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  The Forbidden Game

    Brian Inglis

        13.  The Collapse of Control

EVEN IF HEROIN AND CANNABIS COULD HAVE BEEN BANISHED, it had become clear by the 1970s that they would immediately have been replaced by other drugs. Some had already established themselves—occasionally with the active help of governments, or of the medical profession, or both.
    When the amphetamines—'pep pills'—were first marketed in the 1930s, doctors had begun to prescribe them for patients who felt tired or lethargic; and later as a slimming aid. During the war they proved a help to men in the forces who were required to stay alert on duty; and when it ended, vast quantities of them, surplus to requirements, were dumped on the open market. Sometimes they were employed as an adjunct to alcohol; when in 1947 'Chips' Channon held the dinner party which one of his guests, Somerset Maugham, told him was the apogee of his career (the guests included two queens), he described in his diary how he had 'laced' the cocktails with benzedrine, 'which I find always makes a party go'. But then it was realised that, injected intravenously, the amphetamines could produce an explosive bout of euphoria; and as they were cheap and easily available, they were soon being extensively used for that purpose, with destructive effects on the health of some of the addicts, ranging from brittle finger-nails to ulcers, chest infections, liver disorders, and cerebral haemorrhages. Governments banned sales, except on prescription; but so many people had acquired the habit of taking the drug, and so many doctors were willing to indulge them, that the black market was rarely short of supplies. Taking amphetamines, in Brecher's estimation, ranked 'among the most disastrous forms of drug use yet devised'—particularly in Sweden, where the attempt to impose total prohibition led only to a rise in the price, encouraging illicit manufacture and smuggling, and leading to a spectacular growth in the number of addicts.
    Barbiturates took a similar course. In 1949 Colliers ran an article under the title 'Thrill pills can ruin you', alerting its readers to the fact that sleeping pills, if injected, were euphoric. The health authorities added their warnings which, as Brecher commented, ensured that 'throughout the 1950s and the 1960s, the relatively harmless sleeping tablets of the 1930s played their new role as one of the major illicit American drugs'. As with the amphetamines, the barbiturates were so widely prescribed that control was impossible; the black market could be fed from tens of thousands of family medicine cupboards. But when a committee of enquiry set up by the British Government recommended in 1972 that the barbiturates should be re-categorised, to bring them under the same type of control as heroin, the British Medical Association's scientific committee successfully blocked the proposal, ostensibly because of the 'practical difficulties in implementing regulations', but really because it would further have eroded the doctor's right to prescribe.
    Cocaine also made a come-back 'Sniffing' had enjoyed a vogue in the United States in the 1920s; in his Drugs and the Mind, Robert S. de Ropp surmised that the original 'dope fiend' peddled cocaine, rather than heroin. But it was expensive; the amphetamines, far cheaper and more easily obtainable, for a while replaced it. When the amphetamines proved an unsatisfactory substitute, cocaine began to return to favour in American cities. Its high price was less of an impediment to sales than it had been in the depressed 1930s, and provided an incentive to smugglers; Timothy Green estimated in 1969 that a yachtsman carrying 10 lb. of cocaine to the United States could make £10,000 on a single trip; and by 1973, according to Thomas Plate in the New York magazine, 10 lb. was fetching anything up to $ 160,000 on the market. With the raw materials, coca leaves, abundant and cheap, this left an ample margin to perfect smuggling techniques, and to bribe Customs or police. Once the cocaine had been brought in, there was no difficulty in selling it. What Plate called the iron law of drug marketing, 'supply determines demand', came into operation; whenever it was available, cocaine became
... the drug of choice, not only among whites but ever increasingly among affluent black drug users as well... Among Latin Americans in New York, cocaine is often the preferred drug of entertainers, expensive prostitutes, very successful businessmen, and certain religious sects for whom cocaine use is literally an act of faith. And among white drug users, cocaine is especially popular with rock stars, writers, younger actors and actresses, and stockbrokers and other Wall Street types...

