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History: The use of drugs opened up new worlds for scientists, poets and writers

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Today, drugs are in the news mainly because of the crime associated with them. Smuggling, liquidation, terror, explosions, monsters – drug crime seems to have gotten completely out of control. Even a civilized country like the Netherlands is in danger of becoming a “drug state”, or according to some has been for a long time. The success of drug crimes is of course directly related to demand. Cannabis, cocaine, opium, speed, ecstasy, laughing gas and all other drugs are now part of mainstream popular entertainment. Its (partial) illegality doesn’t seem to bother anyone without the official fight against it weakening. Fighting all kinds of drug crime takes more and more of the police’s time, money and energy, and thus disrupts society. No matter how hard you try war on drugsit never seems to help.

How do we get out of this frustrating situation? Legalization? More and more supporters are finding this way. Some drugs, such as cannabis, are already more or less legalized for medical use or to promote mass tourism. On the other hand, isn’t it strange that after all the successful anti-smoking campaigns, the availability of other drugs suddenly becomes easier? Aren’t these drugs harmful and addictive? Although the state is increasingly inclined to tighten the reins in the name of public health, should it be celebrated here?

But then what?

To begin with, we could try to look at it differently. For example, by turning to the past. We may then find that criminalization is relatively recent. In the 19th century, drugs were still sold in shops as medicines and stimulants. This has been learned from the work of Mike Jay, a British historian specializing in the former drug culture. He wrote several books about it, e.g Emperors of dreams. Drugs in the 19th century (2000) inches Club circle. The central role of mind-altering drugs in history and culture (2010). His latest book is the so-called Psychonauts. Drugs and the Making of the Modern Mind and tells the story – mainly of the 19th century – of scientists and poets who used drugs to explore the unknown and subconscious regions of the human mind. Scientists like Sigmund Freud and William James, poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Baudelaire.


One of the first was the young chemist Humphrey Davy, who began experimenting with “nitrous oxide”, better known as laughing gas, in the late 18th century. Enthusiastic, he discovered that only “thoughts” really existed: “The universe consists of impressions, ideas, pleasures, and pains.” But not made of matter. Bishop George Berkeley came to the same conclusion earlier in the 18th century, albeit without drugs. In addition to himself, Davy also used animals and other people as guinea pigs, including the romantic poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He hoped to use their poetic talents to put all these new experiences into words. But, alas, Southey burst into, yes, a fit of laughter, Coleridge felt only “a pleasant sensation of warmth.”


Coleridge is known to have been addicted to opium, a popular painkiller at the time in the form of laudanum (dissolved in alcohol). Many patients became addicted to drugs in this way. The most famous was undoubtedly Thomas De Quincey, for a time Coleridge’s secretary and author Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822). He considered opium “the key to paradise”. “Happiness can now be bought with a penny and fit in a waistcoat pocket,” rejoices De Quincey, who only had to deal with the downside when he had to take laudanum daily for a stomach ailment. He was so honest except pleasures also pains to describe in his book: addiction and ever-larger doses, but also terrifying nightmares with a real crocodile.

Therefore, there is ambivalence in De Quincey, his French translator and commentator Charles Baudelaire is mainly negative. In Artificial paradises (1860) he condemns anyone who tries to satisfy his “infinite” desire by artificial means. “He who does not accept the terms of life sells his soul,” he states categorically – which Flaubert thought sounded a little too “Catholic” in an otherwise positive response. Baudelaire is most negative about hashish, which he was introduced to at the Parisian Hôtel Pimodan on Île Saint-Louis. There were regular meetings where hashish was offered. Baudelaire’s senior colleague Théophile Gautier wrote about it much more favorably in an article The Hachichins Club since 1846.

After several pleasant hallucinations, Gautier, just like Davy during his laughing gas experiment, felt released from his body, as if he had become a ghost: “no material interfered with this ecstasy” – until he saw in the mirror that he had a head. has got an elephant. Immediately the dream turned into a nightmare. Although Gautier has probably made up a lot of things for the sake of a tasty story, ambivalence also rules him. Drugs were undoubtedly fascinating, they seemed to promise a world of happiness and pleasure and opened up a view of unimagined dimensions within ourselves, but the practice was often disappointing.

This was also observed by Jacques-Joseph Moreau, a psychiatrist who facilitated the evenings at the Hôtel Pimodan and wrote a book about it in 1845: Hashish and madness. He hoped to use hash as a cure for insanity, and when that didn’t work, he advised doctors to use hash themselves to better understand their patients. For Moreau, everything was based on his own experience: this, according to him, was the “criterion of truth”. Personal use and introspection were needed to feel the effects of drugs, although under positivist influence people increasingly preferred external – “objective” – observations and measurements (including heart rate and blood pressure).

