Narcotics: the world inhales, injects, sniffs, drinks, smokes, ingests and chews them; the media sensationalize them; law enforcers rail against them; politicians legislate against them -- is there really anything else left to know?
Plenty, it would seem, if you read Richard Davenport-Hines' "The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics." And that's a good thing and a bad thing.
To understand this book we must first understand the author. Davenport-Hines, a respected British historian/journalist/author, plunges into this topic as the British historian he is: with mounds of statistics tossed in as one would put sprinkles on an ice cream cone; an arid writing style that often begs for a few drops of spontaneity and wit to freshen it; and a tendency to take the reader on historical trips and side trips so far removed at times from his subject that a flashlight is often needed to find the way back. But he is thorough, for certain, and the plethora of facts, quotes, and research offered can make for very engaging and sometimes humorous reading.
Beginning his history in the early 16th century and moving forward through the 20th, Davenport-Hines is at his most interesting in the earliest chapters of the book, presenting information both intriguing and beguiling: that there are 28 species of poppies but only one that contains the morphine necessary to make opium; that an early Turkish cure for weaning their slaves from opium use was to have them drink wine for a month; that a popular early 19th century French jam consisted of the drug hashish cooked with butter, pistachios, almonds and honey; that the word "hypodermic" was coined by a mid-19th century physician, and "psychedelic" by a 20th century English psychiatrist; that opium was the first drug discovered by humankind; that 16th century travelers' tales spread the popularity of opium for "non-medicinal uses."
Tidbits such as these are plentiful -- and become necessary, for Davenport-Hines' exhaustive numbers, lengthy citations and highly detailed historical backgrounds can become dulling at times.
The best of these little gems may perhaps be in the many examples given of how illegal drugs with now well-known destructive effects were at one time touted as the next great cure-alls for almost any ailment.
Opium was used to treat elephantiasis, carbuncles, liver complaints, epilepsy, delirium, convulsions, gout, kidney-stones, irregular bowels, vomiting, colic, pleurisy, "regulate women's feelings and to contain their behaviour," respiratory disorders, scorpion bites and "growth of the breast, penis, and increase of milk."
Various forms of marijuana were taken to relieve "hydrophobia, ague, remittent fever, cholera, dysentery, gonorrhea, flatulence, diarrhea, dyspepsia, piles, prolapsed anus, hay fever, asthma, bronchitis, diabetes, rheumatism, gout, guinea-worm, and boils."
Morphine was the drug of choice to cure cholera, diarrhea, coughs, influenza, stomach chills, neuralgia, rheumatism, tuberculosis and bronchitis. Amphetamines were recommended for controlling narcolepsy, epilepsy, Parkinson's Disease, seasickness, obesity, and behavior disorders of problem children. As for heroin, it was pronounced "free from other disagreeable secondary effects of morphine, so that it may be administered in comparatively large doses."
But it is, after all, the "global history of narcotics," and so that is why we read this tome.
Davenport-Hines really has two books here: the first is the discovery, marketing, manipulating, and myths of narcotics; the second explores drugs' counterculture appeal and subsequent spread, illegal growth through cartels and organized crime, and legislative attempts to control or eliminate narcotics. While the first "book" is read quicker -- the beginnings and discoveries of most items, especially those illegal, tend to do a great job at holding one's attention -- the second often is so caught up in its statistics and detailed quotes that it appears Davenport-Hines' pursuit of oblivion has succeeded: we often become surrounded by so much scholarship that were it not for chapter headings we would be permanently lost.
The book is certainly not written with the purpose of offering purely objective information (a treatment one usually expects from a "history book"). As Davenport-Hines crosses into his second book he quickly presents us with what be believes is the greed of pharmaceutical companies that keeps them advertising and marketing drugs, thus contributing to their cultural acceptance.
The lyrics of Dylan, the Stones, the Doors and others, as well as the drug habits of jazz and movie greats, are offered as proof of the entertainment industry's role in the acceptance of drugs by youth. He argues -- one might say ruthlessly -- that continual efforts at prohibiting drugs by U.S. and British governments have been colossal failures, contributing greatly to the black market in narcotics.
His research is extensive, to be sure, yet he wields it as if a razor-sharp scalpel: slicing away any other possible historical possibilities and contributing factors to how illegal drugs developed into a $400 billion per year market save those he professes. Ultimately, this book is not a polemic but at times it comes pretty damn close.
Throughout the book you are reminded that Davenport-Hines is British -- very British. Know your conversion of British pounds into U.S. dollars: all monetary details -- and there are plenty of them -- are given in pounds. There is an abundance -- I would have to say an overabundance -- of Great Britain's role in all things narcotic. And he often discusses British politics, places and policies as if all reading this work were as intimate with his country as he.
If you are looking for a broad overview of narcotics' history, this book is it. Yet know you are reading about narcotics in a very academic environment -- not, I would guess, from an author who ever got stoned. That would have made for a nice "been there, done that" counterbalance -- perhaps the one stimulant missing from this work.
The Pursuit of Oblivion
A Global History of Narcotics
By Richard Davenport-Hines
Norton, 584 pages, $16.95 paper
Errol Craig Sull of Buffalo is a freelance writer.