From British journalist Walton, an insightful overview of humanity’s historical and cultural attachment to various intoxicants.
Since ancient times, human beings have sought altered states of consciousness, states the author, who offers pharmaceutical, social, and legal histories of our fondness for substances, including opium, alcohol, cocaine, caffeine, heroin, LSD, marijuana, Ecstasy, and others. Walton views the desire for intoxication as normal and implies that vehement 20th-century efforts to ban such behavior have only exacerbated problems of addiction and fostered drug-related crime. At the same time, he acknowledges that it is characteristic of animal groups to shun those who do not share or exhibit “normal” consciousness, which could explain our own harsher methods of enforcing prohibitions. Many reform efforts, Walton points out, are based on worst-case scenarios of prolonged addiction and have often been fueled by lurid first-person accounts, a literary genre that includes De Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) and a 1904 volume provocatively titled Eight Years in Cocaine Hell. Some of the most interesting material here include Walton’s examination of the history of viniculture and the importance of intoxication in religious tradition—alcohol, after all, is still known as “spirits.” He’s equally fascinating when describing experiments conducted on tetras, monkeys, and other highly social creatures that seek to identify community attitudes toward drugged members. Our past is in many ways a history of intoxication and artificial stimulation, Walton notes, making the point, for example, that political thought and revolutionary rhetoric in 17th-century Europe were greatly energized by the introduction of coffee. (Indeed, caffeine fueled so much radical talk that several monarchs ordered coffeehouses closed.) This responsible, tightly written account persuades through accumulation of fact rather than heated polemics; it deserves a prominent place in the emerging discussion reshaping understanding and policies regarding intoxication and the use of drugs and alcohol.
A thorough analysis for the general reader, breaking down a vast amount of erudition on a controversial subject.