Commentary Magazine

The Question of Drugs

To the Editor:

The puritanism of Samuel McCracken in “The Drugs of Habit and the Drugs of Belief” [June] goes much deeper than he seems to realize, though he does make the coy admission: “Yes, Virginia, the opposition to drugs contains a measure of puritanism.” Far more than a measure, I fear, in his opposition at least, and it does matter in assessing what Mr. McCracken has to say, insofar as any sensibility is a referent for moral judgments. The puritan, modishly shabby, is against embellishments in any age, against intervention between man and God, against vanitas and its works, against dancing, make-up, theater, against the baroque, the rococo; at one time or another he is drawn to see these, inter alia, as the work of the Devil.

Throughout, Mr. McCracken reveals the puritan vision central to most of his assumptions about drugs and reality. “The effects of marijuana,” he asserts, “comparatively mild as they may be, are not those one experiences without intervention.” Untrue, as anyone will testify who has had an ecstatic religious experience, love seizures, self-induced euphoria, manic cycles, etc. This idea also runs counter to a view expressed elsewhere in the article that you can “turn on,” and should be able to, without the intervention of drugs. That’s what really disturbs Mr. McCracken, intervention, for he warns about the implication of “needing chemical aid before having adequate emotion.” One is led to wonder how one might have “adequate emotion” without the “chemical aid” of the metabolic process, which becomes acceptable, I suppose, since it is internal and therefore not a showy dependency.

Backing and filling on his puritan trip, Mr. McCracken refers to the drug culture’s “nasty assumption that man is not good enough without drugs.” Nasty or not, despite the puritans in his midst, man has always assumed that he needs things other than himself for himself, going back to fire and the wheel, which were really serious interventions. One can imagine an Ur-puritan inveighing against fire, not only because of its danger, but for the simple reason that we ought to be able to keep ourselves warm without the “chemical aid” of the consuming flames; or, somewhat later, what’s the point of the wheel—aren’t we good enough to carry our burden without the aid of those round works of the Devil?

Character is what the deep-dyed puritan really loves, the stronger and more independent the better. He relies on self-reliance to the point of metaphoric addiction with the heady side-effects of hypocrisy, a long-time puritan turn-on. Among the neo-puritans, if character seems a bit obvious, then “humanity” takes its place as an honorific, but the objective is the same—self-wrought independent humanity; anything else is sick: “There really is something pathological,” Mr. McCracken avows, “about a situation in which humanity is seen as something attainable only with chemical intervention [italics added].”

Back in the early 17th century, a popular preacher named William Prynne had this to say about dancing: “Dancing is for the most part attended with many amorous smiles, wanton compliments, unchaste kisses, scurrilous songs and sonnets, effeminate music, lust, provoking attire, ridiculous love pranks, all of which savor only of sensuality, of raging fleshly lusts. Dancing serves no necessary use, no profitable, laudable, or pious end at all; it issues only from the inbred depravity, vanity, wantonness, incontinence, pride of a man’s depraved natures. No way is large or smooth enough for capering roisterers, for jumping, skipping, dancing dames but that broad, beaten, pleasant road that leads to Hell.”

If we assume, as the puritan does, that the race is evolving toward corruption, and that every new ornament drags him (us) toward Hell, then he (the puritan) has every right, as Prynne does, to point out that course. Considering the prevalence of incurable pox in his time, the Rev. Prynne could well have been standing on as firm ground in condemning dancing as Mr. McCracken is when he condemns drugs—the dangers are obvious in both cases: Mr. McCracken and Norman Podhoretz (in “Seducer of the Innocent,” Issues, June) may well be right in insisting that pot, for example, leads to heroin and lethal addiction, as dancing leads to lust and Hell, though one might assume that both lust and addiction came into being because of other chemistries as well.

