, whose classic, The Golden Bough, styled itself, in similar vein as Malinowski, as a study of magic and religion. Even a brief bibliography here would contain dozens of authorities and thousands of links that prove beyond doubt that prohibition has never prevailed as a regimen for managing these materials that in contemporary practice are part of a huge complex of repression and death and falsification of the real in support of the upper class sectors of society.
Emile Durkheim was one of the pioneers of what we might call historical and scientific sociology, a sort of technocratic mythologist who developed his documentation through direct observation or records of rituals and practices. Inevitably, such depictions as his bring to the fore mythic traditions and elements. To Durkheim, this seeking after oneness was everywhere, emanating endlessly in nature and appearing ritually in human society.
“Moreover, the object of this communion is manifest. Every member of a totemic clan contains a mystic substance within him which is the pre-eminent part of his being, for his soul is made out of it. From it come whatever powers he has and his social position, for it is this which makes him a person.
So he has a vital interest in maintaining it intact, and in keeping it, as far as is possible, in a state of perpetual youth. Unfortunately all forces, even the most spiritual, are used up in the course of time if nothing comes to return to them the energy they lose through the normal working of things.”
He sees this interaction with the plant and animal worlds, in some ways as controlling and in every sense as trusting the fruitfulness of the Earth, as a foundation for certain traditions of waste, even of sacrifice. Complex and ecstatic rituals here emerged, in much the same fashion that Durkheim and multitudes of others illustrate and thereby also characterize the human attempts to manage and trust our species’ own fructification. Of course, life would cease were even a small part of this reliance on bounty ever to prove fallacious.
In the constructed scripts of these visions, people would ‘taste’ the gods and give up of themselves and their harvests so as to mimic what actually took place in the fields and forests. “Here as elsewhere the artifice was born to imitate nature. …(I)n fact, we have just seen that in an important number of societies the totemic sacrifice…is or has been practised. Of course, we have no proof that this practice is necessarily inherent to totemism or that it is the germ out of which all the other types of sacrifices have developed. But if the universality of the rite is hypothetical, its existence is no longer to be contested. Hereafter it is to be regarded as established that the most mystical form of the alimentary *communion* is found even in the most rudimentary cults known to-day.”
Nor would we finish with Durkheim were our goal to make a complete case for a certain bonding of social ritual, and its religious manifestations, with psychoactive plants. We might at the least mention such diverse investigators as Sigmund Freud, and Franz Boas, and Marija Gimbutas. In other words, as at every step in the spinning of this web of understanding, we might easily present loads more here.
However, Campbell’s and these sorts of assessments generally do not place the substances in play today under the analytical lens in their own right. More recent researchers, following a path that Huxley and Leary and McKenna and others walked before them, on the other hand, do examine this explicit ethnobotanical intersection carefully. They confirm—and we might add thousands more citations—that this link is—if not ineluctable—omnipresent, and, therefore a non-random aspect of our having ‘conquered’ the planet, as in E.O. Wilson’s Social Conquest of Earth.
Robert Winzeler, in his Anthropology and Religion: What We Know, Think, and Question, provides an overview of this way that hallucinogens and “altered states of consciousness” have served as foundations to mythos and religious feeling. Though merely a part of his whole spectrum of analysis, this joinder has appeared repeatedly in the realm of the real, and has become widely considered, and frequently accepted, among scholars.
A longstanding expert in these matters, Ralph Abraham, develops the thesis that the very ancient, Paleolithic emergence of geometric capacity—which shows up in art and tools and artifacts—stems from the use of hallucinogens. “In this article we tell the story of the earliest geometric motifs we have found. This reveals the birth of geometric thinking in the ambiance of psychedelic shamanism — religion, art, and mathematics were born together in the youth of our species.”
A very recent authoritative, perhaps dispositive, introductory summary of these matters culminates in the contention that this metaphorical embrace between psychedelics and human culture was more or less a one-to-one correspondence. In “The Consumption of Psychoactive Plants in Ancient Global and Anatolian Cultures During Religious Rituals: the Roots of the Eruption of Mythological Figures and Common Symbols in Religions and Myths,” the reader notices that this phenomenon extends worldwide, a “fact(that) has been underestimated and even unnoticed by many historians and anthropologists, because of the quasi-ethical trends of ‘anti-drug-brain-washed Western Societies.’”
Moreover, in the current moment, dozens of forums explore these multidirectional causal and correlative and combinatorial factors and facts that seem to twine consciousness and psychoactive plants and mythic ritual into a whole. If nothing else, such widely available sites of thinking and research and discussion make inexcusable any assertion that these problems are viewable through only one microscope, especially such a self-interested and antithetical-to-human-experience lens as the law and ‘science’ of a latter-day ‘War-on-Drugs.’
In terms of the myths themselves, these psychic tools of human development often—some would say almost comprehensively—include instances of potions and lotions and substances that are key elements of the stories. From the precursors of recent editions of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty or other ‘fairy tales,’ to the collected expression of Greeks or Romans or Chinese or Australians or North Americans, indications are, to say the least, more than occasional that tobacco, blue lotuses, coca leaves, several kinds of mushrooms, different formulas for ‘poison,’ and much more acted as a core prop of the varied storylines themselves.
Directly to the point of contention in today’s analysis, literally countless mythic tales or legendary accounts either directly involve or with near certainty imply the at least occasionally core import, and critical impact, of what police and authorities now would undoubtedly list as ‘controlled substances’ on felonious ‘schedules.’ The reasons that such myths survived, that these stories have never died, is both that people told them to each other and—implicitly—that these tellings assisted human collectives themselves to survive and continue in kind.
At the very least, when ‘law-enforcement’ regulations collide with our lives, we ought to begin to introduce this evidence of our forebears’ pathways into the social dialog about our encounters with the law. In so doing, we establish a basis for a transformation of this entire realm, arguably a prospect that would immeasurably improve the human condition.
In addition to archaeological, anthropological, and mythic data and argumentation that posit this deep human connection to drugs, the use of which now constitute felonies, historical documentation from the eras prior to the present also contain evidence to bolster this case even further. Because, based on the above presentations, the foundation for this perspective seems more than solid enough to move forward, we will be briefer here.
Some of the clearest historical references to our kind’s predilection to ‘get stoned’ are literary or artistic in nature. Poets, playwrights, songwriters, and more have, since prior to the dissolution of ancient empires, presented material that shows intoxication as one among many natural states for our kind of creatures.
“The Greek drama began as a religious observance in honour of Dionysus. To the Greeks this god personified both spring and the vintage, the latter a very important time of year in a vine-growing country, and he was a symbol to them of that power there is in man of rising out of himself, of being impelled onwards by a joy within him that he cannot explain, but which makes him go forward, walking, as it were, on the wings of the wind, of the spirit that fills him with a deep sense of worship. We call this power enthusiasm, a Greek word which simply means the god within us.”
William Graves at the beginning of this section wrote about the likely link between Dionysus and psychotropic mushrooms and other potions. A clear telling of the tragic outcomes of such unleashed frenzy showed up in Euripides eerie play, The Bacchae, in which the wine-and-potion god lets a king face a grotesque fate at the hands of tripping women who will brook no men in their rites. Elsewhere as well inebriation in different forms played a part in dramatic narratives.
Two thousand Summers subsequently, A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells a story that is only the clearest case in Shakespeare of references to longstanding love-and-transformation rituals that, many interpreters agree, in that case surely depended on psychotropic mushrooms. In the bard’s output otherwise hundreds of scenes contain drunkenness or carousing of one sort or other that depend on grapes’ and other plants’ and altering substances’ impacts on human consciousness. Shakespeare’s sonnets also have a similar tale to tell.
Whether one draws on Chaucer, on texts from the Continent or from Muslim regions or from South Asia or from China, the motif is ever-present: characters seek out and settings delineate experiences that put the players in altered states. Mostly, of course, the references are to alcoholic beverages, but plenty of other mind-warping concoctions come to the stage at least occasionally, for brief moments when psychedelic light shines forth.
The art of ancient civilizations, especially in relation to mushrooms in the area that is now Mexico and Central America, but also in regard to different types of chalices that might once have contained different ‘flavors’ of elixirs, the pots and frescoes from Greece and Rome and Persia and ancient India and various dynasties in China and Japan, all depict or otherwise indicate instrumentalities to facilitate sacred highs that were part of these cultures. In sum, four thousand years or more of such ‘texts’ testify to this conjunction of plants and shifted states in the early instances of historical humanity.
Pictures in the form of drawings and paintings portray such matters quite simply and clearly. Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, for instance, repeatedly shows the ways that carnality and wine and various other plants intersected with human carnal desire.
One chronicler, drawing on a plus-or-minus thirteenth century fresco at a thousand year-old Italian cathedral, has discovered a representation of Jesus in which obviously the erstwhile Nazarene was purveying, imbibing, and storing mushrooms. The context of the depiction is equally straightforward, that the transformation of awareness would attend this sacred food.
However, documentary materials and recorded assessments also contribute to our understanding during the different historical epochs of the last plus-or-minus six thousand years, years during which the ability to inscribe speech has established boundaries for history. Without exception, the seats of ancient power and medieval rule, if a written language was present, illustrate this conjunction that people have had with transformative ambrosias and meads and more.
This was the case in Japan. Korea also reveals such materials, as does China in much greater volume. Hindu and Buddhist texts from South Asia also attest to potions and lotions of magical potency. As well, Greece, Rome, Egypt, and, more recently Muscovy and Europe of the Middle Ages and various Islamic venues all uncover similar records that reveal the ubiquity of drugs in the human condition: blue lotus, cannabis in multiple forms, the fly agaric mushroom, Soma’s transporting fumes and draughts, and more give voice to men’s and women’s initiation, and continued choice, to imbibe and ride ecstatic or energized waves that resulted from drinking and smoking and eating magic plants.
More ancient sources include the first historical accounts of the likes of Pliny, who writes now and again in his multi-volume natural history about mushrooms as divine foods for reasons that were nutritional, medicinal, and psychotropic. These elements of life and culture at the time were part of the taken-for-granted warp and woof of social existence.
“(A) Babylonian passage about ‘divine prostitutes’ recorded they used pine seeds in rituals which Pliny explained were mushrooms or fungi. Hallucinogenic mushrooms, probably of the species Amanita Muscaria…by nature grow around pine or fir trees and may have been considered the fruit of the tree.”
Earlier sources still also contain such clear references and easily deducible conclusions about the connection of entheogenic plants and human culture. This was true everywhere in ancient civilizations: “For example, La droga en el Antiguo Egipto noted pictures of the following psychoactive plants on the tomb walls of Egyptian Pharaohs and their bureaucrats: (1)the lotuses Nymphaeaalba and Nymphaeacaerulea, which contain the psychoactive alkoloid apomorphine; (2)Lactucaverosa, a substitute for opium with mild hypnotic effects; (3) the poppy Papaver somniferum, from which opium is, of course, extracted. It is therefore not surprising that ancient Egyptian priests were designated by the Egyptian word sem for plants, or that these priests contemporaneously served as physicians.”
Even early Christian mystics might give the onlooker glimpses of this chemically induced riot. Recent scholarship disposes of arguments against the prevalence of psychotropic rites among the first Catholics. The monograph, The Holy Mushroom: Evidence of Mushrooms in Judaism and Christianity is one of many potent sources that document these ideas.
“Jan Irvin … has captured what we might call an ‘anthropology of clarification’ regarding whether or not mushrooms, and mind-altering substances in general, played any role in the development of not only Judaism and Christianity but the total culture in play at that time. It is now recognized in many academic communities (anthropologists, sociologists, psychiatrists, psychologists) that sufficient evidence exists of the importance of these substances, both textual and visual, to say ‘yes’ in very large letters. It is no longer theory. The questions Irvin asks are these: ‘If mind-altering substances did play this major role, then how would this affect our interpretations of the Bible and the Qur’an? Would this shed light on the origins of mystical experiences and the stories, for example Abraham hearing voices and Ezekiel’s convenient visions? What would this suggest about the shamanic behavior of Jesus? What impact would this have on organized religion?’ These are bold questions. This is a very useful volume for those interested in the Holy Mushroom and the politics of truth.”
Furthermore, Islamic culture adopted usage of Cannabis that was almost two millennia old in the Subcontinent. For a century and a half or more, this was a matter of medicine, with warnings against overuse or mixture with other herbs.
But “by late in the ninth century…the use of hashish as an intoxicant had surfaced in Islam. …(I)t was first consumed by members of religious Persian and Iraqi sects located at the Eastern periphery of the Islamic empire which bordered the central steppes where the plant had its origins. And there was little cultural opposition at first because the holy Koran, which formulates in detail all the activities of daily Muslin living, does not forbid explicitly the consumption of Cannabis, although it proscribes the usage of fermented beverages.”
More recently, as Europe’s imprimatur has expanded to encompass the Earth, over and over and over traditional medicines and tonics became part of a commodity pipeline that served both to profit interlopers directly and to make ‘energized’ work forces easier to expect. In his Open Veins of Latin America, Roberto Galeano very explicitly develops this point in regard to coca.
“(I)n Inca times…coca was then distributed in moderation; the Inca government had a monopoly on it and only permitted its use for ritual purposes or for those who worked in the mines. The Spaniards energetically stimulated its consumption. It was good business. In potosi in the sixteenth century as much was spent on European clothes for the oppressors as on coca for the oppressed. In Cuzco 400 Spanish merchants lived off the coca traffic; every year 100,000 baskets with a million kilos of coca-leaf entered the Potosi silver mines. The Church took its tax from the drug. …(T)he bishop, canons, and other Cuzco church dignitaries got most of their income from tithes on coca. …(T)he Indians bought coca-leaf instead of food: chewing iit, they could—at the price of shortening their lives—better endure the deadly tasks imposed on them.”
