From On Intoxication
(Meningen med rus)
by Øystein Skjælaaen
Published by Res Publica, Norway, August 2019
Translated from the Norwegian by Alison McCullough
Why we get high
The pub is quiet at nine o’clock on a Friday morning. A handful of older men and a couple of women are sitting by themselves, some of them reading a newspaper, others staring into space. All of them are drinking beer, and the atmosphere is subdued. The chinking of glasses can be heard from the bar, some chairs creak a little; the door, occasionally opened by new customers, creates the only real movement in the room. A man arrives and looks around, nodding and mumbling a hello to someone already sitting there. He finds a vacant table, hangs his jacket on the back of the chair and walks up to the bar, where the bartender has already started to fill a pint glass. He takes out a fifty-kroner note and tells the bartender she can keep the change; takes a gulp of the beer and says that it tastes just as good as it did yesterday. I’m sure it does, responds the bartender, smiling. The customer picks up his glass, along with a newspaper from the counter, and shuffles back to his table.
On a street just a stone’s throw from the pub, people have gathered in small clusters. Some lumber slowly around, wearing worn-out clothes, their necks bent, seeking out the people who hang around here. Pockets are rummaged around in, crumpled banknotes exchange hands, and once the heroin has been secured the search for a suitable place to take it starts. Some find a quiet corner of a park. They take out the necessary equipment: a syringe, cannula, lighter, spoon, some citric acid and little fluid. They cook it up, fill the syringe, roll up their sleeves and look for a vein that responds. Once the drug is in their bodies they slump there relaxed, heads nodding, until security guards arrive and ask them to leave the area. Then they pack up their things and return to the street from which they came.
Later that day, the beer gardens fill with smiling people. Summer is in the air and it’s payday, so people are out enjoying Friday-night drinks with their colleagues. The wait staff rush between the tables, carrying trays full of beer and wine. At two of the tables, the atmosphere is especially jovial. Champagne is being served, and a woman in her forties gets up and says a few words about how much the people sitting there deserve this. They’ve made it through a challenging reorganisation process and can now see the light at the end of the tunnel – they can finally look to the future. Today is the start of a new era, and the company credit card has been put behind the bar. She raises a toast; everyone nods and smiles. Conversations flow freely, and more bottles of wine and bubbly are supplied in a continual stream.
A light breeze carries the sweet smell of marijuana to the outermost tables. Some of the guests catch a whiff of it and look around, trying to locate its source. In the park opposite the beer garden is a large group of twentysomethings, the girls radiant in their summer dresses, the guys topless. They’ve lit their disposable grill; cans of beer and bottles of white wine are lifted out of carrier bags and a joint is passed around. The exams are over – as are the months of studying, anxiety and uncertainty – and now nothing but a long summer holiday awaits. A girl falls back into the grass, laughing, stretching her hands into the air. Finally! Her friend follows suit – they hug each other, laughing even harder.
On the balcony of one of the low apartment buildings that borders the park, three men in their early thirties are enjoying the sunset. All of them have left their kids with their partners – it’s a long time since they’ve been able to spend an entire weekend together. The apartment has been recently cleaned and tidied; the host’s wife and kids are staying with the in-laws. The friends have made plans for the next couple of days; they’ve bought themselves some good food and some artisan beers. But tonight will be dedicated to Molly. They go into the living room, take out the crystals and portion out four small doses. After putting the substance on their tongues, the young fathers lie down on the floor and wait. The music starts to take effect so they get up, start to dance; two of them begin to hug. They smile, feeling warm, and decide to not bother going out on the town – they’re enjoying themselves enough where they are.
Night falls, and the air becomes cooler. The parks are empty and people have moved indoors, into the clubs and pubs. Some of the venues have long queues, forcing some pleasure seekers to give up and head home. They stop off at a fast food truck and buy burritos on the way. The people around them are drunk – have been drinking for many hours. A woman is crouched down on her haunches, sobbing; a friend tries to comfort her. A man stands with his hands on his knees, hurling up vomit; his buddy stands beside him and laughs. A police car cruises past, ignoring most of this, giving short bursts of its siren to announce its presence.
