Psychoactive revolution: Drugs are an old industry

The Argument

Narcotics have poisoned modern society for the sake of profit, not for the pleasure it provides.

April 22, 2001|By Jill Jonnes | By Jill Jonnes,Special to the Sun

We are eating dinner with friends at a Charles Street pub. Several of us are drinking wine, another Coca Cola. One woman leaves to have a cigarette over at the bar. My husband orders a coffee. All in all, a thoroughly ordinary scene repeated millions of times all over America, nay, all over the world.

Elsewhere in Baltimore, teen-agers are hawking and smoking blunts, thick marijuana cigarettes, while older addicts are smoking cocaine or injecting heroin. Alas, an ordinary scene repeated millions of times all over America, nay, all over the world.

We diners may not feel we have much in common with the users of illicit drugs, but we are all participants in the psychoactive revolution. We are all engaging -- less or more -- in altering "our ordinary waking consciousness."

Beginning in the 16th century and continuing up to the present, these drugs and the psychoactive revolution they wrought (always led by westerners) have forever changed our world -- mainly for the worse. While we are very used to thinking of illegal drugs as destructive, historian David Courtwright vividly demonstrates in "Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World" (Harvard University Press, 277 pages, $24.95) that most of these psychoactive substances have exacted and still exact a heavy toll.

All these drugs played a major role in colonialist economies, shoring up the European mercantile and imperial elites at the expense of the vast global majority. According to Courtwright, "By 1885, taxes on alcohol, tobacco and tea accounted for close to half of the British government's gross income."

Aside from this broad economic, historic damage, many of these psychoactive substances -- which give so many such pleasure -- can negatively affect most people's health over time.

But once people had a chance to experience and habituate to the mood-altering properties of these substances, there was no going back. The genie was permanently out of the bottle. In the decades since, we have become well acquainted with the dark side of the psychoactive revolution. Eighty million smokers worldwide have died early deaths from tobacco. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) serve as a sad testimony to the unhappy combination of alcohol and cars. Baltimoreans need no reminding of the blatant carnage wrought by cocaine and heroin.

Courtwright, a historian who has written earlier admired books examining illegal drugs and the nature of violence in America, describes the rise of the global drug trade, discusses why some drugs are more popular than others, and then considers the intersection of drugs and political and economic power.

First, each of these drugs went through an introductory phase in which they were promoted as medicines "about which physicians made heated claims and counterclaims." Tobacco was touted as a great antidote to pestilential diseases. Brandy and other distilled alcoholic beverages were said to be excellent for fortifying the body against ailments. Coffee was hailed as a wonderful stimulant.

As the popularity of these new drugs rose, early modern merchants, planters and other imperial elites began large-scale production of products they knew to be highly seductive. In 1613 Francis Bacon wrote that "Tobacco, in this age growne so common ... [provided] such a secret delight and content that once being taken, it can hardly be forsaken." Once upon a time, only American Indians grew and smoked tobacco. Today, after two centuries of American and British promotion, one third of adults on this globe smoke!

All over the new colonies, slaves and coolies were put to work on western-owned plantations at the back-breaking, grinding jobs of raising and picking tobacco, sugar cane, coffee beans, tea leaves, cocoa beans, opium poppies and coca leaves. In this pre-industrial world when European economies were based on sea-going commerce, the ruling classes did not worry much about the miserable lives of their forced labor in distant lands.

Nor was there much concern about mushrooming consumption in the colonies and at home of their psychoactive products. In the 16th century, a Portuguese apothecary enthused most honestly about the commercial prospects of opium, "Men accustomed to eat it become drowsy and confused, their eyes go red, and they go out of their senses. ... It is good merchandise, consumed in great quantity, and very valuable."

The more Europeans sold of all these drugs, the greater their profit, the more secure their power. Moreover, they quickly learned that potentially troublesome underlings could be kept quiescent with these drugs. In the 18th century, the British went to war twice with imperial China to force the Chinese to allow huge imports of British Indian opium, thereby solving the English crown's balance of payments problem and weakening a potential world rival. All these new psychoactive drugs were not only highly profitable to merchants, their tax revenues became indispensable to state governments.

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