We will soon see much more of this tortuous intertwining of human beings’ desires to shift their inner state and the agendas of rulers to wring more work and coin from people so as further to enrich themselves at their vassals’ expense.
Some contemporary indicia that elicit the sorts of interweaving of plants and consciousness that typify Homo Sapiens are at least as much literary as scholarly in nature. No example might excite such passion—positive and negative—in this regard as the texts of Carlos Castaneda.
Whether one demonizes or lionizes this, if nothing else, interesting author, however, that he was in fact a trained anthropologist is not controvertible. One admirer noted that whether as a brilliant anthropologist or a gifted novelist, Castaneda had made a mark on culture that resulted from his recognition of how consciousness, especially in the crucible of plant catalysts, was anything but a linear, constant construct.
All manner of commentators note this benchmark in Castaneda’s writing. Thus, that the deployment of Peyote and other plant and fungal capacities for transformative power were central in the world that Castaneda portrays is unarguable, as is the fact that these substances indisputably both are now and have been for untold thousands upon thousands of annual returns key accompaniments of the human journey, whether as Mescalito or in more routine terms.
“The education of a sorcerer, as Castaneda describes it, is arduous. It entailed the destruction, by Don Juan, of the young anthropologist’s interpretation of the world; of what can, and cannot be called ‘real.’ The Teachings describes the first steps in this process. They involved natural drugs. One was Lophophora williamsii, the peyote cactus, which, Don Juan promised, revealed an entity named Mescalito, a powerful teacher who ‘shows you the proper way of life.’ Another was Jimson weed, which Don Juan spoke of as an implacable female presence. The third was humito, ‘the little smoke’ a preparation of dust from Psilocybe mushrooms that had been dried and aged for a year, and then mixed with five other plants, including sage. This was smoked in a ritual pipe, and used for divination.
Such drugs, Don Juan insisted, gave access to the ‘powers’ or impersonal forces at large in the world that a ‘man of knowledge’—his term for sorcerer—must learn to use. Prepared and administered by Don Juan, the drugs drew Castaneda into one frightful or ecstatic confrontation after another. After chewing peyote buttons Castaneda met Mescalito successively as a black dog, a column of singing light, and a cricket like being with a green warty head. He heard awesome and uninterpretable rumbles from the dead lava hills. After smoking humito and talking to a bilingual coyote, he saw the ‘guardian of the other world’ rise before him as a hundred-foot high gnat with spiky tufted hair and drooling jaws. After rubbing his body with an unguent made from datura, the terrified anthropologist experienced all the sensations of flying.”
Some observers have approached Castaneda as an investigative project, the results of which are far from pretty: ritual degradation, cultish erotic exploitation, and obsessive attitudes toward conquest abound in many accounts. Whatever the case may be, that drugs—which a sojourner has contextualized in the present based on ancient usage—stood at a central spot in these eventualities is as obvious as the heat of the sun on a bright equatorial day.
As always in regard to such data sets, one could go on if not forever, then at multivolume length. To close out this section, we might note that the sphere of folk stories, now in the form of historical documents but stemming from ancient tellings in the oral tradition, is simply replete with references to the elixirs and mixtures and drugs that either impeded or facilitated heroic action or characters’ capabilities to overcome their problems.
Of the thousands, or tens of thousands, of such particular texts, a few are worth noting as exemplary. At the same time, one might as easily have selected almost innumerable others.
Many folk-tales from the British Isles and Northern Europe contain a central character, Jack, who robbed and killed giants because of his wit and daring. The boy of the beanstalk was only one of these, but what might one make of those beans? Their magic certainly empowered some miraculous tricks and transformations. In any case, the loutish giant’s indiscriminate drunkenness certainly contributed to his demise.
Another fairy tale of obvious renown, “Little Red Riding Hood,” also had dozens or scores of forms in historical times, although its roots probably extend much further back, beyond any veil that we might imagine as historical. In these yarns, a young girl, but pubescent obviously—that’s the red hood’s standing in for the menarche—has, at least in several incantations, to ply the wicked wolf with a stupefying mead in order to escape his clutches.
Many additional titles, not nearly so well-traveled as Jack and Little Red, also let readers see such references to wanton or wise magical brews and substances. Whether one views Celtic yarns like the struggle between Taliesin and Avigddu over a magic potion; or Doctor Phantom’s series of hallucinatory adventures in his search for the “elixir of life,” a venture that ended in his death; or one listens to any of the almost countless variations on the tale of the ‘Moon Rabbit,’ who is also seeking obsessively for a magical mixture that can solve all life’s problems, not least of them death; or literally countless other historical installments of the mythic tradition’s folk manifestation, drugs and coming-of-age often enough loom large.
At this juncture, therefore, on the cusp of introducing and examining the main body of facts and events that make up this narrative of human ‘highs’ for the past several centuries, we have discerned a triangular construct that underpins all of what we now label contraband, from Heroin to Ritalin and beyond. This threefold context moreover conclusively proves that ‘controlled substances’ are akin to air that we breathe or food that we eat or kisses that we dispense to those who are our erotic partners.
These heretofore overwhelmingly herbal or at least plant-based materials, now overwhelmingly ‘illegal,’ are very probably irresistible at the genetic, hormonal, molecular level. They are indisputably a huge part of human culture and social interaction for plus-or-minus a hundred thousand years, most likely much longer than that. In terms of the modern turn that homo sapiens have taken—toward agriculture and government and social-classes and medicine and media and so on—these ‘drugs’ are historically verifiable as prevalent, popular, and purposeful in literally innumerable cases prior to the present epoch that capital and its commodities seem to rule by magic or fate or insidious class warfare.
Thus, we begin an examination of drugs over the past few hundred years in confrontation with a paradox. Items that are natural, inherent, and inescapably a part of human activity bear the label of criminality and evil.
Most analysts explicate this deep anomaly as some sort of ignorance. Or they find that entire social systems exist in profound error. Or they label it insanity. Or they seek to justify or excuse the clearly conclusive evidence that the paradox is present and contend that these ancient practices and proclivities are in fact awful and worthy of ‘treating’ as both crime and sickness. Probably more often than not, observers use combinations of these explanatory schemes.
This essay proceeds very differently. To start, it adopts as essential a threefold investigatory approach: that historical evidence and reasoning are central to comprehension; that political-economic assessments also lie at the heart of what has happened and is transpiring; that analyzing the underlying social realities and relations of drugs must form a part of any clear and accurate view.
This report then posits that persuasive argumentation—if not outright proof—is possible in regard to this apparent paradox, argumentation that completely gainsays all of the above typical ways of perceiving these anomalies. This argument is complex but is nonetheless possible to present in relatively straightforward terms.
First*, the seeming contradictions that erupt from ‘drug-wars’ and such in fact form a systematic mechanism of political, economic, and social control. In actuality, these expressions of contraband and controlled substances work out to be central to the functioning and imprimatur of capital. *
Those who rule this ‘system’ deploy their machinations in two ways, both of which yield—from the point of view of those in charge—multiple salubrious results. The initial way that the system manifests is in regard to various administrative possibilities in the realms of governance and production and so forth—police, trade, empire, ‘markets,’ and more. Another fashion in which this system’s characteristics show up is in connection with a promised expression of health and well-being—addictions and disorders and curative intervention and much more.
Second*, this system evolves so as to create planned and directed understandings of the entire process among the citizens and workers and social beings who inhabit the societies that embody this schematic. Especially now, this array of popular awareness either accepts that ‘drugs are bad’ or, at the least, acknowledges that the criminal constructions of their rulers are, if not right, then inescapable. At a minimum, social practice inculcates one or both of these two attitudes or institutionalizes similar types of norms and values.*
Third*, because of the inevitably contrary and arbitrary and counterfactual and hypocritical eventualities that the system entails, it constantly falls apart and fails, so that one sort of systemic oppression replaces a fallen one, which those at the helm suddenly discover to be ‘in error.’ Prohibition proceeds for a generation or so, and that yields a war-on-drugs that lasts another few decades or so, and variations on this dance of death typify social life as if its hideous tangos and venal waltzes are part of some rooted, if not divine, order of existence.*
In one view, this interwoven triptych looks as if it will forever predominate. Indeed, if the families and networks that have ruled the planet for the past plus-or-minus five hundred years continue to hold sway, this horrific and brutal dynamic will almost certainly persist in one shape, form, or fashion. The ‘system’ will prevail because it works ‘like a charm’ for those in command.
Yet a different conceptualization of the future is still plausible. From this perspective, a much wider swath of families and networks will develop and contend for power. They will insist that the experience of the hundred millennia or more prior to the past few hundred years exhibits a more viable and human and excellent consciousness of our species’ tendencies to want to alter consciousness itself than do our current conquistadors’ beliefs and practices.
How such radical transformation could all work out exactly is not the purpose of this article to develop. It already has more than enough to do. Nevertheless, to deny that a more democratic power and social structure could win out, in so doing overturning the obviously dysfunctional and righteously self-serving ‘wars-on-drugs’ that have so far wielded control, may very well come down to a denial that a human existence, or even human survival, is possible.
More to the point, whatever evolution, or revolution, might be imaginable is only conceivable in the context of a correct understanding of the current scheme of things. We cannot rationally converse about things that we see in fundamentally flawed fashion. The subsequent sections of this work seek to overthrow such false constructions of nature and society and allow readers to view these matters according to facts and realities that in the present mediation of such affairs are either absent or so distorted as to be more or less unrecognizable.
By Way of Introduction
By Way of Introduction
For several centuries, as the feudal age came to pieces and the epoch of commodities and long-distance trade took shape, the precursors—and in some cases the same constituents—in the thick of this topic came to the forefront of both awareness and action in the social and political spheres. An essential text in this regard, at once gently wise and rigorously scholarly, is The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics.
Professor Richard Hines recognizes implicitly that the attempt to minister to our varying hurts and bruises with potions, while inevitable given our natural trial-and-error tendencies, often enough leads to a different and less salubrious quest. The attempt to treat our lives as afflictions to cure will destroy both all chances to live fully and every potential to discern what is causing a particular individual’s sense of ennui or melancholy or angry petulance, whatever the case may be. This profound dichotomy constantly appears in the experiences of drug users and the social attitudes toward the chemicals themselves.
“Taken together, stimulants, hallucinogens, tranquilisers, and painkillers provide every extreme of love rush and death wish, of opening and closure, of rebuilding and demolition, of exterior energy and interior implosion, the pursuit of destiny against an attempted suspension of the future. Drugs are full of dizzying contradictions and incongruities. They illustrate the maxim of the Danish physicist Niels Bohr…that profound truths can be recognised by the fact that the(ir) opposite is also a profound truth, in contrast to trivialities, where opposites are absurd. Any substance that has the power to do good also has the power to do harm. …(A) history of drug-taking… .tells the story across five centuries of addicts and users: monarchs,…wounded soldiers,…exhausted laborers, high-powered businessmen, playboys, sex workers, …the victims of the ghetto, and happy young people on a spree. …Although it is primarily a history of people and places, it is also the history of one bad idea: prohibition.”
To start off the central assessments of this narration, one might focus on different individual plants; or one might examine a single group of herbal and fungal psychotropic ‘medicines’ that have appeared, in different configurations, in every folk tradition; or one might seek to categorize the Earth’s entire range of such flora and look at least briefly at most or all of the different groupings that comprise the whole.
Given the broad foundation that this narrative has already created, an approach similar to the second one above operates in this introduction, a basic investigation of how one set of ‘magical goods’ came to occupy a paradoxical spot, at once demonized despite its ancient presence in human affairs and fully rationalized as a plantation commodity. In moving this essay forward, therefore, the focus in the introductory sections will be on poppies and the multiple forms that people have developed from this lovely flower.
Before beginning at the beginning as it were, a note about where we are now might act as a warning. In relation to this blossom, half-truths, prejudice, and purported clinical exactitude are ubiquitous that have zero to do with deep understanding. Even worse, the present detestation of a flower and its products, which have in many ways made humanity’s long term prevailing possible, has also become an accepted norm. In any view that moves beyond the biased pretense of ‘criminal-justice’ and ‘therapeutic’ bureaucrats, these ways of contextualizing poppies seem, most charitably, like some combination of vicious insanity and opportunistic mendacity in favor of the madness that rules the routine roost of the here-and-now.
These distortions prevail now despite the ancient lineage of the joint ventures that humans and poppy flowers have conducted. To say the least, excepting the inquisition and its attendant witch-hunts, no thoroughgoing disallowing of plants and their attendant shape shifting chemistry has found widespread application until the past century and a half or so.
“The role of opium in the ancient world is well attested. There are references to it in writings from Egypt, Assyria and Greece. Egyptian medical texts list among opium’s many uses its sedative powers to alleviate the pain of wounds, abscesses and scalp complaints. For the Romans too it was something of a panacea, being used to treat elephantiasis, carbuncles, liver complaints, epilepsy and scorpion bites, according to Pliny. Opion is Greek for poppy juice. It is dedicated to Nyx goddess of the night, who is shown distributing it to youths in repose in a cameo. Almost every major writer of antiquity, from Hippocrates’ recommend(ing) poppy wine on, mentions it.”’
The following subsections of this overall narrative will take readers on a trek of discovery. The ambit of the sojourn will focus on Eurasia, and to a lesser extent on the Americas. The temporal limits of this section of the report, in the main, cover plus-or-minus four hundred years, from the 1400’s to the 1800’s. Those who listen here will hear themes and motifs that resonate powerfully with the experience of the ‘Wars-on-Drugs’ and promises of ‘therapeutic intervention’ that are omnipresent in the early Twenty-First Century.