Soon, silence settles over the streets. The taxi queues have dispersed; the drivers seek out one last ride. The remains of hotdogs, kebabs and broken glass lie strewn across the ground; the street sweepers have already started cleaning up. Two young men and a woman climb into a container, excited and with pupils the size of grapes, looking for treasure that might have been discarded by the nearby apartment building’s inhabitants. Look at this! They chatter away incessantly, filling a bag before wandering on towards new finds. The sounds of chilled electronica and happy voices fill the street from an open window. Look what I found! The sound of a cork popping; the partygoers cheer, continue to dance. The night must never be allowed to end; someone says she knows where there’s a hole in the fence to the outdoor swimming pool. Soon they’re floating there on their backs in the sunrise.
At eight o’clock the bartender unlocks the door to the pub, and just a few minutes later an elderly man turns up with a newspaper under his arm. He greets the bartender; points to the tap. The bartender fills a pint glass and sets it on the counter. The man picks up the glass, takes a seat by the window, and watches the town as it wakes.
Twenty-four hours in a Norwegian city. Some people are out for Friday-night drinks with their colleagues, others are having a morning beer alone in a pub. Some friends are smoking a joint in a park, while not far away others are shooting heroin. People seek out highs in different ways and for different reasons, using different drugs in different quantities. But all of them are seeking that high – and that’s what links these different situations together.
I’ve been an alcohol and drug researcher for ten years; I’ve also worked with policy-making in this field, and with young people’s relationships to drugs. My doctoral thesis was on morning drinking – I was fascinated by the fact that some people wake up, perhaps take a shower and brush their teeth, and then take a tram or a train or simply a stroll down to the pub for a liquid breakfast. Over a period of around three years, I spent 130 mornings in a handful of pubs that open between eight and nine o’clock in the morning. I drank and talked with the other customers, and observed their social interactions and lives. Based on this, I wrote about alcoholism, community and how hard it can be to stop drinking. But what I didn’t write about in any great detail was intoxication itself.
It might be said – if somewhat flippantly – that researchers studying the use of drugs and alcohol are not particularly interested in people’s experiences of being high. First and foremost, we research the problems – the harmful consequences of drug use. This, of course, is an important task. A great number of problems arise as a direct or indirect result of people using intoxicants: everything from permanent liver damage due to the long-term consumption of alcohol, to a twisted ankle after some silly dancing while drunk; from psychosis triggered by strong hallucinogens, to the low mood of a comedown after a weekend spent on ecstasy. Not to mention violence, traffic accidents, neglected children and destroyed families. The list is a long one, some of the items on it are terrible – and it’s important.
People are generally aware of all these potential dangers, and yet they still seek to get high, over and over again – even researchers who study the effects of drugs and alcohol for a living do it. Why? Of course, an important aspect of this is that the vast majority of situations involving intoxicants run their course completely problem free. In most cases, the risk is minimal. But the absence of problems is not in itself an explanation. People don’t undertake statistical analyses and conclude that the risk is so small they’ll take the chance – have a drink, take a drag of the joint, or take the pill. People don’t seek to get high because it is free of negative consequences. Rather, they do so because it offers them something positive. The experience of getting high is meaningful, and adds something to life and existence. That’s what this book is about.
Some people seek to get high more often than others – some every single day. In such cases, the craving for the high can become a problem in itself, and the risk of harm increases. Physical, mental and social difficulties are likely when the experience of being high is sought out very often. But I’m interested in how getting high can still be meaningful, even when it can be said to be harmful based on objective criteria. This book also explores this question.
Nature and culture
Drugs alter our consciousness. In the brain, things happen that cause the relationship between oneself and the world to change. The world appears different to us – not because it is different, but because certain chemical processes change our perception of it. If the high is intense, our consciousness can be altered in ways beyond our control. Our cognitive and bodily functions start to live their own lives – we can’t think ourselves sober, can’t stop the hallucinations through pure strength of will; no matter how hard we try, we can’t walk in a straight line if we are drunk beyond a certain point. One aspect of being high is pure nature – a really, really drunk man will find it impossible to stay on his feet, and eventually fall asleep.
But in a way, this is fairly uninteresting. Few situations involving intoxicants end up with the person in a kind of natural state, in which the abilities that distinguish humans from other creatures are fully shut down. At all stages of intoxication before nature takes over completely, our culture sets guidelines as to what substance you should take to get high, when you should get high, how high you should get, and where this should happen and with whom. Culture guides us with norms and rules – including when it comes to getting high. And one of the more widely accepted rules is that you shouldn’t end up reduced to nothing but a biological mass, unable to think for and take care of yourself.
