Commentary Magazine

The Drugs of Habit & the Drugs of Belief

If any man doubt the question of drugs1 to be increasingly confused, even bizarre, let him recall that between January 9 and January 13, 1971 the Algiers pad of the Reverend Dr. Timothy Leary was the scene of a bust staged by the local office of the Black. Panther party. Until the Reverend Dr. accomplishes his ancient dream of turning on the Supreme Court, the Algiers raid can stand as the symbol of the involution of the drug problem. Before matters get more involved, I am going to try to identify the principal issues in this most confused area in contemporary culture, issues largely missed in much of the current discussion.


It is fashionable, in pro-marijuana circles and even elsewhere, to treat the drug as no more than the young folks’ martini. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. has made the case as clearly as anyone:

. . . the contradictions of our society weigh so heavily on the young . . . between the accepted habits of one generation and the emerging habits of the next, as when a parent tipsy on his fourth martini begins a tirade against marijuana.

There are a number of vaguely moral contexts in which the argument has some value. No parental lover of the martini can consistently arraign the hedonism of an offspring enjoying marijuana; no parent dependent on the one drug can condemn as weak-fibered his offspring with a similar dependency on the other. Although it probably engenders a pleasant warm feeling about the centers of one’s self-righteousness so candidly to compare the sins of the fathers and the sins of the sons, the candor is largely irrelevant to the substances themselves and the consequences of their use. If a parent spends his weekends racing at Watkins Glen, he can hardly condemn the speed-lust of his street-racing heir; but he will be no hypocrite in looking askance at the young man’s sense of social responsibility. The parent who consciously swindles on his income tax is in a poor position to criticize his son’s shoplifting. But the hypocrisy of the fathers is a feeble device with which to exculpate the sins of the sons. As long as the moral discussion proceeds at the level set by Schlesinger and many another, it never gets above yelling “You’re another.” This is not a very high level of morality, considering what a very moral age we inhabit.

Howsoever, there are admittedly some parallels of usage between marijuana and alcohol. Can they be extended to the substances themselves? Not very far, though some of the difficulties in doing so are to the credit of marijuana: it generally costs less, has no obvious hangover, seems with long-term use physiologically far less hostile. Whether this comparative benignity is more real than apparent is not quite a closed question, but for the present I will stipulate that a life with marijuana may well leave you healthier than one with alcohol. Further, the rationale for using marijuana is superficially more attractive. Alcohol is recognized by the least sophisticated as a depressant, its primary value to lower tension and inhibition. Despite the amount of drunken driving that goes on, it is very unlikely that anyone believes his reaction-time is improved by a few drinks. One accepts alcohol’s degradation of certain performances only because it degrades others one would as soon see degraded. This is true primarily for the use of alcohol: in its abuse, the alcoholic’s performance may be so degraded by withdrawal that the timely supply of alcohol may actually improve it. But for anyone without a severe dependency, the effect of the drug is to make him a little less complete; and he uses it because some of what he loses he can do without. The rationale for marijuana is in distinct contrast, for it is often alleged that the drug makes objective improvements in its users, specifically that it increases sensitivity, stimulates creativity, even improves understanding. I shall return to the validity of these claims, content for the present with observing that they indicate another area in which the alcohol/marijuana parallel is something less than exact.

There is yet another area of contrast, this to the credit of alcohol: secondary gratification. In common with all other drugs save alcohol, marijuana appears no more than a psychotropic. That is, of itself: there is a social dimension in its use, but in this, however different the style of conviviality, it is more or less analogous to alcohol. But the latter drug is additionally a nutrient, and often a delicious one, with the principal exceptions the two most common spirits. Advertisements rarely claim their gin is delicious, but make their pitch in such essentially nonassessable terms as dryness. Research indicates that a blindfolded taster will be hard put to know the gin of London or Peoria from that of Hood River, Oregon. The nicest thing a copywriter can say about vodka is that it has no taste at all. But these are sports, if popular ones. The price of a ’55 Château Margaux, the existence of whole nations preferring wine to water, a riot of bourbon whiskies standardized in potency, all these suggest the presence in beverage alcohol of delights other than the psychoactive. I suppose that Professor Schlesinger’s gin-sozzled hypocrites are pursuing mind-alteration nearly as single-mindedly as the marijuana smoker, but for most alcohol use, the pursuit of flavor establishes a distinctive context.

One last contrast may be a function of user attitude rather than substance used, but it is worth noting here. Alcohol users, unlike marijuana users, do not tend to become true believers. The latter in fact often describe themselves in drug terms as heads; one doubts that Professor Schlesinger’s martinists think of themselves as soaks. This power of the substance to lead users into a self-definition so overtly in its own terms is quite remarkable, a power these drugs seem to share most notably with motorcycles.



The contrast I have been developing between these two most common social drugs serves as the basis for perceiving a crucial duality. The two classes of drugs I call, with an accuracy symbolic if not literal, the drugs of the fathers and the drugs of the sons. Chemistry has been so productive of late that it is hard to give an exhaustive inventory of either class, and the one I supply here is necessarily provisional. It can be said for it that it does not omit any substance merely because it is widely used by those over thirty. The drugs of the fathers: coffee, tobacco, cola drinks,2 alcohol, tranquilizers, and barbiturates. (Up-to-date lists of old folks’ drugs often contain aspirin, but considering that it has no psychotropic action in the absence of pain, I conclude that it is a medicine, and exclude it.) The drugs of the sons: marijuana, the opiates (principally opium, morphine, and heroin), the stimulants (cocaine and the amphetamines), and the hallucinogens (principally peyote, mescaline, and LSD).

