Archive for the ‘cannabis’ Category

Such observations suggest that pre-existing psychopathology is not a requisite for initial or even continued drug taking’and that drugs themselves are powerful reinforcers, even in the absence of physical dependence (Gilman et al. 1985:534).

Please note: the above quote was in my previous post. It is repeated here because it should have been followed by the following paragraph:

The ‘reinforcing capacity of a drug’ became the term referring to a particular drug’s inherent capacity to induce animals to repeat actions which result in drug administration. The reinforcing factor appeared to differ for each drug. For example, under a that particular laboratory set-up, rats would press a bar 250 times to obtain caffeine, 4,000 times for heroin, but 10,000 consecutive times to obtain cocaine (Spotts and Shontz 1980:15).

Although wild animals do not have comparable access to drugs, there are numerous examples of them ingesting psychoactive substances. There is a close association between reindeer and the psychoactive fly agric mushroom in Siberia (Furst 1976:101). It is commonly accepted that grazing animals prefer fermented fallen fruit and that birds sometimes select nectars which intoxicate. Altogether, by the 1980s, increasing evidence demonstrated that animals seek out psychoactive experiences. Researchers from the University of California claim knowledge of more than 2,000 cases of animals consuming psychoactive substances, of which 310 were investigated and their use found to be ‘intentional and addictive’ (Greenberg 1983:300). And see next post.

About the same time as queries began about excessive drug seeking, a rush of interest grew in the unfolding science of neurobiology. Instead of electricity firing the brain as formerly thought, scientists discovered that central nervous system activity depended upon at least fifty chemical compounds academics named ‘neurotransmitters’. The latter controlled and coordinated flows of information between the neurons within the brain, including data about emotions, memories and pleasures.

The main chemical transmitters include dopamine, acetylcholine, nor epinephrine, serotonin, gamma amino butyric acid, and the recently discovered opioid peptides. Each possesses a specific molecular and spatial arrangement which enables it to ‘plug’ into a receptor in a target neuron, rather like a key into a lock. The neuron is thus activated: information passes from one neuron to the next, and the neurotransmitter, its function accomplished, decays.

This may seem far distant from packing a cone or sipping gin and tonic. Here is the connection. Human and non- human mammals are not the only natural phenomena containing neurotransmitters. Some plants contain (almost) identical chemicals. A unique situation results. The nicotine in tobacco, for example, fits receptors designed for the acetylcholine receptor and, once plugged into the receptor, nicotine activates the same processes that acetylcholine can activate. Similarly, morphine from opium poppies fits receptors for the body’s endogenous opiates… and so on for each of those plants which contain chemical compounds which are analogous to brain neurotransmitters.

Olds, acknowledged now as one of the fathers of neuroscience, raised the suggestion that mammal brains (that is, those of human plus non-human mammals) might possess a ‘reward’ strata; Olds had in mind some sort of pay-off which would automatically follow mating, eating, and drinking, and thus encourage repetition of these acts. The concept of a reward structure gradually found acceptance, and in 1976 Olds suggested that drug use may also involve the neural substrate concerned with the brain reward system. Olds based this on the structural resemblances between psychoactive drugs and neurotransmitters, and the fact that drug use clearly reinforced further drug use.

Subsequent studies justify Old’s hypothesis and revealed that people consuming drugs are strengthening or inhibiting neurotransmitters in their brains, or changing their synthesis, storage or release. Through this, drug consumers alter emotions, mood, memory, reasoning powers and perceptions of self and others (Levine 1978:344; Nahas 1981).

However, some differences exist between the two situations: ie in the behaviour of brain transmitters versus drugs analogous to natural brain transmitters. Appetite, satiation, sexual depletion and other biological restraints govern mammal capacity to eat drink, and mate. Consequently the latter activities are not constantly reinforced to the extent that drug use is. See below. Additionally, the plant chemicals drug users select are much more resistant to decay than are the mammal neurotransmitters of which the plant chemical are analogues. Consequently plant chemicals remain longer at the site than the genuine neurotransmitters, and often become potent neurotoxic agents (Kosterlitz and Hughes 1978:412).