It is therefore possible to talk about getting high as both a cultural construct and a neurobiological condition. So let’s take a look at neurobiology and the brain first. What happens up there when the brain is supplied with your drug of choice?
Getting high as a process in the brain
When you take a drug, a range a different signalling substances – so-called neurotransmitters – are set in motion between the nerve cells of what is known as the brain’s reward system. The effects of this process vary, depending on the neurotransmitter that is released. Dopamine gives you feelings of joy and happiness; endorphins provide a similar experience in addition to pain relief; serotonin affects the mood, and can make you especially amorous. A number of other neurotransmitters also exist, but these are among the most central when it comes to getting high. When you take a psychoactive drug, the amount and behaviour of these signalling substances is affected, which may in turn result in changes to your emotional state, cognition and sensory experiences.
However, it isn’t necessary to take drugs to activate the brain’s reward system. As soon as the glugging sound of the wine enters your ear canal, the brain’s reward centres start to rumble. Your brain knows what’s coming, and starts to look forward to it. It knows that wine tastes good, it knows that the effects of drinking it feel good, and it prepares for what’s to come. These neurobiological processes are not a result of the alcohol itself – you haven’t even had a sip of it yet – but because your brain’s reward centres have learned from previous experience, they may already be activated. This illustrates that the mechanisms in the brain that result in us getting high are not actually dependent on us taking an intoxicant.
Rather, we might say that our ability to get high is deeply rooted in human biology. We are designed in such a way that we are rewarded – we experience a kind of high – when we do the activities most necessary for our survival: when we eat, and when we have sex. In the words of H. C. Anderson: Everything in nature is so wisely arranged that it puts one in a good mood just to think of it!
The brain needs a lot of energy, and has a dedicated mechanism for acquiring it. When the body is supplied with food, especially food with a high salt, sugar and fat content, large amounts of dopamine are released into the brain and the body is flooded with pleasure. The fact that foods containing a lot of salt, sugar and fat have this effect has an evolutionary explanation. When our ancestors wandered around on the African plains around 150,000 years ago, access to energy-rich food was much more limited than it is today. If wild boar and sweet fruits were on the menu, the brain would respond more strongly to these items than to the more common and energy-poor plants. This gave our ancestors an incentive to hunt for salty, sweet and fatty foods – because eating these foods gave them more pleasure. In certain parts of the world today, the problem is that we now eat too much of these types of foods – that they are all around us, all the time. But the reward centres in the brain don’t take this into account – evolution is unable to keep up with such rapid changes in our surroundings. So our brains continue to flood us with pleasure when we eat calorie-rich foods.
It is obviously favourable for reproduction that sex also activates the brain’s reward system. While we don’t have access to our ancestors’ innermost thoughts on sexual intimacy, we do know that the reward centres in their brains told them that sex was a good thing – and so they wanted to do it more often. Were it not for dopamine, it’s possible that they simply may not have bothered. A lot happens in the brain when you have sex, and if you have an orgasm on top of everything else, a number of the brain’s regions are activated. Neurotransmitters rush around, providing a generous reward.
The chemical processes that provide the experience of being high when taking drugs therefore also occur completely naturally when people do some of their core human tasks, such as surviving and reproducing. Further, many people are rewarded by these same neurotransmitters in connection with other activities, such as when encountering the beauty and vastness of nature, exercising and listening to music. This is what’s known as a natural high.
So if the body is able to produce a high completely naturally, and in many cases for free, why do we seek out the high offered by psychoactive substances?
If you are deeply in love, you will have unusually high amounts of dopamine and phenylethylamine – which is also found in chocolate – streaming around between your nerve cells. Your body trembles, and you think about the object of your affections from morning till night. The feeling is all consuming, bordering on exhausting – but undeniably a wonderful state to be in. Accounts from people who have had positive experiences on MDMA describe this same intense feeling, but multiplied. On MDMA, the love isn’t felt for just one person, but for the entire world – you are flooded by a fundamental love and empathy that is boundless. Experiences out in nature can also be intense. It can be captivating to hike to the top of a mountain and observe the endless, undulating landscape stretching out below you. Neurotransmitters are released, and good feelings spread throughout your body. But on the right drug, it’s more than sufficient to simply discover the bark of a tree, or the colour of its leaves, or a trickling stream. Such tiny details suddenly have enormous power, and can give you the feeling of fundamental insight into the majesty and complexity of nature. Such substances provide so much that the senses require very little input.
