Show Hide image

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)

 

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times