The results of animal research has received extensive critical scrutiny. It has to do with money. New synthetic drugs are more likely to receive approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration if they have little or no reinforcing capacity. To evaluate this, three research methods are utilized: drug substitution procedures; continuous self administration with naive animals; and use of escape/avoidance behavioral baselines (Thompson and Young 1978:119 129). Tests use a variety of species (e.g. rat, dog, cat, and non human primates); and investigators use different devices (e.g. lever press, panel press), and different routes of drug administration (e.g. intravenous, oral, intragastric, and inhalation) (Kalant et al.1978:466). Research indicates a number of factors exist which can modify individual animal response. However test results for particular drugs are consistent from laboratory to laboratory even with different experimental parameters and test situations.

Neither is the applicability of the findings to human beings in doubt. The Committee on Problems of Drug Dependence of the National Research Council National Academy of Sciences has addressed this matter as have Thompson and Young (1978), and Johanson and Balster (1978). These sources conclude that the model is valid in respect to humans since the results with a particular drug are consistent from laboratory to laboratory. And these results accord with empirical observation: laboratory animals largely self administer the same drugs which are abused by humans, but do not self administer drugs which are not abused by humans. Hallucinogens seem to be an exception; laboratory animals do not self administer these, even though humans do. However, as noted earlier, there are records of wild animals seeking out hallucinogenic plants so the problem here may be one of failure to deliver the drug to the appropriate tissue.

The conclusion therefore, is that drug users everywhere experience changes in the functioning of reward processes in the limbic system of the brain. As a result, in a situation free of effective controls, users in any society with open access to drugs will consume them in an open ended, unscheduled fashion, and without reference to controls which operate with foods, that is, appetite and satiation.

This does not imply that the effects of drugs on reward centres always ‘induce a compulsive drug oriented behaviour’ (Nahas 1981:1). It is the chemical interaction between drugs and neurotransmitters which is similar in both human and non human animals, not the subsequent behaviour.

Human behaviour depends upon values: social, economic, legal and religious. In fact, the late Schuster, one of the seminal figures in research into drug seeking behaviour among animals, clearly appreciated the sociological implications of his work, particularly the increased importance it gives to social controls.

We are depending on a variety of countervailing influences to prevent the organism [Homo sapiens] from engaging in behavior which evolutionary mechanisms have made extremely seductive…. Why is it that members of this symposia audience, most of whom have access to the major drugs of abuse do not use them in an unregulated manner? We know far too little about the social and psychological factors which produce this resistance to the abuse of drugs. It is our position that this is a major area which must be researched if we are to develop effective prevention to unregulated drug use. In conclusion, our major message is that drug taking is biologically normal and society must learn to live with that fact and to develop the necessary constraints to prevent unregulated drug use (Schuster, Renault and Blaine 1979:17) (italics added).


The Committee on Problems of Drug Dependence of the National Research Council National Academy of Sciences
Furst, P. (1972). Flesh of the gods:the ritual use of hallucinogens. London:George Allen & Unwin.

(1979). Hallucinogens and culture.San Francisco: Chandler & Sharp.

Gilman, A.G., L.S. Goodman, T.W. Rall, and F. Murad (eds.) (1985). Goodman and Gilman’s pharmacological basis of therapuetics. 7th ed. New York: Macmillan.

Greenberg, J. (1983). Natural habits in natural habitats. Science News 124: 300-301.
Johanson, C., and R. Balster. (1978). A summary of the results of a drug self-administered study using substitution procedures in rhesus monkeys. Bulletin on Narcotics 30: 627-628.

Kalant, H. et al. (1978). Behavioral aspects of addition: group report. In J. Fleishman (ed.) The bases of addiction: Report of the Dahlem Workshop on the Bases of Addiction. Abakon: Verlagsgesellscgaft.
Kosterlitz, H.W. & J. Hughes. (1978). Endogenous opoid peptides. In J. Fleishman (ed.) The bases of addiction: Report of the Dahlem Workshop on the Bases of Addiction. Abakon: Verlagsgesellscgaft.