A substance-free high can be intense and enjoyable, but it hardly compares to the high a number of drugs can provide. If your friends have been looking forward to an evening involving alcohol, marijuana or ecstasy, they’d probably be disappointed if you offered them a view of the sunset instead. Not to underestimate how beautiful a sunset can be, but it’s something else entirely. And in this book, I’ll mainly be focusing on the high that people seek from intoxicants. It is however important to remember that being high is a natural state for human beings, and not something modern society has invented. And, as we’ll soon see, nor is the use of various substances to get high a modern phenomenon.
An artificial high?
But before we leave the natural high, it is worth reflecting on the term ‘natural’. Because if the body’s own, internal mechanisms that give rise to a high are natural, is a high brought about through the use of drugs therefore ‘unnatural’? Artificial and false?
I was a prim and self-righteous fifteen-year-old. I thought that my classmates who had started drinking, and the few of them who had also started smoking hash, were such fakes. That the sense of joy, excitement and camaraderie they expressed wasn’t real – that they were being duped by the drugs and alcohol. The changes in their perception of the world were not down to the body’s own mechanisms – they had introduced something to it from outside. Wasn’t this cheating?
This is a moral objection to the use of drugs, and I won’t spend much time on it here. Basically, people are constantly seeking ways in which to alter their consciousness: some go to church, some hike into the mountains and some go to football matches – and all of them do so because it puts them into a state they find pleasurable. We seek the company of certain people over others because they make us feel good; we occasionally make fresh croissants for breakfast instead of porridge, because they taste good and make the meal less mundane. And what about the first coffee of the day? It feels especially important, because it contains a stimulating substance – caffeine. Our morning coffee has an effect beyond its pleasant taste. It alters our consciousness; does something to our presence in the world.
To a significant extent, presence is about altering our consciousness in the direction of something we value. Drugs are an effective tool, and it is difficult to see how using this tool above any other can be reprehensible in itself. Obviously there are situations in which drugs must be avoided. It isn’t morally responsible to get into a car after an evening of drinking, or to be tripping on psychedelics when you’re responsible for the safety of a child, but this is a separate issue. There is no guarantee that people will behave admirably while high, but nor is there any guarantee of this when people are sober, either. The point is that in a moral sense, drugs are no different to attending church, going to football games or hiking in the mountains when it comes to the available ways in which to seek valued states of awareness.
The idea that drugs are an unnatural and artificial way to get high also has another related dimension, to do with how getting high removes us from the truth of reality. Consider the following story, told to me by an acquaintance: on the way home after an enjoyable night on the town – the kind of night on which the conversations are great, the dancing is great, the drugs are great, everything is great – he lies down on the asphalt, which is still warm from the summer sun, and looks up at the sky. A bright, clear moon hangs there – a full moon – and he has an experience of cosmic harmony. Everything in the world is connected, and the world is wonderful. Until he realises that it’s actually a streetlamp he’s lying there admiring. In a split second the situation goes from harmony to comedy, and he laughs and feels even more amazing.
The situation illustrates that the man was lying there deluded. It wasn’t the full moon that gave him these warm, fuzzy feelings, but a simple streetlight. Still, until he realised his mistake, to him the streetlamp was the moon – and this moon was just as real as the streetlamp became afterwards. Had he not discovered the slip, the moon would ever after have remained his faithful companion as he lay there on the asphalt. The experience was just as real as the moon itself – even though it wasn’t in fact the moon he was admiring.
Those who are keen to point out that being high is something unnatural and false will probably be most concerned with the fact that the man confused the moon and the streetlamp. This is what drugs do – they make believe things that aren’t true. And there is something in this. Certain intoxicants, such as alcohol, slow our responses and reaction times, reducing our cognitive abilities. This puts us at greater risk of misunderstanding and making erroneous interpretations; of reacting too late and becoming muddled in our reasoning – especially if we drink a lot. This aspect of getting high might be what resulted in the man on the asphalt misconstruing the streetlamp for the moon. But if we are to understand the point of getting high, it is perhaps more important to emphasise the other side of the story – that the experience was equally true, regardless of what the man was actually seeing.
Philosophy poses a fundamental question: what is real? When we are high, our consciousness is altered and our perception of the world around us is changed. Does this mean that these perceptions are false? Is what we experience while high an artificial and false version of an actual and real reality?