    And even if all these drugs could have been brought under some control—by, say, the discovery of some instrument on the lines of a Geiger counter, capable of infallibly detecting them—it would not have solved the problem. Apart from synthetic variants, there were numerous substances which though not sold as drugs, could be used for that purpose—and frequently were. Benzine and glue had long been sniffed 'for kicks', and with the advent of the aerosol can, it was found that there were endless alternatives; 'literally hundreds of easily accessible sources', the Le Dain Committee found, including paints, paint removers, lighter fuel, and dry-cleaning fluids: 'it was recently observed that thirty-eight different products containing such substances were available from the shelves of a service station's highway store in Ottawa'. In the circumstances, the Committee pointed out, effective restriction was hardly practicable, 'except at considerable inconvenience to a large segment of the population'; and, as the large segment of the population was unlikely to accept that inconvenience, the existence of these 'substances' created a problem 'which clearly calls into question the potential of the crimino-legal system in controlling drug use'.


The doors of perception

    The crimino-legal system of control, whatever its defects, was at least theoretically relevant so long as there was agreement that drug-taking was a social evil, which ought to be suppressed. But by this time a different category of drug had come into widespread use, supported by testimonials from men whose opinions commanded respect, who claimed that it could bring great benefit to society.
    During the war a Basle chemist, Dr. Albert Hofmann, took a minute quantity of an ergot derivative—four-millionths of a gramme—in his laboratory, and after cycling home with some difficulty ('my field of vision swayed before me and was distorted like the reflections in an amusement park mirror, I had the impression of being unable to move from the spot, although my assistants later told me that we had cycled at a good pace') he experienced startling symptoms, which he noted down when he recovered;
vertigo, visual disturbances—the faces of those around me appeared as grotesque, coloured masks; marked motor unrest, alternating with paralysis; an intermittent feeling in the head, limbs, and the entire body, as if they were filled with lead: dry, constricted sensation in the throat; feeling of choking; clear recognition of my condition, in which I sometimes observed, in the manner of an independent, neutral observer, that I shouted half insanely or babbled incoherent words. Occasionally I felt as if I were out of my body...

    By that time—1943—there was more of a disposition to investigate any drug capable of inducing such a reaction—not out of any feeling that the visions might be of value to the beholder, but because the Pentagon was looking for a drug which might be used to facilitate brainwashing, or for disorienting enemy forces in the field. And as the visions which Hofmann's LSD induced sometimes bore a resemblance to those seen in psychotic states, a few psychiatrists began experimenting with it in the hope it might help in the treatment of schizophrenia. Although the military soon lost interest, and the psychiatrists' hopes were not realised, LSD was remembered when there was a sudden resurgence of interest in vision-inducing drugs, following the publication of Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception in 1954.
    There was nothing strikingly new in Huxley's experience after taking mescaline. His description of looking at his bookshelves—
Red books, like rubies; emerald books; books bound in white jade; books of agate, or aquamarine, of yellow topaz; lapis lazuli books whose colours were so intense, so intrinsically meaningful, that they seemed to be on the point of leaving the shelves to thrust themselves more insistently on my attention

    —might have come from Havelock Ellis, or from the case histories provided earlier by Louis Lewin. But the general public, disillusioned with civilisation's materialist progress, was more willing by the 1950s to listen to Huxley's argument that the heightened or altered perception obtainable from mescaline was worth enjoying, not just in its own right, but for the new insights, the new meanings, it could provide. 'I am not so foolish', he wrote
as to equate what happens under the influence of mescaline or of any other drug, prepared or in the future preparable, with the realisation of the end and ultimate purpose of human life; Enlightenment, the Beatific Vision. All I am suggesting is that the mescaline experience is what Catholic theologians call 'a gratuitous grace', not necessary to salvation but potentially helpful and to be accepted thankfully, if made available. To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large—this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.

