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.

Not everyone will accept these etymologies, but the general point is that drugs have always been around, and that they may be secretly central to some of our most familiar folk traditions (fairy-tales are another case in point). Taking drugs is both a casual everyday experience and an ancient and very pertinacious tradition. It is one of those troublesome fundamentals, like war and religion. We are about as likely to remove drugs from the human agenda as we are to disinvent the wheel.

Kipling remarked that the most powerful drug used by mankind is words, and certainly the intractable nature of the drug question has made it an ideal market for word-merchants: politicians, pundits and journalists. Ben Whitaker’s new study, The Global Connection, is admirably clear-sighted. He has opted for the compendious, rather than the propagandist, approach. He briefly surveys the historical and social by-ways of drug-taking, describes the chemistry and effects of drugs, and devotes a separate chapter to each of the major drugs currently in use – alcohol, tobacco, heroin, cocaine, LSD, solvents and cannabis. His sections on treatment and rehabilitation will be of practical use to anyone needing them, and indeed the whole book offers more in the nature of practical access to information than any startling new twists or revelations. Mr Whitaker is a barrister, a former Labour MP, and director of the Minority Rights Group. He knows his facts, marshals them efficiently, and has an acute political eye for the ironies and hypocrisies of official government attitudes to drugs.

He subtitles his book, ‘The Crisis of Drug Addiction’, though some of his historical observations show that this is by no means the first such crisis in Britain. The drink problem in 18th-century London, so powerfully recorded by Hogarth and Fielding, was certainly a crisis. The liquor known as Geneva – familiarised by British tipplers as ‘gin’ – was introduced by the Court of William of Orange in the 1690s. By the mid-18th century, a quarter of London’s population – almost exclusively from the poorer classes – had a gin habit averaging a pint a day. A survey of 1750 shows that every fourth house in the parish of St Giles was a gin-shop.

The 19th-century crisis was opium addiction. Opium was drunk, chewed and smoked to cure, or at least to relieve, a huge variety of ailments, including gout, asthma, rheumatism, measles, indigestion, kidney-stone and even the plague. It was prescribed for hypochondria, insomnia and various forms of mental disturbance. A moulded plug of opium was a popular form of contraceptive cap. Various preparations were available – laudanum, mithridate, Kendal Black Drop (Coleridge’s tipple), Venice Treacle – and it was marketed in a range of patent cordials and nostrums with such appetising names as Dalbey’s Carminative, McMunn’s Elixir and Mother Bailey’s Quieting Syrup. As is clear from the famous opium-users of the day – Coleridge, De Quincey, Wilkie Collins, Wilberforce, Clive of India, et al – the analgesic use of opium swiftly shaded into psychological and physical dependence. On the other hand, no one can read the letters of Coleridge and De Quincey – let alone ‘Kubla Khan’ and Confessions of an English Opium Eater – without recognising how fascinated they were by the imaginative transformations and conjurings of the opium experience. There was a ‘recreational’ aspect to opium use (though I suppose a Romantic poet might claim dream-visions as a professional requisite). Coleridge also tried other drugs. His letters to Tom Wedgwood refer to ‘bang’ (hashish), henbane, ‘red sulphate’ and ‘compound acid’.

The statistics of British opium consumption in the 19th century are dizzying. In the first twenty years of Victoria’s reign consumption more than tripled, reaching 60,000 lb in 1859. Far from attempting to tackle the crisis, the British Government was enjoying its position as the world’s premier supplier of this valuable commodity. This was the period of that unsavoury episode known as the Opium War (1839-42), when Royal Navy gun-ships ran consignments of opium into China. British opium, grown under monopoly in India, had done much to create the huge market of dependence in China, and they were damned if British opium wasn’t going to supply it. The drug racket is one of the many skeletons in the Empire’s closet.

It might be interesting to take some bearings from the opium statistics of a century and a quarter ago. Given the population of the day, annual consumption of 60,000 lb is equivalent to one ounce per 14 head of population. This figure for national opiate dependency can be compared very roughly with today by looking at current heroin consumption. Heroin is, of course, prepared from opium, and has most of its properties in more concentrated form. The conversion factor is roughly 10:1 – ten pounds of opium will yield one pound of heroin. Figures of actual consumption of an illegal drug are only guesstimates, based on known quantity seized and on speculation as to what proportion this is of total traffic. On this basis, heroin consumption in the UK over the last three years has been around 7500 lb per annum. This is the equivalent of 75,000 lb of opium, or one ounce per 46 head of population. By this reckoning, opiate dependence was three times higher in Victorian England than it is now. There are too many imponderables for this to be a serious statistic, but it serves to suggest that the ‘crisis of drug addiction’ is not an exclusively 20th-century phenomenon.

