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new internationalist
issue 140 October 1984

Fragments of Drug History


American indians smoking the first known illustration of the tobacco plant. Tobacco and hallucinogenic drugs derived from the peyote cactus or from certain species of mushrooms were used in the indian societies of North and South America for centuries. The New World offered about 100 hallucinogenic plants and the Old World under 20. Tobacco was brought back to Europe but use of the other plants was ruthlessly punished by the Spanish conquerors - as an alternative source of power, the drugs threatened the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church.

[image, unknown] [image, unknown]
photo's by Dimitri Casterine / CAMERA PRESS

Two clean-cut American drug-takers, John F. Kennedy smoked cannabis while he was still President in 1962, while Cary Grant admitted using LSD. Kennedy was breaking the law, but LSD was still legal when Grant took it. Many drugs that are banned now were once used by eminently respectable people. Drug-takers down the ages include:

Pope Leo XIII, Edison, Zola, Ibsen, H. G. Wells and US presidents Grant and McKinley, who all raved about a wine containing cocaine; W. B. Yeats, who took mescaline; Baudelaire, who formed a hashish smokers' club; Clive of India, an opium addict; anyone who drank Coca Cola before its makers switched from cocaine to caffeine early this century; and the British, American, German and Japanese armies, who were issued with speed (amphetamines) to keep them going during World War Two.

Europe had its own mind-expanding drugs - but only witches used them. Witches were not only herbalist healers, but also knew the hallucinogenic properties and dangers of plants like henbane, mandrake, deadly nightshade and the toad-stool. Like the American Indians they were executed partly because the Church was threatened by this different kind of spiritual power - especially when it was held by women.

Gustav Doré's view of a Chinese opium den in the East End of London. The Chinese were always associated with opium - but it was the British who turned them on. Britain smuggled opium from India into China throughout the nineteenth century and fought three wars rather than relinquish a trade that paid for half the cost of its Crown and Civil Service. Victory in the Opium Wars between 1839 and 1858 forced the Chinese to legalise the trade and cede the island of Hong Kong to the 'barbarians' (as the Europeans were called). It is these treaties which Mrs Thatcher's Government currently describes as 'fair and binding' in its negotiations with China. Britain allowed the opium trade in Hong Kong until as late as 1945.

[image, unknown] Tobacco has come a long way since Europeans first saw those North American indians smoking it. Its world-wide spread during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was largely due to Jean Nicot, the young French ambassador to Lisbon whose name survives in the word nicotine. He sent back a plant just off the boat from Virginia to the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medicis, who proceeded to become Europe's first recorded .tobacco addict. Nicot saw he was on to a good thing and set up a tobacco trade that made his fortune. Tobacco has gone on creating addicts and making fortunes ever since.




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New Internationalist issue 140 magazine cover This article is from the October 1984 issue of New Internationalist.
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