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High Road to Paradise: Intoxication. Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise.
by Ronald K. Siegel, 1989, E.P. Dutton, 2 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10016. 390 pp. $19.95.

If I believed in Siegel's premise, as quoted above, I would have said the search for intoxication is the fourth drive, rewarded by the intoxication. As Siegel enumerates, many animals do seek and find intoxication. I believe many interesting tales Siegel recounts about Datura, about vaginal and rectal administration, e.g., because these are regularly recounted in the ethnobotanical literature. I am less ready to believe that Datura was the Biblical tree of knowledge, and Siegel candidly reveals his own doubts about this. I do not believe Siegel when he says, "When Lincoln was nine years old his mother, Nancy Hanks, died because a local cow had grazed Datura." I believe Lincoln's mother's milk sickness was caused by milk from cows grazing Eupatorium. I am disinclined to believe that hawkmoths are intoxicated by feeding on the nectar of Datura. Having spent several nights recently, periodically observing the hovering feeding of the hummingbird-like crepuscular hawkmoths, I note th e erratic flying, missing the flowers occasionally, as described by Siegel, whether the moths have only visited evening primrose, Oenothera biennis, or whether they started the evening with Datura.

Siegel's Intoxication should rekindle the waned interest in "leaf opium." "The leaves of L. virosa contain a bitter milky juice called lactucarium, which has the odor and effects of opium...Among the narcotics, which include opium and its derivatives, there is lactucarium, the smokable extract derived from Lactuca virosa...There are no visions like the ones De Quincey had from eating opium, but the euphoria and dreamy intoxication last slightly longer."

I am sorry Siegel did not identify the herbivorous glowworm in explaining one of the old ginseng mysteries: "Tiny glowworms feed on the ginseng leaves at night but they extinguish their lights when approached...The Chinese ginseng hunters learned to shoot arrows at the glowing lights and return the next morning to recover the arrows and the plants."

Speaking of Hyoscyamus niger, "After eating too many Insana roots, a group of monks in nineteenth-century England turned a pious convent into a madhouse when they insisted on chanting drinking songs rather than their prayers."

In his discussion of the possible addiction of koala bears to Eucalyptus, Siegel redundantly speaks of toxic prussic and hydrocyanic acids mixed with a variety of essential oils. Prussic acid is hydrocyanic acid! More interestingly, "In cold climates they choose leaves with phellandrene, a compound that increases body temperature, but in warmer environments they pick leaves with cineole, the oil that decreases temperature." Without better documentation, I don't know whether to take this quote as scientific fact or anecdote, a sentiment I felt throughout my scanning of this interesting book. Many species eaten by the koala contain both phellandrene and cineole. It seems unlikely, also, that carnivorous predators like the jaguar would "have learned that the yaje heightened sensory abilities such as smell, thus facilitating survival." Aware of the smallness of tobacco seed, I'd like to see more than anecdotal documentation that, "Ingestion of a single tobacco seed is certain death to young birds."

I'd appreciate quantitative data to go along with the following pair of quotes: "Tobacco flowers have minor amounts of nicotine, and ingestion never causes sickness in the baboons or children who nibble them," and, speaking of Datura "One five-year-old boy, after playing with the flower and trying to blow it like a trumpet, crushed it against his forehead, chewed on the petals, then began masturbating while barking like a dog."

One final snipe: many herbalists will object to Siegel's suggestion that "we think of intoxicating drugs as adaptogens." Clearly, many whole natural drug plants do have adaptogenic virtues, exhibiting the synergies, agonisms, and antagonisms of the hundreds of biologically active compounds they contain. Unfortunately, when the silver bullet alkaloid is separated from the plant potpourri, e.g., cocaine from coca, morphine from poppy, scopolamine from jimsonweed, mayhem results rather than adaptogenesis. Herbalists will probably smile as Siegel speaks of ginseng as the "most famous" adaptogen but cringe when he says, "Proportionately, there is no greater incidence of abuse among the millions who use ginseng than among the comparable number who consume coca. These findings do not mean that we should outlaw ginseng any more than we should legalize coca." Lamentably, Siegel does not make it clear that he means the coca leaf, which, as chewed, is possibly as rarely abused as ginseng (if ginseng is in fact abused, a debatable point). I think even Siegel will agree with me that crack cocaine, on the other hand, is much more widely abused than ginseng. Siegel very properly distinguishes between the medicinal use and recreational use (and too often abuse) of drugs, pointing out many of the perils of abuse of tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, especially purified derivatives thereof.

I fear the feds will not appreciate Ron's answer to our biggest problem in the U.S. today, the drug problem: "Legalization isn't the answer...The solution to the drug problems of our species begins when we acknowledge the legitimate place of definition the entry into a state of our behaviour. We must ensure that the pursuit of intoxication with drugs will not be dangerous. How can we do that? The answer is to make drugs perfectly safe." Designer drugs? Designed to be "perfectly safe?" Siegel's answer is a non-answer; since all drugs, natural and synthetic, have side effects, there can be no perfectly safe drug. In Siegel's pronouncements, I envision echoes of one of my favorite songs, with the line, "The going up was worth the coming down." I don't think even kava will prove to be an exception to the hangover dictum: "For every high, there's a low, the so-called hangover."

All things in moderation. Immoderate use is abuse and will have side effects. Some may even get high laughing at some of Ron's anecdotes, but the hangover comes when he or she tries to figure out whether an interesting point is scientific fact or anecdote. In spite of what may sound like a negative review, I recommend the book as extremely interesting, easy reading, laced with earthy anecdotes to spice up a discourse, essay or lecture on anthropology, botany, chemistry, drugs, to zoology. Read in moderation.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.