Drug (M)use: Drugs as a Means of Inspiration from 19th-Century Europe to 1960s America

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from Timothy Cole Hale. This post is an abridged version of a paper that he will present as part of the panel, “A Century of American Drug Use: Psychoactive Drugs Among Native Americans, Hippies, and the Working Poor,” at the 2021 virtual conference of the American Historical Association next Tuesday, April 20th, at 1:00 PM Eastern. To read the full paper, please visit his website.

Left Brain v. Right Brain
Left Brain vs. Right Brain. Image courtesy of Tumisu from Pixabay.

Opium and Nineteenth-Century Europe

In his 1995 book, Night, English poet and essayist Alfred Alvarez, traces the emergence of opium as a source of artistic inspiration to the Romantic Era. Since the positive effects of the drug include an immediate sense of euphoria and numbness soon followed by severe drowsiness, it is no coincidence that the narcotic became popular at a time when writers were obsessed with dreams and nightmares. These writers believed that the dreamworld provided new experiences and new places that they could incorporate into their work. [1]

Thomas De Quincey, perhaps the most outspoken opium addict of the era, first popularized the drug in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. De Quincey believed that inspiration could transcend from the dreamworld into reality and he wrote that, “If a man could thro’ Paradise in a Dream & have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, and found that flower in his hand when awoke—Aye!” [2]

In 1804, Friedrich Sertürner identified morphine as opium’s most active ingredient, and, with the arrival of the hypodermic syringe in the mid-nineteenth century, injecting morphine became the most popular ingestion method. It is impossible to quantify the popularity of opium—especially as soldiers began returning home from the Franco-Prussian War in the early 1870s—but the drug was especially prevalent among artists and writers of Bohemian Paris.

The Pleasures of Opium
Drawing of the “Pleasures of Opium” by illustrator Willy Pogany from 1908 edition of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Image courtesy of Internet Archive.

And opium became the perfect substance for rebelling against the bourgeoisie, as the drug causes users to become isolated and withdrawn in their thoughts, often making it physically impossible to contribute to conversations or productivity of any sort. Opium use provided a sense of camaraderie among Bohemian users who fashioned themselves as fighting against traditional literary, art, and social norms. But what may have begun as rebellion had a side effect: the dreamworld and deranged senses provided users with fodder for their art.

Read more

A Century of Drug Use – AHA2021 Panel Presentation on 4/20

The annual meeting of the American Historical Association, to be held in Seattle, was called off due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As part of this year’s replacement online virtual AHA2021 conference, four drug historians, including Points Contributing Editor Bob Beach, will be presenting their research about drug users in modern history on Tuesday, April 20, at 1:00PM EST. The panel is titled, “A Century of American Drug Use: Psychoactive Drugs Among Native Americans, Hippies, and the Working Poor.”

Virtual AHA Panel

The online panel is free to attend, but advanced registration is required. Please click this link to register and you’ll receive instant confirmation.

Read more

Points Interview: “Reframing Bummer Trips: Scientific and Cultural Explanations to Adverse Reactions to Psychedelic Drug Use” with Erika Dyck

Editor’s Note: Points continues its series of interviews with authors from the latest issue of ADHS’s journal Social History of Alcohol and Drugs (vol. 34, no. 2; Fall 2020), published by the University of Chicago Press. Today we feature Dr. Erika Dyck, Professor and Canada Research Chair in the History of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. She co-authored the article, “Reframing Bummer Trips,” with Dr. Chris Elcock. You can see their article here. Contact the University of Chicago Press to subscribe to the journal or request access to this article, or any other article from SHAD’s history. 

Dr. Erika Dyck
Erika Dyck

Tell readers a little bit about yourself (and your co-author)

Chris was a PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan, and I was his supervisor when we began thinking about this topic. We were both interested in the history of psychedelic drugs, me from the perspective of medical history, and Chris more so from the perspective of cultural history. We started by comparing notes on how “bad trips” were described in different ways—as catastrophic in public health literature, but also as complex and even beneficial experiences, according to some consumers of psychedelics. We were curious about how the idea of “bad trips” became a short hand for understanding the values placed on psychedelics.

