With the War on Drugs is still happily destroying lives 46 years after Tricky Dick coined the term, marijuana legalization is taking hold in saner climes despite Jeff Sessions. Too little too late as this 2009 post reminds us.
I first took LSD in 1968 before going to see Yellow Submarine at the cinema in the small town where I went to college. Red windowpane blotter acid, to be exact. My roommate and I stayed through the second showing and then the midnight showing, and in a coda to an evening that remains as fresh today in what is left of my mind as it was nearly 50 years ago, it had begun snowing as we sat transfixed in the theater. There was about three inches of the stuff on the ground as we slogged home up the middle of Main Street, adding to the surreality of an evening that in one fell swoop changed forever how I looked at life.
Long story short, psychedelics enabled me to be more humble, more appreciative of the interactions between people and nature, and happier. As well as making me a felon.
Over the next decade I tripped perhaps 100 times on LSD, mescaline, peyote and psilocybin mushrooms, but mostly on MDA, more about which later. I tripped while holding down important jobs, although never on the job, made a fair amount of dough, won awards and was a doting son to parents whose attitudes about recreational drugs were . . . um, liberal. I tripped while snorkeling off the Seven Mile Reef in the Florida Keys, atop a 13,000 foot mountain in the Colorado Rockies, at a fair number of Grateful Dead concerts (natch) and in a crowded hospital emergency room where I took a friend who split open his head while playing in an acid-soaked game of volleyball.
These revelations are brought to you courtesy of my conscience. After all, it would be kind of hypocritical to come off as a teetotler in reviewing This Is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America, a gem of a book by Ryan Grim. So sue me.
As Grim notes, drugs are a bellwether of American society. We work harder than people in any other first-world country and when it comes to drugs we party harder. We're more than twice as likely to smoke pot than Europeans and four times as likely to have done coke than Spaniards. We also ingested a whole lot more acid, but while that drug is still available in many countries, it has all but disappeared in the U.S. More about that later, too. Figure out who is doing what drugs where and you can learn as much about the U.S. as you can pouring over unemployment figures, housing starts and new car sales.
"Little tells us more about the state of America," Grim writes, "than what Americans are doing to get high."
When it comes to drugs, Americans are different in another way, too: Our relationship with them is twisted. While our leaders piously proclaim that drugs are perdition in a powder, tablet or rolled cigarette, we and often they are always looking for ways to get high.
At no time has that been more obvious than with the advent of the alcohol temperance movement in the 1870s which had an element of fear mongering not unlike today's D.A.R.E. program. While the enormously successful Women's Christian Temperance Union persuaded a goodly number of Americans to forswear their beloved whiskey and beer, that it in turn led to a spike in the use of assorted drug-infused nostrums, including cocaine kits complete with syringes, and an epidemic of opium use through products like laudanum. Some scholars believe that by the end of the 19th century Americans were using more opium on a per capita basis than the Chinese.
It should have come as no surprise that Prohibition in the 1920s led to a spike in marijuana and heroin consumption, but politicians nevertheless were shocked.
Another transition occurred in the late 1970s when the U.S. began spraying Mexican marijuana crops with Paraquat, a carcinogenic chemical that killed the plants unless they were quickly harvested. The tainted pot made American smokers sick, sent prices skyrocketing, jump started a domestic marijuana cultivation industry that grew substantially more potent weed, and prompted Mexican growers to switch to cocaine smuggling.
A result was that the American market was flooded with Colombian marching powder at bargain basement prices. Use doubled and then quadrupled by the end of the decade, hooking a generation of younger men and woman with an enthusiasm that Grim calls "positively 19th century" who had been content to smoke pot.
Politicians were once again shocked. Just shocked. But as those Grateful Dead fellas sang, if you plant ice you're gonna harvest wind.
WHY LSD DISAPPEAREDIn hindsight, the disappearance of LSD in the USA at the dawn of the new millennium is easy to figure out, as well as a good illustration of Grim's view that tracking drug use is a most excellent window into society.
It is not that beginning around the year 2000 people were growing out of psychedelics in large numbers as I and my fellow children of the Sixties did as our waistlines expanded and we settled down. The steep drop-off in acid arrests and acid-related emergency room admissions occurred more or less simultaneously in all large American cities. The culprits, if you can call them that, were:
* The arrest of a single individual who made perhaps 95 percent of all the acid consumed in America in an underground laboratory in an abandoned Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile silo in Kansas.
* The demise of the Grateful Dead as a touring band at whose concerts dealers and users had met for nearly 30 years. The slack was somewhat taken up by followers of the band Phish, but it also soon stopped touring.
* The end of massive raves after police began targeting the LSD and Ecstasy-soaked events and threatening the sponsors with lengthy prison terms.
Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who invented LSD, called it "medicine for the soul," and while that sounds snobbish or elitist or something, it stands pretty much alone as a drug in that its mind-altering powers are enormous even in tiny does of a mere 20 micrograms (that's 20 thousandths of a gram) but there is no such thing as a lethal dose and sustained usage actually weakens its effect, which makes it impossible to become addicted to. Just ask Timothy Leary. (Grim writes in the last chapter that acid began making a modest comeback in 2007.)
As Grim notes, those mind altering powers make LSD a sort of ultimate subversive drug, which is why it has so little appeal to people who are drawn to sledgehammers like cocaine, methamphetamine and pharmaceutical narcotics, which don't blow minds but do destroy them. These are the hard drugs of choice for millions of Americans and the focus of much of This Is Your Country on Drugs.