The two categories do not depend strictly upon the age of the users. The amphetamines are widely abused by the fathers, barbiturates by the sons. Colas and tobacco find favor with all ages. But on the whole the first grouping is in comparatively much better repute with the fathers, the second with the sons. The two groups are distinguished, finally, by differences in rationale. The most ever claimed seriously for the drugs of the fathers is that they restore the user to a condition at other times obtainable without the drug, by himself or others. Thus, one smokes cigarettes in an only partially successful attempt to gain a kind of tranquility enjoyed by non-smokers. The non-alcoholic drinks to become as calm as the man with fewer problems, as fluent or poised as the soberly fluent or poised. One uses tranquilizers for much the same reason, just as one takes sedatives to ape the non-insomniac. In each case, the aim is to restore the user to a somewhat less flawed specimen of the human condition.

It is entirely otherwise with the drugs of the sons. The effects of marijuana, comparatively mild as they may be, are not those one experiences without its intervention; the euphoria of the opiates is unexampled in real life; the stimulants jack up the metabolism to superhuman performance; the hallucinogens allow one to see what is not there. The claimed benefits put to shame the nicest things people say about alcohol:

O, Willie brew’d a peck o’ maut,
    And Rob and Allan cam to see.
Three blyther hearts that lee-lang night
    Ye wad na found in Christendie.
We are na fou, we’re nae that fou,
    But just a drappie in our e’e!
The cock may craw, the day may daw,
    And ay we’ll taste the barley-bree!

The drugs of the fathers, then, promise to make you a little more human, the drugs of the sons a little more than human. The latter prospect may exhilarate until one recalls that the Greeks had a word for trying to be a little more than human, and also for what happened to men who tried. More ominous still are the contexts in which man is offered the chance to transcend the limitations of mortality. The religions which offer immortality may seem to offer that chance, but the transcendence, generally, occurs at the end of mortality, not during it. The chance to be trans-mortal now and pay later is usually offered from quite a different quarter. Eve, Jesus, and Dr. Faustus could tell you all about this sort of promise.

The implication is lurid, made only because it is at least metaphorically valid. I do not suggest an opposite provenance for the drugs of the fathers, which have their dangers, most too obvious to require detailed exposition. Tobacco—in the form of cigarettes—is quite the nastiest of the lot, providing no benefits beyond feeding the dependency it creates. Alcohol, tranquilizers, and barbiturates create dependencies different from those of the opiates primarily in degree. Alcohol, considered solely in terms of its potential for creating a destructive dependency, is a graver menace than marijuana, which in these terms may be no menace at all.

But the implications of the new social drugs are more complex than those of the old. To explore them, we need to look more closely at the diverse characteristics of the drugs of the sons.




All drugs may be divided into two parts on a number of principles of partition. Shake up the drugs of the fathers and the drugs of the sons, and they fall into two new categories, the drugs of true belief and the drugs of habit. The drugs of true belief are those currently widely touted by the counter-culture, its atmosphere redolent with the heavy claim that marijuana and LSD are good for the consciousness, and they are to be found only among the drugs of the sons. But the drugs of habit are more widely spread: tobacco, alcohol, cola, methedrine, heroin. The degree of habituation ranges from the mild dependency of the coffee drinker to the classic addiction of the heroin user. These drugs are often promoted, but the promotion is not that of true belief, but of public relations, of advertising, of pushing. The explicit claims made for alcohol are relatively modest: that it will taste good, or at least not repellent; the implicit claims—that the right whiskey in the decanter will confer cachet among polo players and Amazon explorers, the right beer in the refrigerator, among the boys at the shop—these are far from the pseudo-rational touting now at work in favor of the consciousness-expanders. Cigarettes are the beneficiary of promotion—the claim that a given brand is for people too independent to be taken in by the snares of Madison Avenue, or that another will act as a restorative of primal innocence or confer feminine liberation—but these it is hard to believe any serious smoker takes seriously. The cigarette is a fix which comes in many flavors; any flavor becomes tolerable with use. Among the drugs of the sons, the drugs of habit themselves offer and deliver clear effects—euphoria and stimulation—and hardly need much press agentry. The user proceeds with the aid of psychological habituation or physical dependency, and the pusher needs to make his pitch only once. It may be noted of these drugs that they are in general seen—and accurately so—as either relatively harmless—coffee and cola—or relatively dangerous—tobacco, alcohol, heroin. From the Surgeon General to the WCTU to the underground press, the advice abounds, that cigarettes, alcohol, and heroin will mess up your health. I shall therefore have comparatively little to say about them, except as they are related to the drugs of true belief, for the drugs of habit are widely seen to be part of a Drug Problem.

