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Reading: Why We Do Drugs

Because we have a biological urge to get high that rivals our drives for food, water, and sex, according to psychopharmacologist Ronald Siegel.

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Call it blasphemy in these days of a shrieking national debate over drug policy, drug use, and the growing drug economy. Call it irresponsible at a time when community leaders publicly compare the effects of crack to the effects of slavery. Call it juvenile now that the Summer of Love, which wasn't so love-filled, is the stuff of history books, and now that many of its graying veterans specify "no drugs" when advertising for housemates. But, says somber scientist Ronald Siegel, we'll never understand human culture unless we understand this: getting high is fun.

People take drugs because drugs feel good. People take drugs because drugs make them dizzy, and, as whirling children around the world can tell you, it's a kick to make yourself dizzy sometimes. People take drugs to feel sharper, or perhaps fuzzier. People take drugs to make them feel closer to the people around them. People take drugs, legal and illegal, to make pain go away. Perhaps most important, people take drugs for the same reason they go on vacation or change the furniture around: to keep one day from seeming like another, to keep each moment from blending into the next, to keep from being bored by life's minutiae.

The problem with drugs, of course, is that we often don't get what we bargained for. While we take them to feel good, we can end up feeling terrible. We may start out wanting to feel closer to the people around us, but we're just as likely to end up feeling lonelier and more isolated. And when drug use becomes habitual, it can numb us far more effectively than life's minutiae ever could.

Socially, Reverend Cecil Williams is closer to right than wrong when he writes, as he did in an op-ed in the New York Times in mid-February, that "the crack epidemic in the United States amounts to genocide." Moreover, crack is not alone: the ravages of alcohol abuse are everywhere, and tobacco kills more than a quarter million Americans a year. So why, with the price of drug abuse so obvious, is it so hard for us to just say no?

Because, says Dr. Siegel in his controversial new book, Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise, the biological impulse to get high rivals the biological impulse for food, water, and sex. It is, in Siegel's words, "the fourth drive."

Siegel, a psychopharmacologist and associate research professor at UCLA, was once characterized by Omni magazine as the man who "probably knows more about how drugs work than anyone else alive." That said, he is an unlikely guru. He is careful to point out that his own drug use is limited to clinical experiments and that his idea of a good time is to tromp through the brush and count marijuana seeds in bird droppings. But enter Siegel's world, and you will have moments when you wonder whether someone slipped some orange sunshine into your morning coffee.

Siegel sets up his "fourth drive" argument by leading the reader on a relentless tour, showing reindeer, dogs, birds, cats, elephants, and monkeys seeking out fermented berries, magic mushrooms, and hallucinogenic plants. (Imagine Timothy Leary hosting a National Geographic special.) Here is Siegel hiding in the bushes with binoculars to watch how animals react to new drugs he has planted in their midst. Here he is feeding ethanol to circus elephants to get them drunk. And here he is conducting laboratory studies guaranteed to put him forever on the enemies list of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

But what results! Coked-up snails climb faster. Drunk parrots talk more. Male felines get erections after encounters with catnip. Dogs yelp and twitch after eating magic mushrooms. Low dosages of LSD lead spiders to improve the spinning of their webs; with higher dosages, their webs become strikingly beautiful but decidedly nonfunctional. Drunk elephants stampede, and one cat on LSD lets a mouse nurse from her. Many individual animals return willingly to the source of their intoxication for another trip, while others stay away forever. Inexplicably, but not surprisingly, some individual animals become addicted, while others don't.

So, the argument goes, the birds do it, the bees do it, why don't you and me do it? To paraphrase Siegel, the birds do it, the bees do it, so you and I can't help but do it--because "drug seeking and drug taking are biologically normal behaviors." By itself this animal analogy is not convincing. Most animals shit in public view and fuck only during well-defined reproductive periods. And it's hard to imagine a reasonable scientist arguing in 1990 that we should embrace our animal instincts, our biologically normal behaviors, by defecating in the street and eschewing recreational sex. Civilization has its advantages.

But as Siegel eventually shows, the urge to become intoxicated is a constant in animal and human history, from the time our earliest ancestors observed animal reactions to certain plants and from the time these same ancestors stumbled upon the joys of fermented fruit.

