Editor’s Note: The post below by Joe Spillane was written after the original September air date of “The Stoned Ages.” If you’re just tuning in now, don’t worry– it’s probably still pretty relevant.
Readers who caught my last-minute notice regarding “The Stoned Ages” documentary on the History Channel know that I was a little ambivalent about what we’d see. After all, HC original series have drifted pretty far from the core logic of the channel (IRT Deadliest Roads, anyone?). On the other hand, “The Stoned Ages” was an independent production, managed by director Adam Barton, who really took an interest in drugs and history. So, if you watched “The Stoned Ages” premiere on History Channel last night, we’d certainly welcome your thoughts. You won’t find any space at the HC site, where the original series suck all the oxygen out of the room. Here are five quick takes of my own:
1. Score one for the shrooms! I can’t say that I’ve ever seen quite as much space on cable television to psychedelic mushrooms. With host Dean Norris tromping through rural Florida with his expert guide looking for cubensis mushrooms, the opening segment seemed more like an HGTV “how-to” show than a historical documentary. Plenty of good tips for the do-it-yourself sort, I guess. I’m sure hardcore fans of traditional preparations like ayahuasca might have bridled at the brief mentions in “The Stoned Ages” but I’d give the documentary high marks for the coverage it did extend. [Editor’s note: if you’re jonesing for a complimentary discussion of ayahuasca, you can find it here.]
2. Score one for psychedelic research! No time or space right now to cover the field right now, though interested readers might check out the Multidisplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. I found it quite extraordinary that an effectively “mainstream” television documentary was willing to present a study like the NYU Psilocybin Cancer Anxiety Study on its own terms.
3. Score just a bit for transnational history. Longtime readers of this blog will know that David Courtwright (seen in “The Stoned Ages”) is the author of Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World(Harvard, 2001). David’s book concerns the global “psychoactive revolution”–and the film picked up some of this, giving viewers a sense of the ways in which revolutions in commerce became psychoactive revolutions.
Of course, not every substance entered the global marketplace, or succeeded there, and the film just begins to suggest how and why that happened.
4. “It’s a Man’s World”–I watched the film with my wife Jennifer, and that was her first reaction once documentary was over. She’s right–there are precious few women to be found anywhere in “The Stoned Ages” narrative (or, for that matter, among the interview subjects). If drugs and civilizations were connected, “The Stoned Ages” suggests that this was and still is largely the business of men.
5. No score for the drug war. From the early Christians to Richard Nixon, the world’s drug warriors don’t fare too well in “The Stoned Ages”–and I tried to figure out just what made that seem so pronounced here. In the end, while previous “drug” documentaries have highlighted the costs of the drug war, the portrayals of drugs themselves have always been so freighted with implications of danger and weird exoticism that war seems like a necessary evil. There’s certainly some of this in “The Stoned Ages”–plenty of close shots of shots, lingering images of opium smokers, and freaked out people who may or may have taken anything–but it seemed more muted to me.
That’s all the commentary I’ve got time for at the moment. Adam Barton, good work! As noted, we’d welcome your responses.
Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004). More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.