THE LONGSTANDING PART THAT POPPIES HAVE PLAYED
We have already noted the thousands of years or more that people have employed poppies as therapy and adjunct to recreation. Again, this correlation of the human prospect and a flower’s range has transpired ‘time out of mind.’
In particular, these potent posies have impacted homo sapiens’ lives throughout Asia and parts of Europe. Briefly detailing this correspondence once again will serve as our starting point.
Authoritative summations lay the groundwork for the relationship asserted here. “Regardless of level of development, most societies have used drugs for religion, recreation, and medicine. Discovered and domesticated during prehistoric times in the Mediterranean basin, opium became a trade item between Cyprus and Egypt sometime in the second millennium B.C.
The drug first appeared in Greek pharmacopoeia during the 5th Century B.C. and in Chinese medical texts during the 8th century A.D . Inferring from such slender evidence, it appears that opium farming first developed in the eastern Mediterranean and spread gradually along Asia’s trade routes to India, reaching China by the eighth century A.D. Once introduced into China, opium gained a significant role in formal pharmacopoeia.”
One overview states this notion with great particularity in relation to society’s and culture’s development to ‘advanced’ levels. “Humans have always searched for ways to relieve pain. Opium was probably the first drug that early peoples discovered , and one of the oldest civilizations cultivated opium: the Sumerians, who lived six thousand years ago in the Fertile Crescent –the area surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present‐day Iraq. They valued hul gil(the plant of joy) for its ability to relieve pain. They introduced opium to the Assyrians, who in turn shared it with the Babylonians. The Babylonians passed on their knowledge to the Egyptians. The opium poppy was historically indigenous throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Egyptian records show that trade in and consumption of opium flourished under several pharaohs, including King Tutankhamun. Archaeologists have found opium‐ extracting equipment in the tombs of pharaohs, for whom it was to help harvest poppies in the next life.”
On both sides of the Mediterranean, the psychotropic latex of the bloom worked wonders, serving as balm and aid to euthanasia at the same time. A physician and historian of science writes in Biomedicine International about the multifaceted aspects of opiates in ancient Egypt.
“Opium was used to make people sleep, to relieve pain, and to quiet the nerves because it acts on the nervous system and psychic functions. Even today, the etymologies of the twenty or so alkaloids it comprises, among them morphine, thebaine and heroin, sometimes recall Greek beliefs and Egyptian places. The Smith and Ebers Papyri show medical applications of poppy plants: to cure breast abscesses, to calm crying children, as eye drops and in ointments. Composed of many grains, poppy capsules were believed to have aphrodisiac properties and were a symbol of fertility.”
The author draws the noteworthy conclusion that little or no signs of addiction as a social phenomenon were visible. This is true despite the fact that the toxic and potentially lethal attributes of the plant were well understood. The Egyptian PharmaKon is the source of our pharmaceutical lexicon and displayed the two faces of the herbalist’s magic, at once healing and potentially deadly.
One would not necessarily be overstating the case to suggest that the capacity to learn about and control such now banned substances acted as a significant spur to civilization itself. Certainly, throughout the ancient world, this would look true to anyone’s examination of social life that penetrated more deeply than a single surface glance.
A brief on this notion, “Exploring the Meaning of Opium from ’Exotic Plant’ to ’Forbidden Fruit,’” presents this idea quite plainly in mythic terms. “‘To cut an opium poppy capsule is to enter mythic time, to share in tradition stretching unbroken into prehistory and let the ancient traditions enter history again at the moment of the millennium.’”
CRUSADES, REBIRTH, & CAPITAL’S CRADLE OF THE NEW
While this flower’s range definitely included much of Europe in its realm, the dissolution of Roman imperial networks and knowledge consigned the utility of poppies to a few denizens of local knowledge. Only with the crusades and other contacts between Islamic strongholds and Europe did the understanding of the power of this flower reemerge. In fact, during the later middle ages, the ability to purvey cures that utilized this floral body of knowledge occasionally led to accusations of witchcraft, “and the poppy became the devil’s flower.”
Some researchers even portray the decline of poppies’ deployment with the rise of witch-hunts. In any case, as the devastation of successive waves of plagues combined with the generally iffy gains but expanded contacts that followed the Crusades, a reintroduction of opiates to Europe occurred throughout the region.
The effect of these seemingly magical alkaloids among populations that only had had access to them through often-outlawed ‘folk networks’ was astonishing. Dozens of prominent physicians and natural philosophers extolled their use, and—ignoring the risks—charlatans proliferated who would far-too-readily dispense the now new drugs, furthermore proffering larger and stronger doses among users whose habits reduced the alkaloidal mystery’s punch.
Very rapidly, opioid healers assumed the status of magicians, on the one hand, and dangerous frauds, on the other. A two-sided, antagonistic and contradictory at the same time, portrayal of poppies became common, particularly among healers whose ethics exceeded their enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the general attitude was, probably overwhelmingly, positive.
An intense and incisive documentary capsulizes some of the different effects of the reestablishment of opiates as part of the European pharmacopoeia. “When the Catholics drove the Moors from Spain and the influence of Islamic traders diminished in the fifteenth century, the Venetians took over the opium trade. Merchants and rulers asked Columbus, Cabot, da Gama, and Magellan to bring back opium from their voyages of discovery.”
“Opium: a Brief History,” the textual offering of the film, tells of Paracelsus’ late sixteenth-century discovery that he could dissolve grains of the drug in brandy, thereby creating the drug-of-choice for the next two centuries, which he called laudanum. The meaning of his new word was rational too, in a region without access to this technique—“something to praise.”
“He claimed that it could treat any disease that caused pain. He even boasted that patients whom pain had restricted to their beds regained much of their former, active lives after taking it. Interest in laudanum surged. The drink became popular as a medicine and for recreational use.”
Across the English-channel, Thomas Sydenham developed a variant of the potion that not only tasted better, using sherry and spices, but also cost less to produce. He was fulsome in his ‘lauding’ of the grace that flowed from poppies.
“’I cannot forebear mentioning with gratitude the goodness of the Supreme Being, who has supplied afflicted mankind with opiates for their relief; no other remedy being equally powerful to overcome a great number of diseases, or to eradicate them effectually.”
In similar vein, people at all levels of society were experiencing a noticeable expansion of the parameters of their experience. The age of consumers was in its infancy as new spices that were nice and comestibles that were exotic and accoutrements of everyday routines began to include intoxicants and stimulants. Thus, cinnamon and sugar and coffee and tobacco and tea became habitual aspects of many folks’ daily diets and tastes.
Many of these goods came, over time, cheaply, as a result of brutal conquests) across the Atlantic. But others, from Asia—particularly tea from China)—entered the ports of Europe at dear prices. No matter the bookkeeping details of the innovative relationships, the sense of a widened world was palpable: people received more today than yesterday and, with decent luck, they might get ever more on the morrow. Notwithstanding social consequences that were inherently two-sided—beaten slaves, pirated cargoes, dispossessed peasants, and more—in this environment that boosters inevitably characterized as sunny, focusing primarily on the increase of stuff and its uses as such, this expansion of the range of commodities—including such materials as products of the poppy—defined this early era of opium.
Of the many annalists who have grappled with these matters, early on Karl Marx pointed out the way that ‘the lives of commodities’ informed social relations via both their production and distribution, as well as their use. Fernand Braudel also pointedly insisted on showing how these three aspects of commoditization influenced and at times determined—in perverse and difficult ways—the social relations that accompanied buying and selling and utilizing goods, even though, most people agreed, these items were wonderful additions to the human condition.
One recent commentator quotes Braudel in a way that shows how different ruling actors might manipulate ‘natural’ development tendencies in any marketplace, regarding any particular commodity. “At ground level and sea level so to speak, the networks of local and regional markets were built up over century after century. It was the destiny of this local economy, with its self-contained routines to be from time to time absorbed and made part of a ‘rational’ order in the interest of a dominant zone or city, until another organizing center emerged; as if the centralization and concentration of wealth and resources necessarily favored chosen sites of accumulation…The resultant pattern of domination rests upon a dialectic between a market economy developing unaided and spontaneously, and an overarching economy which seizes these humble activities from above, redirects them and holds them at its mercy.”
The author continues to set the stage for this essay’s assessment of the development of the opium trade. On the surface, it appears as mainly beneficent and as a cause of enthusiastic endorsement. Yet it eventually crushed the Chinese, as if by an ineluctable fate such as Braudel just described. The patterns in play are worth noting.
“(T)he element of domination simply cannot be taken out of capitalism. …When I speak of the history of capitalism, I am interested in the political career of capital. To regard the ‘extra-economic’ coercion as pre-capitalist is to miss this crucial point entirely. This is why (some thinkers insist that) Britain’s overseas activities were never really ‘capitalist.’ …The drive for profit that led the English merchants to corner the slave trade, set up slave plantations in the New World for the extraordinarily profitable production of sugar, tobacco, and cotton were ‘non-capitalist.’ Slavery ‘is a striking example of how capitalism has, at certain points in its development, appropriated to itself, and even intensified, non-capitalist modes of exploitation.’”
This conceptualization helps the observer of opium to ponder how its production, distribution, and patterns of use developed as they did. Nature took a back seat to power and imperial agendas. This was particularly true in regard to China , where opium came to circumscribe trade in general. Various chroniclers attest to this conclusion.
“By the eighteenth century, the long-distance traffic in opium had been transformed into a very different form of commerce than that which had characterized the trade in earlier years. Before the sixteenth century, opium was just one of the many exotic chemicals that made up an element of the traditional long-distance trade. Generally speaking, traditional long-distance trade seems to have focused on four major types of products, or trade goods. Simply put, these were: exotic chemicals, precious metals and minerals, luxury manufactures, and human beings. Prior to the sixteenth century, these four categories summed up virtually all commerce that moved between major urban centers. Opium, along with other drugs, incenses and fragrances, alcoholic drinks, resins, barks, spices, and herbs, made up the first category. These were valuable largely because of their scarcity. In most cases, their value was the result of having traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles to places where they either did not occur naturally or where the local people did not know how to produce them. For a very long time opium was valuable because of the ignorance of its consumers. The opium poppy is fairly tolerant of a variety of climates and with little more than labor and care, the drug can be easily produced. It seems extraordinary, in the case of China, that even though the imported drug commanded enormous prices in the early nineteenth century, it was not until 1820 that domestic production of the drug in China began in earnest. Furthermore, it was not until very late, perhaps not before 1860 that local production began to fill even a small portion of the Chinese demand for the drug. Long-distance trade thrived on opaque markets.”
Moreover, the so-called Chinese Diaspora included a large—possibly massive—population of users as well, which is only now coming to light in some cases because of hidden or at least closeted sources. Malaysia, Indonesia , and elsewhere consumed opium, which they purchased from Portuguese, Dutch, French, or Chinese purveyors. While the sense of dislocation was not as intense as what addiction causes today, still those in political power recognized the problems attendant with widespread imbibing of poppies and their products.
Thus, as important as social trends and public opinions such as those about opiated wonders were, the wider political-economic impact of these new items in the trader’s purview was arguably much more critical. How to balance accounts, how in the new language to ‘capitalize’ on these trends, provided grist for the merchant’s mill. Professor Carl Trocki is only one of scores of thinkers who articulate this point of view in some fashion, though Opium Empire and the Global Political Economy synthesizes the different components of this argument in an especially clear and hard-hitting way.
He notes that an imbalance in capital flows, that delivered surpluses to Europe and deficits to Asia, and in particular China, formed a likely key piece in the expansion of European colonialism and the different empires of Europe. He goes on to amplify his argument.
“A second hypothesis, which flows from the first, is that the Opium trade laid the foundation for the global capitalist structure, both in its nurturing of European imperial capital and its international merchant class, and also by providing a foundation for the development of indigenous capitalist groups in India, Southeast Asia, and in China itself. It may have been that capitalism would have developed in Asia on its own without opium, but the fact is that it did not.”
While this perspective is not yet ubiquitous, it clearly posits a potent contextualization and contains a vigorous analysis. Moreover, it is gaining ground among the cognoscenti, the historians and social scientists who investigate the coming of capital as the supreme organizing principal of contemporary existence.
The following search is proof of that contention. <poppies OR opium crusades OR renaissance OR “long distance trade” history capitalism OR “capital formation” OR profit>, in garnering nearly eleven million results, yielded more than a million more citations than did a search that substituted “religion OR Christianity” for the first two terms in the initial string. Thus, not only does this conceptualization fit neatly the vast array of complex data that underlie the past’s evolution to the present, but it also matches what huge numbers of other thinkers are thinking these days, as seemingly psychotic wars-on-drugs keep eviscerating human values and simple justice and lots more that we say that we respect and treasure.
The old saw, “if the shoe fits, wear it!” seems quite reasonable indeed.
THE NETWORKING OF EMPIRE—PRODUCTION & DISTRIBUTION
Of the tens of thousands of powerful and fascinating sources that might guide the student in this area, a recent monograph assumes pride of place as a reference. History of the Opium Problem: the Assault on the East, 1600-1950, stands as the Dutch author’s magnum opus, a deeply researched and profoundly thoughtful and staunchly thought-provoking monograph that shows equal measures of originality, erudition, and intelligence.
He documents Portuguese and Dutch and Italian endeavors. “The British and the French went further, with the important assistance of American smugglers and their clippers. From their ‘possessions’ in China and Southeast Asia, certain innovations in opium management were introduced. They exported, furthermore, to the other side of the Pacific, the U.S.A., and the opium snake started to bite its own tail. Both are largely responsible for leaving a heritage of present production centers in Southeast Asia and the Middle East of world-economic importance. A new cycle of exploitation and repression of the minds of the people started, which could eventually be followed up by (Ahmed) Rashid’s ‘drug epidemic.’”