It is otherwise with the drugs of true belief, now touted as being fun and as effecting a radical and desirable transformation of the consciousness. I will stipulate the first claim: on the evidence, marijuana is usually fun, and the hallucinogens often so. That marijuana is fun has been engagingly argued by Jack S. Margolis and Richard Clorfene in A Child’s Garden of Grass,3 a relaxed little work, by far my favorite piece of drug true belief, the profoundly sophomoric level of its humor notwithstanding. This is not necessarily a slam: perhaps they are sophomores, besides, some sophomores are pretty funny. Even so, much of the fun looks pretty non-psychedelic. Monopoly, we are told, is fun, fun, fun when you’re stoned. At the risk of baring more wellsprings of my consciousness than absolutely necessary, I can confess that I still find it hilarious, cold sober. Margolis and Clorfene provide the aspirant with a battery of parlor games, likewise in my undergraduate days hilarious, likewise cold sober. This sort of touting makes an offhand sort of claim that marijuana is an aid to adequate emotional response. Very well: if that is the only way to have one, marijuana may well be better than nothing. But anyone who uses it for such purposes ought to be aware of the implications of needing chemical aid before having adequate emotion. What would one think of a drinker who admitted using alcohol on such grounds? I would rate him as a very honest man with a very serious problem.

The claim can be reacted to a good deal more strongly: the most popular cant phrase for such drug use, “turning on,” reveals at once a sharp contrast with alcohol, for which the equivalent metaphor is surely “turning off,” and, more important, illuminates the nature of the fad. Those who, like myself, have always found “turning on” a repellent phrase, not quite knowing why, may wish to reflect on the implications of the metaphor: man not simply dehumanized, but converted to a mass-produced, standardized, electronic circuit, lifeless, without a power source; throw the switch, and click! on he goes. Those who find the metaphor attractive might also ponder it: that so appalling a vision is embraced by those elsewhere almost liturgical in their denunciations of dehumanizing technology shows with stark clarity the perverse essence of the drug apologia.

The claim of true believers that their wares improve the consciousness is a good deal more complicated. Again, I can make a stipulation: that under the influence there is an improved ability to fasten one’s attention on the small and trivial, and that this can be enjoyable, even informative. What cannot be stipulated is the very different claim that perception remains heightened when the immediate influence has lifted. This sort of claim has been most recently retailed by Charles A. Reich in The Greening of America:

The effect of psychedelic drugs does not end when the drug itself wears off; it is lasting in the sense that the user finds his awareness and sensitivity has increased, whether he is using drugs at the time or not. In other words, something has been learned,

echoing a student essay quoted by Richard H. Blum in Drugs: Social and Cultural Observations:4

Continued use of grass and hallucinogens increases this self-knowledge and can lead to an overall greater maturity . . . [the user] acquires a new sensitivity for the “realness” and “wonderfulness” of things. . . . He is also less dulled to other people and recognizes them as noble creatures no less real than himself. . . . Students see hallucinogenic drugs . . . as one elixir that may return sanity to the world. . . . This is the hope and the noble enterprise that is pursued by today’s idealistic, sensitive, and curious youth.

Such claims, besides being disfigured by a self-esteem and self-righteousness nearly without example, are exceedingly impressionistic, as will be my attempt at evaluation.



Certainly there is power in a substance which allows its user to see the ordinary as if it were extraordinary. But is it benign? Does someone who thinks Lehár is Mozart really experience Mozart? Surfeit is not necessarily benefit: as W. S. Gilbert remarked, although in another connection, “When everybody is somebody, then nobody is anybody.” To confuse Lehár and Mozart is to lose the critical sense. One may decide the loss a fair tax to pay for the privilege of wallowing in experience, but the impost should not be a hidden one. These claims of increased sensitivity, greater personal understanding, facilitated interpersonal interaction, all involve delicate essences, as yet intractable—perhaps fortunately—to fiercely empirical study. But one can gather impressions. I pass my days in an academic community where the regular use of marijuana is high, perhaps as high as 50 per cent. In such an atmosphere, one should expect to see prodigies of sensitive awareness. My community is a wonderful place to be on any number of grounds, but that is not one of them. Among us, any crisis in governance or curriculum entails a large and angry public meeting, and on such occasions there is obvious a profound obtuseness about faculty motivations: the drug true believers are as content as any to judge those motivations in terms of fashionable political analysis, rather than sensitive and aware observation of noble creatures no less real than the observer. This obtuseness is perhaps no greater since the rise of the drug culture, but it is assuredly no smaller. At these meetings, largely inhabited by people with a common set of grievances, even sharing a certain revolutionary fervor, there is always a remarkable difficulty in securing intellectual or emotional agreement: speakers seem to misunderstand each other, to get involved in petty squabbles, at least as frequently as a straight population. And the failure of the psychedelic panacea is no less marked outside the mass meeting. There is a tolerance for litter even higher—incredibly—than in the outside world. (Just who litters is here, as elsewhere, never very clear. But the state of the student coffee shop and the mailroom floor suggest who it is that puts up with it.)