Levine, R.R. (1978). Pharmacology: Drug actions and reactions. Boston: Little Brown and Company.

Nahas, G.G. (1981). A pharmacological classification of drugs  of abuse. Bulletin on Narcotics 33: 1-19.

Schuster, C.R., P.F. Renault, and J. Blaine. (1979). An analysis of the relationship of psychopathology to non-medical drug use. In R. Pickens and L. Heston (eds.) Psychiatric factors in drug abuse. New York: Grune & Stratton.

Spotts, J. & F. Shontz. (1980). Cocaine users : a representative approach. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

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As the prehistoric period begins to close up everywhere—even in the isolated crannies and corners of the world—millennia of prehistoric drug use have left us with no understanding at all of why people use psychoactive dugs. Human beings eat and drink only those substances which nourish their bodies, drugs excepted. They don’t eat soil or grasses  except under bizarre conditions. A half answer might be that we use drugs because drugs satisfy us just as food does. But this begs the question, why should feelings of reward attach to drugs when those same feelings do not attach to any substance accept those that our bodies need ?

In a reversal of natural sequencing, the answer to ‘why do individuals use drugs?’ became clear  following research into ‘why do some individuals overuse drugs?’

 This research began in the USA in the 1960s, following the influx of what seemed excessive student drug use and multiple drug use on US campuses. At the time, the current explanatory paradigm emphasized the causal relationship between drug seeking behaviour and physical dependence, a physiological state which could be empirically verified. Accordingly, early experiments used as subjects already drug dependent animals; it being both unethical and difficult to use people in this type of investigation.

Laboratory animals quickly learn to self administer most of the drugs commonly used by individuals for non‑ medical, recreational purposes. These included  opoids, barbiturates, alcohol, anesthetic gases, local anesthetics, volatile solvents, and central nervous system stimulants like  phencyclidine, nicotine and caffeine. However, animals avoided using substances ignored by humans. This indicated, at first thought, a causal relationship between physical  dependence and drug‑seeking behaviour.

 But logic and  empirical observation led to further investigation.  It revealed that some drugs which do not produce physical  dependence nevertheless produce drug‑seeking behaviour in  experimental animals.  Moreover, it was realized that, even with drugs that produce physical  dependence, the initial drug‑seeking behaviour could not be  attributed to physical dependence since this takes time to  become established.  The general text book Goodman and  Gilman’s Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics (1985) describes  this research thus:


Such observations suggest that pre‑existing psychopathology is not a requisite for initial or even continued drug taking, and that drugs themselves are powerful reinforcers, even in the absence of physical dependence (Gilman et al. 1985:534).

  Although  wild animals do not have comparable access to drugs, there  are numerous examples of them ingesting psychoactive  substances.  There is a close association between reindeer and the psychoactive fly‑agaric mushroom in Siberia (Furst  1972:101).  It is commonly accepted that grazing animals  prefer fermented fallen fruit and that birds sometimes select nectars which intoxicate.  Altogether, there is  increasing evidence that animals seek out psychoactive  experiences.  Researchers from the University of California  claim knowledge of more than 2,000 cases of animals  consuming psychoactive substances, of which 310 were  investigated and their use found to be ‘intentional and  addictive’ (Greenberg 1983:300).


Simultaneous with the above research, a rush of interest began in the newly unfolding science of neurobiology. Instead of electricity firing the brain as formerly thought, scientists discovered that central nervous system activity depended upon least fifty chemical compounds named neurotransmitters. The latter controlled and coordinated flows of information between the  neurons within the brain, including data about  emotions, memories and pleasures.

 The main chemical transmitters  include dopamine, acetylcholine, nor epinephrine, serotonin,  gamma‑amino butyric acid, and the recently discovered opoid  peptides. Each possesses a specific molecular and spatial  arrangement which enables it to ‘plug’ into a receptor in a  target neuron, rather like a key into a lock.  The neuron is thus activated, information passes from one neuron to the  next, and the neurotransmitter, its function accomplished, decays.