I am quite ready to agree with Messrs. Prynne, McCracken, and Podhoretz that the Devil is busily at work among us, but we must also remember the Devil’s protean capacities. The Devil’s work of today (dancing or drugs) tends to become the commonplace of tomorrow as fears subside and antidotes emerge. Nevertheless, Mr. McCracken’s view of “drugs” hangs on his distaste for “chemical intervention” as a special Devil, though one assumes he certainly couldn’t mind the intervention of penicillin or anesthesia which, although lifesaving, could be as “lethal” as anything the drug culture has ever served up. (Undoubtedly, at the introduction of anesthetics in the last century, there were stubborn doctors who must have required of their patients that they have the character . . . to go through surgery without the numbing effects of chemical intervention.)

The question remains: Do we need drugs, even though they can be “lethal to life itself,” as Mr. Podhoretz says, or at least to the corporate “academic community,” as Mr. McCracken maintains? The answer is not an easy one to come by, since it relates to complex views of reality and inner life, which in principle and in fact, contrary to the puritan view, cannot feed only on itself. A clue may be found in Mr. McCracken’s joking aside about his ability to enjoy Monopoly without the help of pot, where others assert its utility, which, assuming that there are no jokes, means only that he is not prepared to recognize dimensions of enjoyment other than the levels he alone can achieve.

The issue of subjective enjoyment and Charles Reich’s claim that “drugs allow one to make connections not otherwise made” are countered by Mr. McCracken’s assertion 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.” Thus, Mr. McCracken asserts on the one hand the righteousness of human independence while taking away with the other the internal reality of every man, his states of mind, his imagination, his needs—indeed, his chemistry, which drugs, like it or not, affect for good or ill. . . .

The puritan fervor against intervention strikes the chord of a familiar Jewish puritanism, whose refrain is, “What do you need it for?” (freely translated from the Yiddish, but also used in English). As the ultimate criticism of human vanity, this phrase does deploy the undermining puritan doubt—what, indeed, do you need it for?—the it being anything resembling amenities or enjoyment. In the light of eternity, there is no answer to this nagging question. But one can take a shorter-range view and consider one’s internal reality, and that’s what you need it for—to please your skin, your mind, your soul, your internal chemistry. On the issue of “reality,” Mr. McCracken turns to Martin Buber (“The waking have one world in common”). But he might have turned, with equal facility and perhaps better understanding, to Pirandello, Joyce, Husserl—to any of those who recognize the multiplicity of realities which the human being must deal with and shape through the strengths and weaknesses of his own inner reality. The Kingdom of God is within man.

Puritanism tends to throw the baby out with the bath water. Perhaps it would be more helpful in understanding drugs to misplace the moral lenses, and view drugs as a new technology, with all the customary ambiguities of such phenomena, yet capable nevertheless of creating a subculture, or at least creating a change in the inner landscape. Drugs have always existed as a fact; in recent years they have become a political issue. But they certainly are not going to disappear as a result of moral taboos and legal repression. They should be studied and controlled, but spared the puritan stigma which tends to lump the good, bad, and indifferent into one devilish package, so that the young or innocent are not helped to discern the real distinctions that exist among them.

Even the question of addiction, universally considered an evil in itself, is not unambiguous: is it conceivable that in some not too distant future, in a computerized society, addiction, which bespeaks craving and deep need, might be viewed as a good sign and, indeed, the last vestige of humanity? Oversimplifying even the most extreme categories (like addiction) tends to discount the future too drastically by dwelling on absolutes of good and evil.

Puritanism has a rage for simplicity which is believed to imply order (the fewer moving parts, the better). Drugs are either good or bad for you, and that’s it. Both Mr. McCracken and Mr. Podhoretz see drugs simply as the work of the Devil incarnate, tempting us with immortality, but really dealing us lethal blows. . . . Yet what they perceive as a quest for immortality may be only the altered time sense that pot gives its users, through mild dips and sorties into the unconscious, where time is an entirely different creature from the one it is in the “reality out there.” As for lethality, everything in life can kill, but when and how it does so, and with what intervening powers, depends to an extent upon the inner reality of each individual.