The analyses that predominate in this arena of drugs and empire and lucre present as central several aspects of this evolution of the bourgeois ascendancy. One was the simple availability of astounding profits that increased an individual’s or collective’s take over other ventures by substantial margins in almost all instances. Moreover, opium, so valued was its presence in an exchange, acted as a substitute for the specie that Chinese merchants were otherwise liable to insist on receiving.
These same factors would later entice the English as well, of course, though earlier national networks laid the basis for what England executed over the century and a half from 1750 to 1900. A summary of Dutch historical experience in the 1600’s makes this case. It points out that engaging with opium trade permitted bypassing a need to produce hard cash, since poppy’s derivatives always found a market, ‘as good as gold.’
“Wijbrandt van Warwijck mentions the profitable trades in the Indonesian archipelago in his Noticiën ofte memoriën voor Capiteyn Witte of 1603. He includes opium in the list of items traded with Banda, Moluccas, and Atjeh. Governor-General Both reports in 1613 that the Moluccas, Siam, Pegoe (Burma), and China are places where the trade in opium is profitable for the (Dutch East India Company). In a description of the Indonesian archipelago from 1656 it is stated that in Brunei (Kalimantan) opium could be traded for gold dust and that in Jambi and Palembang (Sumatra) pepper could only be bought with opium or Spanish reels (silver). François Valentijn, a seventeenth century clergyman living in the Dutch East Indies, reports from his stay in Cochin (Java) in 1664 that opium is seen there as ‘the most important kind of profitable business.’”
The Dutch experience handily illustrates the way that European national force impacted widely dispersed parts of Asia during this period of capital’s early development. Malay, Indochinese, and Indonesian traders formed cartels, organized joint ventures, and generally made plays to participate in this lucrative trade that stood at the center of so many varied transactions. Thus, one way of summarizing the initial potency of opium as an item of exchange was in its dual advantages of profitability and fungibility. It reliably boosted capital and acted as a grassroots ‘currency of account,’ so to speak.
Another element of this puzzle of power was logistical, even as geographical matters repeatedly made further impressions on socioeconomic relationships. The logistical expressions of opium worked both for small-scale, individual enterprises and shippers and on much higher levels, in relation to imperial plans and global strategies.
In relation to the former, merchants who would later have more or less absolute social cachet and political imprimatur started out humbly. But for the super-profits that associated with opium, for instance, the Astor family might not have ruled New York society so fully for going on two centuries.
As with all logistics issues, the election to load opium was in part a matter of convenience. How to minimize runs devoid of cargo; how to maximize the return per load; how to make new routes and venues part of the firm’s regular retinue—these were the sorts of benefits that transporting poppy products permitted. Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean led ineluctably to South and East Asia; a triangle developed in this way that reflected the more common triangulation of slaves and sugar and rum, yet another cradle of capitalism that involved controlled substances.
Nor were the Astors the only American plutocrats to establish themselves via opiates. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s grandfather, Warren Delano, made the fortune that he bequeathed on FDR while running Russell and Company’s fleet of opium cutters , which in turn created the superstructure for the Sassoon billions that had blossomed from Baghdad banking roots to blanket the world with power on the basis of over and over and over again making the month-long voyage from Calcutta to Canton, in one direction with a load of fragrant opium, on the return laden with tea.
The Churchills, the Clives, and many more titled estates either came into being or avoided history’s dustbin because an opportunistic forebear had made a pact to sell opium to China and facilitate the transfer of tea to the British Isles and Europe. This story of commerce and wildness and lusty travel toward imperial rule appears in lyrical and evocative fashion in Amitav Ghosh‘s recent novels, Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, yarns based on solid research that elicits from fiction a powerful correspondence with fact.
And this allows readers to reflect on the higher logistical plane on which opium also operated. Piracy and plunder and clever logistics had allowed England to co-opt or displace Spain and France and Holland and Portugal in the Americas. In the form of tobacco and coffee and sugar and rum, furthermore, this imperial coup had depended on consciousness-altering goods only slightly less intoxicating than Palaver’s alkaloids.
Unfathomable riches came forth from the soil and toil and blood of Africans and Native Americans, loot and lucre with which England and Europe initiated a manufacturing capacity that would soon enough rule by main force but which in these initial stages of commodity production also depended on mercantile methodologies. Had opium not found the market that it did in China, which fostered a sustainable tea habit in the British Isles, at a minimum a different and less colossal British Empire would have been the result.
Thus, a chain of essentially logistical links—ports and docks and ships and shipyards and banks and counting-houses and more—by chance and arbitrary choice yielded what took shape as a grand strategy of empire. And if poppies were not the piece-de-resistance in this process, they certainly had a huge amount to offer.
In a related sphere, geopolitically, one could hardly overstate the gigantic influence opium in the development of capitalism, the evolution of modern Asia, and the path of the bourgeoisie and colonialism in countries like India and China. In a real sense, the fiscal desperation of agents of the East India Company led them to overthrow established regimes in the subcontinent, to create schematic ways of producing and negotiating exchanges for opium, and to utilize the profits from those trades to consolidate the control of India as a colonial nation—in some ways mirroring events in Italy and Germany a century hence.
As well as these business and strategic pieces of the mosaic in which the genus Papaver played such an outsized part, particular commodities and the trade relations surrounding them also came into the picture. And in every instance, until dispersal overthrew seed-export-bans, every such nexus stated a geographical fact.
Tea, for example, was a key element in capital’s early, mercantile stages. English workers and peasants and gentry all developed an almost fiendish taste, one might say an addiction, for the bitter brew, appropriately laden with sugar from the Americas. And China’s head-start in producing tea trees stood it in good stead to dominate that marketplace.
This craving for a product that for a time mimicked a natural monopoly caused year after year, as the eighteenth century continued, English trade deficits that in lean times were barely manageable. Piratical looting aside, England’s leading lights as well as the East India Company’s board were constantly hoping to manifest ways of doing business that would impede the outflow of cash, that could reduce the outgo of capital.
Serendipitously, a confluence of tobacco and opium had an especially desirable taste, a touch to the palate that those who liked either nicotine or opiates or both often enough found irresistible. And upland Appalachia and elsewhere in the slave economies of the American South proved nearly as apt for the production of addictive leaves to smoke as China had shown itself apropos for the growing of habit-forming leaves to brew. Thus, though in so doing it violated Chinese official proclamation and practice, England’s joining of two intoxicants, or the profferal of the stronger substance on its own, by the early 1800’s at the latest had turned an ongoing loss into a permanent surplus.
Multiple investigators note additional combinations of socioeconomic and political economic factors that sound especially noisome notes to the student of history. England had through duplicity and force overthrown or subverted all sayso but its own on the subcontinent. It had imposed a colonial administrative monopoly on every aspect of poppies and its products. It was diverting to the other side of the world millions of pounds of surplus value.
And yet the humble farmers who were providing the labor and land and seed to fuel this economic miracle were dying on the vine. “At the time of growth and development of the opium monopoly in Bengal from 1773 to 1856, the economic condition of the poppy farmers…had deteriorated and tension had erupted between the local zamindars(landlords) and the colonial authorities. This conflict aided in the eventual uprising of 1857, also known as the Indian ‘Sepoy Mutiny.’ In an attempt to further control the private cultivation of opium poppies and the free trade in opium, the government adopted the Opium Act of 1857… .The colonial drug laws applied a double standard, as they allowed the imperial authorities to appropriate revenue from the state-run opium monopoly, while pushing the private traders to become involved in the contraband trade.”
Thus, at the same time that the Second Opium War came to the fore, and Britain was consigning untold millions of opium-smokers to their slow and lowly fates while butchering a few squadrons of Chinese in the process, British mandates were approving the once again opium-fueled slaughter of tens of thousands of Indians who dared to resist England’s imprimatur. Empire’s ugliness should never have erupted from so beautiful a flower.
A young scholar has carefully documented the background and expression of the Opium Wars in such a way as to note how transformation and expansion of imperial plans create an environment of social contradiction and political tension. In 1834, as the monopoly position of the East India Company in the opium business came to an end, a massive upsurge in participants and product occurred, just as the Chinese were insisting that ‘enough’s enough,’ as it were.
Of course, such contrariety took place in the context of longstanding relationships of profit and conspiratorial collaboration too. In fact, entire sectors of eighteenth-nineteenth-century Indian society consolidated their ties with each other and with other groups—both in China and England, for instance—as well as enhancing their commercial viability, on the basis of opium . The Parsi community in Mumbai, impresarios of which retain wealth and influence to this day, with roots in Persia, was one of the few Subcontinent’s ethnic groups that successfully found a niche in the drug trade.
The kin and organizational linkages that underlay this coup against the East India Company’s monopoly forms the plot line for Sea of Poppies, and scholars recognize that both the narrative in the novel and the commodity exchanges and elite-relations of the historical trade are telling the same story . One of the upshots of the entire affair was the enrichment of Mumbai, producing “a capitalism that despite the constraints of colonialism could be a little bit more modern and a little bit more generous to the common Indian.”
In this vein, Amar Farooqui’s most recent collection of investigative essays calls itself Opium City: the Making of Early Victorian Bombay, one of many such assessments that notes the congruence between progress and decimation to so speak. Networks that produced addiction and dissolution on the one hand, created black-market super-profits and modernity on the other hand.
One expert source, a seminal thinker in this historical arena, notes the conjunction of mega-profit, British productive efficiency, and the inevitable rise of competitors as the rubric that defined the heart of this commodified eventuality at the heart of early capitalism. “The system’s success was the cause of its downfall. The vast profits of the Britain’s opium trade attracted competitors. Moreover, the Company’s steadfast refusal to raise Bengal’s opium exports beyond the quota of 4,000 chests per annum left a vast unmet demand for drugs among China’s swelling population of opium smokers. As demand drove the price per chest upward from 415 rupees in 1799 to 2,428 rupees just 15 years later, the Company’s monopoly on Bengal opium faced strong competition from Turkey and west India.”
To an extent, the solidification of opium as the key to China was the result of more mundane occurrences, such as the importance of silver in Chinese culture and political economy, a factor that earlier paragraphs also noted. Not any inherent metallic ‘magic’ was the causal spark here, however, but rather the struggle that two empires—one rising and based on wage-labor and commodities, the other floundering and based on a vast landed peasantry’s produce that spread out over five percent of the Earth’s land surface—joined to garner the riches of a ‘new-world’ and thereby elevate one of two distinct ‘old-world’ elites to run the Earth’s affairs.
To imagine the sorts of developments under discussion here most tangibly, one need only think of the actual flows of labor and goods and cash in the world economy of the time. Slaves plundered from Africa sweated for the Earth’s bounty of tobacco and sugar and coffee in a ‘New World’ where conquerors worked indigenous inhabitants to death in order to extract silver and gold from shafts sunk into the ground.
Half a world away, comparatively ancient farming practices yielded rice and spice and tea aplenty, for which Europeans had increasingly insistent cravings. From the perspective of the savvy merchants of England and France and Spain and Italy—as often as not former pirates or other masters of ‘primitive accumulation’—parting with less specie in the process of exchange was, to put the case mildly, highly desirable, since factories and mines and facilities to engage former peasants in textile and coal and metals and weapons production necessitated hard currency to blossom.
The humble poppy flower proved a key ingredient in this centuries-long process. By offering opium or other inebriating products of the poppy directly, or—most seductive—by mixing opium with tobacco, each of the major mercantile powers of Europe gained profound leverage in its oriental trade. In the process, new alliances with the recently overthrown families of India and Indochina and more solidified both these methods of doing business and the linked alliances that further entrenched the power of the corporate and kin groups at the forefront of these processes.
Nor did some mystical Oriental border contain the effects of Papaver somniferum. The poppies intense and extensive impact on British culture is a well-documented story. “In the eighteenth century the British Society of Arts awarded prizes and gold medals for growing the most attractive Papaver somniferum. By the nineteenth century many babies in the United Kingdom were being soothed to sleep with a sleeping preparation containing laudanum. British Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809-98) put laudanum in his coffee so that he could speak better in front of Parliament. British writers Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were addicted to opiates like laudanum, while author Charles Dickens calmed him-self with opium.”
Thomas de Quincey was thus just one of innumerable yarnspinners whose work emanated ‘under the influence,’ as it were. And though the tendency to the throes of horrific habituation may itself have been a product of clever commoditization, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater does not present a pretty picture for observers to gaze at.
“The reader is aware that opium had long ceased to found its empire on spells of pleasure; it was solely by the tortures connected with the attempt to abjure it, that it kept its hold. Yet, as other tortures, no less it may be thought, attended the non-abjuration of such a tyrant, a choice only of evils was left; and that might as well have been adopted, which, however terrific in itself, held out a prospect of final restoration to happiness. …I saw that I must die if in continued the opium; I determined, therefore, if that should be required, to die in throwing it off.” And this was the product for which Britain’s vaunted principle of ‘free-trade’ was to test its imperial mettle and slay the Chinese imperial way of life.
Notwithstanding troubling social trends in any case, opium assumed the role of the keystone for English capital. An article from Monthly Review has summarized this dynamic. “The opium trade was of vital importance to British Imperialism at this time. It was one corner of an Eastern triangular trade that mirrored the eighteenth century Atlantic slave trade. The smuggling of opium turned a large British trading deficit with China into a substantial surplus, paying for British tea imports from China, for the export of British manufactured goods to India and for a substantial proportion of British administrative costs in India. The opium trade was ‘the hub of British commerce in the East.’”