 This may seem far distant from  packing a cone or sipping gin and tonic.  Here is the connection. Humans and non- human animals are not the only natural phenomena containing neurotransmitters. Some plants contain (almost) identical chemicals.  A unique situation results. The nicotine in  tobacco, for example, fits receptors designed for  the acetylcholine receptor and, once plugged into the receptor, nicotine  activates the same processes that acetylcholine can activate. Similarly, morphine from opium poppies fits receptors  for the body’s endogenous opiates… and so on. 

However, one difference exists  between plant chemicals and the mammal neurotransmitters of  which they are analogues. Plant neurotransmitters are  much more resistant to inactivation by biotransformation  processes. Therefore plant neurotransmitters often become potent neurotoxic  agents (Kosterlitz and Hughes 1978:412).  Thus, the effect of  psychoactive drugs is to potentiate or inhibit  neurotransmitters, or alter their synthesis, storage or  release.  By this means drug use modifies memory, learning,  emotions, mood, and perceptions of self and others (Levine  1978:344). 

That leaves unanswered the question, “why do drugs make us feel good?”


Furst, P. (1972). Flesh of the gods: The ritual use of hallucinogens.London. George Allen & Unwin.

Greenberg, M. (1983). Natural highs in natural habitats. Science News, 124, 300-301.

Gilman, A.G., Goodman, L.S., Rall, T.W, & Murad, F. (1985). Goodman and Gilman’s pharmacological basis of therapeutics. New York. MacMillan.

Kosterlitz, H.W., and Hughes, J. (1978). Endogenous opoid peptides. In J. Fishman (Ed) The bases of addiction: Report of the Dahlem Workshop on the bases of addiction. Abakon. Verlagagesellschaft.

Levine, R.R. (1978). Drug actions and reactions. Boston. Little Brown and company.

Schuster, C. (197) Drugs as reinforcers in monkey and man. Pharmacological Reviews 27:511-251

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The definition of a phenomena does not lie in an inner quality that endures and gives substance to a phenomena; it derives from its boundaries and limits, the parameters beyond which it becomes something else (Murphy 1980:96).

Drug use involves two factors which determine all human behavior. One is biology—the natural rules that govern living matter in all its forms and phenomena. The second is culture—the ideals, beliefs, practices, history and experiences of a particular social group. Unless accidentally exposed to psychoactive substances, biology and culture  link inseparably in drug use. Consequently, in looking at the causes and results of drug consumption, it is sometimes difficulty to assign priority in terms of influence to either agent. And both  have their share of fierce determinists —individuals and institutions which  over-simplify the issue of drug use and reduce it to either biological factors or socio-cultural ones. This complicates thinking or writing about drug consumption.

The biological consequences of drug consumption occur because psychoactive substances have major effects on the actions of the Central Nervous System (CNS) . They speed it up, or slow it down, or cause it to hallucinate. In human beings the CNS is unique.  It is the principal coordinator and director of all the activities and organs of  the human body, including heart, liver, kidneys, lungs and, in the brain,  the hypothalamus, the cerebral cortex and the limbic subsystem. Hence all drug use entails a real potential for harm.

But the CNS is also the part of our body that makes us human beings. The CNS enables us to experience emotions, to correlate and integrate information, reason abstractly and think creatively, processes not shared by other animals. (Levine 1978:342). Drug  consumption affects these abilities. It takes us away from the general norm we experience in our alert, waking hours. It changes our moods, our capacities for action,  our analytical and reasoning abilities our  orientation to the world outside ourselves. In short, drug consumption alters our consciousness.

Culturally, humans generally seemed to have regarded changing states of consciousness as a good thing.  We know this because people since ancient times have sought to alter consciousness. To achieve it, they used breathing exercises, drumming, whirling, dancing, steam baths, the hypnotic induction of a trance, floatation chambers, isolation, fasting, chanting, meditation and more. What these techniques have in common is that they eliminate the sensory input, or they render it monotonous or meaningless. Without this input, everyday reality and critical self-awareness lift away and the normal mind slips into illusions and dreamlike fantasies: that is, into an altered state of consciousness.

