You were involved in a scientific and spiritual search, but, at the same time, since the sixties, we’ve seen an explosion of ‘recreational’ drug use. How do you feel about that?
Well, I was very much a part of that. One of the things that I find curious is when we look back to the slew of cultural changes that have taken place over the last couple of decades, the one that is consistently expunged from the record, the one ingredient in the recipe for social change in the last forty years, is the fact that literally millions of young people lay prostrate before the gates of awe, under the influence of these active plants or hallucinogenic drugs. I’m very happy to say that the use of those psychotropic substances changed my life. I don’t think that I would think the way I think, synthetically, I don’t think I’d write the way I write. I’m not suggesting that if you take these drugs you’ll become a good writer, but I’ve found as an individual, and of course these experiences are very idiosyncratic, that these experiences have influenced the way I write, and in a positive manner.
How do you feel about Prohibition?
I think, Barbara Tuchman, the historian, defined folly as when a country is fully in possession of the facts but nevertheless persists in acting against its own self interests. The policy of drug prohibition has been the most idiotic policy imaginable. It’s only provoked more people, to use more drugs, in worse ways, and more ‘bad’ drugs than ever before.
It’s fascinating that whatever the known or imagined consequences of decriminalisation might be, there’s no doubt that the known and proven consequences of prohibition are far more severe. Not only have we created a situation in America where we have a higher percentage of our population in prison than any other country, except China, we’ve compromised the integrity of the judiciary with these minimum sentencing laws, we’ve corrupted the police departments with procedural laws that allow them to benefit financially from the proceeds of property and goods that are seized in drug busts. Perhaps most dreadfully of all we have compromised and destroyed one of our oldest allies Colombia, because of the illicit market that we generate at the consuming end of the drug trade. We have brought pain and misery to a country that was once described as the Athens of South America. We have literally destroyed Colombia with our laws of prohibition. The truth is that as long as a product has a several hundred percent mark-up, and all you have to do is get it across a border, there’ll always be a trade.
We now spend something like 35-40 billion dollars a year in the so called war on drugs, and neither side wants to win the war. Obviously the cartels/producers don’t want to be put out of business, which they would be if the trade was decriminalised – and that should be the top priority of public policy. How do you break the profit motive? The officials here have no interest whatsoever in either winning the war on drugs, because that’ll put people out of work, or in having the drugs de-criminalised, because when you get down to it, every single piece of the American Government has a piece of the administrative action and they have no interest whatsoever in winning. They want it to go on for ever.
The other interesting statistic though is that by all accounts about 95 million Americans have tried illicit drugs, but only about 5 million go on to use illicit drugs on a regular basis – which is defined to include Marijuana, and regular as once or more a week. So in these figures you’re a regular drug user if you take a toke of Marijuana on a Saturday night say. So 90 million people have encountered illicit drugs, and developed a positive relationship with them, in this case abstinence.
All societies are convulsed when they first come into contact with drugs, and then they come to terms with those drugs, and the crisis is generally absorbed by the society. It’s extraordinary about the so called “War on Drugs” that most of the proponents of it know absolutely nothing about the nature of human drug use. It reminds me of the headmaster of a school that I had attended, a wonderful man, but when I went back as an alumni, and we were discussing drug use, and he took me aside in great confidence to ask whether it was true that smoking marijuana made male breasts grow? I thought it was astonishing that someone in a position of authority in a school, where drug use was an issue, could be so ill informed about the nature of that problem.
You know, I always joke, that the French Revolution was caused by caffeine, and it sounds silly, until you remember that in the 17th century you couldn’t drink water in Europe, unless you wanted to catch Cholera or another water borne disease. So everyone drank fermented beverages or spirits and as a result the entire continent was mildly besotted. Then suddenly within a generation you have three central nervous system stimulants coming in: tea from China/India coffee from Abyssinia/Brazil and chocolate from Guatemala. All three items were made using boiled water which eliminated the pathogen problem. All were expensive commodities and were sold in specialised shops like coffee houses. Instead of sitting in your local pub, you’d be wired with caffeine – you couldn’t shut up. And then you start thinking “The king’s palace in Versailles is way bigger than my place”. Even from the 17th literature, Samuel Johnson, or Swift, it’s all tinged with a wonderful caffeine buzz.