Harold Steinberg
Chelsea House Publishers
New York City



To the Editor:

Samuel McCracken’s article is a monument of illogic and misinformation, a dreadful and silly piece. The issue deserves serious and systematic discussion.

Erich Goode
State University of New York
Stony Brook, New York



To the Editor:

I wonder where Samuel McCracken gets the idea that the linking of assassins with hashish is an “etymological myth.” According to Carl Brockelmann in his History of the Islamic Peoples, in the 11th century in Persia Hasan Sabbah built up a group of followers, and, to quote directly from Brockelmann: “While the narrowest circle of initiates professed a libertinism which negated any limitations by morality or religion, their agents were trained in the severest fanaticism. The murder of an enemy of the true faith designated by their master was presented to them as a work well pleasing to God, the execution of which would assure them of the joys of Paradise. Such murderers were called Fida’is, ‘the Self-sacrificers,’ or Hashishis (whence Assassins), those intoxicated by hashish, the narcotic element in hemp.”

Ida Cohen Selavan
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania



To the Editor:

In “Seducer of the Innocent” [Issues, June] Norman Podhoretz speaks of “such addictive drugs as heroin whose sinister character is no longer denied by anyone.” And, “For heroin, as everyone must surely have come to realize by now, is suicide. . . .” I submit, as with all “universal” statements, neither one is true.

I have been using opiates, including heroin, since I was fourteen years old. I am now forty-four. About the only deleterious side-effect that I have noticed is that the use of opiates causes constipation. On the other hand, as a result of existing laws, such use does cause the body to be locked up for a long period of time and puts quite a dent in one’s bank account. Again, a consequence of existing laws, since the “Blue-Book” price for morphine is less than fifteen dollars an ounce and the street price is five hundred dollars an ounce (I cite morphine because there is no legal price for heroin).

As for the “hell of heroin,” that’s a myth promulgated by snivelers who in order to avoid serving lengthy jail sentences will say anything the “narco bulls” tell them to say.

I think that all criminal sanctions should be removed and then the “problem of drug abuse” will resolve itself. . . .

Dallas Blumenthal
Tamal, California



To the Editor:

Norman Podhoretz writes:

If it is true that marijuana is not necessarily habit-forming, it is also true that marijuana does not necessarily lead the user into the use of heroin (which can serve here as a stand-in for all the harder drugs of habit). But of course it is equally true that there are very few heroin addicts to be found—not to mention users of the hallucinogens—who did not begin by smoking marijuana, often at a relatively early age. What this means is that marijuana can and does lead to heroin in a substantial number of cases—the number being roughly equal to the number of heroin addicts among us—and what this means is that marijuana is a dangerous drug.

If this argument instructs us on the dangers of marijuana, it can also teach us about other, seemingly more innocent substances.

If it is true that water is not necessarily habit-forming, it is also true that water does not necessarily lead the user into the use of heroin (which can serve here as a stand-in for all the harder drugs of habit). But of course it is equally true that there are very few heroin addicts to be found—not to mention users of the hallucinogens—who did not begin by drinking water, often at a relatively early age. What this means is that water can and does lead to heroin in a substantial number of cases—the number being roughly equal to the number of heroin addicts among us—and what this means is that water is a dangerous drug.

Herbert Heidelberger
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, Massachusetts



To the Editor:

Norman Podhoretz’s comments on drugs suffer from a confusion of terminology. A medically-addictive or habit-forming drug is not at all the same as a habitual ingestion of peanuts or oranges. The distinction is important, for the truly addictive drug involves physiological dependence and the consequent physiological withdrawal symptoms.

Mr. Podhoretz equates psychological dependence with addiction, and perhaps he is not far off the mark. Nevertheless, the distinctions should be maintained. In any discussion of dangerous drugs—whether those of the fathers or those of the sons, to use Samuel McCracken’s terminology—the interaction between drug and individual must be considered. What produces an alcoholic is not the amount of alcohol consumed, but the body chemistry of the incipient alcoholic. He is, in effect, allergic to alcohol. The person not so afflicted can consume far more alcohol than most alcoholics without getting “bombed”; he also has no psychological need to continue drinking and can therefore stop at any time—as did Mr. Podhoretz—without getting the shakes or other withdrawal symptoms.

