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Chocolate to Morphine: Understanding Mind Active Drugs

Chocolate to Morphine: Understanding Mind Active Drugs
Andrew Weil, MD and Winifred Rosen
1983 Houghton-Mifflin Company

3.Why People Use Drugs

DRUGS ARE FASCINATING because they can change our awareness. The basic reason people take drugs is to vary their conscious experience. Of course there are many other ways to alter consciousness, such as listening to music, making music, dancing, fasting, chanting, exercising, surfing, meditating, falling in love, hiking in the wilderness (if you live in a city), visiting a city (if you live in the wilderness), having sex, daydreaming, watching fireworks, going to a movie or play, jumping into cold water after taking a hot sauna, participating in religious rituals. The list is probably endless, and includes nearly all the activities that people put most of their time, energy, and hard-earned money into. This suggests that changing consciousness is something people like to do. Human beings, it seems, are born with a need for periodic variations in consciousness. The behavior of young children supports this idea. Infants rock themselves into blissful states; many children discover that whirling, or spinning, is a powerful technique to change awareness; some also experiment with hyperventilation (rapid, deep breathing) followed by mutual chest-squeezing or choking, and tickling to produce paralyzing laughter. Even though these practices may produce some uncomfortable results, such as dizziness or nausea, the whole experience is so reinforcing that children do it again and again, often despite parental objections. Since children all over the world engage in these activities, the desire to change consciousness does not seem to be a product of a particular culture but rather to arise from something basically human. As children grow older they find that certain available substances put them in similar states. The attractiveness of drugs is that they provide an easy, quick route to these experiences. Many drug users talk about getting high. Highs are states of consciousness marked by feelings of euphoria, lightness, self transcendence, concentration, and energy. People who never take drugs also seek out highs. In fact, having high experiences from time to time may be necessary to our physical and mental health, just as dreaming at night seems to be vital to our well being. Perhaps that is why a desire to alter normal consciousness exists in everyone and why people pursue the experiences even though there are sometimes uncomfortable side effects. Although the desire for high states is at the root of drug taking in both children and grownups, people also take drugs for other, more practical reasons. These include: To aid religious practices. Throughout history, people have used drug-induced states to transcend their sense of separateness and feel more at one with nature, God, and the supernatural. Marijuana was used for this purpose in ancient India, and many psychedelic plants are still so used today by Indians in North and South America. Alcohol has been used for religious purposes many parts of the world; the role of wine in man Catholic and Judaic rites persists as an example. Among primitive people, psychoactive plants are often considered sacred - gifts from gods and spirits to unite people with the higher realms. To explore the self. Curious individuals throughout history have taken psychoactive substances to explore and investigate parts their own minds not ordinarily accessible. One of the most famous modern examples was the British writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley, who experimented extensively with mescaline in the 1950s. He left us a record of his investigations in a book called The Doors of Perception. Some other well-known explorers" are Oliver Wendell Holmes, the nineteenth-century American physician, poet, and author, who experimented with ether; William James, the Harvard psychologist and philosopher of the late nineteenth century, who used nitrous oxide; Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, who took cocaine; William S. Burroughs, a contemporary American novelist and user of opiates; Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), a psychologist and guru, who has extensive experience with LSD and other psychedelics; and John Lilly, a medical researcher and philosopher, who has experimented with ketamine. Many others who have followed this path have done so privately, keeping their experiences to themselves, or sharing them only with intimate companions. To alter moods. Many people take drugs to relieve anxiety, depression, lethargy, or insomnia, or to escape from pain and boredom. The idea that unwanted moods are disease states treatable by taking medicines has become very popular in our society. The pharmaceutical industry has both encouraged and capitalized on this notion, with the result that the majority of legal medical drugs -sold today are aimed at changing undesired moods. Young people see their parents use drugs in this way and are also influenced by advertising that directly promotes such behavior. Many people of all ages use nonmedical drugs, both legal and illegal ones, in this fashion. To treat disease. Because psychoactive drugs really make people feel different, doctors and patients have always relied heavily on them for dealing with the symptoms of illness. Opium, morphine, and alcohol were mainstays of nineteenth century medicine, used to treat everything from menstrual cramps to epilepsy. (One eminent physician of the day even called morphine "God's own medicine.") Tincture of marijuana was also a popular remedy. At the end of the nineteenth century, cocaine was promoted as a miracle drug and cure-all, and coca wine was the most widely prescribed drug for a time. in recent years, diazepam (Valium) has held that distinction. This kind of treatment may work by distracting a patient's attention from symptoms and shifting it instead toward the good feeling of a high. Sometimes the medical problem will then go away on its own. Often, however, if there is no treatment of the underlying cause of the symptoms, the problem will persist and the patient may go on to use the drug again and again until dependence results. To promote and enhance social interaction. "Let's have a drink" is one of the most frequent phrases in use today. It is an invitation to share time and communication around the consumption of a psychoactive drug. Like sharing food, taking drugs together is a ritual excuse for intimacy; coffee breaks and cocktail ("happy") hours are examples of the way approved drugs are used for this purpose. Disapproved drugs may draw people together even more strongly by establishing a bond of common defiance of authority. At the big rock concerts and Vietnam War protests of the 1960s, strangers often became instant comrades simply by passing a joint back and forth. In different cultures other drugs perform the same function. For example, South American Indians take coca breaks together, much as we take coffee breaks, and chewing coca leaves with a friend establishes an important social bond. For South Sea Islanders, drinking kava in groups at night is the equivalent of an American cocktail party. Aside from the ritual significance with which drugs are invested, their pharmacological effects may also enhance social interaction. Because alcohol lowers inhibitions in most people, businessmen and women have drinks at lunch to encourage openness and congeniality. Similarly, on dates people often drink to reduce anxiety and feelings of awkwardness. By producing alertness and euphoria, stimulants, such as cocaine, promote easy conversation, even among strangers. So important is this function of psychoactive drugs that many people would find it difficult to relate to others if deprived of them. To enhance sensory experience and pleasure. Human beings are pleasure-seeking animals who are very inventive when it comes to finding ways to excite their senses and gratify their appetites. One of the characteristics of sensory pleasure is that it becomes dulled with repetition, and there are only so many ways of achieving pleasure. As much time, thought, and energy have gone into sex as into any human activity, but the possibilities of sexual positions and techniques are limited. By making people feel different, psychoactive drugs can make familiar experiences new and interesting again. The use of drugs in combination with sex is as old as the hills, as is drug use with such activities as dancing, eating, and listening to or playing music. Drinking wine with meals is an example of this behavior that dates back to prehistory and is still encouraged by society. Some men say that a good cigar and a glass of brandy make a fine meal complete. Pot lovers say that turning on is the perfect way for a fine meal to begin. Psychedelic drugs, especially, are intensifiers of experience and can make a sunset more fascinating than a movie. (Of course, psychedelics can also turn an unpleasant situation into a living nightmare.) Because drugs can, temporarily at least, make the ordinary extraordinary, many people seek them out and consume them in an effort to get more enjoyment of life.