A Chinese scholar depicts these developments as in many ways “shameful,” inasmuch as they involved clear-cut predation and routine corruption. More practically, they at first undermined and ultimately eviscerated the Chinese protocols and techniques that for a millennium or more had made Sino elements of power first and foremost over land and peoples that made up plus-or-minus half the world.
In some tangible sense, the imposition of these new practices in conducting trade, backed by new systems of production and evolving networks of interconnected social relations of rule, doomed any but fantastical hopes of continued Chinese hegemony. Whether these systematic innovations operated in the form of smugglers or of legitimate ambassadors, whether through frontal assault by force of arms or through religious and cultural engagement, the rise of Europe—of an English empire, for example, on which the sun never set—was like a growing light that comes from an inevitably imminent conflagration.
POPPIES IN COLONIAL & EARLY NATIONAL NORTH AMERICA
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic among the gifted traders and ‘entrepreneurs’ and holy Pilgrims in English America—all steeped in the blood of slavery, heir-apparents to this nascent Anglos system in the fullness of time—were having their own initiation to the range of commodities that emerged from this process. Thus, tea was part of a nexus of conflict with ‘Mother England’ herself; tobacco proved a staple cash crop throughout parts of the slave-labor regions of the British colonial colossus; sugar and rum and slaves formed a triangular rubric for the expansion of New England and mid-Atlantic upper classes. And Yankee traders, as noted above, plied in a profitable if limited way competition with the English.
“Britain’s most daring rivals were the Americans. Barred from bidding at the Calcutta auctions, Yankee traders loaded their first cargoes of Turkish opium at Smyrna in 1805 and sailed them around the tip of Africa to China. Through these efforts, Turkish opium remained an alternative to the Bengal brands until 1834 when the Yankee captains were finally allowed to bid at the Calcutta auctions and abandoned the long haul around Africa.”
And poppies too came to the Americas . By the period immediately prior to the Opium Wars, the flower and its uses were a well-established part of rural life and social practice. Thomas Jefferson was merely first among equals of the so-called founding fathers who grew and processed poppies.
An anthology, Drugs and the American Dream, includes half-a-dozen entries that concern the prevalence of non-addictive opiate use in early nineteenth-century America. “Whatever the cause, a relatively high level of opium consumption was established in America during the nineteenth century. This appetite for narcotics calls for some examination if only because opiate addiction has been described in the United States as ‘un-American’ or ’non-Western.”
And while poppy crops for export never achieved viability, literally hundreds of sources at least, likely many more, take note of physicians and healers and gardeners and country-folk in the late 1700’s and throughout the nineteenth century who created their own elixirs and emoluments with the help of poppies.
Nor did these experimental proclivities prohibit looking beyond Papaver somniferum. They never experienced much success, despite relatively rigorous searches.
“In spite of this finding, we repeatedly find people experimenting with other plants that bore latex, with hope of getting that sense of enlightenment that only true opium provides. The most famous such plant in American history is the wild lettuce plant, Lactuca sativa, which was actually the domestic Lactuca probably imported from Europe some time during the 17th century and since taken to the wild by the end of the 18th century. Other so-called opium substitutes over the years have included other plants in the Opium family, and even some unexpected inebriants like Skunk Cabbage.”
A Quaker healer in 1789 wrote , “From history we learn, that in the several provinces of Asia, it is the large white poppy only that is cultivated for the purposes of collecting opium; but from the trials that I have made, I am of the opinion, that it is a matter of indifference which species or variety of the plant is cultivated for medicinal use; as they will afford, when tapped, a juice that is similar as to quanitity and colour and every other respect, whether fresh or dried.” The author also attests to the calming and spiritually elevating aspects of moderate opium use.
A Medical Doctor wrote of his application of a theory about arousing those who were potential victims of opium’s “soporific effects,” in other words of overdosing and dying. Though his diction differs from a contemporary clinician, he might otherwise be communicating about a novel treatment in a big city E.R, using shock to wake the comatose user up.
“Yesterday I had the opportunity of putting my principles to the test of experiment, when called to see (a) wife…who had, about two hours before, taken an ounce of laudanum and then lay in a deadly stupor from which all the efforts of her friends were insufficient to awaken her. Attempts had been made to get some vinegar into her stomach, but, I believe, with little effect; nor did I succeed much better in attempting to give her a dose of white vitriol. I then procured a small switch and applied it pretty freely to her arms and shoulders, which were defended only by a thin linen covering. I also applied some strokes to her legs. In the course of a very short time, indeed almost immediately upon the application of this remedy, she roused up and begged me to desist. She continued for a time, much confused, with involuntary turns of laughter. (Despite various ministrations), it was nearly an hour before she could be made to puke: however, finally she puked, and by the assistance of frequent draughts of warm water, her stomach was pretty thoroughly evacuated.” She lived.
That all was not sun and roses becomes clearer still when one considers the fate of an unlucky genius such as Edgar Allen Poe. Prior to his death, which might well have been due to an overdose, a friend wrote about an incident in which the poet and short story wizard gulped nearly an ounce of laudanum.
““Instead of returning to his hotel, Poe bought two ounces of laudanum… Poe then swallowed about half the laudanum. It is a solution of powdered opium in alcohol, weaker in opium content than morphine or heroin. In Poe’s time it was administered through cotton earplugs to hallucinating patients in mental hospitals, but was easily obtained and also widely used as a tranquilizer. The drug works quickly, producing maximum respiratory depression in ten minutes, and its peak effect in twenty minutes. The ounce or so that Poe said he took, equivalent to about 300 milligrams of morphine, represents some thirty times the average dose.”
Another prevalent, though definitely less lethal, characteristic of America’s drug habit was the popularity of patent medicines. As well, practitioners often deployed ‘legitimate’ drugs in ways that we would now view as malpractice or quackery.
“Morphine was first separated from opium by European chemists in the early 1800s, and was found soon after in the United States, where it began to take the place of opium in patent medicines. Physicians believed the new opium derivative to be non-addicting, and hoped that it could actually cure opium addiction in patients. Doctors prescribed the new opiate often. Prevalent medical opinion held that the addiction process occurred in the individual’s stomach, and that ingestion of an opiate was responsible for addiction. The hypodermic needle and syringe were introduced in 1850—greeted as a boon by physicians who hoped to use morphine injections to kill pain and believed that the injection process itself would eliminate the addiction problem.”
In essence, this ‘non-professionalized’ pharmacopoeia was a worldwide phenomenon. It fit perfectly with U.S. mores and habits, but it appeared also throughout Europe, in Latin America, as well as in Asia and the Pacific and Africa.
One component of this early globalization was the way that East Indian and West Indian trade came to orbit around substances that were habit forming. In terms of immune response and otherwise, a lifelong sugar habit—the Western Hemisphere’s contribution—might easily be more noxious than a decades-long relationship with poppies.
But in any case, the crux of imperial dominance was characteristic in both cases. Literal slaves fueled the industrial expansion of the United States, with sugar and its analog rum, along with tobacco, key pieces of a triangulated trade rubric, while metaphorical enslavement boosted the already growing British manufacturing colossus from well before its Victorian peak.
Given the present pass, in which authoritative pronouncements basically from birth thrust terror and threat on those who might otherwise hold opioids in some repute, that our lineal ancestors found opioids not only pleasant and gentle but also healthful and therapeutic is something that our history courses ought to teach. This would serve, if nothing else, as a useful bullshit reduction.
OPIUM WARS AS INEVITABLE OPPORTUNISM
In this context of opportunism, profiteering, competition, and widespread imbibing, had England not sought to impose imported opiates on China, such a negation of opportunity would certainly have seemed miraculous from “this nation of traders.” All the pieces were in place to make this play in this chapter of the ‘game of empire.’ There at the helm of society, on the one hand, stood the same families and corporate networks that still hold sway, with their old aristocratic clans that have lent their imprimatur to the validation of webs of money over all else, and on the other hand, had arisen a smattering of nouveau riche interlopers whose reach has now extended over the course of as much as half a millennia to bring about a melding of blue-blood and cold, hard cash that seemingly intends to fulfill the Austrian corporal’s promise of a thousand-year reign.
The particularities of these conflicts have filled the pages of tens of thousands of articles and monographs and popular histories over the past one and three quarters centuries. The key argument that this essay advances is that those conflicts were logical extensions of the predatory and profiteering practices that preceded them, just as they were logical predecessors of the predation and plutocracy of empire that succeeded them.
The First Opium War, in terms of economic history, is all too easy to characterize as some sort of ‘mistake.’ Yet the documents produced to attest to this assertion require a counterfactualization of the past that, at the best, ends up advancing the idea that the East India Company’s monopoly, had it continued, would have finessed the necessity for violent conflict. Yet precisely the declining viability of the Crown’s designated and exclusive representative was the cause of the decision to open up Hong Kong and Canton to and untrammeled influx of dealers.
A simple examination of the timeline of the two conflicts produces the not-entirely-astonishing congruence between the Panic of 1837 and Opium War Uno and the Panic of 1857 and Opium War Dos. While one cannot prove that the financial meltdowns that almost always induce saber-rattling and violence among imperial leaders in this case were a primary or proximate cause of warfare, the notion makes plenty of sense and is worth further exploration, if only because of the pattern’s apparent continuance in the current context.
In any event, the deeply-investigated novel, River of Smoke, does document the actual words and actions that resulted in England’s taking up the gauntlet that the Emperor had tossed down, with an armada that they had sent in anticipation of an appropriate excuse. The intense competition and thinning margins that had accompanied the straitened circumstances of trade after the 1837 collapse were in any event part of the background to Ghosh’s dialogs, which utilize the proclamations that China’s then-‘Drug-War-Czar’ Lin read to the assembled merchants.
“It is common knowledge that you foreigners who come to Canton to trade have reaped immense profits. …Are you foreigners grateful for the favours shown you by the Emperor? You must then respect our laws and in seeking profit for yourselves you must not do harm to others. How does it happen then that you bring opium to our central land…involving (people’s) very lives in destruction? I find that you have seduced and deluded the people of China for tens of years past; and countless are the unjust hoards that you have accumulated. Such conduct rouses indignation in every human heart and it is utterly inexcusable in the eyes of heaven.”
One, along with the British present in reality and in the pages of the novel, might rapidly insist on a reality check. As is the case now, the ‘police authorities’ in China were thoroughly corrupt, on the take and acting as facilitators of illicit transactions. Moreover, the ‘course of doing business’ at the least might have merited a different approach.
Moreover, traders would now have to post a bond, which, if they violated would lead to dire results indeed. Not only would current stocks of opium face seizure and the torch, but also “(a)ny ship after this bring(ing) (opium), then her whole cargo shall be confiscated and her people put to death.”
That the British were thugs in this endeavor is without doubt. But they and their Chinese counterparts had done business on just the terms now condemned for a hundred twelve years. More to the point of power politics, the Chinese were completely unable to back up their threats. In the event, their ‘humiliating defeat’ might easily have been much, much worse. This is not to excuse or promote empire, quite the contrary. However, it is to urge most stringently that reality orientation and honesty characterize our accounting.
The upshot of the nasty lesson in industrial war that England delivered to the ‘exalted Emperor’ and his cohorts, of course, included the consignment of Hong Kong to the British for more than the next century and a half. This garrison would act as a ‘choke collar’ till Mao Tse Tung ousted the Japanese, the drug-dealing Nationalist Chinese gangsters who were the ‘exalted Emperors’ successors, the Americans, and the English a hundred ten years down the road.
Hong Kong became a British possession ten thousand miles away from London as a result of this mandated mayhem. Recent technical scholarship examines the history of the “Pearl-of-the-Orient’s” growth after the formation of the East India Company’s ‘China branch’ in 1709, growth that accelerated after the First Opium War and England’s clear-cut theft of this particular gem. Thus, as the fortune’s of China’s rulers and people declined, the luster of Hong Kong increased apace.
Moreover, quite obviously, the policies that underlay this seizure applied generally to the British imperial program . Chinese researchers have been articulate and incisive in developing analysis in support of this contention. The tea trade was in many ways a relatively small element in a behemoth’s economic activity, yet it served as a model in many ways. The massive acceleration of consumption after a ‘first taste,’ the orientation of authoritative institutions to its continuation regardless of circumstances, and the clever and duplicitously sly methods for paying the tab all characterize British imperialism’s SOP.
A continuation in many ways of what the initial conflict had left undecided, the Second Opium War had less to do with opium than with the overall issue of untrammeled European and American access to Chinese markets . England in particular—with the U.S., France, Holland, and Portugal looking on and anticipating a ‘most-favored-nation-status’ free-for-all—did want a stipulation of ready importing of opium.
The annual worth of the trade had risen from under two million pounds in 1839 to over five million sterling in 1857. The take would increase to well above twelve million cash by the late 1870’s. The key basis for the second attack on China’s sovereignty is easy to state: ’England forced the issue because it could.’
Whatever the case may be in this regard, recent research from various sources demonstrates , many of them contemporary investigators from the Republic of China itself, that the confluence of capital and poppy products was lethal to further promulgation of Chinese power. China’s only way to manifest a destiny worthy of its culture, its people, and its innate capacity was to cast off its imperial past and embrace industrialization. This did not transpire, however, and the familiar result is the incredible expansion of China’s economic might over the past three decades, with a background of famine and exploitation and revolution in the prior periods of time.
The peddlers of drugs knew that they were ‘merchants of dissolution and death,’ as well as of dreams of sweet surcease. That they realized this contradiction appears in their attempts, at least on paper, to limit access to opiates at home.
Moreover, they might have managed to continue using smuggling networks to accomplish the aims of the balancing of the tea account, so to speak. East India Company records clearly note that from 1825 on, England was running a surplus that increases in opium imports merely enlarged further.