    People who wanted to shake themselves out of the ruts of ordinary perception did not find it easy to obtain mescaline, for which the raw material peyote was scarce; but LSD could be manufactured in a laboratory, and it quickly became the standard drug for that purpose. And scientific trials began to confirm—in so far as such trials could—that it worked. In LSD—Dr. Richard Blum and his associates at Stanford University claimed in 1964—a means had been found 'for enhancing values or expanding the self, a road to love and better relationships, a device for art appreciation or a spur to creative endeavors, a means of insight, and a door to religious experience'. For a few individuals, though, researchers admitted, the consequence of taking LSD was a 'bad trip', involving experiences which were disturbing and sometimes terrifying. Stories began to circulate about the destructive effect of these bad trips on promising youths, like those which had been heard about marihuana (or tobacco), but with some characteristic twists—in particular, the much-repeated tale of the girl who told her friends 'look, I can fly!' and stepped to her death from a fourth-floor window.
    Inevitably, down came the ban—even, in the United States, on research into LSD. The outcome was the growth of a cult, catered for through a profitable black market. The formula was generally known; the materials available; the manufacturing process not difficult; and distribution ridiculously simple, as LSD, in addition to being tasteless, odourless and colourless, occupied negligible space in relation to its potency. Prohibition was immediately followed, Brecher wrote,
(a) by an increase in the availability of LSD, and (b) by an increase in the demand. The increased availability can be explained in part by the higher prices which law enforcement engendered, and which attracted more distributors. The increased demand can similarly be explained in part by the LSD publicity that legislative action engendered. As in the case of the opiates, the barbiturates, the amphetamines, glue and other drugs, the warnings functioned as lures.


The peyote cult

    It is possible from the available evidence to show how the attempt to suppress the vision-inducing drugs has failed, and why: because it has repeated the self-defeating pattern so often seen before. What is not yet possible is to assess the impact of the mescaline/LSD movement (or even, for that matter, of the influence of the cannabis cult) on those who came to take it, let alone on society as a whole.
    Early on, the psychedelic movement split into two main groupings, though they were never clearly differentiated. Both derived from the views of Humphrey Osmond—who had introduced Huxley to mescaline: that these drugs 'provide a chance, perhaps only a slender one, for homo faber, the cunning, ruthless, foolhardy pleasure-greedy toolmaker, to merge into that other creature whose presence we have so rashly presumed, homo sapiens the wise, the understanding, the compassionate'. By some of Osmond's followers, this was taken to mean that the function of the drugs was simply to reveal, to anybody who took them, the limitations he had been imposing on himself; so that he would seek ways, not necessarily through drugs, to explore the potential within himself which he had not known existed. But there were others who, like Dr. Timothy Leary, tended to invest the drugs themselves with almost magical powers, and to propagandise for them on a national—and eventually, on an international—scale. By the 1970s the Leary version was beginning to go out of fashion; LSD was being used, if not with more discrimination—its illegality made this difficult—at least with greater care, in recognition of the unpredictability of its effects. But the story of the movement which Huxley and Osmond sparked off, and which in their different ways William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Carlos Casteneda, among others, pushed along, cannot yet adequately be told—not, at least, as history.
    What can be told is the parallel story of how differently peyotl was handled in the Indian reservations; and how different the results. A century ago it was found that the peyotl cult had not, as had for many years been believed, been successfully put down by the Spaniards. After they were driven from Mexico, it began to re-emerge. The peyotl cactus, anthropologists found, was still worshipped, though the ceremonial had picked up Christian accretions, originally designed to deceive the Spaniards, but eventually establishing themselves in their own right, so that the ceremony took the general form of the Mass, and Jesus's name was involved. Peyotl was still taken, though, for the traditional vision-inducing purposes, as were the morning glory, and the psilocybe mushroom; the Mazatecs believed that Jesus had given the mushroom to them, and included him and his saints' names in their chants.
    In the 1880s the peyotl cult began to spread north into the United States, alarming members of the Commission on Indian Affairs. The Commission's agent in charge of the Comanche reported in 1886 that they were getting a kind of cactus from Mexico 'which they eat, and it produces the same effect as opium, frequently putting them to sleep for twenty-four hours at a time'; he forwarded some specimens for analysis, adding that 'as the habit of using them seems to be growing among them, and is evidently injurious, I would respectfully suggest that the same be made contraband'. The Federal Government did not take his advice; but from time to time individual State legislatures, disturbed by reports that Indians in their reservations were going over to peyotism, would debate how to stop them getting supplies of the drug. The difficulty ordinarily was that peyotism was a religion and that it had wrapped itself up in enough Christian doctrine to be able to liken peyotl to communion wine. How far this was originally deliberate policy is hard to tell; but it became so with the foundation of the Native American Church, whose expressed aims were
to foster and promote religious beliefs in Almighty God and the customs of the several tribes of Indians throughout the united States in the worship of a heavenly Father, and to promote morality, sobriety, industry, charity and right living and cultivate a spirit of self-respect, brotherly love and union among the members of the several tribes of Indians throughout the united States and through the sacramental use of peyote