This notion doesn’t necessarily make for good copy. For news value, the ‘crisis’ must be actual, particular, now. The media treatment of the subject is one of the most unappetising (and damaging) aspects of consensus attitudes to drugs. A certain amount of sensationalising is to be expected: drugs are themselves a kind of sensationalising of normal responses. What is pathetic is the editorial hunger for drug fads, the desire for the general crisis to resolve itself into a series of bitesized, brand-identifiable mini-crises. Purple hearts, pot, acid, speed, cocaine: they’ve all had their moment some time in the last twenty years, with the hardy perennial of heroin to take up the slack in between times. A couple of years ago it was ‘designer drugs’. 1986 was undoubtedly the Year of Crack. In media terms, crack was the biggest of the lot, the Aids of the drug scene – cheap, lethally strong, easily prepared from standard cocaine hydrochloride, above all ‘instantly addictive’. But crack is already yesterday’s news. We’re going through a bit of a quiet patch now. There are signs of nervousness about this on the BBC, witness a recent story on the Nine O’clock News. This told of a ‘new drug menace’ threatening our shores, but it turned out to be amphetamine sulphate, good old speed. The story derived from the recently-published figures for 1986 drug seizures, which showed a high percentage increase in amphetamine seizures. The actual increase was 11 kilos (a single big bust’s worth). Speed has been around for decades, so how can it help to call it a new drug menace?

The bloated rhetoric of the media tends to trivialise the reality of the drug problem, just as films like The Green Berets and Rambo trivialise the reality of the Vietnam War. Also like them, it serves as a kind of jingoism to screen off the hopelessness and bungling – the no-win situation – that is the reality of the much-vaunted ‘War on Drugs’. This ‘war’ takes two forms, an attack on supply and an attack on demand. In terms of money and commitment, Western governments are still firmly behind an attack on supply – in other words, prohibition. This in turn takes the form of a two-pronged strategy: interception, targeted on drugs traffic; and eradication, targeted on drug-production at source. Both of them are doomed.

Interception is a cat-and-mouse game, with any increased sophistication in surveillance being matched by increased sophistication in smuggling. The anti-drug task force in South Florida spends $70 million a year, and the volume of cocaine coming into the area continues to rise. In Britain, the Treasury’s book-balancing seems to have priority over the Home Office’s drug war, and recent spending cuts have depleted customs staff by 3600 (including a thousand front-line officers). Deep concealment in freight is the major smuggling mode into Britain. At present nine cargoes out of ten enter the country without customs inspection. Consignments from the EEC are subject to a 2 per cent random check – odds like these must be appealing to the heroin-shippers of Amsterdam.

Crop eradication has had a vogue, but its inherent shortcomings are beginnning to be apparent. It has, certainly, some attractions as a policy. It takes the onus of action away from our own backyard, and out to the Third World, where – largely for climatic reasons – the bulk of the world’s drug crop is grown. Producing countries in Latin America, SouthWest and South-East Asia are susceptible to financial pressure, and most eradication programmes come as strings attached to aid packages. There have been partial successes. In Thailand, for instance, the US Narcotics Assistance Bureau and the Thai Third Army have succeeded in reducing the country’s opium crop to about fifty tons a year, most of it consumed by local hill-tribes rather than providing raw material for heroin. But this is only partial. One of its effects has been to boost production just across the border in Burma, which now grows ten times as much as Thailand. You stamp on one bit of the pipeline and another bit bulges out to compensate. The US has learnt this lesson all too well. The short-term effect of spraying marijuana plantations in Mexico and Colombia in the 1970s was a high incidence of paraquat poisoning among American pot-smokers. The longer-term effect was to boost domestic production of marijuana. Last year home-grown grass was America’s single most valuable cash-crop, outselling even wheat and soya.

