contributor perspectives

The War on Drugs: A Conflict as Old as Humanity

Ian Morris
Board of Contributors
13 MINS READAug 16, 2018 | 09:15 GMT

Revelers march through the streets of the Monastiraki district in Athens to celebrate an ancient Greek festival honoring the god of wine, festivity and theatre Dionysos as part of carnival celebrations on February 25, 2017.

  • Along with the physical and psychological changes they induce, drugs have profound sociological effects, differentiating between classes based on their use. 
  • The rampant opioid addiction plaguing the United States today is the latest in a series of drug abuse crises throughout human history.
  • The social and economic changes that helped curb gin consumption in England in the mid-18th century offer insight into how modern societies may cope with their own drug epidemics.

"'Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes," the novelist Christopher Bullock observed in 1716, 73 years before Benjamin Franklin borrowed the sentiment. To that list, we can probably add drugs. Ancient Peruvians were using the San Pedro cactus, which contains mescaline, 9,000 years ago. Excavators suspect that the oldest evidence of bread production, at Shubayqa in Jordan about 13,000 years ago, was a byproduct of brewing beer, and archaeologists have long speculated that Ice Age cave painters made their marks, some dating back 40,000 years, under the influence of hallucinogens. ("No wonder they called it the Stone Age," says British newspaper The Daily Mail.) Given the difficulties of detecting drug use in the archaeological record and the fact that fully modern human behavior began only 60,000 years ago, it's probably safe to say that drugs have always been with us.

Drugs can make our bodies do things they otherwise would not do. Under their influence, we can endure pain, see visions, hear God's voice, experience ecstasy, fall asleep, stay awake, feel happy, see farther, run faster, be more sexually potent — the list goes on and on. In the process, though, drugs can also ruin our health or make us reckless, aggressive, listless, dishonest or lazy. They can leave us too addled to do anything at all, even breathe. More than 63,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2016, chiefly because the drugs sedate the parts of the brain that control breathing, leading to respiratory failure and suffocation. Since then, opioids have been the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. More Americans die from opioid overdoses each year than died in the Vietnam War in its entirety.

The reason drugs have always been with us, of course, is that they deliver things we want as well as things we hate. Used with care, opioids are miracle workers, able to dull the agonies of disease and trauma; much of the world, especially its poorer parts, needs more of the drugs, not less. (And like so many other drugs, opioids can fuel great art. One critic has hailed Nico Walker's Cherry, published this week, as "the first great novel of the opioid epidemic.") Drugs provide magic and misery in equal measure. They have driven some of history's most positive transformations but have also been the focus of some of its most aggressive campaigns of social control. For millenniums, they have been both expanding and undermining the potential of the human body, bringing wonder and joy into millions of lives while ruining millions more. We might learn a thing or two about the challenges posed and opportunities offered by drugs in the 21st century by looking at our tens of thousands of years of experience with them.

Erecting Psychedelic Megalithic Cemeteries

One of the first signs of the significant effect drugs may have had on society dates back about 5,000 years, when people now unknown built a series of spectacular monuments along the European shores of the Atlantic, from Portugal to the Orkneys. Archaeologists call these structures "megalithic," from a Greek word for "giant stones." Most were tombs, pillars or circles of standing stones, and many were carefully aligned on astronomical principles. The tomb at Newgrange in Ireland, for instance, was marked by a mound 100 meters across and 20 meters high, made from more than 180,000 metric tons of dirt and rock, faced with stone slabs inset with chunks of white quartz that could be seen from kilometers away when they caught the sun. At its center was a stone burial chamber, accessed by a 15-meter passage aligned so that for one week on either side of the winter solstice, the first rays of the rising sun shone down it to light up in gold a triple spiral carved on the chamber's back slab. The tomb of Knowth, just a few minutes' walk from Newgrange, had two passages of this kind, aligned to catch the rising sun on the spring and autumn equinoxes.

Drugs provide magic and misery in equal measure. They have driven some of history's most positive transformations but have also been the focus of some of its most aggressive campaigns of social control.

The tombs look like celestial hotspots, linking their glorious dead (whoever they might have been) to the power of the sun at the most meaningful moments of the year. But it is their decoration that has led many archeologists to think drugs played a big part in their construction — the swirling carvings of mazes, zigzags and spirals painted in garish colors like so much psychedelic art of the 1960s. Several psychologists have likened the designs to images produced in the eyes and brain by "flickering light, hallucinogenic fungi, and migrainous syndromes," as one scholar rather soberly puts it.

