The Stoned Ages, The Day (or Sixteen) After

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:

Psilocybe Cubensis in Natura Sua

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.

Commercialize It

Of course, not every substance entered the global marketplace, or succeeded there, and the film just begins to suggest how and why that happened.

Blink and You'll Miss Her

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.

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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.

10 thoughts on “The Stoned Ages, The Day (or Sixteen) After”

  1. The show was entertaining and it was great to see so many of my old friends and colleagues get some TV exposure. However, the constant “gee whiz” reaction of the host — an actor who plays a DEA agent on TV — to new information grew tiresome. In my opinion the show is not nearly as informative as HC’s previous trip down this road, Hooked: Illegal Drugs and How They Got That Way. After spending 2 hours watching The Stoned Ages, I was surprised by how little serious content was presented. Still, it does serve as an interesting introduction to the topic of psychoactive substances and civilization. I just could have used a little less Mesoamerican basketball and fewer “magic mushroom” references.

    • Higby
      The ballcourt game is a clear instance in which all threads are still available. The site, the ball itself, and the mushroom objects in Guatemala’s collection. It’s an example in which a polity sanctions enhanced states to play with the division between worlds. You sound like a crank the way you’re discussing the details of the show, which did a fair job of aping Ott’s Proemium to Pharmacotheon’s warning about societies like ours which sanctions drugs depending on their economic value rather than their psychic value. Are you a TV reviewer by trade or a true historian. If the latter, then your complaint should be followed by examples to TEACH the readership here. This isn’t a complaint board.
      We expect a reply.
      Kevin McLeod

      • Kevin: I agree that this is not a complaint board, so please don’t complain about my rather benign comments about the program. I had no problem with the ballcourt scene except with the two fellows “playing” the game and joking around about it for several minutes. (Don’t you think that some viewers found this horsing around on a sacred site offensive?) And as a TEACHER, I will continue to use Hooked instead of this program because of its better discussion of 20th-century drug use and regulation.

        Joe: I didn’t expect to get flamed on this blog and so I’ll probably unsubscribe. Best of luck!

  2. Thanks Joe for letting the community know about the project and for tuning in. I can’t thank all the experts who appeared in this documentary enough – people like Joe Spillane, David Courtwright, Gayle Gibson, David Herzberg and many others. You all put the real history in this thing and it was an honor to sit down with each of you and pick your brains. I should mention that this is the first project of this scope that I have directed and I thought it was really great how open, willing and patient everyone was with me as we were putting this thing together.

    Getting a project like this completed start to finish in 5 months was a monster effort by me and many other people. I worked under executive producer/writer Bryan Carmel and with a very small team of editors and researchers based in Toronto at I’m quite proud of the effort everyone put into this thing (shout outs to Corey Caplan and Jamie Hebbard among others) and it was our hope to put a show on the air that was a little different – walking a line between being fun, informative and just a little controversial.

    I’m sure we’ve failed in many ways – I just hope not in too many ways – and I can only hope that some people out there find some amount of value in it. Next time (if we get a next time…) we’ll figure out how to work even harder and make a better show.


  3. I really enjoyed the show. Being an avid edible mushroom hunter I enjoyed the interesting commentary from the Florida scene. I also loved hearing about the history from the Mayans to the Greeks and so on. I was amazed how this was able to be on a mainstream TV channel as well. Because of how it was almost promoting the use of drugs. However, showing the side effects of certain drugs when becoming addicted. My other favorite parts were hearing about the artists that were involved in doing drugs and how possibly that could have enhanced their talent. Maybe we just need a little something to open the pathways to parts of our brains that we dont usually use? The people who put this on did a awesome job and I am thankful to learn a little more about the drug world. I was so excited about this I have already told many people about it. Is there a way for people to view this?

  4. Gregory Higby wrote re the Mayan ball court scene: “Don’t you think that some viewers found this horsing around on a sacred site offensive?”
    Why sacred? Because the losing team was murdered after each game? The scene was no more offensive than watching a couple of non-experts playing catch in sacred Yankee stadium. Frivolity aside, it was important to let viewers know that psychedelic mushrooms, such as those regularly consumed by the Maya priesthood, do not always lead to spiritual enlightenment on their own–mental set and physical setting play a vital role in helping to create a more positive and beneficial outcome for the consumer. This is the main reason the Greeks and others instituted Mystery Schools, though it also became a method of control (as with the Eleusinian Mysteries, where revealing what went on in the ceremony, as well as partaking of the sacred drink outside the confines of the ceremony, were capital offenses). Bring back mystery schools (actually they never left, just went underground); lose the draconian punishments. Ritual murder is not sacred, regardless of what the perpetrator has imagined.

  5. Speaking of Mesoamerican blood sports, here is an interesting site about the game including a recreation of its play:

    Please note: I am not an expert on this ballgame, psychedelic mushrooms, or anything sacred.

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