Since Charles Reich has identified sartorial matters as central to cultural analysis, I feel justified in noting that a look at much current campus fashion in the light of the history of costume indicates that marijuana either deadens aesthetic perception, or rotates it a full 180°. There is evidence for the former diagnosis in the extreme subtlety of rock music, for the latter in the canonical obscurantism of psychedelic poster art, where the game is to take a simple message and render it as illegibly as possible. One can descry the outlines of still more surprising reversals of perception: the fathers have long been seen to sin in empathizing more easily with one little girl at the bottom of a well than with the myriad victims of war; the sons have learned to empathize with the war victims, but are developing a curiously barbaric attitude toward local sufferers. The campus is visited by armed robbers and rapists, persons unknown who steal everything not nailed down; all these are welcome visitors if the alternative is the presence of the police, for a single cop on the beat is seen as a threat to marijuana. The new barbarism, whether embodied in statute or in the opinions of a minority, suggests that the new generation, including the marijuana users, is if anything brutalized in ways the old one was not. Or the sensitivity bestowed by marijuana is a very special one.

The claim of true believers that their drugs stimulate artistic invention goes back at least to the venerable chestnut about Coleridge, opium, and “Kubla Khan.” The sober facts, however, turn out to be of little use to the tout: the poet’s two accounts of the episode disagree on whether opium was involved at all; the version which says that it was sets the composition during a post-opium reverie, likely enough considering the ease with which the person from Porlock broke in; J. L. Lowes, in The Road to Xanadu, demonstrated the extent to which the stuff of the vision was Coleridge’s reading; and finally, it is hardly common belief that “Kubla Khan” is a better poem, even a more imaginative one, than those produced by an unstoned Coleridge.

As for contemporary supporting evidence: I am still waiting for some. What with the current rampage of amateurism, doubtless many aspiring artificers are taking their dictation from a chemical muse, their effusions containing one-tenth of one per cent cannabis, an inspirative. But the result has not exactly been a latter-day Renaissance. The explicit products of an expanded consciousness are almost invariably precious and unbelievably trivial. At least so they seem to the sober onlooker: I cannot discount the possibility that, like holograms, they can be perceived only by the same light in which they are created. But if such works are caviar to the sober, they would seem to be—as far as concerns natural humanity—irrelevant. Implicit in the whole notion of drug-generated art is the nasty assumption that man is not good enough. The assumption would be appropriate in the thinking of one of these pro-death liberal academics we hear so much about, but it sounds a bit strange amidst the affirmations of humanity so fashionable among the pro-life humanists.

The most extravagant claim for the drugs of the true believer is that they make him transcendently wise. I shall return to the implications of such a claim, and of its acceptance. For the moment, consider two variants of a classic folk tale, instructive in themselves, and posing pretty problems of Quellenforschung and textual criticism.

[A] There is no such thing as a profound revelation while stoned. . . . The definitive story of false profundity concerns a well-known writer who, one evening while stoned (on something other than grass—but the principal [sic] is the same) was struck by a revelation of universal truth. He was overwhelmed by its significance and managed to bring himself back to reality long enough to scramble to his writing desk and, frantically scribble his new-found wisdom on a scratch pad. The next morning our hero awoke, remembered that he had had some kind of a vision, and leaped out of bed to read what he had written. He picked up the piece of paper and read: “There’s a funny smell in the room.”5

[B] Many years ago Oliver Wendell Holmes, a famous American physician and jurist [sic], wrote down the inspiration that had come to him while under the influence of ether: “The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth, that which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution [sic] and staggered to my desk. I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): ‘A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.’ ”6

[A] is almost certainly a debased popular-ballad variant of [B] behind which in turn—witness the telling conflation of Holmes père and Holmes fils—lies a lost original. The scholarly of turn will find riches here, the wise will ponder the simple wisdom of the folk.

Considering the popularity of marijuana and the hallucinogens it would be odd if they did not turn out to have some attractions, puffed up by true belief into a surprising gospel of better life through technology. But no, it is not so surprising. It is, after all, the land of advertising, and were it not that, it is yet a land of humans, vulnerable as Baudelaire to the temptations of godhead:

None should now be astonished by the final, the supreme thought born in the dreamer’s mind—“I have become God!” That ardent, savage cry bursts from his lips with so intense an energy, with so tremendous a power of projection, that if the will and belief of an intoxicated man had effective virtue, the cry would topple the very angels scattered along the roads to heaven: “I am a God!”

But this is a squalid godhead, gimcrack and ultimately quite phony. The country is sufficiently charged with such already, without adding the sordid doctrine of ersatz divinity. That the counter-culture’s critique of real phoniness should be tied to a phony reality is a neat embodiment of what I take to be the central theme of The Birds: not only can’t you escape Athens by going to Cloudcuckooland, you can’t even escape being an Athenian. In the drug culture, as anywhere else, the utopian itch is fraught with the very meanness it so bravely sets out to correct.




