Book Reviews - In defence of drugs. LSD, cocaine,
opium: they are all just a bore, though good for
relaxation and socialising. How did we ever come to
invest them with such demonic properties? By Edward
by Edward Skidelsky
Monday 30th April 2001
Dope Girls: the birth of the British drug underground
Marek Kohn Granta, 208pp, 8.99
Acid Dreams: the complete social history of LSD
Martin A Lee and Bruce Shlain Pan Books, 384pp, 9.99
Before the First World War, cocaine, morphine and heroine were all
available, on prescription and at reasonable prices, from any pharmacist.
The average drug addict was a respectable middle-aged lady, the victim of
overzealous prescription or of her own "intemperance". Addiction was a
private burden rather than a social menace. The fault lay with the doctor
or the patient, not with the drug. Most managed to use drugs without
injury. Gladstone used to take nips of laudanum before giving speeches to
the Commons, and Queen Victoria was treated with tincture of cannabis for
her period pains.
Observations such as these reveal once again just how strange the pre-war
world was. "Never such innocence again," wrote Larkin. One of the
achievements of good history writing is to make the past seem odd. But in
seeing the past as odd, we come, in turn, to see ourselves as odd. From
the standpoint of the 19th century, it is our own attitude to drugs that is
extraordinary. What is strange is not that Gladstone and Queen Victoria
"did drugs"; what is really strange is that we find this strange. How did
we ever come to invest this particular group of naturally occurring
chemicals with such demonic properties?
Dope Girls is the story of how a certain group of drugs became "dope", the
fiendish substance of popular legend. The story begins in 1898, when
America annexed the Philippines and - mainly as a result of lobbying by
missionary groups - prohibited opium smoking there. The ban was
subsequently extended to America itself; smokers quickly switched to
morphine, cocaine and heroine. These new drug users were not genteel ladies
of nervous disposition, but a nefarious mixture of Chinamen, gamblers,
prostitutes, pimps and sodomites. Drugs began to acquire their modern
association with criminality and vice. The response of the American
government was the Harrison Narcotics Act 1914, the first comprehensive
drug regulation in the western hemisphere.
This distinctively modern form of drug use spread to Britain during the
First World War, mainly as a consequence of the large number of troops
stationed in London and the restrictions on alcohol. Accounts from this
period have a strangely contemporary flavour; the Soho world of nightclubs
and street dealers is instantly recognisable. Cocaine parties were
fashionable among young men. "Under its influence they become wild-eyed
and feverishly excited, and babble out their innermost secrets to each
other. Cigarettes are consumed, and so it continues from midnight to six in
the morning, when quantities of brandy are served as an antidote to dull
the effect of the cocaine and induce sleep, for sleep is impossible to the
How much drug use actually increased is uncertain but, in those strained
times, any perception of an increase evoked a hysterical reaction. Because
drugs were commonly associated with aliens, they were easily seen as part
of a foreign conspiracy to undermine the virility of Britain's fighting
force. Possession of cocaine and opium was accordingly prohibited under the
Defence of the Realm Act 1916. This regulation was conceived by its author,
Sir Malcolm Delevingne, as "an emergency measure based upon the known evil
existing among, at any rate, a section of the troops". But, like so many
other emergency measures introduced in wartime, it was never repealed.
Governments are far readier to take on powers than to renounce them. Drug
prohibition was one more nail in the coffin of liberal England, whose
"strange death" was complete by the end of the Great War.
The history of LSD, recounted in Acid Dreams, presents a very different
face. If opium and cocaine satisfied the elemental human desire to escape,
the appeal of LSD was always more esoteric. The CIA was initially
interested in it as a "truth serum". In the late Fifties, it leaked out to
a select group of artists, writers and psychologists. Among the more famous
of its early devotees were Aldous Huxley and Allen Ginsberg. Even in the
late Sixties, at the height of its popularity, LSD never spread far beyond
the population of white, middle-class college kids. Blacks, Asians and
Hispanics didn't touch it. Unlike opium and cocaine, it never had any seedy
or exotic connotations. The lineages of the psychedelic movement were
highbrow: de Quincy and Baudelaire were hailed as its precursors. LSD was
the demotic version of a long tradition of European bohemianism. Through
its chemical mediation, the visions of the happy few could be made
available to the masses.
Inevitably, a cheapening occurred. Timothy Leary's companion Michael
Hollingshead commented that LSD was "being sold like beer, not champagne".
The hippies were, in many ways, the antithesis of what they claimed to be.
Their literary productions strike one today not with their freedom and
boldness but, on the contrary, with their wearisome repetitiveness. Even
their pranks seem stale and cliched. "Bob Dylan will replace the National
Anthem," proclaimed a Yippie manifesto. "The Pentagon will be replaced by
an LSD experimental farm!" A new regime of boredom had descended. Far from
expanding the mind, LSD seems in most cases to have closed it.
Even when it inspired revolt against technocracy, LSD remained very much
the product of a technocratic civilisation. It was that archetypal American
invention: a labour-saving device. An art student who tried the drug
claimed that it was equal to "four years in art school". Timothy Leary
promoted it as an instrument of "hedonic engineering". Huxley's advocacy of
LSD was always tinged with despair. He saw it as a mechanism for
stimulating creativity in a society whose natural creative energies had
expired. He was afraid that, in the wrong hands, it might lead to nothing
more than a new flatness and conformity. The author of The Doors of
Perception was also the author of Brave New World.
But whatever the follies of the psychedelic movement, the US government was
wrong to crack down on it. The best way to deal with nonsense is to let it
run its course. If it really is nonsense, it will sooner or later be
exposed as such. By outlawing LSD in 1967, the government endowed it with a
spurious fascination, and alienated the hippies still further from
conventional society. LSD manufacture was taken over by the Cosa Nostra,
which was interested less in the exploration of inner space than in making
a quick buck. Its quality deteriorated rapidly; many people were
hospitalised. Its psychiatric use, until then popular, was soon abandoned.
Like cocaine and opium during the First World War, LSD had entered the
twilight zone of vice and crime.
Our attitude to drugs today is knowing and slightly bored. We no longer
believe that cocaine is used by black men to debauch white girls, nor do we
believe that LSD will cleanse the doors of perception. We have outgrown
such myths. People today take drugs for the same reason that they drink:
to relax, to socialise, to let their hair down. This is a healthy
development. The fascination of drugs is ultimately empty. Knowing this
allows us to concentrate on things that really matter.
Edward Skidelsky is working on a pamphlet about recreational drugs for the
Social Market Foundation
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