In the 1920s, two sociologists, William Isaac Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas, created a shortcut around such challenges. Instead of pondering the question of reality per se, they formulated what became known as the Thomas theorem: ‘if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences’. A pragmatic approach to one of philosophy’s eternal problems. Their simple observation was that people adjust their actions in accordance with how a situation is defined and experienced, regardless of whether the situation is objectively misinterpreted. This is most clearly exhibited in individuals suffering from psychosis, who have real delusions. I worked on a psychiatric ward for a few years, and here the Thomas theorem demonstrated its validity on a daily basis. It wasn’t always easy to understand the strange behaviours of some of the patients, but every now and again we would gain some level of insight. We had, for example, a patient who was terrified of stepping on a specific line on the floor. Every time he moved towards it, he stared down at the floor and carefully stepped over it. It turned out that he was terrified that touching this line would cause a terrible accident – if he touched the line, someone close to him would fall from a bridge. No wonder he took such great care to avoid it. Another example is children who fear ghosts, or monsters under the bed. Neither of these creatures exist, except in the child’s imagination – and that’s more than enough. But such children are scared because they experience the monsters under the bed as real.
These are typical examples that clearly illustrate the point, but the mechanism applies not only to children and individuals in the midst of psychosis. Even for ordinary adults, the experience of something being real is crucial – this is what we orient ourselves by in our encounters with the world. Every now and again we might objectively misinterpret a situation, yet still act in accordance with our delusion. But much of what we navigate by does not necessarily have a true, objective basis. What about identity, community, love, freedom – all central aspects of the experience of being high. Does it make sense to talk about a true identity, a specific community-based reality, about love and freedom, which the high, in this case, would take us away from?
This is part of the problem with considering the experience of being high as artificial and unnatural. Because if it is true that being high results in an artificial and false experience of reality, then this indicates that in a sober state we have access to a real and unsullied reality. This is likely not the case – or at least, it remains to be proven. Rather, if we look at people’s accounts of being high, many say that they have the experience of getting closer to something. They get in touch with themselves, and with emotions that are inaccessible via their humdrum, everyday consciousness. Getting high doesn’t remove us from a true experience of freedom and friendship, and replace it with an artificial and false one. Like all thoughts, perceptions and feelings that arise in our consciousness, the experience of being high is just as real and true as any other experience. And the fact that drugs do offer true, meaningful experiences probably has a lot to do with why people have always sought them out.
The history of the high
People have been aware of the state of being high throughout all of history, and wherever people have lived. Under all these different circumstances, getting high has had an extremely varied range of meanings. A brief historical account of some of the most central drugs illustrates this, and simultaneously reminds us that the reasons why people get high and use certain drugs today are in no way fixed.
We can start with the birthplace of our civilisation – Ancient Greece. The period and location for philosophical and political ideas that are still alive and kicking today. In Ancient Greece, a central arena for the formulation of these ideas was the symposium. Certain events in our society bear this name to this day – what might be described as a slightly pompous variant of a conference or seminar, where participants deliver lectures and discuss a specific topic. But what is perhaps less well-known about the ancient Greek symposium is the role that wine played in it. Alcohol might also be said to be a central component in contemporary symposiums, although its consumption is usually banished to evening dinners and doesn’t constitute the main motivation for participating. In Ancient Greece, however, drinking was often the point. The word ‘symposium’ comes from the verb ‘sympinein’ which means ‘to drink together’.
Plato’s famous dialogue The Symposium starts with the guests discussing what they are going to drink. The discussion is about the proportions between water and wine, how many kraters of wine they should drink, the size of the kraters, the size of the drinking cups. Since the participants are already a little hungover from the previous evening, they decide to opt for moderation and therefore settle for three kraters. In other words, they were aware of how the volume of alcohol consumed might affect the course of the symposium, and they didn’t want things to get out of hand. The potential for this is described by Dionysus, god of fertility and ecstasy, in a play by Eubulus, where he gives an account the significance of the number of kraters of wine: one for health, the second for love and enjoyment, the third to aid sleep. After the third krater, the wise man goes home. But should matters deteriorate, the fifth krater is for shouting, the sixth for a drunken party… the ninth for gall and the tenth for madness and people throwing furniture around.
