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Drugs and Narcotics in History.
Edited by Roy Porter and Mikulas Reich. Cambridge University Press: 1995. 227 pp.

Coca-Cola has "something other than just the taste; the accumulated memory of all those ball games and good experiences as children which coke was a part of." This quotation from the Wall Street Journal epitomizes the complexity of issues concerning the use of psychoactive substances. The original Coca-Cola, of course, contained cocaine from the cola (Erythrxylum) extracts used in its formulation. This psychoactive alkaloid has long vanished from the drink to be replaced by another psychoactive substance, caffeine, but the tenacity of Coca-Cola devotees was shown by the uproar when the formula was changed in 1985. New Coke had to be withdrawn, even though most drinkers, tested objectively, could not distinguish between the old and new Cokes. But to change the formulation was to rob consumers of a comforting echo of their childhood.

This example points to the impossibility of considering the use of psychoactive substances from a solely pharmacological viewpoint. Their use incorporates social, economic, legal, and public health aspects, and is associated with rituals and ceremonies that help to organize and structure the users' lives. Ritual can extend from the use of wine in the Christian mass or tea in the Japanese tea ceremony at one end of the spectrum, where the use of the psychoactive agent becomes secondary to the occasion, to the recent U.S. creation of a coffee ceremony at the other, where the thing-in-itself is the central point. This movement, originating in Seattle, has developed its own language (who in England -- or Italy -- would know the difference between "wet" and "dry" cappuccino?) and involves paying vast premiums for complex preparations such as a double mocha latte with whipped cream and nutmeg. Following a trip to Italy, I told my local coffee vendor that I had been in the land of tr ue cappuccino. "Really?" he asked. "You just got back from Seattle?" This increasingly ritualistic U.S. pastime is still centered on the psychoactive nature of coffee, as shown by the advertisement of one company: "After my morning cup of Bad Ass coffee, I go to the park and feed the my cat."

Consuming Habits is intended to encourage research on the anthropology of psychoactive substances and on the historical and cultural contexts of their uses. Although punning book titles are usually off-putting outside fictional works such as Finnegan's Wake the two senses of habits of consumption and of habits that consume the user are equally appropriate in the title of the book under consideration. Although it derives from a conference, containing ten chapters by various authors, the book avoids the usual drawbacks of the genre. The complexity of the issues is suggested not by any integrated attempt to cover the whole field but by case studies of selected substances in selected societies. The first five chapters are concerned with traditional societies outside Western Europe, and the last five with the economically interdependent societies that have arisen since the increase in global trade relationships of the past half millennium. These ten chapters are bracketed by introdu ctory and concluding chapters. The approach ranges from a consideration of the use of processed plants, such as tea, to the use of purified extras, such as cocaine. Throughout, however, there is a stress on the complexity of the issues involved, as substances wander in and out of legality with time and place.

The other volume, Drugs and Narcotics in History, complements many of the topics covered in the first. Two of the authors of this book write separate dust jacket blurbs for the first. Much the same agents are discussed, but the approach is historical rather than anthropological or sociological. One consequence is vagueness in the use of pharmacological terms. John Scarborough talks of "so-called `addictive' substances," and compares the daily taking of salicylate for cardiac and vascular problems with an addiction. This is unfortunate on a number of levels, not least of which is that salicylate is inactive as a vascular agent and cannot be equated with aspirin (acetylsalicylate). Furthermore, most regular users of aspirin are taking it to prevent vascular problems (that is, as a prophylactic) rather than to treat them.

As with the wine of the Christian mass, the cultural and social contexts are often more important than the psychoactive agent used. If the medium can be the message, then the context and package can be the ward. Thus, the West Coast coffee `ceremony' can involve decaffeinated coffee. Concern about health and postprandial functioning has led many to eschew the lunch time cocktail for an expensive glass of attractively packaged water. Cults have arisen around the mystique of Evian and Perrier. The reason for this transference, as pointed out by Andrew Sherratt in his introduction, derives from the fact that "the substances themselves are often taken as a metaphor for a variety of social relationships." A cup of tea can be emblematic of the highest values of civilization, whether taken in an English drawing room or a Japanese tea house. Coca-Cola can recreate one's past, when" to be young was very heaven." Wine can be the blood of Christ, or southern sunshine. Indeed, it has been said that wine in the Mediterranean is practically synonymous with civilization. An Italian acquaintance who was advised to stop imbibing for health reasons sadly remarked to me: "I suppose it's possible to live without wine, but what's the point?" The social significance of "wine that maketh glad the heart of man" is exemplified by the symposium, so important to twentieth-century scientists. This derives from the Greek symposion, or drinking party. Like the ancient Greeks, modern scientists also find that the symposium can give rise to philosophy, politics, and other extrapharmacological activities.

Discussions in the first volume make clear that the wandering legalities of psychoactive agents, licit in some societies, illicit in others, have little to do with pharmacology, whether they concern the banning of alcohol in some Muslim countries or the banning of cocaine in the United Kingdom and the United States. As Rudi Matthee suggests in the second volume, illegality has more to do with social factors. Muslim religious leaders originally objected to the coffee house because it competed with the mosque. In eighteenth-century England, an association was made between coffee houses and sedition, because of the free political discussion that occurred in them. But the ability to raise money competitively antagonizes morality. Taxation replaces prohibition in many societies.

Most psychoactive agents -- coffee, tea, heroin, cocaine -- originate from underdeveloped countries. After oil, coffee is the second most important export from the developing world to the first, employing some 20 million people. The combined trade in both legal and illegal psychoactive substances probably far outweighs the value of oil from developing countries. The amplification in value between producer and consumer -- between the poppy or coca grower and the Manhattan mainliner or Angeleno snorter -- makes the economic consequences of drug use more malign than the pharmacological consequences. The economies of producing countries are distorted, and food crops for local consumption are displaced by drug crops for foreign markets. The high retail cost of illegal agents forces users to crime and prostitution to raise the money needed. The latter does not apply to coffee and tea, of course, where free-market economics match supply and demand. It is no wonder that, as Ann Dally p oints out, the people who would least like to see drugs decriminalized are those who make their money from them.

Both books have the same attitude towards the criminalization of drugs, suggesting that drugs are made dangerous by myth, politics, illegality, and social factors rather than by their psychoactive or pharmacological properties. Drugs and Narcotics In History contains a polemical and spirited attack by Dally on the establishment approach to drug use in Britain. She accuses the government of using the drug issue to divert attention from the real issues. One can certainly sympathize with her attitude from the perspective of the United States, when one considers the rhetoric and resources applied to the drug "problem" alongside the neglect of other important social issues, such as prenatal and antenatal health care.

Consuming Habits is a learned and thoughtful book, one that will stimulate readers from a variety of professional backgrounds. Drugs and Narcotics In History is both more technical and less integrated, with chapters on drug regulation in Victorian England and changes in alcohol use among Arizona Indians seeming to reflect availability of authors rather than the exigencies of the subject. Both books raise and discuss many more issues than can be mentioned in a short review. If you can afford only one book, buy the first. Together, however, they make a good pair.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Ryan J. Huxtable