What got you interested in drugs (and their history)?

My own interest in drugs, and their history, stems much less from personal experience than many people might imagine. For me, it was always the politics of drug use, regulation, and criminalization that intrigued me the most. Or how people claimed to know about drugs.

Why do some drugs have a reputation for causing irreparable harm in some circles, yet have a certain degree of social capital, or even cultural caché, in another context? I was interested in how some drugs became the object of medical fascination but had different reputations or characters once they left the clinic.

This set me on a path of examining LSD and mescaline experiments conducted in Saskatchewan, Canada, during the 1950s. Saskatchewan was also place that had claimed the first socialist government in North America—a government, it turns out, that invested in psychedelic research and saw potential in the research for reforming mental health care. Since then, I have been curious about how psychedelics have been framed as a political tool or weapon—drugs that, on one hand, allegedly inspire tolerance, enlightenment, and self reflection, but, conversely, also drugs that trigger violence, narcissism, and reckless behaviour. These polarizing views about drugs and their users have significant consequences for how we view drugs as medicines or as substances of abuse—but also for how we consider drug users and pushers, or patients and psychiatrists and their interactions with psychedelics.

Read more

The Points Interview: David Black

Editor’s Note: Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with David Black, the author of Psychedelic Tricksters: A True Secret History of LSD (independently published, 2020). Black lives in London and is an independent journalist and author. His previous books include The Philosophical Roots of Anti-Capitalism: Essays on History, Culture, and Dialectical Thought and 1839: The Chartist Insurrection.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Psychedelic Tricksters: A True Secret History of LSD tells the story of various people who made that, beginning with the discovery of LSD’s hallucinogenic properties in 1943 by Albert Hoffman. In the late-1940s psychiatrists started using it as “psychosis-inducing drug” for schizophrenics. CIA officers investigated LSD’s potential as a weapon of mind-control and became enthusiastic trippers themselves. But the CIA and the medical establishment wanted to keep LSD out of the hands of “undesirables.” The “undesirables” included those in the new youth counterculture who challenged the official line on LSD and explored its potential for creativity and spirituality. So, in the 1960s, as LSD “escaped” into the counter-culture, the producers and distributors were forced underground.

I’ve titled the book Psychedelic Tricksters because in mythology the trickster is someone who “unwisely” defies the powers-on-high, as when Prometheus steals fire from Zeus for the benefit of humankind. The trickster’s rebellion always fails and yet is seen as necessary for the origin of civilizations, or perhaps, as in the case of psychedelics, a new beginning for a society that had lost way in war, racism and sexual oppression.

Read more

The Points Interview: Danielle Giffort

Editor’s Note: Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Danielle M. Giffort, assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Liberal Arts at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. She’s the author of the new book Acid Revival: The Psychedelic Renaissance and the Quest for Medical Legitimacy (University of Minnesota Press, 2020).

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand. 

Acid Revival is about how a group of mental health professionals is trying to bring psychedelic-assisted therapy back into mainstream medicine and how they struggle with the past history of psychedelic drugs in medicine as they do this. My book looks at how these researchers grapple with this past by telling stories about what went wrong during the “first wave” of psychedelic therapy—a period stretching from the late 1940s to mid-1970s. And their stories all point the blame at one person: Timothy Leary, the infamous psychedelic researcher-cum-countercultural guru. 

For today’s researchers studying psychedelic therapy, Leary symbolizes what I call an “impure scientist”—a bad expert who does not respect and intentionally defies the boundaries of science. And in defying these boundaries, his presence supposedly had a polluting effect on the legitimacy of psychedelic therapy. So, researchers would tell me how Leary “contaminated” and “poisoned” psychedelic science. To contain that threat and offer an antidote to that poison, they perform as the Anti-Leary—a phrase I heard from several researchers. Another term bounced around was that they are “sober scientists.” So, essentially, the book tells a story about how, in the minds of contemporary psychedelic researchers, the misbehavior of an individual had contaminating effects on their whole scientific field—it boils down to a “one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel” story. 