Despite the fact that things might occasionally get a little out of control, Plato believed that the symposiums were extremely valuable instruments of politics and statesmanship. The same is claimed by historian Bjørn Qviller, who has investigated the symposium’s social and political role in Ancient Greece. According to Qviller, the symposiums promoted friendship and social and political integration. They provided rituals that turned enemies into friends, and were central institutions for political decisions. And without wine, there were no symposiums. Qviller even writes that ‘the Greeks discovered politics because they had access to plenty of wine.’ This constant flow of alcohol facilitated frequent symposiums, and laid the foundations for a kind of coming together and political practice that inspired the democratic ideals of freedom, participation and equality.
From party to medicine, to sin and shame – and back to the party
Norway did not have quite the same access to alcoholic drinks – not that this can be used as an excuse as to why democracy wasn’t developed here. But mead, beer, wine and liquor have still been of significant social and cultural importance throughout Norway’s history. Alcohol in particular has been a central component in the celebration of festivals and special events, such as the first day of spring, midsummer’s day, and weddings and funerals. So important was this drink made from yeast that for some periods of the Middle Ages, farmers in Norway were ordered to ensure sufficient production. Farmers who didn’t meet their beer production quotas were fined – half a cow, for example – which had to be paid to the bishop. If a farmer repeatedly failed to meet his quotas, he in the worst-case scenario risked banishment from the country.
Such formal norms emphasise that beer was important – it wasn’t just a random part of social gatherings, but a central element. More informal customs, such as setting out a beer for a guest upon their arrival, indicate the same. The saga about Egill Skallagrímsson describes how, if a host failed to comply with this custom, and set a cup of cultured milk on the table instead of beer, Egill would get mightily worked up. First, he would spit on his host and threaten to kill him, but then content himself with pressing out one of his eyes.
Pride was taken in the taste and quality of the beer, and there were many recipes and rules associated with the brewing process. At the same time, people were interested in the beer’s effects. In the Old Norse language, there are several words that refer to the various states of mind that drinking could induce. The most general is ölr, which simply translates as ‘drunk’. Refir means jolly, light-hearted and friendly, and ölrefir therefore refers to the jovial side of drunkenness; óor means angry, agitated and rowdy, and ölóor therefore refers to the darker sides of alcohol consumption. The word öl is also found in a number of other compound words, such as in ölværo, which translates as goodwill and hospitality, and ölværliga, which means obliging and cheerful. It is often said that the Inuit have hundreds of words for snow, and while the Norwegians of the Middle Ages didn’t have quite as many for beer, they certainly had enough to indicate that it held a central place in their culture.
The chemical processes that made Vikings, skalds and bondservants ‘ölr’ thousands of years ago haven’t changed, but much else has – not least, our view of alcohol has gone through significant revisions. When mead and beer were on the menu, alcohol was primarily viewed as a recreational stimulant, something associated with festivities and celebration. But the introduction of liquor in the 1500s changed this. At first, liquor was mainly regarded as a medicine. The word ‘dram’ is linked to this function, since it originates from the Greek drakhmē, a unit used by apothecaries. Liquor was regarded as a kind of universal remedy, which could be used to treat everything from syphilis, stroke and convulsions to ‘evil eyes and the ways of the heart’.
But over time, doctors lost their monopoly on liquor. It continued to function as a medicine, but also became regarded as good for the body on a more everyday level – sort of like our time’s blueberry extract, iron supplements and chewy vitamin tablets. It fortified, warmed and healed – and a swig of liquor was deemed a necessity for anyone undertaking hard physical labour. In the 1820s, fishermen in Nordland garnered support from the local sheriff in their claim that they should be permitted a pel of liquor (approx. 2.5 decilitres) per day at sea – equivalent to around a third of a standard bottle or six shots on the town today. According to the sheriff, people could only begrudge the fishermen this ‘if they hadn’t looked closely at the case’, and referenced the hard conditions under which they worked. Among farmers, too, it was common to fortify oneself with a stiff drink both before and during work. The dram became a part of a number of different situations: there was the dram at breakfast, the dram while at work, the dram taken as an aperitif before a meal, and the dram at night to aid sleep. And then there were also the parties, at which beer, wine and liquor were all consumed.
