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Queen Victoria on cannabis, and all the other things you never knew about drugs

Modern governments have long demonised drugs, but the world now may be inching its way back towards the more rational view held in the 19th century.

A London opium den in the 1870s, by Gustav Doré
Image: Hulton Archive/Getty

Drugged: the Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs
Richard J Miller
Oxford University Press, 384pp, £25.99

People who study drugs and human society can arrive at curious historical theories. Early in this book we learn of the idea that “the name Jesus actually meant something along the lines of ‘semen’ and that Christ meant something like ‘giant erect mushroom penis’”. It would be invidious, perhaps, to suggest that such symbolic interpretations occur only to researchers who are completely off their tits.

Happily, Richard J Miller, an eminent professor of pharmacology, soon leaves such psychedelic conspiracy theories behind for a fascinating and illuminating survey of all the major “psychotropic” drugs – defined as “chemical substances that enter the brain and change the way it operates” – from mushrooms and opiates, cocaine, LSD and MDMA, to Big Pharma’s arsenal of tranquillisers, antipsychotics and antidepressants, and thence to alcohol, nicotine, tea, and coffee. (“Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world.”)

Miller deploys numerous chemical diagrams and occasional dense technical explanations of molecular activity, but also cites Thomas De Quincey and 20th-century literary psychonauts such as Ken Kesey. The reports of self-experimenting scientists constitute their own kind of wan poetry. “[Albert] Hofmann originally reported that ergine and isoergine” – which he had isolated from seeds of the morning glory plant – “were only weakly hallucinogenic at best, although they did give him a feeling of ‘unreality’ and made him feel ‘life was completely meaningless’”.

Modern governments have long demonised drugs, repeatedly commissioning expert reports and then denouncing their findings; or whipping up drug scares for frankly racist purposes, as with the American campaign in the Great Depression against the drug of choice for Mexican labourers, cannabis. (The head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was the first to popularise the name “marijuana” in English, precisely because it sounded foreign.) The 19th century had been a more rational age, as well as a more innocent one. In that era, Miller explains, “The medicinal uses of cannabis were taken very seriously and endorsed by authorities such as the Lancet […] Even Queen Victoria was prescribed tincture of cannabis. It is believed she was amused (perhaps very amused).” The world now may be inching its way back to a more sensible view, given the legalisation of cannabis by Uruguay in December, and the growing movement for decriminalisation in many American states.

Against the hostility to evidence of modern legislators, Miller is careful to emphasise, humanely, that illegal drugs as well as legal ones have “highly desirable” effects, not just undesirable ones such as addictiveness, or death in the wrong dose or cocktail. (It was reported that the heroin found in the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s hotel room was part of a batch mixed with the super-potent painkiller fentanyl.) After all, if drugs did not have desirable effects, people would never have got into the habit of taking them. “If we consider some of the beneficial medical effects of alcohol,” Miller writes – an unusual way to begin a sentence in our puritanical, units-counting day – “these would include anticonvulsant, sedative, and hypnotic effects.” Nicotine and caffeine, meanwhile, are good for cognition. And opium, Miller points out, is “the most effective drug ever discovered for combating the most basic of all human complaints: pain. Whatever advances are made in medicine, nothing could really be more important than that.”

He goes so far as to argue that “morphine is the most significant chemical substance mankind has ever encountered”. (It is only disappointing that here Miller uses the phrase “chemical substance” in the popular but illogical sense that somehow excludes air, water, and food.) He is fondly non-judgemental, too, on the splendid variety of Victorian pick-me-ups that blossomed before modern prohibition. One, a tonic called Vin Mariani, “was a concoction of cocaine in claret, which was certainly a very reasonable idea”.

It is also useful to have an author on this subject who can remember the 1960s, even though he was there. In a charming aside, Miller explains: “One should remember that at that time, everybody was very infatuated with hallucinogenic drugs and the society they represented. We were all revolutionaries. We thought revolutionary thoughts, listened to Jefferson Airplane, and ingested psychedelic drugs.” But this wasn’t just about tuning in and dropping out: the drug culture was hugely important, as Miller shows, to the emerging field of psychopharmacology, as studying the effects of mescaline or LSD led psychiatrists to suggest new paths of research for the treatment of schizophrenia and other disorders.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of the book is Miller’s demonstration that the progress of understanding in this field has been very far from the smoothly efficient hypothesis-driven caricature of science that is often promoted by its own defenders. For a start, most of the important therapeutic drugs of the 20th century were discovered by accident, and some in surprising places. Antipsychotics were developed from substances produced during the search for fashionable clothes dyes in the 19th century; while antidepressants came out of research that sought novel compounds deriving from a glut of leftover rocket fuel from the Nazis’ V2 programme.

Only after the beneficial effects of such substances were serendipitously noticed by scientists did they then try to figure out why they worked. Miller’s explanations of these investigations make for excellent intellectual detective stories, as much for naturally produced drugs as synthetic ones. Why should the human brain, for example, have “receptors” that spark hungrily in the presence of nicotine or opiates? It was not, as it turned out, that God intended us to smoke our heads off, but that these vegetable substances mimicked what were subsequently discovered to be the brain’s own signalling chemicals – neurotransmitters. (Miller doesn’t address the further interesting question as to why the poppy or tobacco plant should produce substances that trick our receptors in the first place. Happy accident – or brilliant evolutionary strategy for getting themselves widely cultivated?) Thus, research on drugs has contributed enormously to our understanding of the brain.

That understanding is, of course, still in its infancy, and another salutary scientific message of Miller’s book is its emphasis on how much we still don’t know. He offers a useful corrective to simplistic pop-science stories about the allegedly singular roles of dopamine (the so-called reward chemical) or serotonin (“happiness”) in the brain: these are families of chemicals, he shows, with a wide variety of functions. Writing early on about hallucinogens, he comments: “A complete understanding of the way [they] produce their effects would entail a comparable understanding of the neurobiology of consciousness, something that we don’t really possess.” (That “really” is a severe understatement.)

Meanwhile, it is still not clear how medicines prescribed to millions work, when they do at all – “there are some odd things about the use of the available antidepressant drugs which nobody really understands” – and research on others (eg antipsychotics) has been stalled for decades. But Miller cites recent studies suggesting that targeting the brain’s inflammatory response might be a fruitful direction for future research, and we have certainly not exhausted the repertoire of potentially therapeutic substances to be found in plants. One might even add that the global internet-based market for synthetic “designer drugs”, in which enterprising chemists keep one step ahead of legal bans by rearranging atoms in unforeseen combinations – in passing, Miller characterises this stylishly as a “hypertext drug phenomenon” – could also throw up a molecule that might one day help millions. It’s no more far-fetched, at least, than the idea that licking a toad could give you an enormous sense of well-being.

Steven Poole’s “Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon” is published by Sceptre (£9.99)


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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State