The same is true of cigarette smokers. Some fifteen years ago, I smoked between two and three packs a day. My wife smoked the same or even less. We both decided to stop. I did so with no effort whatsoever. For me, cigarette smoking was clearly nothing more than a nasty habit. My wife found herself unable to stop. She was clearly addicted. After two days without cigarettes, her hands were constantly shaking, she was in a perpetual state of irritation, and finally she had to resume smoking. She has repeated this experience many times since.

Similarly, I know of some heavy users of coffee who are not addicted and others who are. The evidence on heroin is that physical addiction is rapid and universal, there being no such thing as a heavy user who is not an addict. The folklore has it that no one is really physiologically addicted to pot. I suspect this may not be so, but how is one to find out when the heavy users tell you that they can stop any time they want—but they don’t want? As Huck Finn said when the lynch mob was being dispersed, he could have stayed if he wanted to—but he didn’t want to. . . .

All of which is to say, yes, marijuana should be legalized, but with restrictions to protect the incipient addict—if that’s what a pot-head really is—from himself. A tall order, as our crazy quilt of ineffective alcohol laws proves, but certainly worth the attempt. In the meantime, let’s try to find out what in the world we’re all talking about.

Alfred H. Greenberg
New York City



Samuel McCracken writes:

Harold Steinberg demonstrates one of the difficulties in attacking an obscure author: when you don’t know anything about a man, it is hard to make a convincing attack ad hominem. And so he judiciously falls back on the next-best technique, guilt by association. I suspect Mr. Steinberg finds the silly notion that I am a puritan so useful in coming to terms with my ideas that I could disabuse him of it only by dancing with vine leaves in my hair up Broadway, across 56th Street and into the pages of COMMENTARY. This I refuse to do. But since the evidence he arrays for my puritanism is such a canonical example of the way people confuse cerebrum and patella whenever drugs are mentioned, I shall respond, doubtless futilely, in some detail.

I begin by being at a loss as to what moral judgments my allegedly puritan sensibility must be a referent for, inasmuch as the only moral judgment I can recall making is that there isn’t much to choose, morally speaking, between marijuana and alcohol. I assume that Mr. Steinberg, believing that puritans oppose sensual pleasures because they see them as immoral, believes (quite incorrectly) that so do I. Let me say it again: it is quite possible to oppose bear-baiting in the interest of the bear. Now, whether drugs are to their users what a band of Southwark toughs were to the bear may be disputed, but it is an intellectual question, and one not to be settled by the sort of name-calling Mr. Steinberg finds adequate.

Next, if to be a puritan is to oppose embellishments in any age, especially dancing, theater, the baroque, and the rococo, I can triumphantly plead Not Guilty. Or is it that drugs, in our age, occupy the place of those other embellishments in another? Does Mr. Steinberg oppose police brutality? Fie, fie! Dost thou think there shall be no more clubs and mace because thou art virtuous? It is, at any rate, in this sentence—his third—that he stops talking about me and my essay and restricts himself to puritan-ism, a topic on which he is entertaining, but quite irrelevant.

If I may defend myself from the imputation of using language I disdain: nowhere in the essay do I use the phrase “turn on” to describe non-drug experiences. As I have said, the term is a repellent one, and while it is Mr. Steinberg’s affair if his sensibility is less fastidious, I wish he would not force me to join him.

Aid, I presume, implies help from without. Accordingly, there is a distinction, in the framework I erected, between drugs and the chemicals of the metabolic process, one similar, I believe, to that between the chemicals in a natural lake and those man adds, with, I further believe, analogous results. Mr. Steinberg regularly confuses internal phenomena like drugs with external ones like fire and the wheel. These latter, quite obviously, being alterations not in man but his environment, remain a part of the external reality. Nor should it be necessary to point out that antibiotics are defenses against invasions of the body, anesthetics against certain undesirable side-effects of the scalpel. Mr. Steinberg’s analogy with 19th-century medical practice is a taking one, but it betrays yet another confusion, one between life and surgery. I trust he shaves with an electric razor.