Instead, the British socioeconomic leaders made some simple, if crude and cruel, calculations. China must kowtow rather than receiving further obeisance from those who would henceforth dictate the terms of business. And ‘the West’s’ initial “turn to Asia” served the intended purpose of enriching the imperial centers of Europe and North America, whatever karma and future drug wars might elicit in the way of apparent historical paradox.
A couple of centuries back, then, those who held the reins fed openly off of the crushing of human capacity that attends dependency on opium. They flaunted their determination to sell to ‘willing buyers’ in the swamps of the Orient and swatted at fellow citizens at home who crashed and burned from their habituation, as they might shoo away irritating insects that had arisen from the sloughs that they were plying abroad.
To an extent, like the novels of Joseph Conrad, these paragraphs act as a critique of the colonial project of all Europe, in particular of England . The Heart of Darkness is merely a metaphor and yet much more than just an allusion . “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”
As readers will discover just ahead, the appearance of different modalities in regard to such eventualities today is deceiving. In various ways, the double-dealing and rank opportunism that attended warfare to force-feed a populace with addictive goods show up today with equal force, if not in precisely the same way.
In any event, rulers still feed on the basis of this evisceration of humanity, only now the hypocrisy is universal, applying to every region of the globe, not just their home turfs. While intelligence and police agencies conjoin with criminal drug enterprises as a matter of course, selected individuals die or face long imprisonment because they elect to buy and sell these plants and herbal analogs.
Moreover, much more viciously than they proscribe opiates and other deadly contraband, those in charge attack the now substantial numbers of inebriants that they cannot patent, which are relatively harmless or even beneficent in their impacts on the human body and psyche. The bottom-line orientation is universal beneath the surface, behind the veil of public relations rhetoric that presents half-truth and doublethink in the form of the establishment’s daily dose of fatuous press releases, outpourings of bullshit that corporate media cheerleaders repackage as ‘news’ instead of as the self-righteous, self-serving propaganda that it is.
Finally, today’s elites complete the weaving of this tangled skein of sacrosanct, selfish duplicity and murder and profiteering with carefully monopolized new drugs that their world-spanning pharmaceutical behemoths impose on people as medicine. One could hardly invent a more sinister set of scenarios. Yet they are as actual as the sun’s shining presence at an ideal distance to bring forth from the Earth what could heal us instead of enslave and destroy us.
Has the time come to confront our ignorance and fears? Will common people realize their own potential and take a stand? Inquiring minds are begging for a response.
The culmination of one epoch in this case has led to a century-and-a-half in which an Anglo-American empire has governed the planet. Just as drug-conflicts bounded this initial transition from one way of managing things to another, so too ’controlled substances and contraband have continued to play central roles in the new scheme of things.
A ‘just-say-no’ attitude has never predominated among regular people. They are much more likely to agree with a chronicler of poppies with a toleration for contradiction. “Whatever the means of consumption, whatever methods of taking the drug have become tenable or fashionable, the fact remains that, well before man had developed into a civilised, social being, he had discovered the precarious magic of poppy sap.”
On the surface, such an interpenetration of social and political life with mind-altering commodities revolved around whisky and beer and, to a lesser extent, wine. The saloon both actually and symbolically created a center around which life on various frontiers spun, for example. However, even early in the U.S. rise to globe-spanning titan, other inebriants also came to the fore as part-and-parcel of the way things work in regard to this ingrained human need to shift awareness and ‘cop a buzz.’
From Patent Medicines to Thought-Crimes
In many ways, no other cultural symbol resonates as deeply in Anglo-America as does that of the ‘snake-oil salesman.’ The ‘spin’ on such ‘medication’ now is that it has always been irrational and exploitative, but other narratives are possible—that, for example, people often choose to distrust ‘legitimate’ ‘medications’ because that skepticism is entirely sensible and that ‘folk-quackery’ has roots in an herbal pharmacopoeia that serves as a source for much of the corporate medicine chest in any event.
Another aspect of contemporary contextualization of health and wellness and ‘medication’ is that people’s criticism of medicine-for-profit, whether as conspiracy theory or simple paranoia, is something far worse than mere irrationality. This view suggests that any attack on corporate expertise is an attack on science. That such a perspective inevitably borders on scientism, the reification of ‘the idea of science as holy,’ is obvious.
This extension of thinking about drugs to include reflections on pharmaceutical matters represents a key step in conceptualizing ‘wars-on-drugs’ and supposedly ‘medical issues’ as inherently part of a continuum. That standard reportage almost always separates them is a profound error about which, going forward, further investigation will have much more to say.
FOUNDATIONS OF A MONOPOLIZED PHARMACOPOEIA
“For the military-prison-pharmaceutical industrial complex,” noted one hip and happy researcher, who might have added police and intelligence agents to his list, “it’s not that they don’t want you to do drugs. They want you to do drugs, all the time. They just want them to be corporate drugs.”
The roots of such attempts to regulate and receive revenue from contraband are not unique to Europe and North America either. Java in the late nineteenth century combined its policing of medicine and contraband, with the recognition that they were often the same. Similar developments took place in Iran, and one would quite likely find that, as the probing fingers of a grasping medical establishment searched for markets everywhere, every location on Earth populous enough to support a ‘drug store’ would experience similar developments.
A profound difference between these historical experiences in various out-of-the-way places and what British and American societies have practiced for a century-and-a-half and a century, respectively, is in the assignment of oversight to private enterprises in the Anglo-American realm. This took place with the Pharmacy Act in England, less than a decade after the conclusion of the Second Opium War, a congruence that is arguably non-accidental, and occurred a half century subsequently in the U.S. with the American Medical Association’s triumph in ‘professionalizing’ the role of physicians.
Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth is only one of the literary gems that offers up insights about this complicated process. Further investigation of ‘legacy charities’ such as the various Rockefeller Foundations is another angle from which to perceive and understand this overall dynamic more fully. What would probably emerge is a dialectical dance in which community-based expressions of healing, self-medication with marijuana for instance, have consistently come into conflict with imposed regimes of health and control, in any case a fascinating follow-up to the work that has appeared here thus far.
The human inclination to indulge the ‘light psychedelic,’ so to speak, would be one of the central phenomena to examine more deeply in moving forward. That the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, a very establishment-oriented operation, predicted what Humphrey Osmond proved, which is that LSD can cure alcoholism in plus-or-minus half of those who use it, cannot make sense except in the context of a deep split between what people want and need and ‘just what the doctor ordered.’
FOUNDATIONS OF DRUG-WAR POLICE STATES
A brief article from a Jacksonville professor, “A Short History of Drug Policy or Why We Make War on Some Drugs but Not Others,” incisively establishes an analytical scheme for at least a significant part of the research project that we need to empower as we move along. Hidden agendas, police-state programs, and above-board and subterranean profit-making projects abound.
Such tendencies spanned the globe. In plus-or-minus 1900 Burma, for instance, “’(n)o exaggerated picture of lawlessness,’” was possible since the banditry was so extreme in the promulgation of illicit-drug networks that replaced earlier regimens. That this was also a location where British and French imperialism had coalesced in selling opium to China is simply perfect.
Similar patterns prevailed in Iran, where the century that led to British Petroleum’s coup and the installation of a de facto CIA agent as Shah was a hundred year process of proscribing and prohibiting and punishing what had been a thousand year set of cultural protocols. That such schemes never work is not just ‘beside the point.’ In large part, it is the point.
Nor was Japan, late to ‘open its doors’ to Europe and the United States, wholly exempt from engagement with poppies. Government operations, organized criminal enterprises, and hapless common citizens—both Japanese and ‘foreign,’ particularly Korean—all come into play as poppies and acacia meet.
A recent report from a conservative intellectual provides a précis of a century long practice in this regard, from the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914 to the most recent squashing of whatever citizens’ initiative for justice is the target of the moment, whether in the District of Columbia, Colorado, Southern Mexico, or elsewhere. The patterns that emerge look like interconnecting expressions of the materials here under consideration.
“What has the War on Drugs accomplished? It has not reduced access to illegal drugs. It has not reduced illegal drug use or abuse. It has not reduced the rate of addiction. If anything, the rates of use, abuse, and addiction have increased over the past century. Prison population statistics clearly indicate that it has been used to suppress minorities.
It has also greatly increased the powers of law enforcement and the legal system and reduced the legal rights and protections of citizens under the tradition of the rule of law. It has greatly increased the militarization of the police and the use of the military in police work. It has also led to a significant increase in US political and military intervention in foreign nations, particularly in the drug supply nations of Central and South America.”
Here, as elsewhere in these central pieces of this complex fabric of narrative and fact and dispute, more is on the way. The horizons are limitless, the possible stories are innumerable, the characters are ever-compelling, the storylines have stayed beneath the surface as a matter of design. Thus, here as much as anywhere else in the modern realm, the need for deeper delving is critical.
FOUNDATIONS OF PROHIBITION’S IMPERIAL & MILITARY FORMS
This section of this almost voluminous tale sits at the heart of the work. This is apropos, since an utterly central contention of this effort is that imperial projects and law enforcement protocols and so-called mental-health visions and the repression of people power are in fact—in identifiable and explicable ways—all the same process. They represent different faces of a hydra-headed monster of thuggery against and mugging of humankind, the purposes of which are totalitarian control and the ownership of everything that exists and will ever exist. Capitalism, as one savant, states the case, despises limits.
In this vein, a report from the Drug Enforcement Administration about Southeast Asian opium production might be a good place to start the all-too-brief look that comes to the fore today. In many ways, the U.S. crimes against humanity in Vietnam and Indochina have acted as a fulcrum. On the one hand, they have leveraged, in its ultimate guise, the ‘West’s’ “turn to Asia” that England began with the Opium wars. On the other hand, the failure of that brutal Indochinese mass murder to win its goal has led to the present pass. In this sense, the Golden Triangle may offer a way of seeing ourselves that few other places would provide.
Moreover, however one views such thoughts, conclusive investigations show the fallacy of blaming particular locations for contraband’s upsurge. “Contrary to popular belief, the poppy has not always been a major cash crop in the Golden Triangle—and nor has the sale and consumption of opium always been illegal. Prior to World War Two, all countries in Southeast Asia has government-controlled opium monopolies, not unlike the tobacco monopolies today. What was illegal was to smuggle opium and to trade without a licence. Most local addicts were ethnic Chinese, who had migrated to Southeast Asia’s urban centres in the 19th and early 20th centuries—and brought with them the opium smoking habit from their old homes in China.”
One might even more thoroughly investigate Southeast Asia, where French and English empires displaced Chinese and blocked ascendant Japanese hegemony. Not for nothing did networks of criminals and spies and financiers make this part of the world a critical zone for their schemes and dreams. Adding the United States, with its dream of a never-ending drug-reich, to the mix, just makes a more compelling yarn.
“When Santo Trafficante, Jr., boarded a commercial jet for the flight to Southeast Asia, he was probably unaware that Western adventurers had been coming to Asia, for hundred of years, to make their fortunes in the narcotics trade. Earlier adventurers had flown the flag of the Portuguese Empire, the British East India Company, and the French Republic; Trafficante was a representative of the American Mafia. While he was traveling on a jet aircraft, they had come in tiny, wooden-hulled Portuguese caravels, British men-of-war, or steel-ribbed steamships. With their superior military technology, they used their warships to open up China and Southeast Asia for their opium merchants and slowly proceeded to conquer the Asian land mass, dividing it up into colonies. Sanctimonious empire builders subjected millions of natives to the curse of opium addiction, generating enormous revenues for colonial development, and providing profits for European stockholders. Thus, the Mafia was following in the wake of a long tradition of Western drug trafficking in Asia-but with one important difference. It was not interested in selling Asian opium to the Asians; it was trying to buy Asian heroin for the Americans.”
That Trafficante was also a contract employee of the Central Intelligence Agency was not accident. Precisely this sort of connection, and the thousands of cases that document similar patterns and protocols, must become a priority if democracy’s ghost-of-a-chance is not to collapse altogether into impossibility.
To anyone who has paid even a modicum of attention over the past ten years—or over the past half century if one integrates Southeast Asia and Columbia and Panama into the mix—the case of Afghanistan is particularly execrable. Its presentation as a ‘tragedy’ may be nonsensical, but nevertheless its arc as a story does follow a truly horrifying line.
In the current context, no expression of this conjunction of intelligence, militarism, finance, and empire contains more risk for the United States than does the present ‘border skirmish’ that threatens to explode in full scale war on the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico . A recent chronicler—one of almost countless analysts who are crying out for attention and focus—summarizes this insight in a forthright fashion.
“The counterinsurgency campaign is unquestionably erasing the lines between law enforcement and the military—and even countries. With what amounts to a low-level, unacknowledged war being fought on America’s doorstep, sorting out the tangled interests in play—including whether the public truly benefits—seems a high priority.”
Though continuing now may be impossible, this need not be so in the future. Then, continued examination, further documentation, and expanded scope overall will be the order of the day.
MK-ULTRA & Other ‘Experiments’ in Psycho-Social Control
In the midst of this unfolding intersection of empire and contraband and spies, in any event, the ‘cowboys’ of the Office of Strategic Services—with their utility-players on-board from the criminal networks of Prohibition gangsters—gave way to the mandates of a National Security Act and a Central Intelligence Agency. This bureaucratization, however, did not in the event mean an abandonment of fantasies of truth-drugs and chemical assassination protocols.
Through two acquaintances, I have a rich and direct experience of documenting the army’s and CIA’s treating its soldiers and random citizens as experimental targets. In any event, this is yet another case in which readers should definitely ‘stay tuned,’ as additional efforts in this arena will definitely happen given time and tide that keeps everything afloat.