So much of what has been said about the dangers of the drugs of true belief has been ignorant and demagogic that one hesitates to say more on the topic: one of the most serious obstacles to intelligent analysis of the drug question as a whole has been the insistent ascription to marijuana of dangers it patently does not possess, notably in the etymological myth linking hashish and the sect of the Assassins. To a lesser degree, attempts to implicate marijuana and LSD in such sensational outcomes as genetic and brain damage have diverted attention from other questions. If we lay aside the question of how these drugs affect the gross circuitry of the brain, there remains the question of how they affect the workings of intellect itself. Our experience with alcohol—now of some duration—suggests that one may use it in copious moderation for a lifetime and remain intellectually active and efficient. To put it somewhat differently, although alcohol in moderation is certainly hostile to the intellect, in moderation the hostility appears to be limited to the period when it is physiologically present. The martini is never a ticket for a return trip, but the drugs of true belief are more generous. Robert Coles estimates that perhaps 20 per cent of those who have taken LSD three or more times experience flashbacks, returns of hallucination in the absence of the drug. A smaller proportion experience psychotic episodes, even after what have appeared to be good initial experiences. As Coles says, the evidence is still murky: “One is left in the dark. One is also left to worry, seriously worry about anyone who takes LSD.”

While it has become fashionable to claim that psychotic episodes following LSD use occur only in the “pre-psychotic,” Coles is rightly dubious as to the value and meaning of such a concept, and points out that it is not of much consolation to an ex-pre-psychotic—made ex by LSD—who might otherwise have made it to age ninety-five still pre-psychotic, a condition operationally otherwise the same as non-psychotic. Some people, after all, manage to attain old age grossly overweight.



But these are comparatively rare, comparatively obvious outcomes. There is evidence for the existence of subtler consequences, less easily observed but no less troubling. Coles cites a chilling little tale of some young scientists who experimented with LSD as an aid to abstract thinking. The trips were groovy, but

for seven or eight months afterward, each subject discovered his ability to think creatively at a high level of abstraction and to design complex research experiments was significantly impaired. The scientists were quite able to carry on formal teaching functions and were able to go on about their work without alarming or worrying their colleagues in any way. Still, almost a full year went by before they felt they were absolutely back to normal—and they were men favorably disposed toward LSD when they took it.

The anecdote is a straw in the wind; one of my scientific colleagues believes it to be supported by his own observations of drugs and scientists. When I look about me, I form impressions—admittedly not often much more than impressions—of similar phenomena. The effect is most marked in students embarked on an ambitious program of consciousness expansion: their intellectual behavior suggests very strongly that the consciousness is of finite mass, thinning as it expands. The case of the superior student who falls apart in such circumstances is regrettably familiar. And I think I can see less marked effects in those whom I know to have taken up more or less regular use of marijuana.7 The observation may seem no more verifiable than the drug user’s claim of expanded consciousness; the difference is that others may attempt to verify my claim without themselves running the risk of being evidence. Finally, for what it is worth: two of my under-thirty colleagues, both fairly involved in the drug culture as undergraduates, are quite convinced that they suffered very minor but so far permanent intellectual dulling as a result of earlier experimentation. Less dulling, perhaps, than any honest drinker recognizes the morning after; but unlike the effects of the morning after, still evident the day after that, and after. The commonplace that marijuana produces no hangover seems to be true in the familiar physiological sense. If there is a subtler and more enduring hangover, the possibility would outweigh the value of many happy hours at stoned Monopoly. At least, so Norman Mailer appears to believe:

Now, however, that he had again an actively working brain only partially hampered by old bouts of drugs (which revealed their ravages in occasional gaps like the absolutely necessary word for an occasion failing utterly to arrive on time . . .) yes, Mailer was bitter about drugs. If he still took a toke of marijuana from time to time for Auld Lang Syne, or in recognition of the probability that good sex had to be awfully good before it was better than on pot, yes, still! Mailer was not in approval of any drug, he was virtually conservative about it, having demanded of his eighteen-year-old daughter, a Freshman now at Barnard, that she not take marijuana, and never LSD, until she had completed her education, a mean promise to extract in these apocalyptic times.

If there are such consequences, they will presumably eventually be understood as subtly physiological in operation. But there is a more purely intellectual consequence entailed in the use of drugs of true belief, one presenting—after alcohol abuse and opiate-stimulant use—what seems to me the gravest part of the drug problem, a societal dimension not to be handled simply by the individual’s sensible use of marijuana, i.e., by considering it fun but not theomimetic.

Considering how often, and sometimes on what dubious grounds ours is said to be a sick society, I hesitate to iterate the diagnosis, but there really is something pathological about a situation in which humanity is seen as something attainable only with chemical intervention. Such a view is disturbing enough in Professor Schlesinger’s martini heads, presumably trying to get over a day at the office, still more so in the student who needs to be stoned before he can relate to his fellow beings. The former dependency is perhaps less perverse in being quasi-medicinal, but neither is very pretty, no prettier than a dependency on cigarettes, tranquilizers, or sedatives. In this context, there is not a great deal to choose between the sons and the fathers.

But there is another, final consideration. The most extreme claim made for the drugs of true belief is that they rip the veil from reality. Aldous Huxley, rapt by mescaline, put the case with terrible clarity:

This is how one ought to see, how things really are.

The terrifying non-sequitur is, I take it, the sort of thing Charles Reich is talking about when he says that drugs allow one to make connections not otherwise made.