Stone Age dwellers cultivated opium poppies. The ancient Egyptians held a monthly festival to honor the god of intoxication. In the Andes natives have always chewed coca leaves--"the nicest chemical gift the brain can receive," according to Siegel. In central Turkey young children make a game of eating different wild plants to test the pleasant--and not-so-pleasant--sensations. Noted 19th-century artists and writers in Paris's Latin Quarter belonged to the Hash Eaters' Club, while many of their fellows obliterated themselves drinking absinthe. And while George Bush may or may not be right about profits from the international drug trade being used to finance revolution in Central America, one thing is certain: our own war of independence was greatly aided by profits from trading in tobacco, the 18th-century drug of choice. In fact, the use of drugs may be at the base of the Judeo-Christian belief system--there's the tantalizing possibility that the Garden of Eden's forbidden fruit was a hallucinogenic thorn apple.

But so what? What good does it do us, as we try to figure out a way to get drunk drivers off the road and automatic weapons out of our housing projects, to know that the urge to alter our consciousness is virtually instinctual? Can we go beyond being amused by the prodigious drug use of Ulysses S. Grant, who took up tobacco in an effort to thwart his raging alcoholism, ended up smoking 25 cigars each day, and then developed mouth and lip cancer and was given cocaine to ease the pain?

We can if we accept that the war on drugs isn't working, that we'll never build prisons fast enough to find room for all the drug offenders, and that the philosophical underpinnings of the drug war--the carrot-and-stick approach of drug education and incarceration--cannot work because our urge to get high ultimately is so strong that we cannot be either educated or frightened out of it. "To say no is to deny all that we are and all we could be," writes Siegel in a lofty moment; less philosophically, prohibition didn't work either.

But something, perhaps just the historical accident of the waves of social mores, is working in regard to the two most widely used and abused drugs in the United States. Per capita consumption of cigarettes has dropped by more than 25 percent over the past 15 years. Alcohol use is down only marginally in recent years, and since 1970 has hovered at historically high levels, but the use of hard liquor has gone down steadily since 1969. In the case of tobacco at least it seems clear that public education, along with a tenacious grass-roots campaign to deglamorize the once-sexy weed, has succeeded. Might not public propaganda about other drugs--typified by the ad showing scrambled eggs in a frying pan and the line "This is your brain on drugs"--do the same?

Siegel may scoff at the scare tactics represented by the frying-pan ad, but it would be hard to dispute that public attitudes toward drug use hardened in the latter part of the 80s. Many more college students than a decade ago support the idea of employers requiring drug tests, and far fewer favor the legalization of marijuana. Comedians can no longer count on an easy laugh at the mere mention of the word "cocaine," and twelve-step programs are all the rage.

Antidrug propaganda might have an even better chance of succeeding if the profit motive were eliminated from the drug equation, a way of thinking that has led a growing number of public figures--including Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, Representative George Crockett (D-Michigan), U.S. District judge Robert Sweet of New York City, and conservative gurus Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley--to call for the legalization or decriminalization of most drugs.

Surprisingly, Siegel is not among those advocating legalization. Most illegal drugs today are too dangerous, he argues, and letting the genie out of the bottle would hurt efforts to deal with the problems of addiction. Instead, he says, we should demand that science manufacture perfectly safe drugs, to be administered as medicine for our fourth drive. It's simple, really--we acknowledge as a society that it's fun to get high, we admit that the way many people are going about it now is stupid at best and overwhelmingly destructive at worst, and we ask science to bail us out.

Science won't of course, and thank goodness for small favors. For if drugs were perfectly safe, what would keep users from becoming abusers? The danger of drugs works as a check for recreational users; as delightful as altering the consciousness can be sometimes, most of us can count on the postdrunk hangover or the posttrip exhaustion to remind our bodies of the virtues of moderation. And who wants perfectly safe drugs, anyway? Isn't danger part of their warped charm?

Of course it's hardly fair to fault Siegel for not solving the problem of how American society should tackle drug abuse--or for the book's other major disappointment, his inability to explain why some animals and humans can use drugs casually, while others fall relatively quickly into addiction. These are vexing problems, and one lone psychopharmacologist shouldn't be expected to figure out all the answers.

Siegel's contribution lies elsewhere. Intoxication is like many LSD trips: it could have been half as long and still gotten its point across. But it does contain innovative thinking about old problems, and many of its images linger for days. Most important, Siegel places getting high in what appears to be its rightful context--it's a ritual humans have indulged in, for better or for worse, since our earliest days.

Siegel also reminds us that probably only a minuscule fraction of people who have ruined their lives--and the lives of others--with drugs said as they lit up the crack pipe for the first time, "Gee, I think I'll get so addicted to this drug that I'll abandon my children, stop going to work, and hire eight-year-old boys to risk their lives by acting as my lookouts." No, what they probably said is, "This is going to feel goooooood." And at least at the beginning, they were right.

Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise by Ronald K. Siegel, E.P. Dutton, $19.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Will Northerner.

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