FOUNDATIONS OF BLACK MARKETS & CAPITAL ACCUMULATION
All of these developments illustrate ongoing expressions of the patterns in play throughout this narrative, at least those that have accompanied capital’s rise as the definitive organizing principle for sustaining society. Like so much of what transpires in these arenas, however, the facts and events remain a purposefully secret story, hidden away behind smokescreens and official impunity.
The upshot is that since ‘black markets’ are so fundamental to corporate operations, so profitable to those ‘leaders’ who are truly ‘players,’ so commonplace for those with ‘seats at the table,’ they are as much a part of the standard operating procedure as Engine Charlie Wilson’s off-the-cuff derision that “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.” With up to ten percent of the world’s entire productive activity invested in and intertwined in such activity, in any event, any fantasy of just snapping our fingers and creating a transparent and honest system is at best fatuous.
That said, a dream of a human prospect in which our productive projects actually serve our own interests is valid. Such thinking is the basis for this labor here, upending and taking a clear look at what we mean when we say drugs, what we do when we criminalize plants, and so on and so forth.
Whatever else one makes of all of this drug-war rhetoric and such, the tables have definitely turned, at least in a geographic sense, from where things stood at the time of the Opium Wars. The borders of the United States are the lines to cross in plying alienated, terrified masses of people—who all too often don’t want to look in the closet or under the bed, as it were—with massive doses of commodified toxins that could show up, in a different context, as plant accompanists to the human symphony.
Perhaps the most insidious expression of any ‘War-on-Drugs’ socialization appears in the development of those sinister and twisted dark markets that illuminate the deeply pathological sorts of ideation that are inherent in such a nexus of hypocritical crusades and hyper-profits. Diverse scholars note such a deleterious conjunction in any event.
Snuff films, child pornography, human trafficking, and the fetishization and criminalization of pleasure that turns increasingly violent and deadly, in any case inextricably intertwine with ‘designer drugs’ and pharmaceutical intervention that stand in contrast to human society’s longstanding psychoactive proclivities. Once again, we’ll be looking for more soon enough.
FOUNDATIONS OF COUNTERCULTURE
Lest one imagine that, unlike the seamier aspects of political economy in relation to unjust enrichment through smuggling of one sort or another, the ‘counterculture’ that emanates from underground drug sales and usage is in the main more magical and lyrical and cool, a further example from Afghanistan offers a sobering counterpoint.
The consequences of drug-culture for women do not end at the doorstep of hyper-sexist societies either. Mick Jagger was speaking a truth that continues to touch nerves in the lyrics of “Mama’s Little Helper.” Women, whether a la The Stepford Wives or The Three Faces of Eve *or otherwise have always represented a locus for the pharmaceutical marketers focus.
Yet in music and popular culture and expression of every sort, the formula has been accurate. “Resistance continues.” The Electric Koolaid Acid Test may not completely dovetail with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but they both—and hundreds of thousands of other songs and stories and videos and plays and reality-based dramas and daily plays by pissed-off and fed up citizens also fit into this materialization of rejecting ‘just-say-no’ and ‘wars-on-drugs’—critique, more or less completely, the whole contemporary project of medicalizing mental health and criminalizing individual and cultural manifestations of self-help.
More will appear here in the fullness of time. Interviewing Steven Seagal, whose Above the Law so mercilessly pillories the Central Intelligence Agency’s drug-and-gun schemes, reviewing classics such as The Great Heroin Coup, allowing such wacky cultural critics as Michael Moore and Slavoj Zizek to have a conversation, contextualizing Libertarian and Marxist critiques—a ‘From-All-Sides’ approach—at one and the same time are just a few upcoming projections that touch on this rich vein of human possibility, more-or-less uniformly at a critical distance from such institutional norms as the Pharmaceutical Industrial Complex, just ahead, persistently promulgates.
FOUNDATIONS OF A PHARMACEUTICAL INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX
Having inaugurated this hundred-and-fifty years of prescriptive medicine and ‘substance abuse,’ all in the name of ‘security’ and ‘protection’ and so forth, those in charge have demonstrated that the vision of Aldous Huxley in Brave New World seems apt. The providers of different toxic Somas seek on the one hand to pacify and stupefy folks who occasionally rise up to demand answers and alternatives and on the other hand to imprison or eliminate individuals who refuse to join with the establishment and criminal networks that are, truly, one and the same creature.
As already promised, a deeper examination is in the offing of the non-governmental organizations, the corporate behemoths, and the government agencies that act as a ‘triple-alliance’ in favor of mandatory prescription of profit-making ‘medicine,’ at the same time that they decry and criminalize those herbs and spices that human culture have been employing for their own purposes for a hundred millennia or more.
In particular, the investigation of litigation against Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor and anti-psychotic providers—claimants have filed plus-or-minus seventy-thousand lawsuits in regard to the former chemicals, thousands of them settled for ‘undisclosed sums’—is mandatory. The search, <lawsuits OR litigation anti-depressants OR prozac “product liability” OR negligence settlements OR “settled out of court” “gag order” OR “in camera”>, brings out almost a hundred thousand citations, overwhelmingly critical of enforced secrecy.
A definitive political economy, history, and intellectual biography of the backers of Prozac is in the works as well. These matters simply cry out for attention, even as such attempts have absolutely zero corporate backing.
Come what may, growing numbers of clinicians dispute this prevalence of profiteering via a self-serving medical model. “The illegal-psychiatric drug hypocrisy in the U.S. is an ugly triumph. It is a triumph of marketing over science. It is a triumph for pharmaceutical corporations and America’s ever-growing prison-industrial complex. It is a triumph for those comfortably atop society who would rather Americans view their malaise as exclusively a medical rather than a social problem. And ultimately, it is a triumph of injustice and greed over human rights and a sane society.”
Brain Research & Social Control
As in all the ways of examining these phenomena, so here also an observer sees ongoing expressions of a specific sort of development. This pattern appears as attempts to achieve overarching and total control of phenomena, despite biased results and unexamined assumptions. Such problems constantly appear in the current context.
Most recently, attempts to use social media monitoring to determine ‘mental health’ have shown the internal contradictions of such schemes. The attempts to totalize control grow more invasive and more patronizing. The consequences are worse and worse.
For example, available evidence would suggest that ‘patients’ with mental and mood ‘disorders’ ought regularly to forego their ‘medicines.’ That this is not the ‘state-of-the-art’ protocol of current clinicians is, of course, a huge understatement, since more prescriptions and further interventions overwhelmingly prevail.
More and more, arguably, people are buying neither the prescription to “take your ‘medicine’” nor the proscription of substances with which our forebears have a hundred thousand year relationship, give or take. Both metaphorically and literally, people are not ‘buying’ as readily as once they did.
For instance, the search, <prozac OR antidepressant criticism OR indictment video>, yields ten and a half million results, a huge chunk of which come from ‘credible’ sources and credentialed experts. One series is the work of a former Eli Lilly science-and-marketing-and-administration bigwig who totally condemns the Serotonin project as a criminal scheme against humankind.).
The roots of these present methodologies are equally contradictory and also, if one delves deeply enough, readily instructive about the political economic and social goals of the backers of the research efforts themselves. As noted above, deeper investigation of the corporate phalanx that has delivered the research and marketing and legislation of ‘best-practices’ that assume that a ‘medical model’ is sacrosanct are forthcoming.
Inevitably, assembling the sort of case that this report does has all of the appearance of a criminal conspiracy. A nearly thirty-year-old memoir of the drug war, by a participant in the action on both sides of things, would laugh at the idea that a label of “conspiracy theory” would foreclose the kinds of investigations that we need to be making. “I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories,” Michael Ruppert was fond of quipping before he killed himself; “I offer people conspiracy facts.”
Crossing the Rubicon is a densely documented and persuasively argued prosecutorial opening statement, an indictment of the powers-that-be—presenting actual formal charges against Presidents and corporate heavy-hitters, from a former chief police investigator of just such matters—that contends that ‘drug-wars’ and ‘intelligence’ and military-prison-industrial-corporate-and-imperial-complexes rule the world through venal and duplicitous means that citizens will either hold to account or suffer from the results of their failure to insist on responsibility and accountability. In Ruppert’s estimation, the price of impunity is mass collective suicide.
Are people willing to consider discussions about such matters? As always, even as it runs short, time will tell.
Some Conclusions to Consider
Sometimes the very volume of evidence and argument that more or less powerfully commands us to alter our default attitudes and take real stands in their stead—in other words, to address and transform social sickness that threatens our very survival—instead induces us to throw up our hands, to light a joint or look the other way, to see the massive scope of mendacity as proof that we cannot ever do anything to help switch off the horrendous systematized mechanisms of crime and deceit that presently run our world. Cynicism may not always win out, but at least resignation—the wry shrug of passivity, overcomes any disciplined or ongoing move to reform matters.
While such a point-of-view may seem difficult to finesse—“What should a person do? Declare himself chief enforcer of the League-of-Global-Justice, or something?”—one thing is undeniable. Continuing on this course of subterfuge and hypocrisy and corruption and, most of all, profiteering must in the end at best either maintain the evil concatenations that typify the present pass or, more likely, accept that these venal vicissitudes will exponentially grow in the near future.
Such a surmise is no more than an application of the first law of thermodynamics, after all. An object in motion will keep going on its present path absent force to counteract that momentum and direction.
In confronting such an apparently indisputable likelihood, one may ponder one’s children, one’s parents, one close friends and relations. Will they—or their children and parents and close friends and relations in turn—be able now to persist in an environment of cruel commerce and everyday cheating? The way that today’s social tendencies are evolving, toward heightened conflict and deepened exploitation and so forth, such a question must quite likely elicit, in terms of individuals’ options, a negative answer. “No, we can’t assume that the chance to follow the road that we traveled yesterday will be possible tomorrow.”
At the level of geopolitics—which is precisely where these drug-war-and-contraband-patterns grew to their present potency—the issues involved are even starker and direr. Will a world with plus-or-minus fifty thousand thermonuclear weapons be able to continue in the presence of the inherently intense contradictions and tense paradoxes of a social environment in which ‘just-say-no’ distortions and criminal networks that at once purvey and condemn drugs predominate?
These first paragraphs of a first concluding section merely establish a certain groundwork. ‘The stakes are high. We ought to act as if our kind’s future mattered to us.’ In such a way of thinking about things, several closing points might be worth considering.
AN INITIAL DEDUCTION
Bringing secret or otherwise hidden information, decisions, studies, and developments to light must become a priority, an objective about which a majority of citizens already agree, in essence that transparency in the realm of both so-called ‘drug-crimes’ and self-serving intellectual property regimes represents a sine qua non for justice, humanity, happiness, empowerment.
Proprietary secrets rule pharmaceutical practice. In camera proceedings and inaccessible proceedings and settlements all too often finish off lawsuits(), in which victims of legal drugs collect a few million dollars to compensate them for the mayhem that has flowed from fluorine-and-serotonin-purveying chemicals. Criminal networks that include police and courts operate not only with impunity, but also behind a veil that they maintain because our ‘security’ requires such deception and hidden agendas.
Of course these methods have not been working. Nor do they make sense, even as a proposition. Maybe we ought to try something different.
A SECOND DEDUCTION
In a related notion, the capacity to discuss these matters vanishes as the willingness to deal with reality disappears and in its place arise different sets of propagandistic fantasies and self-serving half-truths.
Both ideological fancies and persistent distortion undergird the plutocratic agendas of upper class actors who no more honor proscription and prohibition of felonious ‘schedules’ than they themselves partake of the prescribed poisons that they foist on others and in so doing purposefully muddle the thinking of a significant fraction of the populace at large, particularly among young people. As difficult as imagining such developments might seem, we nonetheless to need to fancy a social movement that starts and perseveres with constant conversation and mutual instruction about these matters.
The current context, one in which horseshit is the main course day after day, can only further the hideous mire in which we now find ourselves. If we want different outcomes, we’ve got to countenance different inputs.
A THIRD DEDUCTION
In relation to the first two points, fetishization of expertise inevitably blocks popular participation, so people who care about majority rule have zero choice: the elevation of self-selected, if highly-trained, experts to serve the profit agendas of those with the money and the networks of power behind the scenes must cease forthwith, and a democratic dialog must ensue in its place.
One needn’t be a biochemist in order to recognize bullshit. One needn’t have a doctorate in psychology in order to understand the ongoing manifestations of human psychic patterns, from longing to ennui and beyond. One needn’t universally fear trollish dominance of every conversation in which grassroots opinions and inquiries come to the forefront.
To start with the obvious, our own ignorance gets in our way. Yet with only a few exceptions, each of us can learn. Each of us can instruct ourselves and, in discourse with others, gain insights and capacity. At the very least, such ideas are worth a passing glance.
A FOURTH DEDUCTION
In a general way, a failure to decriminalize plants and permit their elective utilization by adults will eliminate the potential for a future that is human; it may in fact destroy altogether every possibility of a human future.
I have close relations who have died because of alcoholism and drug-addiction. As fate would have it, literally hundreds of my friends and acquaintances have harrowing tales to tell about life in the fast lanes of expensive contraband and cheap thrills. I have written a volume of unpublished short stories, Drugs & Guns & Living in America, that convey the complexities and difficult nuances of ‘controlled’ and controlling substances.
Nevertheless, if reason and reality are to guide us, any conclusion other than this one will guarantee our destruction. Courses of criminalization and prohibition will always make matters worse, except for the ‘kingpins’ and thugs in charge.
A FIFTH DEDUCTION
More particularly, fraudulent and double-dealing ‘drug wars’ both serve to stuff prisons, labeling citizens as deficient or criminal in the process, and to establish hidden links among profiteering, reactionary, even fascist groups and authorities and leaders.