Stonehenge, the most famous of these cemetery monuments, offers another indication. Virtually the only goods buried with the dead there are a single polished stone mace head — possibly a symbol of authority, like the mace used in British coronations to this day — and an odd little stand for burning something. Archaeologists decorously call it an "incense burner," but the most common interpretation is that it was for drugs (though chemists have not been able to extract any identifiable residues). The only close parallel for this "incense burner" in prehistoric Britain turned up at Flagstones, a site that is also the closest architectural parallel for Stonehenge — surely no coincidence.

The Nectar of the New Elite

The oldest European poppy seeds in Europe come from Italian sites dated to around 6000 B.C., and direct evidence of opium use begins with a fragment of opium poppy lodged in the teeth of a Spanish skeleton around 4000 B.C. Even some of the most cautious archaeologists suspect that by 3000 B.C., a new elite was emerging along the Atlantic coast, expert in combining narcotics, emotionally intense solar ceremonies and otherworldly art not only to alter their awareness but also to mobilize their communities to build magnificent monuments as portals to another world. Drugs, they propose, drove the rise of inequality.

Much about this story is necessarily speculative, but we are on firmer ground by the first millennium B.C., when written sources augment archaeology. One of the biggest social changes in the Mediterranean during this period was the spread of Greek culture from east to west, creating the broad classical civilization that was eventually united as the Roman Empire. Historians have long considered this process, called "Hellenization," a major turning point. And in the 1980s, archaeologists realized that drugs initially inspired it.

When Greek traders started showing up in the West Mediterranean, only one thing about them really interested the locals: wine. Residents typically began importing Greek wine immediately, replacing the mugs and bowls used for consuming local beverages (mostly ales and mead) with Greek-style wine cups, and often planting their own wine grapes too. By contrast, other Greek goods typically took more than a century to catch on, while Greek-style dress, lifestyles and institutions were even slower to gain prevalence. Drugs were the leading edge of the ancient version of globalization, and learning to drink wine like the sophisticated Greeks seems to have been a crucial first step for local notables who wanted to assimilate themselves to the cosmopolitan Mediterranean elite. Around 200 B.C., one Greek scholar who spent time in what is now France noted that chiefs would buy wine from Greek traders at the rate of one slave per 30-liter jar.

Drugs were the leading edge of the ancient version of globalization, and learning to drink wine like the sophisticated Greeks seems to have been a crucial first step for local notables who wanted to assimilate themselves to the cosmopolitan Mediterranean elite.

Correct drug use was critical for these Davos Men of their day, marking them as members not only of an international set but also of a class above the commoners of their own communities. In Greece itself, poets waxed lyrical about the contrast between their  practice of mixing their wine with water and that of the boorish barbarians who drank wine neat. Drug use also distinguished upper-class Greeks, who drank moderately and told morally uplifting stories at their refined parties, from lower-class Greeks, who drank to excess, broke wind and molested slave-girls. There were few surer ways for a man to betray his social standing than to drink too much of the wrong kind of wine.

The Social Side of the Drug Schedule

We cannot be certain that drugs set cosmopolitan elites apart from the vulgar herd at Stonehenge and Newgrange, but since the first millennium B.C., social differentiation has been one of the most visible side effects of drug use. The classic case, because it is so well-documented, is early modern Britain. Since before the Romans came, wine-drinking had helped separate the elites from the ale-drinking commoners. People drank a lot of both, because water was not always safe, but around 1700, gin began gaining ground. Wine's French associations seemed politically incorrect while England was at war with France. On the other hand, anything Dutch — including gin — looked good now that England had a soundly Protestant Dutchman on its throne. When an ill-judged tax reform in 1720 suddenly slashed the price of gin, however, the poor began drinking vast quantities of it too; the thirsty masses bought some 35 million liters of gin in 1735.

The scale of addiction horrified elite Londoners, and high-profile drug crimes galvanized reformers. In 1734, one Judith Defour was hanged after taking her two-year-old child to the workhouse, where he received a new set of clothes, then returning to reclaim the baby, strangling it and selling its new clothes to buy gin. When Parliament restored the duties on gin in 1736, violent riots broke out, and the well-established market for the spirit went underground. One reformer counted 8,659 gin joints in London in 1750. Another wrote that "young creatures, girls of 12 and 13 years of age, drink Geneva [gin] like fishes and make themselves unfit to live in sober families ... [T]here is no passing the streets for 'em, so shameless are they grown."