To stimulate artistic creativity and performance. Writers have traditionally used psychoactive substances as sources of inspiration. The English poet Coleridge's famous visionary poem "Kubla Khan" was a transcription of one of his opium dreams. The French poet Charles Baudelaire took hashish as well as opium for creative inspiration. His compatriot, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, joined him in experiments with hashish. The American writer Edgar Allan Poe relied on opiates; some of the weirdness of his tales probably derives from his drug experiences. Sigmund Freud's early writings were inspired by cocaine; for a time he actively promoted cocaine as a miracle drug. Innumerable novelists, poets, playwrights, and journalists have found their inspiration in alcohol. Many have paid the high price of becoming alcoholics. Some traditional peoples turn psychedelic visions into art. For example, the yarn paintings of the Huichol Indians of Mexico come directly from peyote sessions. Other artists find visions in their own imagination but use psychoactive drugs to help them do the work of translating their visions into art. Diego Rivera, the best-known Mexican artist of the twentieth century, was a user of marijuana. The famous American abstract painter Jackson Pollock was an alcoholic; he died at age forty-four in a car crash, the result of driving while intoxicated. When marijuana first surfaced in America in the 1920s, musicians were among its most enthusiastic users, and many still use it today, both to compose and to perform. Some of the best-known jazz musicians have been heroin addicts.There has been little scientific study of the relationship between drugs and creativity. Possibly, high states permit some people to view the world in novel perspectives and to gain insights they can later express artistically. To improve physical performance. Various drugs enable some people to perform out-of-the-ordinary feats. In the ancient Incan empire of Peru, relay runners used coca in order to be able to cover vast distances in the high Andes, carrying news and messages to all parts of the kingdom. Warriors throughout history have fortified themselves with alcohol before battle to boost their courage and decrease sensitivity to pain. Many professional athletes today follow in this tradition: baseball players chew tobacco; football and basketball players often take amphetamines and cocaine. Also, truckers will often complete long drives on little sleep and a lot of amphetamines.

To rebel. Because drugs are so surrounded by taboos, they invite rebellious behavior. Breaking taboos is an obvious way to challenge the values of the "establishment." Children quickly learn they can upset parents, teachers, doctors, and other grown-up authorities by taking forbidden substances. Adolescence usually entails the assertion of independence, often by rejecting parental values. It is not surprising that adolescence is also a time of frequent experimentation with drugs. Unfortunately, our society's attempt to control drug-taking by making some substances illegal plays into the hands of rebellious children. Even some older people who have not entirely outgrown adolescent traits express rebelliousness in the ways they take drugs. To go along with peer pressure. Many people who would not seek out drugs on their own take them to go along with the crowd. A man or woman who does not drink with business colleagues is likely to feel like a freak. Some teenagers start smoking tobacco and marijuana even though they don't like their effects, only to feel accepted - in much the same way that they might adopt faddish styles of dress that do not suit them. Young people often see drugs as symbols of maturity and sophistication, and fear that if they do not use them they will be denied entry into in-crowds. Cigarette and alcohol advertising capitalize on these attitudes and fears. Using drugs because "everybody else does it" probably isn't a very good reason, but it is certainly a very common one. To establish an identity. Often an individual or small group will take up the use of a prohibited substance or abuse a permitted one in order to feel special or create a sense of identity. Just as punk rockers wear outlandish clothes and make-up, some people adopt unusual or affected drug styles to get attention and recognition. There are so many reasons why people might take drugs that it may be hard to say which ones are operating in any given instance. A person may take one drug for one reason and another for another reason, or take one drug for several reasons at once. Then again, people sometimes take drugs purely out of habit and not for any reason at all. Suggested Reading Andrew Weil's The Natural Mind: A New Way of Looking at Drugs and the Higher Consciousness (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, l972) examines drug-taking as a method of changing consciousness and speculates on why altered states of consciousness are important to us. Society and Drugs by Richard H. Blum and Associates (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1970) is a good survey of drug use throughout history in various cultures. In The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (New York: Vintage, 1965), philosopher Alan Watts gives a colorful picture of states of consciousness induced by hallucinogenic drugs. Watts experimented with these substances as an explorer of the mind and a searcher for religious experience. Shaman Woman, Mainline Lady: Women's Writings on the Drug Experience, edited by Cynthia Palmer and Michael Horowitz (New York: William Morrow, 1982), is an anthology covering many times and cultures. It gives a broad overview of different ways of using many drugs.

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