THE GOOD OLD COMMON GOODGrim links the American love affair with getting high to our go it alone-ness and may overstate that case, but he has a point when he writes that the decision to get high is a personal one:
"Ask a fan of LSD about drugs and he'll generally tell you that done responsibly, a regimen of recreational mind alteration aids one in living an examined life. But drug use has consequences for others, too, be they the children of the neglectful user or the doctor who handles highs gone wrong. The battle between common good and individual liberty has long defined the American story, and it has always been fought especially hard over inebriation of any kind."
This is where another American trait -- hypocrisy -- shifts into overdrive.
A little speed is okey dokey if it helps you stay awake for a big exam or a bombing run over Afghanistan and you're not doing it while ogling biker chicks around a bonfire. Using prescription pain killers like Darvocet, OxyContin and Percodan are okey dokey despite the high potential for abuse and addiction, but using medical marijuana to ease the nausea from chemotherapy is wrong even though no one has ever overdosed on the evil weed.
Grim traces the roots of this double standard to the early twentieth century as the ingestion of drugs sold by pharmacists under the guise of medicinal use declined significantly. This opened the door to Big Pharma, which was just as powerful then as it is today, and pushed successfully for federal bans on opiates and cocaine without a doctor's prescription. The message was that rogue pharmacists were taking advantage of Americans' weakness for drugs while doctors would always have their best interests in mind. Of course.
At the same time, a well-organized illicit drug trade emerged and the street use of drugs rose. Not coincidentally, it was the lower class -- notably urban blacks and poor whites and not the upper class -- who were to feel the heat.
In 1968, another Rubicon was crossed when President Johnson, hard on the heels of LSD being outlawed, officially made drug use a law enforcement issue rather than a public health issue. There would be no turning back, and Grim notes that as a result of Ronald Reagan's subsequent War on Drugs Without End, today five times as many drug offenders are warehoused in prisons as are treated for addiction.
CRANK IT UPMethamphetamine, known in its illegal form as crank, crystal, speed, tik and dozens of other nicknames -- is routinely shoved down the throats of millions of American schoolchildren in the form of Ritalin and taken by millions more adults under a variety of prescription drug monikers so they can work harder, stay up longer, lose weight or, heaven forbid, just get legally high.
But there are shocks and alarums and then some if the users are speed-freak bikers or bored teenagers in a small Midwestern town or the countless other burgs where meth addiction would be making even bigger headlines if it wasn't for heroin addiction.
Prohibitions against illicit drugs while underregulating licit drugs inevitably creative the very conditions that make prohibitions ineffective.
"Attempts to disrupt the drug supply face all kinds of problems because that supply is a product of a decentralized market," Grim writes of the cocaine trade, although it applies to meth, and heroin as well. "The easiest market players to go after domestically are small-time dealers, and the easiest on the world stage are small-time farmers. In both cases, those who bear the brunt of the penalties are the lowest-level personnel of an operation."
Meanwhile, mandatory sentences for drug trafficking have caused a perverse backlash in the War on Drugs.
Ecstasy enforcement is a good example. It costs a dealer in the Netherlands $200 per trip to recruit a courier to smuggle in 30,000 to 40,000 Ecstasy pills. If the smuggler is caught, the five-year-mandatory sentence will cost taxpayers at least $100,000 to imprison the perp, while it costs the dealer $200 to find another courier.
"Extrapolate this disparity across the spectrum of the drug war," notes Grim, "and we begin to see how relatively small players are able to confound the multi-billion dollar efforts of the world's only superpower."
A PSYCHEDELIC BOGEYMANWhile I never participated in any of the raves that were so popular in the 1990s, I looked on with at horror at Salem Witch Trials-esque campaign against them because of the prevalence of Ecstasy at these musical mob scenes.
By the time that the media meat grinder was done with the drug, it had become a depravity provoking, crime inducing and suicide causing hallucinogenic bogeyman. I knew differently. Ecstasy is MDMA, which is virtually a twin of MDA, the mildest of psychedelics and my trip of choice lo those many years ago.
Back in the day, MDA was known as the Love Drug because it (like Ecstasy/MDMA) is such a gentle high. I never hallucinated while using it, nor apparently do most users, and its chief characteristic is the warmly positive feelings it provokes. Unlike LSD and most other trips, MDA has a tactile quality. Doing acid didn't move me to want to make love, while doing MDA and making love went hand in hand.
The news media, driven by scare stories from the DEA and the occasional incident in which an Ecstacy user predisposed to flip out on just about any kind of drug did just that, could not have gotten the story more wrong.
Take my multiple personal experiences and those of my friends and multiply them by a thousand or so people packed into a sweaty ballroom or warehouse for a rave and it makes the crowds at a professional football game seem downright hostile. No matter. A drug that beyond it's benign feel-goodness shows tremendous promise, as do other psychedelics, in the treatment of alcoholism, drug dependence, personality disorders and even cancer can land a user in jail.
Is America a great country? Or what?
When this post first appeared in 2009, nine states had legalized the use of medical marijuana. In 2018, its use is legal in 24 states and marijuana use is decriminalized in many states. However, foot dragging at the federal level -- as well as Attorney General Jeff Sessions' new broadside -- continues and you can still do hard time in too many places for merely having a joint.