If these positions can be defended, it cannot be in any intellectual contexts, which require for their very existence a certain simpleminded set of working assumptions: that there is a reality out there, that we can perceive it, that no matter how difficult the perception, the reality is finally an external fact. One might, I suppose, imagine that the perceptions of the sober perennially distort the reality, and that the drugs of true belief are no more than corrective lenses. It would then be reasonable to expect that the lenses showed a reality common to all. From my reports, they do not appear to do so: if they are lenses, they are whimsically computed and ground. If the notion of an infinite number of realities is no more mind-boggling than an infinite number of universes, to accept it is to render superfluous any further reasoned discussion on any topic whatever.

Martin Buber, responding to Huxley’s account of his experience under mescaline, identified the problem here, setting Huxley’s confusion of how one ought to see and how things are against a fragment of Heraclitus:

The waking have one world in common, whereas each sleeper turns away to a private world of his own.

As Buber implies, we can barely imagine an age when this was not a truism; I am not sure that we are not entering an age when it will cease to be seen as one. Buber’s indictment of the mind capable of giving assent to Huxley’s rapturous cry from his sleep makes quite clear what is at stake:

Since he is not willing to answer for the genuineness of his existence, he flees either into the general collective which takes from him his responsibility or into the attitude of a self who has to account to no one but himself and finds the great general indulgence in the security of being identical with the Self of being. Even if this attitude is turned into a deepened contemplation of existing being, it remains a flight from the leaping fire.

The clearest mark of this kind of man is that he cannot really listen to the voice of another; in all his hearing, as in all his seeing, he mixes observation. The other is not the man over against him whose claim stands over against his own in equal right; the other is only his subject. But he who existentially knows no Thou will never succeed in knowing a We.

Resisting the temptation indulgently to cudgel the counter-culture in detail, I shall just note that it is informed by the sort of consciousness Buber is talking about, with the most deplorable consequences. The master irrationality of a realer-than-real reality expedites all the little madnesses, the many facets of the fad for Knowing the Unknowable. As long as a preference for the mad over the sane resided primarily in street fakirs and Blavatskyites, academics and other rational beings could look on and giggle. Now that the preference has begun to filter into locales nominally academic, it has become a matter for concern. If it captures the imagination of a generation, it will become a matter almost for hysteria.




Hysteria is not the reaction I would recommend, although—in the sense of a spasm of the reason—it has been a typical one on both sides of the drug question.

The hysteria within the drug culture is a largely sporadic phenomenon, related to a kind-of paranoia about entertaining the feeblest challenge to its rights and rationales, manifest in intellectual spasms entailing the acceptance of the most extraordinary contradictions.

In the first place: the friends of drugs are as likely as the enemies to be also friends of the environment. Consider the eco-existential dilemma of the environmental head: he may seek “natural” vitamin A at the hips of the rose; given the choice, he is not likely to prefer natural morning-glory seeds to synthetic LSD. How wonderfully ironic to be so aware of what happens to streams of water when others introduce strange chemicals therein, so complacent about the streams of one’s own blood. The paradigmatic figure here is Charles Reich, wanting each bit of reality to be “natural,” preferring reality as a whole to be ersatz. One could listen without an internal shriek to all those sermonettes about how the Indians knew how to live with nature, rather than against it if the homilist were willing to live in similar amity with human nature and reality.

Consistency would make similar exactions of enthusiasts for pop Eastern religion. Among contemporary gurus, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and J. Krishnamurti have—like reasonable mystics—taken a dim view of drugs. The latter is especially high just now with educational innovators, who might look at the arguments of his commentator, Chaman Nahal, to the conclusion that drugs and mystical vision are antithetical.8

And finally, an obtuse little myth entirely symptomatic of the intellectual paralysis of the drug culture: the true believers commonly argue that when their opponents do not act out of ignorance and demagoguery, they act out of puritanism. And having conceded that drugs can be fun, I must concede that those who are opposed to fun will be—if they are consistent—opposed to drugs. Yes, Virginia, the opposition to drugs contains a measure of puritanism. But it is not an embarrassing concession: that Macaulay’s Puritans forbade bear-baiting on account of pleasure in the spectators need not keep us from forbidding it on account of pain in the bear. From my own experience and acquaintance, it appears to be entirely possible to wallow in sensuality while entertaining the gravest objections to the drug culture.

The hysteria of drug opposition has centered on the question of control. Although the problems inhering in the question of access to drugs are among the most complex of the whole subject, controversialists have often taken them as among the simplest. To begin with what really is a comparatively simple issue: the laws currently governing marijuana, which are clearly inequitable and ferocious. In any number of jurisdictions, smoking a marijuana cigarette is a more serious crime than the lesser degrees of homicide; the most elementary requirements of equity dictate that marijuana use be scaled against more patently anti-social behavior and the codes revised accordingly. The inequities relating to marijuana are, of course, but a sample of what is wrong with our patchwork criminal code, and could we agree that marijuana use should be a crime, and of what degree, establishing just penalties would still require a total overhaul of the laws. To favor such revision of the marijuana statutes is not in itself to accept the fashionable argument that the present laws make criminals out of millions of children. What makes a criminal is the violation of statute by an individual. The real difficulty with the present law is its rating as a serious violation an act which may be morally neutral, and is certainly morally fairly inoffensive.



Now, to consider the general question of legalization, we need first to establish a distinction not always made: between desirability of access and the means taken to control access. If, for example, it were clear that no one should have access to heroin—as I presume it is—the next task would be to find—as we have not—effective and institutionally acceptable ways of denying the access, understanding that the search might fail on either criterion.

