Getting high

Charles Nicholl

  • The Global Connection: The Crisis of Drug Addiction by Ben Whitaker
    Cape, 384 pp, £15.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 224 02224 5

You don’t frequent crack-houses. You don’t shoot smack, drop acid, skin-pop speed or blow dope. You have nothing to do with the 1.8 billion tranquillisers prescribed in Britain every year, or with the two thousand tons of pain-killers purchased over the counter. You don’t even smoke or drink. Okay, but the chances are still pretty high that you take drugs.

Afternoon tea, for instance. The average cuppa contains 100 mg of caffeine, an analeptic stimulant which acts directly on the cerebral cortex, together with a smaller dose of theophylline, which gains its tonic effect by dilating the coronary artery. We like tea for its taste and warmth, but primarily we like it for its mood-altering properties. It is a very mild drug fix, and it has all the accretions of ritual, lore and paraphernalia which one associates with more obvious forms of drug-taking.

With your tea you might nibble on a chocolate biscuit. Further doses of caffeine from the cacao base of the chocolate; a short-term energy rush from the sugar; also, it has recently been discovered, a smidge of phenylethylamine. This is an organic amphetamine, a rustic cousin to the drug generally known as ‘speed’. As well as occurring in the cacao bean, phenylethylamine is found in the human brain, where it is secreted in connection with euphoric states like falling in love. If you don’t fancy a hit of phenyl to tickle your love-nodes, perhaps you’d prefer a slice of sponge cake – only it’s flavoured with nutmeg, and therefore contains traces of myristicin, a potent hallucinogen in its own right and the organic base of the synthetic stimulant, MDA. And all this for your body to deal with while it’s still struggling to metabolise the cargo of steroids, hormones, tissue-boosters and flavour-enhancers that you took aboard with your lunch.

In terms of drug-ingestion, the only difference between taking afternoon tea and going on a crack-binge is one of degree – degree of chemical potency, degree of personal commitment, degree of acceptable damage.

The many formulations of the ‘drug problem’ tend to boil down to the basic problem, which is that people like drugs. People have, furthermore, always liked drugs. Shortly after the Flood, with all that chance for a fresh start, Noah went and got legless: ‘He drank of the wine, and was drunken, and was uncovered within his tent’. In more measurable archaeological terms, the oldest known drug seems to be the mescal bean, whose stimulant properties were prized by the Indians of Central America as far back as 8000 BC. References to opium, extolling its virtues for sedation and pain relief, are found on Sumerian tablets some six thousand years old. Actual seeds of the opium poppy, papaver somniferum, have been excavated from Late Stone Age settlements in Switzerland. Coca leaves, together with the powdered lime needed to activate their cocaine content, have been found in mummy bundles buried in Peru in about 500 BC.

The evidence is plain. Wherever there was an organic source of psycho-active material, ancient man discovered it and cultivated it. Whether he used drugs for ‘medical’ or ‘recreational’ reasons is a moot point – though in a sense the distinction is not fundamental. All drug-taking is a desire to alter something inside us, an attack on the biochemical status quo of our bodies, whether the perceived benefit is to get well or to get high. After the Trojan War, according to Homer, Helen gave Telemachus a draught of nepenthe – almost certainly a reference to a Theban opium – to ‘banish memories’ and ‘calm grief and anger’. I am not sure whether this was medical or recreational.

The use of hallucinogens in mystical and shamanistic cults is also very ancient. The mystery-rites – Eleusinian, Dyonisiac, Delphic – were based on priestly psychedelics, though exactly which drugs were used is the subject of debate. The shamans of Siberia used the mushroom fly agaric (amanita muscara) to achieve ecstatic trances. One of their modes of ingestion was to drink the urine of reindeer that had browsed on the mushroom. Our own Father Christmas – red and white like amanita, and borne aloft by tipsy reindeer – may be a tortuous folk-memory of this cult. According to the philologist John Allegro, if I remember his drift correctly, Jesus Christ was also a mushroom. More recently, the witches of Medieval Europe used such homely drugs as belladonna, henbane and mandrake, both in their role as crypto-medical ‘wise-women’ – the atrophine in belladonna was used in midwifery, for instance – and in the rituals of witchcraft. The image of a witch ‘flying on a broomstick’ is said to be another ancestral memory of drug-taking. Broomstick coated with hallucinogenic potion, rubbed between the legs: very efficient ingestion of drug via vaginal labia: flying on a broomstick.

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