In 1830, the consumption of liquor in Norway reached 12 litres per person per year, up from just 7 litres at the turn of the century. Today’s 1.5 litres pales in comparison. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that it was during this period that the moderation and abstinence organisations were founded – and they quickly garnered support. In 1850, the largest of them, the Norwegian Association Against Liquor, had 2,000 local branches and 25,000 members, and the puritanical powers of the church played a central role in such movements. The message was that alcohol was sinful, and stopped people living their lives in accordance with the word of God. Scientific environments also began to investigate, and the first major sociological study of the Norwegian population, Eilert Sundt’s On the State of Sobriety in Norway, provided support for the view that alcohol was a problem. Sundt wished to emphasise the ‘evils of drinking’, and used the term ‘fallen’ about those who drank too much. The subject therefore also became a matter of political importance, since ‘fallen’ citizens were deemed of little use. In the latter half of the 1800s, a number of restrictions were placed on which alcoholic drinks could be sold and produced, and at what times and locations.
This link between science and politics became even more apparent during the transition into the 1900s, when the natural scientists and the medical profession also took up the fight against alcohol. A central figure in this movement was physician and teetotaller Johan Schaffenberg. His great ideal was to educate the public about the negative impact of alcohol on both body and mind – the modern individual should be informed of the dangers of alcohol consumption. Once citizens were made aware of the dangers, surely only the weak and degenerate would fall prey to such behaviours. While the Christians believed the consumption of alcohol was a sin, the message from science was more along the lines of it being shameful. Drinkers were individuals without self-control or dignity, who allowed themselves to be tempted – they were weak and useless people. Through his indefatigable efforts, Schaffenberg also made abstinence of interest to politicians, by calculating how much society could save by banning alcohol once and for all. He developed mathematical equations – an irreproachable language – which showed how public health would be improved and crime levels would plummet if only society would outlaw alcohol.
Politicians jumped on the bandwagon, and it is on this basis of varying alliances between the Christians, scientists and politicians that we can understand the prohibition era of the 1920s. It was suddenly possible to end up being of interest to the police simply for being in possession of something that, until recently, had been a central part of life and social gatherings.
Throughout history, alcohol has therefore been shrouded in ideas and opinions, in which the dominant narratives have been about rituals and celebration, medicine, restoratives, joy, sin, shame and crime.
Heroin for coughs
In Asia, opium has had a similar history to that of alcohol in the West, in which the plant’s functions as a medicine and recreational drug have existed side-by-side. In India in the 1500s, opium was mainly used as a medicine, in much the same way that liquor was used in Norway. It was a universal remedy, used to treat a number of different ailments and diseases. But it was also woven into rituals and used recreationally – it was common courtesy to offer guests a little opium, for example.
Historically, China is the country in which opium and getting high are most closely connected. In the 1700s and 1800s, the smoking of opium became widespread. Among the upper classes, the enthusiasm for opium was reminiscent of our time’s wine culture. People were interested in how the substance was produced, and its quality and price were assessed based on variables such as shape, colour, consistency, potency and aroma. Even the production year was important to more affluent opium smokers – something that will be familiar to wine enthusiasts today. To the lower classes, however, such considerations were irrelevant – they had to be thankful for whatever they could get. Much opium smoking took place in private contexts, but it was also institutionalised in the opium dens. Some were for workers, and were dirty, dark and gloomy, while others were for the rich, and were clean, light and orderly. Travelling British author Somerset Maugham, who visited a salon for the well-off, was both surprised and impressed by the refined and friendly atmosphere. People were agreeable; they sat and read or chatted over their opium pipes, and it reminded him of the intimate pubs in Berlin where people could enjoy a drink and while away a few pleasant evening hours.
The smoking of opium spread to the West to some extent, but here the plant was primarily used as a medicine, not as a drug for recreational use. It was considered relatively harmless, and in most countries could be accessed fairly easily. In many countries in Europe, opium could be found in some medicinal form or other in most households, and it was used to treat all kinds of maladies. Morphine was first extracted from the opium poppy in the early 1800s, and this eventually came to be regarded as a more suitable medicine than opium. Heroin was produced for the first time in 1874, and after a time this too achieved a certain popularity as a medicine. If you were suffering from a cold around the year 1900, you could pop into a pharmacy and purchase a little cough syrup containing heroin. However, the side-effects of opiates such as morphine and heroin were soon discovered – patients experienced the symptoms of withdrawal when they stopped using them.
