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September 1975

Cocaine; The Doors of Perception; and Licit & Illicit Drugs

Jeff Riggenbach charges through the threshold.

Open any daily newspaper or weekly newsmagazine, tune in any radio or television news broadcast, and you will encounter “the drug problem.” The quotation marks are there for a reason; there is a drug problem in this culture, but the news accounts are not informative about it; they are symptomatic of it. For the problem is not one of “addicts” and “pushers” who use and sell “dangerous drugs”; it is one of thugs and their public-relations men who prohibit socially innocuous activities, interfere in the free market to the detriment of everyone involved, and spread vicious, deliberate lies about the substances they seek to control.

The thugs are politicians and medical doctors; their public-relations men are members of the news media who report their grossly exaggerated and sometimes even fabricated stories as fact. Consider the case of cocaine. Conventional wisdom has it that this “hard drug” is psychologically and physiologically addictive (whatever that means); that its regular use leads to paranoid delusions, violence, and, upon withdrawal, intolerable depression; that the “cocaine fiend” is a threat to himself and to society. The facts are that the Indians of the Andes have been using cocaine daily for more than 2000 years —using it in quantities comparable to those ingested by today’s illegal users —without harmful consequences (though there seem to have been a few beneficial consequences); that, when cocaine was freely available in America (around the turn of this century it was the basic ingredient in dozens of wines, tonics, patent medicines and soft drinks, including the original Coca Cola), thousands of people took it daily in even larger quantites than the Indians, with almost no documented cases of disaster; that, as in the case of every war against drugs ever conducted in this country, the push to prohibit cocaine originated in a campaign against a despised minority, in this instance, black Americans; that, if drug laws were actually based on the dangers posed by the use of drugs, alcohol would be an illegal substance, available only on the black market, and cocaine would be sold over the counter in drug stores.

All this and more is to be found in Richard Ashley’s recent book Cocaine, a book I honestly believe (the adverb seems necessary, if only to distinguish this recommendation from a publisher’s blurb) every serious libertarian should read. Admittedly, cocaine is not a subject of interest to everyone; there is no reason it should be. But Ashley’s book is much more than a book about coke. It is a careful, systematic, painstaking, thoroughly and openly documented study of what happens when government enters the marketplace by forbidding the manufacture, sale, or possession of a commodity—any commodity. Yet in a sense, the real importance of Ashley’s book is not in its content, for all that it offers the most damning case against such government tampering I have seen outside Thomas Szasz’s Ceremonial Chemistry, but in its method. Cocaine is quite simply the best popular book I have ever seen on any subject. It offers not only the care, system, and research I mentioned a few sentences ago, but also a full account of the author’s assumptions and the kinds of evidence he considered in reaching his conclusions. It is intelligently written and highly readable. It is the best touchstone I know for anyone who wants either to evaluate popular books on serious subjects or to write such books himself.

 

Another volume which offers a combination of sound, reliable information and methodological excellence is that containing Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. Huxley wrote about nearly everything in the course of his career, proving himself an insightful dillettante of many fields and an undeniable master of one: writing—the use of linguistic symbols in the formulation of ideas. Add intellectual honesty and insatiable intellectual curiosity to this profile, and it becomes not merely plausible but virtually a foregone conclusion that Huxley’s would remain twenty years after its publication, the most accurate description of an acid trip in the literature. That there should be an accurate description at all is wonder enough, since LSD seems to play biochemical havoc with precisely that portion of the brain which enables us to form and manipulate concepts and thus symbols. But to the extent that it can presently be done, Huxley has succeeded in speaking intelligibly about that nearly (in the Korzybskian sense) un-speakable experience.

Ashley and Huxley restrict their investigations to specific drugs and implicitly establish social and methodological points of view which are relevant to the study of other drugs and of problems in other areas altogether. Edward Brecher’s Licit and Illicit Drugs, researched and written under the auspices of the Consumers Union, takes a different, if predictable, tack, that of a research report. Where Ashley and Huxley are concerned to set the record straight on drugs about which misinformation or no information at all has been the rule, Brecher is concerned simply to gather, organize, and critically evaluate all the information there is on all the drugs there are. His book is a wealth of factual material and a model of precision. It has become the standard general reference work on illegal drugs because there is no better one. Reviewed by Jeff Riggenbach / Cocaine / LR Price $7.95 /The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (one volume) / LR Price $1.95 / Licit and Illicit Drugs / LR Price $4.95