Most of these techniques require time, learning and practice. In many ethical systems such self-discipline legitimizes or sanctifies the resulting change of consciousness and visions that may occur.  Others want the same result effortlessly and rapidly, without the disciplined effort. Drugs make  perfect tools for this. And  because we are thinking, reasoning beings we understand a further ability drug use provides.  By choosing to consume a specific drug, we can customize our altered state of consciousness. Do we want to reduce unwanted levels of activity and feelings of anxiety and nervousness and  increase our feelings of pleasure? Then we choose from among the depressants the one our culture endorses. It might be alcohol or barbiturates, opiates, glues, anesthetics like ether, nicotine in very large doses or kava (Piper methysticum).  Some drugs in this group, like the opiates, also relieve pain (Emboden 1979; Nowlis 1975).

On the other hand, we might the need to feel energized and powerful, to banish fatigue and depression—for a golf game perhaps. Taking stimulants does this by increasing  CNS activity. So we select, according to our culture, from among amphetamines,  cocaine, qat (Catha edulis)  betel nut and nicotine in low doses, caffeine and its derivative theophylline, and the sources  in which these occur, tea, coffee, kola (Cola nitida) and  chocolate (Theobroma cacao).

Or we can choose from among  a third group of drugs, the hallucinogens. These provide us with greatly altered perceptions of time, space or color. Often feelings of depersonalization and ‘soul flight’ accompany these visions. This class of drugs includes LSD  (lysergic acid diethylamide), peyote (Lophophora  williamsii), certain mushrooms such as the Psilocybe genera  and fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), marihuana or hashish  (Cannabis species), and a group of chemicals called the  tropane alkaloids.

Culture phones in the order, drugs and biology deliver the result.


I did  not always think about drugs in this nuanced manner. My  family was steeped in biological determinism,  although we would never have recognized ourselves in this description.  After World War II, I was part of the wave  of young Australians desperate to get out of Australia, to leave sport and sportsmen far behind, and soak up ‘culture’  where it lived: overseas.  My father, a kidney surgeon in Brisbane, recommended I finance myself by first obtaining a pharmacy degree, arguing  that science lay at the bottom of all the things that  intrigued me: ‘These arty-farty  topics—art, history, emotion, poetry—what are they at a fundamental level, but  human cell-to-cell communication, mediated by biology. Chose pharmacy. Who knows where it will take you?’

‘Out of home for sure’, I thought

Pharmacy  was stressful but not quite as pettifogging as I had feared. There was the effort of learning thousands of  drug doses: at least two for each therapeutic substance.  The minimum was the least amount required to bring about the desired effect on the human body, the maximum, the largest amount it was safe to use to achieve the wanted physiological effect.  What gave this knowledge a nerve-wracking, ulcer-producing significance for the pharmacist was the fact that if a patient received an overdose, legal blame fell upon the pharmacist who dispensed the drug, not the doctor who prescribed it. So I was very aware of the consequences of drug use.

But aside from such finicky matters,  I was intrigued to discover the millennium–old history of many plant drugs, and  the degree to which they continue to have validity today in one form or another. And I glimpsed a further dimension. Until this point, I assumed drugs to be the active agents in drug use.  It is the form of language we use that provides  this impression; particularly with drugs that alter consciousness. Drugs ‘alter’ behavior, ‘attack’ vulnerable groups, ‘promote’ aggression, ‘interfere with’ or ‘block’ other responses, ‘disrupt’ or ‘ruin’ family life  etc etc.. Nowlis1975:13).

The absurdity of this thinking burst upon me when my first job as a qualified pharmacist introduced me to ether-using customers. These were invariably elderly, semi-destitute, Northern Irish Catholic immigrants to Australia.  My boss was  from the same ethnic group, (although a generation or two younger), and was  familiar with  the ins-and-outs of ether intoxication.  Women and some men users sniffed the drug, he said; this was considered genteel. But ether could also be swallowed—a repugnant and gorge-invoking act which asserted both masculinity and courage,  Ether was extremely inflammable, . Not only did you have to be cautious getting it into your mouth, but once you had swallowed the ether—a  difficult and unpleasant task for anyone—you had to be careful to break wind or belch with the relevant orifice pointing away from open fires.