William Prynne (who was rather more than a mere popular preacher) would, I think, hardly be glad to share the pillory with me. Certainly not I with him (the very thought makes my ears hurt), because of his many qualities I admire only his courage. He was, by the way, roundly criticized in his own day for the quantities of ale he consumed while producing his pamphlets. Perhaps he found writing groovier stoned: when I say that I enjoy Monopoly sober, I say no more than that I enjoy Monopoly sober. It was the implication of the authors with whom I was dealing that it was fun only when stoned, and if Mr. Steinberg disagrees with those who deny the validity of enjoyments other than their own, his quarrel is with Messrs. Clorfene and Margolis.

Nowhere in the essay, to return to Mr. Steinberg’s misquotations, do I make the assertion that there is a reality out there. I do not, indeed, know that there is. I made the very different assertion that rational behavior becomes impossible if one does not assume, as a working hypothesis, that there is such. Mr. Steinberg would send me to school to Joyce, Husserl, and Pirandello. I go to all of them, but not, as it happens, for my metaphysics. Did I so go to Pirandello, I could dispose of Mr. Steinberg with a single sentence: Right I am if I think I am. But I agree with Buber that my obligation to Mr. Steinberg is to think of him as something more than a fictional character of my own devising. I would not have dragged in Buber were there not contrary opinions on the matter, of which opinions I was well aware. I rather think Mr. Steinberg confuses two very different problems: whether reality is diverse, and whether human perception of it is so.

Whatever the answers to these questions, I have no such ambitious program as “taking away the internal reality of every man.” Mr. Steinberg, for example, is welcome to his. I suspect, nevertheless, that the internal reality is distinguishable from the external; Mr. Steinberg’s view of the former seems to be that it is so fragile as to be destroyed by the merest whisper that it may not have a monopoly of the trade. His definition of independence seems to me a very curious one, barely distinguishable from domination: on his view, if man cannot dominate reality, he cannot be independent of it.

When he says that some people define the it of “What do you need it for?” as amenities and enjoyment, he is talking about people other than me, if he will allow me the distinction.

I quite agree with him that we ought not to lump all drugs into the same devilish package, and had thought one of my principal purposes in the essay—failed at, apparently—to distinguish among them.

It may well be that at some time in the future addiction will be the last vestige of humanity. I am content to wait the day, in regard to addiction as well as to other contenders, such as cancer and hate. If this be discounting the future, let us make the most of it. Mr. Steinberg’s sense of obligation to the future as a construct is impressive, but I cannot share it.

If Mr. Steinberg could drop his prejudice as to my puritanism, and reread the essay, he would discover that most of the attitudes and arguments he so vehemently rejects are of his own devising. Let him prefer whichever reality he wishes, internal or external. But let him keep them straight, insofar as I appear in either.

I suggest to Ida Cohen Selavan that myths sometimes get printed. But if she will look a few sentences down in Brockelmann, she will see that he himself hazards the guess that the association of hashish with the followers of Hasan Sabbah may be no more than a conjecture by Marco Polo. That there was a sect of Assassins is perfectly clear, but their relation to hashish is not. Some authorities believe it was used as a reward for, or inducement to, murder. Others, following the version given in the Travels of “Sir John de Mandeville,” believe that the assassins were promised paradise, and hashish employed to afford a foretaste. The hash smokers of my own acquaintance rarely run amok, being on the whole neither more nor less hostile than anyone else. It therefore seems unlikely—and this is the point of the myth as usually cited—that the drug turned the followers of Hasan Sabbah and his successors into murderous maniacs. The etymological dimension of the tale, which I decried without explicitly stating, is that the Assassins were so called because they were made what they were by hashish. Nothing in Brockelmann leads me to think the etymology any more informative.

