21 August 2009
By: Jonathan Beaty
The Government has declared total war on illegal drugs. But is it a battle that can ever be won? No, according to a new book by Ronald K. Siegel, a research psychopharmacologist at the UCLA School of Medicine. In Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise (Dutton; $19.95), Siegel argues that the war is doomed because it is against man’s own nature. His controversial contention: humanity’s pursuit of happiness through chemicals — whether ; caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, opium, marijuana or cocaine — is a universal and inescapable fact of life.
Siegel, a scientific consultant on the nature of drug addiction to two presidential commissions, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the World Health Organization, is not the first expert to conclude that the desire to alter one’s state of consciousness is a drive as elemental as hunger, thirst and sex. But he takes the argument a radical step further by proposing that society would be best served if it accepted the inevitability of intoxication and launched an all-out effort to invent less damaging, nonaddictive substitutes for alcohol and the popular illicit drugs.
In an attempt to prove his point, Siegel presents exhaustive evidence of the quest for intoxication throughout history and throughout the animal kingdom. In many cases, humans and animals have shared the same drugs. Hawkmoths, for example, fly erratically after drinking the nectar of datura flowers. The Aztecs used the same plant as a pain-killer, and British soldiers in Jamestown who made a salad of its leaves became intoxicated for eleven days.
Siegel admits that today’s drugs of choice, both legal and illegal, are too dangerous and too seductive to be used safely. But he is convinced that nontoxic, nonaddictive drugs can be devised, even though “the research may require the same effort and cost man put forth to go to the moon.” The utopian intoxicants he envisions would provide pleasure or stimulation within limits but would not cause a user to lose control, nor pose any danger of overdose. Such wonder drugs may be years away, Siegel concedes, but he notes that molecular chemists have developed hundreds of new psychoactive compounds that are still waiting to be tested.
Siegel’s book may draw spirited attacks from conservatives and skepticism from those who have fought and conquered addictions, but his ideas are respected by drug authorities. Says Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a Harvard psychiatrist and author of several books on drugs: “I have come to the view that humans have a need — perhaps even a drive — to alter their state of consciousness from time to time.” Pioneer drug researcher Dr. Andrew Weil of the University of Arizona College of Medicine confirms that view: “There is not a shred of hope from history or from cross-cultural studies to suggest that human beings can live without psychoactive substances.”
But the experts part company with Siegel on the idea of building better . drugs. “There is a real danger,” says Weil, “in thinking there is a perfect drug that won’t interfere with psychological and spiritual growth — and without the potential for dependence and damage.” Reaction from drug czar William Bennett’s newly created Office of National Drug Control Policy is equally cool. Says Dr. Herbert Kleber, the agency’s deputy director: “I can only note that all previous attempts along this line have ended in disaster. Remember that morphine was used to treat opium addiction, and heroin was used to treat morphine addiction. If the drug Siegel envisions were too good, people would just want more of it.”Republish