The shock of cocaine has already hit America, and America has adapted to it – mainly in the form of abstinence. People’s relationship with drugs, by and large, is not defined by their legal status. You could decriminalise drugs tomorrow, relieve the pain and suffering in Colombia, resolve all sorts of social issues in this country, and I would argue that you’d be surprised at how little you’d see in terms of drug usage increasing.
The war on drugs, in parts of South America, is also a war on a culture in many ways. For example in Bolivia, where the chewing of the coca leaf (which should not be likened to snorting cocaine either in effect or intention), is a sacred part of indigenous life.
Well, the interesting thing is that the efforts to eradicate coca in places like Bolivia started fifty years before there was any major cocaine problem in America. It never had anything to do with the pharmacological properties of coca, and everything to do with the cultural identity of those who chose to use it.
Let’s not forget as well, all cultures seek stimulants. For spiritual, or recreational use. From an anthropological view, it’s part of basic human appetites. We try to cloak that with euphemisms, but it’s common. Indigenous communities by contrast tend to see the use of these substances as legitimate, if done carefully, and usually create a circle of ritual, which creates context and purpose for the use – this helps to reduce over-indulgence. They also take their drugs in natural forms, which is pharmacologically the safest. It’s a chilling anecdote, but the first morphine addict was the wife of the man who invented the hypodermic syringe. Even tobacco became a truly dangerous drug with the development of strains of Virginia tobacco, and the invention of the cigarette, with the deep inhalation of smoke.
In 1986 Ayahuasca was patented. What do you think about the patenting of plants/genes etc?
Well in terms of things like genetically modifying crops, I honestly have found it one issue that’s very difficult to make sense out of the arguments of both sides. There’s an arrogance, as always, on the side of industry and the Monsantos of the world, and on the other, there’s a reflexive fear on the side of the anti genetic modification. It’s hard for me, someone who’s trained in Science and Botany, to make sense of the rhetoric of both sides.
In part , this is an example of one of the huge challenges we have. There’s a chasm between the advances made by science and the ability of people in general to absorb and understand science. It’s something that scientists have been remiss themselves in addressing. The advances in bio-medical technology, nano-technology, genetic manipulation etc are so huge in recent years and yet we have a population that is in basic terms scientifically illiterate.
I remember at one stage, at a social occasion, with a former US Ambassador, who in conversation with me got on his high horse about the state of modern University Education, how we graduate students who know nothing of history etc. I interrupted him politely and asked him to give me the formula for photosynthesis, and of course he couldn’t. He laughed his head off, because he knew I had him. The point is that photosynthesis is a simple, but essential formula, that is the basis for life. If we’re going to make our kids in school line up to learn prayers, or the national creed, surely we should make them learn this simple line of botanical verse.
I was at a conference recently, where I heard Craig Venter, the man who mapped the Human Genome (Editor’s note: One of the men who mapped the human genome a certain controversy remains – see links for full story), announce an extraordinary discovery. He described how using the same revolutionary techniques that allowed him, at such low cost and unanticipated speed, to map the Human Genome, he had analysed a couple of thimblefuls of ocean water from the Sargasso sea, and had found to his amazement something like 1600 new species of bacteria, and something like 160 million previously unknown genes. At the same time, he showed a slide with the recent announcement from the state of Georgia, where the superintendent of schools had formally banned the teaching of evolutionary biology. An amazing juxtaposition that shows the huge advances of science, and the inability of the population at large to absorb this.
So it’s very difficult for me, and I haven’t followed it that closely, but in a general sense it’s difficult for me to assess the danger of genetically modified crops from a biological viewpoint. Having said that though, that’s from a biological viewpoint., where I find it reprehensible is for example the creation of seed stock that must be bought every year, to profit these huge companies. So farmers are getting plugged in to systems where they have to buy seeds, fertilizers etc from these corporations.
The patenting of nature is a really dreadful prospect.