Freud on cocaine

Sigmund Freud, according to Jay (who covers it in detail in two chapters), combined in his article About Coca (1885) both methods. He himself used cocaine at the time to overcome his shyness and fight his “neurasthenia”, and he saw it as a cure for his colleague’s morphine addiction – he quickly became addicted to cocaine. When another colleague later took credit for the only useful medical application (as an anesthetic in eye surgery), Freud ended his brief drug adventure. William James, on the other hand, used his nitrous oxide experiences as confirmation of the reality of mystical experiences and as a way to better understand Hegel’s dialectical reconciliation of opposites, as he acknowledges in his book. Different religious experiences (1902).

They were all “psychonauts”, each in their own way, travelers in their own minds seeking change and expansion. The term was coined by German author Ernst Jünger, though not in his novel Heliopolis since 1949, as Jay suggests, but in Approaches. Drugs and intoxicants from 1970. In this book, Jünger, a friend of the Swiss inventor of LSD, describes, among other things, how during an early trip he thought he almost recognized the secret of life in a swirling blue band of smoke.

Oceanic feel

The extent to which all those dreams, visions, and hallucinations actually reveal something about the subconscious depths of the mind is less clear. It is striking that the “oceanic” feeling of connection to everything is often the result of drug use. Perhaps the desired change or expansion of consciousness consists mainly of letting go of any rational brake or control.

Such skepticism is completely absent from the often highly sensationalized representation of drug experiences in literature and mass culture. Think Sherlock Holmes and his cocaine addiction (“out of boredom,” Jay suggests, give him a real problem and he’ll give up) or his much lesser-known opposite, MP Shiel’s fictional Prince Zalewski. , a weed addict who solves his riddles while lying on the couch, very different from the coke-hyperactive Holmes. The closeness of theosophy and magic is also telling, as evidenced by the strangest figure in Jay’s colorful gallery: the black American half-breed Paschal Beverly Randolph, a “sex magician” specializing in marital problems, who imported hashish and stored it telepathically with it. Madame Blavatsky. The dark side is also not missing from the popular domain, as can be seen in Robert Louis Stevenson The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which a mysterious chemical potion causes the good Dr. Jekyll to turn into the murderous brute Mr. Hyde. In other words, the outcome of drug use is still unpredictable.

Such ambivalence makes it understandable that drugs eventually came under the control of the proliferating state. Does this also justify the total condemnation he suffered? Jay is no drug prophet. He’s just showing that drugs can be approached in a very different way and that they’re a part of the modern world anyway, even if he’s exaggerating a bit by giving them so much weight in the formation of drugs. modern mind. Modernism was not born from an opium pipe or a cocaine injection, and many of the current phenomena in art and science he mentioned (from Cubism to the theory of relativity) had nothing to do with drugs. But it’s hard to deny that drugs are part of the modern world as entertainment, medicine, or as a substitute for religious purpose and meaning.

No solution

The past does not offer a solution to current problems, if only because the main source of these problems (criminalization of drugs) did not yet exist. However, knowing the past can help put the motivations for criminalization into perspective. Perhaps a less tense relationship is also possible. At the end of the day, crime is not related to drug use, nor is it related to alcohol. Jay provides some historical background that may contribute to a more restrained assessment.

For this I also specifically recommend: The Underworld of the East (1935), by British mining engineer James S. Lee, which Jay reviewed with considerable glee Psychonauts and he republished it in 2000. A colonial but wonderful book about someone who has completely solved the drug problem, at least for himself. The recipe turns out to be very simple: never use one drug, but mix and match, and the addiction will disappear before it even starts. Lee learned this from an Indian doctor whom—unlike most whites—he had not treated “condescendingly.” The result is carefree happiness on demand that only ends when the law prevents access to drugs. However, weaning doesn’t seem to be a problem for Lee, who has discovered a special drug in Sumatra (“Elixir of Life No. 2”) that instantly nullifies the effects of cocaine, opium, or hashish.

No doubt this voice from the colonial past sounds overly optimistic. But pessimists also offer a kind of enlightening comfort. Listen to Freud, who has been largely silent on drugs since his youthful cocaine adventure, though not always. In Discomfort in culture (1930), we read that life is “too hard” for us humans and this, according to Freud, is why we use “emollients” (e.g. Drugs) simply cannot do without.

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