It might, for example, be argued that we ought to treat the possession of drugs much as we now treat the possession of books: as a private matter until such time—remote in the case of books—as events prove otherwise. Such a criterion would presumably inform us that even though the heroin addict today is almost certainly doomed to an anti-social existence, this is the case solely because of a price structure enforced by the Harrison Act. This argument becomes more complicated if one imagines an entire population on heroin, a population likely to be as incapable of forming a society as a population entirely taken over by Consciousness III. But to annihilate society has at least a single benefit: the annihilation of societal problems; such problems would be self-liquidating. To take a somewhat less dystopian example, it is by no means certain that if, say, a quarter of society began the regular use of LSD, the portion on bad trips at any one time would not begin to be a societal problem. To return to reality, the present degree of access to alcohol permits it to produce a vast social problem, and it may well be that a wider access to drugs would simply add to it.

Even so, to treat the use of drugs as a matter to be regulated only in a public context would be to assign drugs a privileged status. The use of penicillin is certainly a private matter, yet the law forbids its supply except by prescription and takes a dim view of those who bootleg it. And the same is true for the majority of all medicines: it is a little unfair, but not very, to say that the law now allows unlimited access only to ineffective medicines. To make currently illicit drugs as available as penicillin would be to impose considerable constraint upon the supply; were marijuana to be made available by medical prescription and in no other way, the decline in its use would be precipitous. Society, in fact, establishes broad categories of substance and artifact, legal in that they are available to some users at one time, illegal in that they are unavailable to others at other times. Unless one is to claim that all drugs are harmless, to argue that all should be universally available is to reject in principle all the machinery by which society restricts access to such diverse items as arsenic, cigarettes, rum, firearms, automobiles, insulin, and nuclear weapons. If one is to argue for free access to harmless drugs only, that is at most to argue for free access to marijuana only; the harmfulness of everything else has been abundantly demonstrated. The critical issue in legalization becomes then the format of control.

As I have suggested, legalization in a medical format would not be likely to satisfy most drug users. Indeed, morphine is available legally in such a format now, and some users appear to find the legal arrangements for its supply unduly restrictive. To lesser degrees there will be difficulties in adopting any of the other formats of control now in use. Margolis and Clorfene say that marijuana “should be made legal subject to the same or similar regulations which now apply to the use, distribution, and sale of alcohol and tobacco.” What would such legalization involve? Alcohol and tobacco, they might have noted, are not covered by the same regulations at all. Were marijuana to be made legally equivalent to alcohol, in most states it would be legally forbidden—with various degrees of enforcement—to a considerable proportion of its present clientele. In many jurisdictions it would be fairly risky to supply it to the underage. Its distribution and sale would additionally be subject to a great deal of troublesome and often bizarre control. In the comparatively sane state of Oregon, to cite a couple of regulations which might be adapted for the control of legalized marijuana, wine with less than 14 per cent alcohol is sold in grocery stores until the early morning, seven days a week. Wine with a higher percentage of alcohol is a state monopoly, available at limited times and places. The solitary beer drinker may not be sold his tipple from a pitcher, but must buy by the glass or bottle. Barring the possibility of a federal constitutional amendment regulating these matters, marijuana would doubtless be legalized, as was alcohol, in a crazy quilt of laws filled with such lunacies, all assented to by legislative heads as concessions to legislative straights. There is nothing very reassuring, in this connection, in the prospect of nineteen-year-olds from an access-at-twenty-one state driving home after an evening in an access-at-eighteen state.

Were marijuana made equal to tobacco, an age restriction, though doubtless less effectively enforced, would render it at least formally unavailable to many of its best friends. And assuming that it were to be distributed by the cigarette companies, or their equivalent, we should expect it to be pushed with great vigor. We have no reason to assume, for example, that they would be shy about trying to turn on the underage. We should expect, in fact, that until the revolution at least, the marijuana industry would have all the clout now possessed by the cigarette industry. There is something a little unsettling in the picture of that much power in the hands of an industry explicitly dedicated to driving the country a little mad, and something a good deal more unsettling in the industry being successful. We simply have no evidence of what it would be like in a society which spent much time getting spaced-out. What evidence I have from communities where such is the condition for a large minority is not, pace Charles A. Reich, vastly attractive.

There are, to be sure, predictable advantages to legalization. Alienation on the campus might be alleviated, although the effect of rising expectations might dampen such benefits. Marijuana now serves as a kind of loss leader for pushers hopeful of getting customers for more dangerous substances; this would cease under legalization. On campus, there is now a certain umbrella effect, in that marijuana users tend to see any move against heroin as a threat to their own drug, and react accordingly. It might become easier to control the traffic in the more dangerous drugs if the marijuana consumers no longer had a vested interest in its protection. And finally, no one can believe that youthful marijuana users who end up in jail benefit by the experience.