Finding a New Fix

As soon as gin became a street drug, society types abandoned it, turning instead to new drugs that had been coming into England since the mid-17th century. Most were mild stimulants that fit into a new fashion for "politeness," distinguishing modern middle classes from both the "enthusiasts" of the previous century's religious wars and the disorderly contemporary plebeians. Coffee, the first of these drugs to take off, had been around for a while, but the first public coffee shop opened in Oxford only in 1650. Hundreds more quickly followed, and realizing that their sober, perky customers would need more amenities than gin-drinkers in a bar (one ad for an infamous dive in London said "Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence, clean straw for nothing"), coffee sellers began providing free newspapers. Soon coffee houses were centers of political and intellectual debate.

Through the late 18th century, alcohol abuse in the United Kingdom declined, less because of aggressive prohibition drives than because of a growing desire among the poor to be "respectable."

From there, tea joined the mix. The first Englishman to describe drinking tea was part of a flotilla attacking Canton in 1637, but within the next 20 years London coffee houses were selling the new drug as well. Samuel Pepys, a naval administrator and diarist, recorded in 1660 having "a Cup of Tee (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before." By the 1690s everyone in society was using it, with some aficionados apparently downing 50 cups per day. Predictably, there were critics, one of whom warned women in 1717 that tea would cause "a Diminution of their prolifick Energy, a Proneness to miscarry, and an Insufficiency to nourish the Child when brought into the World," but society ladies were unimpressed. The United Kingdom, which imported under 10 metric tons of tea each year in the 1690s, brought in about 2,000 metric tons in 1760.

Tobacco, which took off in the 1610s, and sugar, which similarly boomed in the 1650s, rounded out the package of new stimulants. Though both relied almost from the beginning on thousands of slaves being shipped across the Atlantic, they are powerful drugs and, as many of us know, powerfully addictive. In the 1730s, as anxiety over gin peaked, the upper classes had a ready-made bundle of "polite" alternatives. Over the next 40 years, alcohol abuse declined, less because of aggressive prohibition drives than because of a growing desire among the poor to be "respectable." Reformist campaigns, especially by Methodist ministers, had a lot to do with the change, but so did the economy, which offered better-paid jobs to sober, reliable workers who did not need to take a "St. Monday" holiday to sleep off Sunday's bender.

From Martinis to Marijuana

Many of our modern drugs are more powerful than those of earlier times, able to do both more good and more evil. But in a lot of ways, not much about the modern encounter with drugs is new. For two centuries, a package of mild stimulants — coffee, tea, sugar and tobacco — combined with the limited use of alcohol defined respectable drug-users relative to the dissolute, who abused alcohol, and the puritanical, who rejected drugs altogether.

The last 50 years have brought dizzying changes that once again altered the social order of drug use. Tobacco has been demonized, the three-martini lunch has become a thing of the past, a war has been declared on sugar (especially in soft drinks), and people keep telling me to drink less coffee. Marijuana, meanwhile, has moved in the other direction: When I was a teenager, possession regularly meant jail time, but in California nowadays I am more likely to be arrested for drinking a Bud Light on the street than for lighting up a joint. Crack, crystal meth and opioids are what now define the members of an untouchable class, shortening their lives and visibly marking them as outsiders to polite society. At the other end of the spectrum, multimillionaire tech gurus experiment with micro-doses of hallucinogens to boost their creativity. This kind of shift has happened countless times before and will doubtless repeat itself in the future.

But the certainty of drug use, along with death and taxes, is not an argument for ignoring its costs. Patterns of drug use are not immutable; just look at 18th-century England. The lessons the example provides are clear: Rather than curbing drug abuse, banning it only drives it underground, into a world of hardened criminals. And lecturing addicts about their weakness and wickedness only makes them more inclined to turn their backs on polite society. The rate of gin abuse dropped after 1750 primarily because incentives changed as economic expansion made a majority of the English public feel that the gains of sobriety outweighed those of intoxication. At the same time, reformers worked hard to advertise the attractions of respectability, while a new set of addictive mild stimulants became available to fill part of the gap left by liquor. Whether such a package is possible in our rapidly changing 21st-century economies remains to be seen.

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