After a time, the negative consequences of the use of opium, morphine and heroin attracted greater attention, and in 1909 the first International Opium Commission was held in Shanghai, the primary objective of this meeting being to agree upon terms for international trade. Several conferences followed, and in 1912 the first International Opium Convention was signed at The Hague, ordering countries to control and oppose the dissemination of opiates. This reduced the use of the substances, but at the same time paved the way for illegal markets and new definitions. Morphine maintained its status as a medicine, and continues to do so today, while heroin was completely redefined. In just a few decades, heroin went from being a medicine that could be purchased in pharmacies to a highly illegal drug – the possession of which could land you in prison. This has remained heroin’s dominant status throughout the latter half of the 1900s and until today – a street drug that has sent hundreds of thousands of people to prison, and to the grave.
Shiva and punishment
Several US states have legalised cannabis in recent years, and when the Americans open a new market this is a potential goldmine for entrepreneurs. Market forces are unleashed, and if anyone has the idea that ganja gummies (chewy vitamins), funny honey (honey) or highgasms (condoms) simply must exist, then opportunities abound; would-be business owners might then contact graphic designers and marketing agencies specialising in brand-building for cannabis products. This is all a far cry from the reality Henry Anslinger, director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, envisaged when he initiated his campaigns to ban marijuana in the 1930s. In a famous radio speech, he warned all parents that this substance would make their children slaves to the drug, and not only that – ‘(they will) become insane and turn to violent crime and murder.’
But it’s even further from both Anslinger’s propaganda and today’s innovative cannabis products to the Hindus’ religious relationship with the marijuana plant. Neither chewable vitamins nor madness are associated with marijuana in the Vedas, the ancient texts on which the Hindu religion is based. In these texts, which are around 3–4,000 years old, cannabis is described as one of five holy plants, whose distinctive leaves contained guardian angels. In the Vedas, marijuana, known as Bhang, is regarded as a gift from Shiva (God), intended to promote joy and free humans from fear. According to the texts, Shiva discovered the plant by chance. He had been seeking shade from the sun, and slept beneath the large leaves of the cannabis plant; when he woke he was curious about the leaves and so gathered a few samples. He had been feeling dejected following a fight with his family, but after eating the leaves he immediately felt invigorated and in high spirits. Shiva’s tribute to the plant has resulted in him being known as the Lord of Bhang.
This is how, several thousand years ago, the cannabis plant came to play a role in Hindu rituals in India and the Himalayan states. The plant was also widely used in folk medicine in these areas, and in some places, such as Nepal, it is still used in the treatment of a number of conditions. It was also used simply for the sake of enjoyment. The most common way of preparing it was to soak it in liquid and serve it as a drink; bowls of this were set out at festivals and celebrations, and as a mark of hospitality. And over time, cannabis became an integrated part of daily life for large parts of India’s population, as both a medicine and a recreational stimulant, and in religious rituals.
There are long, similar traditions of cannabis use in the Arab world and parts of the African continent, while in Europe and the Americas its historic roots are more recent. In the latter areas, cannabis has historically never held a strong or widespread role. A famous exception is the Caribbean islands, and especially Jamaica, but here, too, use of the plant is more recent. The use of cannabis in Jamaica is linked to the Indians who came to work on the country’s sugar plantations, and by the end of the 1800s the substance had a strong foothold in the culture. Not least, cannabis was central in the development of Rastafarian culture, a political and religious movement that considers the plant holy, and which the rest of the world recognises through reggae, dreadlocks and other symbols.
Throughout history, cannabis has been regarded as a fairly harmless drug. The substance’s potential for harm has been investigated on a number of occasions – the British colonial powers decided to look into the Indians’ use of cannabis towards the end of the 1800s, but the Indian Hemp Drug Commission concluded that moderate use caused no problems of a physiological, psychological or moral nature. But this image of a relatively harmless substance changed radically throughout the 1900s.
The above-mentioned Henry Anslinger was a central figure in this process. As the head of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics, he was one of the architects behind the war on drugs. Anslinger attempted to build his arguments on scientific foundations, but was unsuccessful – he invited thirty researchers to give their opinion on marijuana, but all of them except one responded that the substance was relatively harmless. Nor was its use widespread among the population, but rather limited to certain minority groups and counterculture trends, such as the Beat culture and eventually the hippie movement. One way of interpreting this mobilisation of significant resources against the use of cannabis, is to view it as an attack on members of society who challenged the social order.