Thus, while no pattern of legalization likely to be passed in the foreseeable future will satisfy the drug apologists, it might well seem that the eventual benefits of repeal argue decisively for its adoption. So it might seem, were it not for one hidden consideration. The danger would be very great that to legalize marijuana would be to put a societal stamp of acceptance on the arguments now being widely advanced for the drugs of true belief. These are not simply erroneous, but explicitly irrational. Whether such an adoption of madness as a national policy would have consequences outweighing any possible benefits I am myself far from certain. But I am quite certain that the issue must be canvassed, and I am equally certain that it has not been.

These doubts about legalization are not necessarily doubts about repealing the present penalties against marijuana use. Were it not for the example of Prohibition, it would be tempting to fancy a scheme whereby the use of marijuana became at most a sociological question, and maximum effort concentrated on the traffic itself. But nothing in the history of sumptuary legislation suggests that the prospect is a very hopeful one; and as long as the drugs of true belief continue to acquire more true believers, nothing is likely to change.



Indeed, I can offer no coherent plan for dealing with the problem of access. For those who remain convinced that marijuana ought to be legalized, Joel Fort makes a thoughtful and informed proposal in his recent book, The Pleasure Seekers.9 In my own view, we are dealing with an attitudinal Pandora’s box, quite possibly one attached to the tail of a tiger. Tentatively, I suggest that if there is anything to do, it lies in the area of drug education. Not, of course, as that term is generally used, that is as indoctrination more or less inaccurate, almost entirely concerned with the drugs of the sons, often so hysterically wrongheaded about the drugs of true belief as to vitiate better-informed treatments of the drugs of habit. The principal home of the drug culture today is the campus, in some real sense just the locale where it is ultimately the most dangerous. And it seems to me that the reaction of college faculties and administrations to this phenomenon has been—hysteria being rightly understood as being sometimes paralytic in its effects—quite the most hysterical of reactions. At some campuses of my acquaintance, the reaction is something worse than legalization: the adoption of eloquent statements about what a very grave view the institution takes of drug use, backed up by a massive show of impotence. In such a context, the statements are seen by students as produced for external consumption, to mollify trustees, parents, police. The apparent message for the intramural audience is quite different: we don’t care whether you use drugs or not.

Inasmuch as I believe the assumptions of the drug culture, the assumptions which collegiate drug users buy at least in part, to be lethal to an intellectual community, I venture to suggest that academics who do not accept those assumptions have a very considerable stake in challenging them. Very little drug education of the more respectable sort goes on at most institutions, possibly because he who expresses his doubts is likely to be seen as at best a Puritan. In an ambience in which reward is increasingly attainable by pandering to the basest instincts of the young, there may not seem to be much mileage in assaulting the drug culture, and, indeed, there may not seem to be any reason for making such an assault, But there is. Although it appears true that marijuana and LSD do not, in any gross sense, lead to heroin, the assumptive requirements for the former are very similar to the assumptive requirements for the latter. Additionally, I am utterly convinced that as long as marijuana remains illegal, there is simply no way to root out the drugs of habit—the dangerous ones—while tolerating the drugs of true belief, for the users of the latter, while disagreeing with the means of the users of the former, agree with their ends, and will do all they can to support them. While it would be a dreadful prospect finally to come to terms with heroin on campus—I am myself not sure whether I could remain in an academy which had done so—that would be as nothing compared with coming to terms with marijuana and the hallucinogens.

For that accommodation would be the academic equivalent of the compact with hell. No academy which made such a compact would survive very long. The larger society would not escape the consequences of its dissolution: maimed as it is, the academic world remains the last large-scale refuge of reason, freedom, of humane values. It would be entirely in keeping with the Adversary’s reputation for astuteness were he to succeed in leading that refuge to acquiesce in the destruction of the belief in what is common to all, without which it is as nothing.




1 I will use this word to describe any substance which alters state of mind, including alcohol and tobacco as well as such less spectacular substances as tea and coffee.

2 Less obviously psychotropic than in the good old days, when the Coca in the name of the best-known of these drinks still meant something; but still moderately so.

3 Pocket Books, 157 pp., 95¢.

4 Jossey-Bass, two volumes, 399 pp. and 400 pp., $25.00 for the set. This is an exceedingly informative compendium of recent research.

5 Cited in A Child's Garden of Grass.

6 Quoted in Drugs and Youth: Medical, Psychiatric and Legal Facts, by Robert Coles, Joseph H. Brenner, and Dermot Meagher, Liveright, 272 pp., $2.45. A superb introduction to the problem.

7 Two studies of adolescent marijuana users recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association would seem to provide some confirmation of these observations. As reported in the New York Times, April 19, 1971, Drs. Harold Kolansky and William T. Moore found that “‘normal’ youngsters can suffer serious psychological disturbances following regular smoking of marijuana, without the use of other drugs” while Dr. Arthur Kornhaber concluded from his work with teen-agers that marijuana may be “toxic to the human nervous system during growth and development.”

8 Drugs and the Other Self, Perennial Library, 240 pp., $125. A very useful collection, especially of 19th-century hashish memorists, and worth the price just for R.C. Zaehner's magnificent account of a mescaline trip.

9 Grove, 234 pp., $1.25. A detailed and often eloquent exposition of the young-folks'-martini theory, marred by a good deal of youth cultism, but perhaps only superficially so. Particularly full accounts of the effects of various drugs and relentless correction of anti-drug hysteria make it an important book despite these flaws.

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