Mind you,’ my boss continued, ‘sniffing ether began as a  refined, ladies pastime; it circulated around at quilting bees in the Deep South of the US. Then a few doctors began sniffing it, because ether chemistry allows you to pass  from sober to drunk  to cold sober again in 15 minutes flat. Doctors could fit it in between seeing patients, almost. But in Northern Ireland it really took off for economic reasons. The British raised the tariff on booze, and the very poorest inhabitant there, the Catholics, had to switch from alcohol which they preferred, to the cheaper ether. It was commonly said that if you smelt a man’s breath, you knew his religion’.

This was an ‘anthropological’ moment for me—an instant when I recognized that a phenomena in my own society was  not ‘common sense’ as I had though.  It was bizarre,  illogical. Psycho-active drugs don’t do  things to people. It’s the reverse: people do things with drugs. In the case of the ether users, they  had chosen to alter their state of consciousness and experience the pleasure that accompanied this action. They did this by adopting a novel psychoactive drug which additionally expressed for them their group identity.  And  by selecting this particular drug, ether consumers were exploiting some of the drug’s other  characteristics: the drug’s volatility allowed  users to sniff the vapor, thus celebrating the users’ gentility, because it echoed the middle and upper class contemporary use of smelling salts;  at the same time, ether’s flammability and digestive limitations made swallowing it an apt metaphor for fearlessness and determination.

In other words, ether was a tool. People chose to consume it to alter their state of consciousness. The additional physiological effects which they had deliberately ‘wished upon themselves’, were then employed  as additional tools to make additional social connections and comments—a good example of culture and biology in harness.


My interest in mind-altering substances might have stopped there, but life over-ran my plans. I did get out of Australia, and note the idiom: somehow, nobody of my generation simply ‘left’.  As a ‘cash cow’ pharmacy scored high; I sopped up culture in Europe for two great  years and then married a New York lawyer; a man  with my interests, a quicksilver mind,  but unfortunately a weak heart.  Then, circumstances changed.  My husband died, and I returned to Australia with my children, needing the income I could earn as a pharmacist.

My parents were delighted to see me back, each in their own way. Dad picked out several small second-hand  cars, any one of which he decided was suitable for a widow. My mother wanted to throw a party for me immediately ‘while you still have your accent and pretty New York clothes,. Indeed, I felt going back to pharmacy was a tremendous reversal: away with the pretty clothes just as Mother had foreseen; on with the white coat and the biological sciences. However, despite its long- familiar shortcomings, my city, Brisbane,  presented me with a hitherto unachievable opportunity.

In Manhattan,  my husband and I had become enthralled with tribal  or non-literate art. We could only look: it was too expensive for us to buy.  But back in Brisbane, I found that not only could I could  afford—in a small way—to collect Aboriginal and Pacific tribal artifacts,  but that I could complete a PhD in Anthropology, part-time. This would be a good foundation for understanding the context of tribal art.

At this point, my intention was only to enrich my inner life—draining away fast in Brisbane pharmacies. But, ironically, my  interest in psycho-active substances also revived. I  found that in Australia, anthropology courses not only included ethnographies—recent or present-day studies of small scale traditional societies—but also material from archaeology. Once the domain of  ‘stones, bones and pottery’, archaeology today attempts to describe the life styles of past communities. To my surprise, both these sources,  ancient sites and living ethnographies, are studded with references to psycho-active drug consumption from the deep archaeological past to the present.

From here,  sprang my deep interest in prehistoric drugs and the uses to which people put them.

