Technocrats of the Mind
Richard DeGrandpre, The Cult of Pharmacology: How America Became the World’s Most Troubled Drug Culture (Duke University Press, 2006)
Andy Letcher, Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom (HarperCollins, 2007)
On June 17, 1971, four days after the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, Richard Nixon declared that “America’s Public Enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse,” inaugurating the War on Drugs. William Rehnquist, appointed to the Supreme Court the same year, was beginning an addiction to the sedative Placidyl that would last until 1981. When admitted to the hospital towards the end of those years, he was taking three times the recommended dose, slurring his words in public, and, upon discontinuation, developed paranoid delusions. Five years later he was confirmed as Chief Justice.
Richard DeGrandpre, author of The Cult of Pharmacology: How America Became the World’s Most Troubled Drug Culture, is fascinated enough by contradictions of this sort to spend a whole book untangling them. He brings a unique set of credentials with him—a PhD in psychopharmacology, a former fellow at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and a former senior editor at Adbusters. DeGrandpre argues that America’s approach to drugs can be understood as “pharmacologicalism”—the idea that “the molecular powers of the drug are so specific and powerful in their effects that they are immune to the historical and cultural factors that mediate all other kinds of human experiences” and can therefore be categorized as “angels” and “devils” based solely on chemistry.
He introduces pharmacologicalism with a study of cocaine by the World Health Organization. The researchers found that cocaine was used by different people in different places and in different ways—the crack fiend no more representative than the weekend celebrant. Worldwide, between 50 and 75 percent of the people surveyed, DeGrandpre writes, reported that cocaine was “’harmless’ and ‘beneficial’ to them.”
Interspersed with the discussion of cocaine is analysis of an “angel” drug—Ritalin. When given the choice between cocaine and appropriately high Ritalin dosages, animals show no preference. Human brain scans show that the drugs work in almost exactly the same way. The difference is in social context, which is, DeGrandpre writes, “a historical and contingent fact—not a difference in the pharmacology.”
The rest of the book offers a history of America’s bipolar relationship with such former wonder-drugs as diacetylmorphine (brand name: heroin), cocaine, cannabis and methamphetamine. The crush of counterintuitive research DeGrandpre heaps upon us is meant to confound, demonstrating that drugs are a technology like any other: amoral, contextual and wholly imbued by the values of its end-users.
Rather than hold forth on the whole taxonomic category called “drugs,” Andy Letcher—Briton, ex-hippie musician, holder of PhDs in ecology and religious studies, and author of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom—has endeavored to document one drug, the magic mushroom. “Shrooms”—a score or so of species containing the hallucinogenic chemicals psilocybin and psilocin—are some of the most mythologically rich drugs, partly because they only recently achieved widespread popularity.
Shrooms were introduced to the Western world in the mid-1950s by R. Gordon Wasson, a New York investment banker who learned about them from Mexican healers. Mushrooms participated in the 1960s but were overshadowed by the prodigiously available lysergic acid diethylamide, or, LSD. This was mostly a manifestation of supply—shrooms were in Mexico, LSD was a gray-market pharmaceutical. In the ensuing decades, dozens of new species of mushrooms were discovered, many in the United States, but the market only stabilized in the early 1990s with the perfection of small-scale techniques for growing tropical species indoors.
Then, in November of 2000, the Drug Enforcement Agency seized an LSD lab run by Harvard-trained chemist William Pickard. His abandoned nuclear missile silo in Wamego, Kansas, was producing ninety-five percent of the country’s supply of the drug—around ten million hits a month. The largest study of high schoolers’ drug use, Monitoring the Future (funded in part by the National Institute on Drug Abuse) shows a precipitous drop in LSD consumption beginning just after the bust. Use of “Other Hallucinogens,” which was slowly rising, jumped fifty percent in 2001; “shrooms” were given as an example. The magic mushroom, LSD’s modest understudy, had taken center stage.
No biological kingdom is less understood than the fungi, scientifically or colloquially, and this only compounds the mystery of the mushroom. This void has long been exploited by the drug’s proponents—most notably, author Terence McKenna—who propagate larger-than-life theories of mushrooms arriving from outer-space, facilitating human evolution, and secretly underpinning religion. Letcher is clearly incensed by this fungus-addled anthropology. At times it seems as if he wrote Shroom in a fit of pique at McKenna.
Though not as elegant or original as The Cult of Pharmacology, Shroom shares its unsparing punctiliousness. Letcher views mushrooms, and the mushroom trip, as an understandable social phenomenon. He painstakingly traces the growth of the mushroom cult from Mayan Mexico to its present ascendancy, relying on a wealth of historical research. At times the book resembles its subject—dry, unpalatable and slightly mildewy. Some of the charges Letcher addresses (spores-from-outer space?) hardly need debunking.
News reports are flush with stories of how methamphetamine—toxic, home-manufactured and terribly addictive—is ravaging rural communities nationwide; state legislatures are filled with bills cracking down on offenders. Unmentioned is meth’s trade-marked brand name (Desoxyn), its corporate manufacturer (Abbott Laboratories—which also brought Justice Rehnquist his Placidyl), and its licensed distributors (thousands of doctors treating attention deficit disorder)—a striking example of pharmacologicalism’s intellectual bankruptcy. The previous drug-related media meta-narrative was about the diversion of the painkiller OxyContin (also in rural areas, allowing reporters the alliterative slang term “Hillbilly Heroin”). Over the last ten years, then, the common thread in the discussion of drugs has been the infiltration of knock-off substitutes for glamorous urban drugs (oxy for heroin, meth for cocaine) into working class white communities in the “heartland,” and the continuing benign neglect of a drug shift widely influencing middle class young people (the replacement of LSD with magic mushrooms). This only reinforces a notion that DeGrandpre touches on circumstantially—that drug laws (and media scares), far from being intended to promote the public health, are a means of further marginalizing unwanted sectors of society.
The majority of problems associated with drug use—incarceration, forfeiture of assets, gun violence, and robbery—are actually consequences of prohibition. Decriminalization (benign neglect of drug laws) solves the first two problems, but only outright legalization does away with the rest (by creating markets backed by the rule of law). The problems we generally associate with drugs themselves—the real physical and mental traumas of addiction—are better understood as issues of mental health and social marginalization that call for a broad retooling of the health care system and government economic policy.
Despite the early medical belief that neuroleptic drugs could terminate the psychedelic experience, there is no way to abruptly end a bad trip; so it is with America’s relationship with drugs. Shifts in policy and paradigm towards rationality, humanism and personal liberty will not be easy or problem-free and are unlikely to happen soon. Still, we can work towards a lucid discussion, beginning with an insistently rational debate about what the problems with drugs really are and how we can address them without creating the unintended tragedies that are hallmark of the War on Drugs, without perpetuating institutional racism and classism, and without trampling on every person’s right to cognitive liberty. These books mark two small steps towards that lucid discourse and, one hopes, a humane public policy.
Ben Gore is a novelist and essayist who is between homes. He is currently at work on a book about bicycles and their meaning.