I really don’t know what to say to Erich Goode. When an author publishes a controversial article in a journal which maintains a celebratedly voluminous correspondence column, he expects an Irate Reader to do better than muttering a few very general and hackneyed epithets. I can only respond to his call for serious and systematic discussion by observing that there are more systems than sociology, and by hoping that he is not one of those dreadful people—I believe they are called puritans—who think humor a sinful embellishment, wit and earnestness mutually exclusive.

To read over Norman Podhoretz’s shoulder, I am reassured to hear about Dallas Blumenthal’s good experience with the opiates, and can only hope that there is some truth in the axiom he has planted, i.e., that he remains competent to assess all deleterious side-effects, even those less easily apprehended than constipation. I cannot defend the Harrison Act, but I do wonder what to make of someone who so lightly exposes himself to its sanctions. Either heroin is doing something awfully right, or he something awfully foolish.

Mr. Heidelberger’s exercise in pure statistics is a chestnut going back at least to Mark Twain. Its full staleness can best be appreciated by roasting a few new ones: 100 per cent of the people mugged in New York City in 1970 were wearing clothes; therefore. . . . Since 1846, the papacy has devolved alternately on short, stout men with an “r” in their surnames, and tall, lean men without; consequently, at the next conclave. . . . The point is that there are two ways in which the correlation between the use of marijuana and the use of heroin or other more obviously dangerous drugs is more than statistical. First, there is the human tendency, widespread, if not universal, to satiety and consequent escalation of pleasures. Second, some of the assumptions which make marijuana look good are also persuasive for the other drugs; once the assumptive leap has been made for marijuana, the jump to heroin is the less. Dr. Sam Irwin, a Portland pharmacologist, argues for the legalization of marijuana because he believes, as a result of close observation, that when marijuana is in short supply in Portland, the use of LSD, speed, and heroin goes up. The conclusion seems inescapable that there is such a thing as a dependency on drugs in general, satisfiable by marijuana when possible, by more dangerous drugs when necessary. I do not know what proportion of marijuana users develop a dependency of this nature, but I do know that someone who will drink Sterno when he can’t get whiskey has got a very serious drinking problem.



Norman Podhoretz writes:

Returning the compliment and reading over Mr. McCracken’s shoulder, I have only a few points to add to his comments on the leters above.

To Mr. Steinberg: One of my favorite passages in all of English literature is the speech from King Lear which begins:

O, reason not the need! Our basest
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. . . .

I do not love this passage because I disagree with it.

To Mr. Blumenthal: I believe you, but I also believe other users of heroin who tell us that its effects go far beyond constipation. No doubt some of these people are whining or saying what the “narco bulls” tell them to say. But what about all those addicts whose testimony takes the form not of words but of death by overdose?

To Mr. Heidelberger: I referred in my piece to “the propagandists for marijuana” whose purpose is to persuade us that “marijuana, unlike every other substance known to man including even milk, was altogether innocent of any ill effects.” I see now that at least some propagandists for marijuana do not think it is unique in its harmlessness among all the substances known to man: evidently some of you think it shares this characteristic with water (which really is, as I should have remembered, innocent of any ill effects). Be that as it may, I wonder whether you would have been provoked into the same sophomoric sophistry (Mr. McCracken is too polite in calling it a chestnut) by the statement that beer can and does lead to whiskey in a substantial number of cases.

To Mr. Greenberg: I sympathize with your wish to maintain distinctions, but I cannot agree with your emphasis on physiology. As I understand these matters, it is a person who becomes addicted, not a body with a will of its own. The addiction, of course, expresses itself in physical terms, but it is not, in my judgment, reducible to an autonomous physical condition. Nor do I agree with the stress you place on physiological withdrawal symptoms. Such symptoms last a very short time (two or three days in the case of heroin, or so one is told), but after they disappear the craving often goes on, sometimes forever. At this point it must be the person who craves the drug, not his body chemistry, and what the person craves is the experience, which is neither purely physical nor in the ordinary sense merely psychological, that used to be induced by the drug and on which he has come to depend in order to endure his life.



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