Crop eradication can never be more than cosmetic. It is one thing to walk into a Hmong poppy field or an Andean cocal and zap the crop with flame-throwers – or, in the more palatable scenario of crop-substitution, to pay off the farmer to grow cabbages or pineapples instead. The problem is all the places you can’t walk into. The Burmese poppy crop is controlled by powerful para-military armies like the Shan United Army and the Kuomintang. The bulk of South American coca is grown not by campesino small-holders but on industrial-sized plantations, heavily guarded and set in rugged and inaccessible terrain. If it is to be more than a nibble round the edge, crop eradication has to be a full-scale military undertaking. When David Mellor, the Home Office minister responsible for drug control, visited South America last year, he made much of fighting the drug industry ‘at source’, promising British aid to the tune of £1.5 millon. Measured against the money generated by the cocaine industry, this is derisory. The biggest syndicates, controlled by men like Roberto Suarez, Pablo Escobar and Carlitos Lender, expect to make that much in a couple of days. The Bolivian Suarez – ‘El Papito’, the Pope of cocaine – is said to earn $600 million a year from an organisation that disgorges some thirty tons of cocaine into the US annually.

In the end, though, it is not the mountainous wealth of El Papito and his ilk that is chilling. A lot of tub-thumping goes on about traffickers’ profits, sometimes reminding one of Macaulay’s Puritan, who disapproved of bear-baiting for the pleasure it gave to men rather than the pain it gave to the bear. I remember a Colombian, a cocaine-dealer in a small way, saying this about the business: ‘At one end there are a few billionaires, at the other end a few corpses, and in between there’s a whole lot of people like me working hard for their pay’. This might be understating it, particularly on the matter of corpses, but it is worth remembering how thinly the narco-dollars are spread at the base of the pyramid.

What is chilling is the source of Suarez’s wealth: the hugeness of the demand which creates it. His 30 tons of cocaine – 100 million grams of one-in-three street-toot – are eagerly awaited by the noses and lungs of the United States. Take away Suarez and you’ve still got the noses. Drug-users have no brand loyalty. They’ll take what they can get: they don’t care who they make pope.

No one can deny that there is a drug problem. Twelve-year-olds smoking heroin on housing estates, junkie prostitutes in Bangkok, the basuko-boys of Columbia, the rupturing of packages inside body-packers’ bellies, the doddering acid casualties, the death of Olivia Channon: these are all tragic. No one can deny that drugs are dangerous. Their pleasures and occasional revelations are bought at a price. Sometimes you pay on the spot: the terrors of a bad trip; unpleasant side-effects, often from adulterants; the jags of the come-down. More insidiously, you pay in instalments of deterioration, alienation, obsession and dependence. No one can deny that the drug racket is squalid and deadly, with its bootleg industrial chemicals, and gun-law, and the vapidity of mega-buck wealth. No one can deny that drugs are, at best, an illusion. Did you really think – in De Quincey’s laconic phrase – that ‘happiness might be purchased for a penny, and kept in the waistcoat pocket?’

We cannot confront the problem, however, until we start to think clearly about drugs, to admit how central and perennial they are with us, to close up the grubby thesauri of the shock-horror media, to recognise that prohibition is unworkable on all but the most cosmetic levels. The most pressing need is for honesty, and this rare commodity is something that Ben Whitaker’s book offers. It is lucid and practical and free of dogma. The small steps now being taken in drug education (as opposed to propaganda) have to make up for giant leaps of obfuscation. The Government needs to obfuscate, because it knows it cannot win the war, and because it cannot explain why people are allowed to smoke and drink themselves to death, but not ‘take drugs’ (£4.5 billion a year in tax-revenue is one reason). In some senses it’s hardly even fighting the war: 88 per cent of drug convictions in the UK are for that least heinous of crimes, possession of cannabis.

Aldous Huxley called drug-taking a ‘chemical vacation from intolerable selfhood’, though he was speaking of the thoughtful, benevolent, organic substances like mescaline. Dr Johnson spoke more robustly of intoxication: ‘He that makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man’. The patois of drug-users tends to be spatial in expression: you get ‘high’, take a ‘trip’, you ‘go up’ and ‘come down’, you are ‘spaced out’ or ‘strung out’ or ‘out of it’. Whatever our reasons, we seem to need to go somewhere, to take that break from ourselves. That is our nature, and it is nature around us that provides all the fruits, leaves, flowers, fungi, barks and roots that enable us to do it. Sometimes people just want, like Noah, to be drunk and lie uncovered in their tents. And governments can do little more than tiptoe in and pull up the blanket, for decency’s sake.