Once again, the evidence is incontrovertible, an overwhelming mass of data that proves that, from their conception and birth, all ‘drug-wars’ are corrupt. Out of this morass of hypocrisy and gangsterism grow mirror structures that function according to the chicanery and murder of the bosses in charge of criminal networks. Thus, our police shoot first and question the corpse; our courts’ denizens sigh as they sentence children to death or life in prison.
The upshot—and one can argue persuasively, the purpose—of such repetitive expressions of a system ought to be clear. They disempower citizens. They divide people from each other, so that victims blame themselves and other saps instead of attacking the established order itself. If we like such ways of life, we need only do nothing, or nod happily as our masters lie and plot to subvert our interests once again. In the alternative, of course, we can cogitate about shifting course and taking command, as unbelievable as such thoughts might seem.
A FINAL DEDUCTION
Though one might go on at length, the culmination of wrestling with these issues could readily dovetail with the previous two deductions above, bringing to an analysis of the need to legitimise or decriminalise drug use a deeply-seated look at how capital’s ideologies and commodities and cash have yielded the current addiction to corruption and brutality. If nothing else, having noticed the way that adaptive human features in favour of The Pursuit of Oblivion have stubbornly refused to go away, we could also recognise how business interests—maximising profit, guaranteeing stable or expanding markets, finding ‘property’ to convey that no one else may control—have become the basis for twisting and crushing many people’s psychological and social resilience.
In such a view, though it adds yet another seemingly Sisyphean task to an already difficult mix, the student of life who is readying for action will have a choice to ponder. Does she ‘saddle up’ and agree to undertake reforms that require a revolutionary end? Does he hesitate and pray that the evidence that his senses and sensibilities deliver somehow describes systems that might magically melt of their own accord?
Whatever the decision that one makes, ‘time’s a wasting,’ as the saying goes. And every moment that we breathe presents us with opportunities to speak truth to power and otherwise make some difference in these ongoing struggles.
In this vein, the author of this report on occasion has produced political art on driftwood. Each such piece of work contains a message, one of which stated the following point.
“Today’s production pipeline serves up a seemingly endless supply of new & improved commodities, many of which consistently create difficulties, or even disasters, that then seem to require yet further fetishistic commodified fixes instead of the inner reflection and cooperative expansion that provide the only combination capable of improving, even of salvaging, human prospects on our planetary home.”
Such a way of positing matters obviously fits with the present pass. Inasmuch as we can find the courage to recognise this fit and see what it implies, we could easily conclude that capitalism and its attendant necessitation of one monopolistic empire or another will always arrive at a destination equivalent to an insidious paradox of prohibition and prescription.
And if this is a viable belief, then the course of action open to us—unless we want more of the same—is obvious. A move in the direction of social democracy, of traducing and disempowering the elites who own and run everything, is not only the sole policy course that has the slightest hope of stopping wars on the planet’s people that wear the guise of ‘Wars-on-Drugs,’ but it also might be the only way of regulating ourselves which allows our continued endurance as a life form.
James Mills tour-de-force, Underground Empire: Where Crime & Government Embrace, begins with this bracing assertion, TO THE READER. “Everything in this book is true. No names have been changed, there are no composite characters, no invented scenes or dialog.”
In twelve hundred pages, the author tells of the torturous and tortuous imperial caverns that characterize drug-and-gun-and-crime-and-cash networks in charge of the routine operation of planet Earth today and for the past several hundred years. Mills happened to have had the martial and intellectual skills himself to work as an operative in this realm. He lived through one series of attempted assassinations and actual double-crosses after another. Treachery and murder and seven figure payoffs were standard operating procedure.
He closes his tome with the thoughts that occurred to him as he bid farewell to the cowboy cop, with whom he had most recently collaborated in this arena of corruption and duplicity, and who still fantasised about ‘getting all the bad guys’ that in turn signed his paychecks. “A few miles South, cocaine and marijuana were on the move, and across the continent and a couple of oceans poppies thrived unmolested. Hundreds of billions of dollars were coursing into vast unseen oceans of wealth—a few drops trickling away to buy weapons, hire terrorists, corrupt governments, subvert nations. And in Washington someone was no doubt planning another media campaign to tell us the latest offensive in the war on drugs.
The Underground Empire was alive and flourishing.”
If only in the ineffable sense that All-That-Is must, tautologically, notice All-That-Is, heaven knows that we can continue to live divided against ourselves, miserable and increasingly impotent. At least up to some point, we might foresee our being able to travel along the ugly but, for those in charge, quite profitable path that lies just ahead, with the Underground Empire ascendant and resplendent. Clearly, whenever we venture far past wherever ’some point’ may lie, at that juncture mass murder and mass collective suicide do in fact become psychically and, potentially, materially more bearable than the bullshit that, this essay proposes, presently passes for engagement and comprehension.
Further constriction of human rights will be one upshot of a route that entails acceptance of the status quo. Further forced imbibing of harsh but supposedly therapeutic chemicals will also follow. Wars-on-Drugs will define a large swath of human existence. Perhaps these scenarios will come to pass by negligent default, though the prospect nauseates those who consider citizenship a worthwhile goal.
To elect to follow such a route, in any case, perfecting future disasters in both psychosocial and ecological dimensions, must by definition come from one or another sort of choice or proclivity. On the one hand, unfortunately, psychosis or some type of instinctive death wish might in fact overrule any other possibility that concerns how to live. This would never be most readers’ or this author’s predilection, but such views have in fact a certain sort of vogue now, an apocalyptic chic, as it were.
Any other than this kind of dark ideation, however—except given the manifestation of the above-mentioned default, the cosmic shrug of medicated indifference or whatever—can only unfold in the presence of an attempt to deepen knowledge and awareness that is both fulsome and, to use the current phrasing, reality-based, in other words something akin to the attempt that takes place in these pages. This, then, is the social, intellectual soil from which a random journalist might harvest a twenty-odd thousand-word thread about ‘controlled-substances’ that seeks to proffer facts and analysis from before the dawn of historical time to the likely headlines from tomorrow’s news.
In regard to that earlier context, a plethora of data and reasoning here have drawn on historical and other scientific revelations about humanity’s past. In the realm of the here-and-now, this overview whenever possible has laid out political-economic—legal, financial, industrial, and on and on—attributes of the multidimensional overlapping of drugs and society. Having looked at the interpersonal relations that typified precriminalized usage of psychotropics, this writing has also illustrated the social relationships that have resulted from the currently dominant military and medical and imperial models in this arena, an environment in which people and their ‘medicines’ and chemical ‘playthings’ confront prohibition, black markets, violence, mandatory following of ‘doctors orders,’ each other, and themselves.
These data and reasoning do not pretend superiority, let alone completeness. But they do both depict a network of real occurrences and establish attendant thinking that flows from what has happened. They began by stating a hypothesis about all of these observable phenomena. To assure that readers are on the same page, a restatement of that thesis, taking into account all that this narrative has uncovered, might be in order.
In light of the inescapable genetic inclination in favor of drugs that characterizes most people, any and all prohibitions of the plants that get people high will lead to massive corruption, fraud, double-dealing, treachery, violence, and worse; in such environs, most people will either try to force themselves to follow these evil and hypocritical ‘rules-of-the-road,’ or they will live in hope that they don’t get caught, both of which approaches bring lots of rage and a high likelihood of sadness and depression; as the falsity of the system and the anger and blues that it induces inevitably cause repeated crises, personal and political, the primary intervention of those who are governing these machinations ends up as one form or other of ‘miracle cure,’ a new toxic brew both to pacify the furies that people feel in their hearts and to defray social explosion.
At the point that we have reached, one hopes that readers would stipulate that this overall assessment is at least robustly defensible. It ought to cause at least glimmers of recognition about the current moment, while the background evidence and argumentation that has shown up in these pages ought to reinforce this self-awareness.
In that case, the implication appears powerful that changes in policy, in practice, in human organization might quite likely need to take place if the human lot is to avoid cataclysm. Thus, in other words, these paragraphs about the lives that we lead now in relation to contraband mandate a reply from all but the lethally unconcerned. Only to the terminally alienated is apathy a reasonable response.
In the environment that today’s contextualization establishes, therefore, clearly, one rejoinder to this appearance of ongoing catastrophe from regimes of prohibition is to deny that the facts are accurate or complete and hence to contend that they cannot support the beliefs advanced on their basis. Or, one can accept many or even most of the facts but reject the arguments that accompany them.
One other possibility exists. One can contend that, even though the empirical and conceptual aspects of this narrative are largely or at least often correct, the alternatives to presently prevalent draconian machinations of militarism and imprisonment seem far worse than a continued adherence to a regime that is vicious, even murderous; hypocritical, even demonic; suboptimal, even devastating.
In either case, come what may, a citizen’s silence in the face of this narrative means that its point of view ought to win out. Only listening and speaking that results in a lively debate about these matters can permit a rejection of the evidence and ideas stated here. No blanket denial will do. Too much of a record exists in these lines, and too many developed propositions come to the fore here, both of which necessitate specific and thoroughgoing rebuttal.
Only rich and inclusive discussion about the drug-problem, discourse that insists on deep thinking and comprehensive exchanges, would ever allow one even plausibly to advance the contention that, as bad as prohibition and profiteering pharmacology are, any different approach would inevitably be worse. In any event, whether in part because of such ideation as this report develops or otherwise, a process that involves tens of millions of folks, in millions of dialogs and other learning exchanges about drugs, altered consciousness, and who will take charge of the ‘regulation’ of these matters, needs to evolve in contemporary society, instantly or as soon as possible. These exchanges are as critical to human survival as any other near-at-hand nexus of contemplation and conversation.
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, the Bleckley Foundation, the Heffter Research Institute and scores of other organizations of scientists and citizens have joined documentarians and producers in various projects that argue for a fundamental shift in how we approach these matters, for example. Why do readers almost never see them in corporate media? Those who consume for-profit news certainly get an eyeful—in both solicitations and storylines—of the advertiser-behemoth pharmaceutical complex.
Mild-mannered and heartfelt interviewees from Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere, experts passionate in both their science and their commitment to a decent and sustainable human existence, who participated in the magnificent documentary film, From Neurons to Nirvana, recently purveyed these issues in stark and yet evocative fashion. We surely should listen: “The government prohibits any of this research. Then they say, ‘Well, you haven’t got any research.’ It is beyond ‘highpocrisy.’”
In arguing for deepening clinical investigation into understanding and using such substances as MDMA, or LSD, or other prohibited materials as therapeutic experiences, these men and women—almost all medical doctors or doctors of philosophy, all either scientists or the most accredited science writers and thinkers—the arguments were unequivocal.
No good reason justifies continued prohibition. Everything except the combination of blind self-righteousness and hypocritical duplicity insists that people make these organic and synthesized psychic interventions available to investigators and citizens, to clinicians and people in need.
“These chemicals induce an opening of the mind; that’s not the way the current therapies work. It’s not a good idea necessarily only to rely on medicines that dampen your desire, that take away the spark of life that you feel,” said one therapist of thirty years.” Yet, she continued, “the powers-that-be have determined that these substances should be illegal.” She said more too. “To recommend these therapies, you have to be enough of a rebel to go against a taboo. And it’s the nature of the taboo to say, ’oh, don’t look at that. That’s bad!’” But demonization has nothing to do with science or medicine.
A colleague amplified this point. “The government’s decisions are not based upon scientific evidence; they’re based on a prohibitionist paranoia despite use over tens of thousands of years that has contributed to our survival.”
A psychiatrist stated the case in this way. “We can use these banned substances to enhance spiritual growth. By any measure we’re vastly overdeveloped technologically with primitive emotions that put us and the world around us at risk.”
A philosopher of science laughed as he said, “the message of psychedelics is ‘Wake up!’” from the insularity and deadened feelings that people so often have. He continued, “but then they say, ’Oh, don’t take these drugs, they’ll change your life forever. But that just shows how little they understand, because that’s the whole point.”
An emeritus professor of neuroscience pointed this out. “They help people to become aware of the multidimensional nature of the universe and themselves. Why would we want to ban that? Science will be much richer for their being available.”
Another investigator noted the correspondence between groundbreaking creativity and insight and using these drugs. “Psychedelics have catalyzed many people to creative enterprise that has absolutely changed the world.”
One collaborator stressed, in impassioned tones, the foolishness of current policies. “It is, at least, extremely unwise to be so scared of these drugs that we make them illegal and prohibit almost all research. Are we so sure that we can solve all the big problems that we’d throw away a tool that could help us with these problems that we’d never otherwise solve?” He and half-a-dozen others, gentle and thoughtful and anything but fancy-free fools, basically begged for a transformational period in the United States.
Instead, will a nation like the U.S.A. keep being able to incarcerate more and more citizens who smoke pot? Who want to trip on psilocybin and make love? Who want to drop Ecstasy and dance all night long? Who want to inject Heroin in order to feed a compulsion?
Will the residents of other places continue to put up with brutalization, corruption, and mass murder in the name of a war on plants and getting stoned? Will parents and students willingly tolerate tomorrow the regime of today, in which their toking and dropping and copping and snorting some things land them in prison while the forces of order simultaneously prescribe toxic ‘medicines’ that don’t work nearly so well as their self-selected methods of ‘self-medication?’
Questions like these demarcate a political limit, in Spanish, of “No pasaran!” In this regard, concerning these and related interrogatories, inquiring minds would like to know. Aldous Huxley closed his Doors of Perception with a lyrical and literary way of thinking about this.
“For Angels of a lower order and with better prospects of longevity, (in other words like most of us today), there must be a return to the straw. But the man who comes back (from a jaunt into altered consciousness) through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less cocksure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable Mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.”