    But to many Christians, the use of peyotl was not so much sacramental as sacrilegious; and to many respectable citizens, it was scandalous that the American Indians should be permitted to enjoy a notorious drug. A campaign after the Second World War to have it banned was only warded off with difficulty, largely through the efforts of two anthropologists who had studied the subject, Weston La Barre and J. S. Slotkin. It was amazing, Slotkin observed, to find that the expert evidence on which the campaigners relied—fantastic stories about the effects of the drug, and the nature of the ritual—was derived from white and Catholic officials in the reservations; 'none of them have had the slightest first-hand experience with the plant or with the religion, yet some fancy themselves to be authorities and write Official reports on the subject.' From his own extensive experience, members of the cult were both more industrious and more temperate in their drinking habits than other Indians in the reservation.
    With the renewal of interest in vision-inducing drugs in the 1950s, the campaign against peyotl started up again, this time for fear of what it might do to the white youth of America. In 1964 a California court ruled that it was a sufficient public danger to justify a ban on it, in violation of religious freedom, because it was gaining adherents among the hippies; and the rumour circulated that it was frequently the cause of insanity. Newspapers began printing some of the same kind of stories that had circulated about hemp drugs in India. An investigation was set up by Dr. Robert L. Bergman, of the Public Health Services, to follow up the fifty-odd reports of peyotl-induced psychosis. The vast majority of the reports, it was found, were simply hearsay, and could not be traced to any source. Only one single instance was found which could be described as 'a relatively clear-cut case of acute psychosis', and that was of a Navajo who, in defiance of the cult's own injunction, had also consumed a quantity of alcohol. Although the cult did not always 'take'—the Apaches on their Reservations adopted it for a while, but went back to alcohol, their preferred drug—in general its effects appeared beneficial. 'We have seen many people come through difficult crises with the help of this religion', Dr. Bergman commented,
and it appears to me that for many Indian people threatened with identity-diffusion it provides real help in seeing themselves not as people whose place and way in the world is gone but as people whose way can be strong enough to change and meet new challenges.

    The success of the cult, admittedly, does not prove that it would have been possible to establish anything similar among the white population of America, or of other Western countries. Nor would the obvious alternative—making LSD a prescription drug, to be dealt with by doctors—have worked; few doctors have the required interest or understanding. What the peyotl experience does suggest is that alternatives could have been found to the drug policies of Western governments, had there been a better appreciation of what was involved.


Mao's way

    In retrospect, then, the lesson which emerges from the confused history of drugs is that though we have been unable to learn the right way to handle them, we have at least been shown what is the wrong way: prohibition. But there has been one striking exception to this rule: Communist China. It seems to be agreed, even by observers who have little sympathy with the rule of Chairman Mao, that opium has effectively been banished.
    Three forces were at work to make this possible. Public opinion in China remained hostile to opium, as a foreign imposition. In so highly communalised a country, it was difficult for those who smoked opium to do so for long without being detected, and denounced; and even harder for farmers to cultivate poppies. Most important of all, smuggling became unprofitable because the ordinary commercial channels through which opium could be illicitly distributed ceased to exist.
    In Western countries, though public opinion might be hostile to drugs, there was always sufficient privacy available to enable those who were able to obtain them to take them with relatively little risk; the commercial channels were geared to assist the smuggler, as was the freedom of movement between country and country; and there was far more purchasing power available to be spent on drugs. China s example, consequently, was irrelevant, and would remain so as long as the Western countries retained their traditional economic and social fabric.

Chapter 14

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