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Psychotropic Delights

Beginning in Europe before the Middle Ages, the semi-nomadic tribes of Siberia and Lapland discovered that their native reindeeer had a voracious appetite for a certain kind of mushroom, Amanita muscaria. The mushroom, otherwise known as ”fly agaric,“ is one of the most potent naturally occurring psychoactive substances known to man, but in its fresh, unprocessed form, contains chemical compounds that are difficult for humans to digest. So the shamans would follow and wait, and when the beasts had eaten their fill, they would drink the reindeer‘s urine -- and fly. Men with beards, dressed in fur-trimmed coats and long black boots, tripping in the wake of their reindeer. Sound familiar? Yes, Virginia, Santa was a mushroom head.

This is just one of many enlightening anecdotes Sadie Plant introduces in Writing on Drugs, a simple and remarkably sober account of the ways in which drugs have infiltrated nearly every world culture, religion and canon. It is not a new story -- Plant learned of mushroom-grazing reindeer from Valentina and Gordon Wasson’s two-volume Mushrooms, Russia and History, for example -- but it is rarely told with such integrity. Legends of drugs are legion on the edges of society; you can find them on deviant Web pages and in books published by fringe houses. Plant‘s genius lies in having woven them into a compact and fluid history of humanity, a respectable chronicle in which Santa-the-mycological-shaman stands alongside Sigmund Freud, Hasan Sabbah, Edgar Allen Poe and Charlie Parker in a long line of eminent drug users who in various ways reinvented their respective cultures.

Writing on Drugs begins, as surveys of psychotropic substances so often do, with opium. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was on it when he dreamed of ”Kubla Khan,“ and the drug allowed him to experience fantasies so potent he coined the term ”willing suspension of disbelief“ for the benefit of future theater critics. Opium may have given Poe access to the twilight worlds that inspired ”The Murders in the Rue Morgue,“ which literary scholars from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Dorothy L. Sayers cite as the first example of detective fiction. Doyle, of course, had his own day with opium, as did his fictional Sherlock Holmes. But both Doyle and his Holmes found further inspiration in yet another substance, the isolated chemical of the coca leaf, cocaine.

Like an ardent conspiracy theorist, Plant finds drugs in everything; like a scholar, she makes an economical and convincing case for each conjecture. Jules Verne, she notes, admitted to imbibing ”the wonderful tonic wine“ of the coca leaf, which might account for his tripping around the world in a mere 80 days; Mark Twain may have been moved by the drug to choose a pen name that acknowledged his split nature. Robert Louis Stevenson drew upon it to transform Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, and the coca brew, in its soda-pop form introduced in 1886, fueled a young country in the furious throes of technological development. The original Coca-Cola, says Plant, was marketed as a tonic to ”the most nervous nation in the world.“

Cocaine also played a significant role in the development of modern psychotherapy. The information has been excised from most official biographies of Sigmund Freud, but in his letters to his beloved Martha, the father of psychoanalysis acknowledges how his shadow self was revealed to him on cocaine. ”The drug had shown him his own hidden Hyde,“ Plant writes, ”and allowed him to talk about it too: The drug untied his tongue and allowed him to make those ’silly confessions‘ to Martha about both his ’wretched self‘ and his ’daring and fearless being,‘ the desiring wolf that lurked inside his shy sheepskin.“ Freud later prescribed the drug to his mentor, Ernst von Fleischl, as a cure for morphine addiction. But when the treatment failed -- von Fleischl died of a cocaine overdose, still a junkie -- Freud took the lesson to heart and forswore drug therapy in favor of interactive analysis. In so doing, he created in the psychiatric profession a conflict between drug and talking cures that endures to this day.

The extremes of ambivalence with which Freud responded to his drug -- first embracing it as a cure-all, then debunking it as a fraudulent distraction -- are common in Plant’s accounts. For all her fascination with psychotropic delights, she is well aware that the psychoactive substances she speaks of have been alternately dreaded and revered for good reason. Nearly every substance that first produces in its subject a superhuman euphoria loses either its magic or its interest after repeated use or abuse; worse, drugs used recklessly turn on their users with a vengeance. In Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey wrote of longing to be free of opium‘s nightmares, and yet pronounced himself unable to break out of its grasp; Anais Nin was a ”cascade of blue rainfall“ on her first acid trip, but later disparaged the ”dissolving, dissipating, vanishing quality of drug dreams.“ After taking mushrooms, Arthur Koestler decided to side with Charles Baudelaire before him and declared the psychedelic route to personal growth a facile substitute for enlightenment. ”I solved the secret of the universe last night,“ he said, ”but this morning I forgot what it was.“

Plant lets such stories stand on their own; she doesn’t bother to argue whether drugs are evil or benevolent, and for the most part remains steadfastly apolitical about her subject. Her evenhandedness ends, however, in the last third of the book, in which she tackles the many bizarre and often nonsensical laws governing the use of drugs. She is especially forthright on the criminalization of hemp: ”Even birdseed distributors argued that canaries would stop singing without marijuana seeds,“ Plant writes, but ”several large industries and wealthy industrialists stood to gain from the prohibition of a plant that had not only recreational uses but also medicinal value and a wide range of other commercial uses.“ With the propaganda assistance of William Randolph Hearst -- a close friend of President Hoover‘s drug czar, Harry J. Anslinger -- in 1937 cannabis became ”the first of many drugs to join opiates and cocaine on the wrong side of national and international law.“

Just as hashish determined the nonlinear structure of the Arabian narrative and psychoactive Syrian rue wound its way into Persian carpets, speed and acid influenced profoundly both the political aspirations and artistic impulses of America. Amphetamine sulfate lifted the country out of the depression and remained popular through the ’50s; Plant speculates that John F. Kennedy may have been on it during the Cuban Missile Crisis. LSD, which the CIA tested by, among other methods, dosing unwitting businessmen in a brothel, gave rise to an entirely new culture of intellectuals mining the mysteries of creation from their souls. ”Opiates had calmed and numbed the 19th century; cocaine came online with electricity; speed had let the 20th century keep up with its own new speeds,“ writes Plant. LSD, which is chemically similar to serotonin, taught its users about the chemical and computational nature of their brains. Acid gave the world both Prozac and software.

Writing on Drugs is a trifling title for the broad sweep of this small book -- as Plant herself notes, words often fail the drug experience. But she also points out that there are other ways of writing. ”Drugs have made music in ways that are far more compelling and immediate than all the convoluted routes on which they have changed words,“ she writes, and proceeds to embark on a description of MDMA-influenced electronica that is transcendent in its evocative precision. Her detailed account of the drug‘s high is no less rich, but it stops short of a celebration. ”MDMA,“ she says, ”takes the fear of death away.“

What is true for opium, is true for marijuana, is true for Ecstasy: Whatever a substance’s addictive power or side effects, they are in one way all the same: Drugs allow humans to discover hidden parts of themselves, but without conscience and care, they can just as easily bring on self-destruction. Without them, we may not have discovered the chemicals that power our brain, the circuitry that makes us feel and think, the shadows and light that make us human. Yet under their sway, men and women have suffered miseries a drug-free world might have spared them. There is, finally, no easy response to the questions drugs raise: ”The reasons for the laws and the motives for the ways, the nature of the pleasure and the trouble drugs can cause, the tangled webs of chemicals, the plants, the brains, machines,“ Plant concludes, ”ambiguity surrounds them all.“