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 I see the danger coming nearer and nearer, that owing to the enormous influence wielded, directly and indirectly, by those who are concerned in upholding the [drug] traffic, we are approaching a condition of things perilously near the corruption of our political system [authors’ emphasis]. 
                                                                           (Rowntree and Sherwell 1900:107)

Anxiety about drug use feels modern: the message above could be yesterday’s. Filed perhaps by authorities from Bogotá, Bangkok, the Mexican/US border, or other nodal areas of drug trading, it claims that demand for psychoactive substances is so voracious as to rend the social and political fabric. In fact, the speaker is an Englishman, former Prime Minister Lord Rosebery. He addresses the British House of Commons about the consequences of high alcohol demand. The year is 1901.

Rosebery’s consternation introduces my topic. Drug use has great antiquity, and not just as a source of pleasure. In the distant past, as now, people used drugs as tools for social bonding, for contact with the Sacred or spiritual for expressing identity, for manipulating others, and as aids in confronting culturally-specific problems. In short, for millennia, drugs occupied a central place in the economic, political, religious and social life of human beings.

The earliest known and dated association between humans and psycho-active substances goes back more than 50,000 years to the Neanderthal burials at Shanidar Cavein northern Iraq.  Here the deliberate enclosure in a grave of a group of non‑food plants, including the mind-altering Ephedra genus, suggests drug use connected with spiritual beliefs (Furst 1976:4).

According to archaeologist/anthropologist Andrew Sherratt  from the University of Oxford, it can no longer be doubted that drug consumption has been ‘fundamental to human life, and is likely to be at least as old as the emergence of Homo sapiens’ that is about 70,000 -50,000 years before the present era (Sherratt 1995).  Supporting evidence for this comes from  linguistic, mythological, and philological research.  It indicates Palaeolithic hunters (i.e. Ice Age Homo sapiens) consumed psycho-active substances, most probably hallucinogens, right across the Northern Hemisphere during this period.

In that harsh world, neither gods nor God figured in peoples’ cosmology. Ice Age hunters were simple animists. They believed that all living things contained spirits—the mega-fauna they stalked or trapped, the lichen, mosses and  small game they sometimes acquired when  ice and snow  permitted. To get in touch with, and influence, this alternate world, prehistoric people consumed hallucinogens. Priestly figures—shamans—interpreted the resulting visions.

The successful shaman was part anchorman, part saviour,  part metamorphosed animal. Prehistoric art displays his set piece: antlered or horned head gear, a shepherd’s crook, a neckpiece strung with paws of the giant cave bear or other hunting insignia. Drawing upon drug-induced hallucinations, the shaman became  ‘master of animals’ with  an ability to visit the spirit world, to summon up game, and to plan and ensure triumphant hunts.

The shaman’s oeuvre included other performance events: staging rituals and ceremonies designed to enhance fecundity among both band members and the animals on which the group depended, and actions designed to maintain the stability of the group. The latter involved mediating social discord and curing illness, again through the interpretation of drug-induced visions. Many successful shamans are thought to have become group leaders.

Most of us today would believe that hallucinogens were ineffectual tools for the social, political and economic tasks to which Palaeolithic peoples applied them. But in evaluating the past, it needs to be remembered that ‘the consolations of imaginary realities are not imaginary consolations’. In that period, life was precarious: food was often scarce, and the need to slaughter individual mega-fauna on any one day could become critical in  avoiding starvation.  On the other hand, attacking a woolly mammoth or a half-ton bison with wooden spears tipped with sharpened stone could just as certainly  threaten the group’s existence. The weapons were too frail to kill large animals at first blow, and the struggle to dispatch a wounded, enraged beast might cause enough death and injury so that the hunting bands might again face extinction, this time from the weakening of the small band.


Gradually the climate warmed. The ice retreated. People continued to drift and settle across much of the world, all the while maintaining their interests in psycho-active substances. Did agriculture develop from the need to regularize drug supplies? Nobody knows. But certainly when our ancestors turned to cultivating plants rather than simply picking them wherever they could be found, mind-altering plants were among the earliest they selected for experimentation.