But these boundaries between impure and sober scientists are porous. That’s the thing about boundaries—they aren’t given; they are constructed. The ways in which we draw lines in the sand between this or that is the result of struggle and those lines are subject to change across time and place. And the way that we see this happening in psychedelic science is this: these researchers push away from the pollution of the impure scientist by enacting the sober scientist persona, but at the same time, they still draw on the practices of the impure scientist. For example, among other things, they criticize Leary for failing to follow conventional scientific methods in his psychedelic research, so they actively work to follow the kind of hypothesis-testing methods that grant scientific credibility. But at the same time, they actively incorporate Leary’s insights about the psychedelic experience into their therapeutic models. Leary is so central to their stories and to the revival because he is the site of the continuities and divergences between the first and current waves of research. And from this discussion, I hope readers learn more about not just the history of psychedelic science but about how the ways in which people construct reality has real effects on their actions.  

Read more

Hidden Figures of Drug History: Melissa Cargill

This is the first time researching a post in my “Hidden Figures of Drug History” series has legitimately pissed me off. Usually, when I’m trying to learn more about someone like Joan Ganz Cooney, Lenore Kandel or Kitty McNeil, the fantastically-nicknamed “Babbling Bodhisattva,” my research takes me to enlightening places, where I can locate the influential impact these unacknowledged women have made on America’s long history with intoxicant use.

Screenshot 2019-06-11 at 8.46.43 AM
Melissa Cargill

But over the past few days, as I tried to learn more about the mysterious Melissa Cargill, I became enormously upset about how overshadowed this talented chemist was by her larger-than-life partner, Augustus Owsley “Bear” Stanley III, the man “responsible” for the purest LSD in San Francisco in the 1960s, as well as the Grateful Dead’s famous “Wall of Sound.”

But was Owsley really the one manning the beakers? Or was it Cargill all along?

Read more

When New Yorkers Turned On

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Dr. Chris Elcock, an adjunct professor at the Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3 in Lyon, France, whom you might remember from his article on the early years of cannabis activism published last month. Today he discusses the use of LSD in New York City in the 1960s and its effect on the city’s culture. Enjoy!

Image result for new york lsd 1960sEight years ago I developed a keen interest in the social history of psychedelic drug use and ended up starting a PhD thesis on the history of LSD use in New York City. I based my project on the premises that New York had been somewhat ignored in the scholarship and in the popular mind. When you think of LSD, you think of the West Coast in the 1960s and its colorful Haight-Ashbury scene. San Francisco certainly had a long tradition of tolerance toward Bohemians and eccentrics and it seemed quite natural that such a psychedelic scene should have blossomed there. But what about the Big Apple? As one the most influential metropolises in the entire world, surely the use of mind-altering drugs would have led to the development of a very complex scene indeed.

Read more

The Points Interview: Stephen Siff

EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is delighted to welcome Stephen Siff, an associate professor in the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Miami University of Ohio. Below, Siff discusses his recent book, Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience (University of Illinois, 2015), which chronicles LSD’s trip from multi-colored miracle to mind-melting menace.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Acid Hype is a history of how newspapers, magazines and TV reported on LSD and similar drugs in the1950s and 1960s. During that time, mainstream media enthusiastically promoted LSD as a treatment for all sorts of problems, and talked about its potential to provide memorable experiences to people who were not sick.

The book explains why journalists working for major newspapers and organizations like Time and Life devoted so much attention to describing psychedelic drug experiences, and how such work evolved as a genre within the journalism of the period.

Acid Hype leaves off around 1970. That’s when the media lost interest in psychedelic drugs, even while their actual prevalence in society was continuing to increase.

Read more