Cannabis sativa was one of the first four crops involved in the origins of Chinese agriculture in the 8th millennium B.P (Ho 1977). The people of Middle America domesticated tobacco (Nicotiana sp.) as early as maize, their staple food. Coca, (Erythroxylum coca) the plant source of cocaine, appears archaeologically about 5,000 B.P. inCentral Peruin a horticulturalists’ camp. Opium, a member of the native Mediterranean flora, was a cultivated plant in the early Neolithic in Middle Europe, and by the late Neolithic, archaeological remains in Swiss lake villages indicate a fully domesticated  plant, in the sense that, like cereals, opium had lost its self-seeding mechanism. (Sherratt 1995:28 ).

Unlike each of the above psycho-active substances, alcohol was unsuitable for  hunter-gatherers. The latter’s wandering lifestyles meant that all their needs had to be met by items of low bulk and weight. Not surprisingly then, alcohol was not one of the earliest psychoactive substances people consumed. What is thought to be the first archaeological traces of alcohol coincide with the first permanent homes humans built. These were, in turn, associated with the beginnings of horticulture. This was at Catal  Huyuk inAnatolia, around 9 000 BP (i.e. Before the Present ) according to archaeologist  Mellaart (1967).

Drugs as highly-prized items in trading also shone in the murky past. They are not a phenomena of the last few centuries as people are inclined to think, nor the result of technical developments in transport, nor a product of capitalism. Psychoactive substances were frequently, perhaps almost always, present as valued items when long-distance exchanges first linked together communities with different environments, cultures and histories.  In fact some researchers  suggest that demand for psychoactive substances may have been the initiating factor in the development of inter-regional trade, or, similarly, that because of their wide acceptability, drugs became the ‘gold standard’ without which inter-regional trade might neither have developed nor endured.

Trade in wine was undoubtedly a mainstay of the ancient Mediterranean economy in Greek and Roman times according to archaeologist A. Sherratt. A mark of that era as it is of our own was the regional production of especially desirable vintages. And in researching the same dynamic to the north-west of Europe, archaeologist M. Dietler [ 1990:390 ] claims wine was the primary commodity of trade between the Mediterraneanand the Iron Age peoples of western Europe. Dietler also emphasizes the extreme importance of alcohol as a mechanism for recruiting a labour-force throughout much of prehistory from the Neolithic onwards.

Although people first domesticated tobacco in Middle America, by the time Columbus arrived in the New World there were probably no Indian populations from Canadato the tip of South America who did not either grow tobacco or obtain it by trade (Furst  1976 ).  About 4000 B.P. people were trading coca leaves in association with surplus coca production in the Peruregion. Use of the betel nut mixture probably began in Malaysia, but it spread widely throughout South-East Asia about 2000 years ago, possibly in conjunction with the spread of Hindu and Buddhist missionaries.

When Europeans first made contact with West Africa about 1450, a highly developed economy already existed there. It possessed elaborate trading systems, both local and inter-regional.  A caffeine-based stimulant Kola nut (Kola niida) was the economic basis of this wholly African trade. So strong was kola’s appeal, that at times the trade covered a distance of about 3,500km, across the Sahara to the Mediterranean in the north and down to the Volta Riverin the south. The historian J. Goody (1964) argues that the  regional significance of the African state of Dagoma may be due to its control over kola trading.

Today, it is probable that all societies utilize psychoactive-substances to one degree or another. A survey of the Probability Sample File, a group of 60 files from the Human Research  Area Files chosen so as to meet probability sampling requirements (Lagace 1974), suggests that more than 92 per cent of all societies use mind-altering substances. Even in Muslim communities, which publicly renounce drugs, many individuals consume one or the other of the psychoactive stimulants: tea or coffee, or the stronger kola and qat. The United States, which regards so harshly the importation and use of cannabis, opiates, and cocaine, has tolerated amphetamines in professional baseball since 1970. T. J. Quinn, Sports Writer for The Daily News, in November 2005 described amphetamine use in professional sport as ‘so common it is almost quaint’ with club houses commonly having two pots of coffee on stand-by. One carries the label ‘coaches’ coffee;  the second, laced with amphetamines, is ‘players coffee’.


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