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20190714 – The Pursuit of Oblivion


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The main idea of this book is to trace history of drugs use mainly in the Western world, present some technological history of variety of drugs and methods of their use, and use multitude of historical examples to demonstrate that consequences are quite different for different individuals. It is also history of government intervention with drug use, prohibition, and, generally futile, attempts to prevent such use.



Author starts providing definition of various types of chemicals impacting humans psyche:

Narcoticsrelieve pain, induce euphoria and create physical dependency. The most prominent are opium, morphine, heroin and codeine.

Hypnoticscause sleep and stupor; examples include chloral, sulphonal, barbiturates and benzodiazepines. They are habit-forming and can have adverse effects. These side effects are shared with tranquillisers, which are intended to reduce anxiety without causing sleep.

Stimulantscause excitement, and increase mental and physical energy, but create dependency and may cause psychotic disturbance. Cocaine and amphetamines are the pre-eminent stimulants, but others include caffeine, tobacco, betel, tea, coffee, cocoa, qat and pituri.

Inebriantsare produced by chemical synthesis: alcohol, chloroform, ether, benzine, solvents and other volatile chemicals.

Hallucinogenscause complex changes in visual, auditory and other perceptions and possibly acute psychotic disturbance. The most commonly used hallucinogenic is cannabis (marijuana). Others include LSD, mescaline, certain mushrooms, henbane and belladonna.

Then he briefly discusses prohibition and its counter-effectiveness, providing a number of statistical factoids.

ONE Early History

The contemporary story starts in 1670 when English sailors first encountered drug use in Bengal. Then author narrates discovery of opium, cannabis, coca, and other drugs. He also refers to drug use in history starting with Sumerian records, including Egypt, Greeks, Romans, and everybody else.

TWO: Opium during the Enlightenment

This chapter describes use of drugs during Enlightenment when they became a potent part of medical toolset. At the time drugs action was poorly understood so it was used without limitation and author describes numerous real stories of opium users of this period. Some of these users were destroyed by constantly increasing need to have drugs, but many others found some stable level of drug use that practically had little impact on their live, just slightly enhanced their perceptions and alleviated discomforts. The important point here is unpredictability of individual consequences, however with high probability of developing strong dependency.

THREE: The Patent Age of New Inventions

Here author describes significant changes in drug use that occurred beginning in 1820s. Drugs, as everything else, were industrialized being included into multitude of patented medicines and then produced and marketed on the big scale. Author also discusses here Chinese opium wars that were mainly result of economic disequilibrium between China that had plenty of products for international sale like silk and British Empire including India that had little useful for China and therefore paid silver in exchange of goods. It was clearly unsustainable and sale of opium from India was very useful tool to resolve this problem. As elsewhere in this book author narrate a number of personal stories of drug users mainly from the upper crust of British and French societies, once again demonstrating that consequences of drug use are highly individual and range from financial and health ruin to mainly benign enhancement of everyday perceptions, physical conditions, and mood.

FOUR: Nerves, Needles and Victorian Doctors

This chapter is about development of various methods of drug delivery into human body: digesting, smoking, injection and so on. It is also about differences in drug impact depending on the method.

FIVE: Chemistry

This starts with description of coca leaves in recipes of various drinks. Then author describes a wave of Chloral addiction, use of amyl nitrite, and other stimulants.

SIX: Degeneration

This chapter starts with the story of dr. Pemberton – founder of Coca Cola Company. Then it moves to Freud and his unethical behavior promoting use of Coca. It is also about medical use of cocaine to treat depression and neuralgia. Author compares level of addictiveness of various drags, concluding that cocaine is more harmful than opium. It resulted in continuously growing stigmatization of cocaine and its users. Author describes the growing concern about drug use and results of various government commissions reviewing the issue.

SEVEN: The Dawn of Prohibition

This chapter is about beginning of prohibition. Author looks first at Moscow and London where at the beginning of XX century many thousands of patients were treated from addition. One of the interesting points author makes hare is that every new drug developed first was considered non-addictive and was used to wean people out from another drug. He reviews this process in details using development and initial use of heroin as example. About the same time in early XX century first contemporary restriction on drug use begin to apply.

FIGHT: Law-breaking

This chapter is about the history of legal limitations on drugs as it developed from 1919 on in UK and then in parallel in USA: The Jones-Miller Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act of 1922 further institutionalized and restricted drug supplies. The Porter Act of 1924 prohibited the manufacture and medical use of heroin.

As usual these developments included multiple controversies, but by the end of 1930 elsewhere in Europe and America governments prohibited drugs.

NINE: Trafficking

The production and transportation drugs was probably the first international trade when product cultivation was moving regularly from country to country finding new and new places where government control was very weak as in former colonies or very strong as in communist countries where government itself was the main producer and distributor of drugs to international market.

TEN: The Age of Anxiety; ELEVEN: The First Drugs Czar; TWELVE: British Drug Scenes; THIRTEEN: Presidential Drugs Wars

This was the age after WWII when drugs came into use massively and produced lots of feed to mass media and Cultural Revolution in Western world, which start destroying traditional values substituting sobriety and hard work as models of behavior with search for satisfaction via all means available including drugs. The political and moral reaction was traditional – attempt to forbid and suppress use of drug by police force. Author describes history of this process and multiple personal stories involved. There are a lot of details here, but they are generally retelling the same story of the failure of this suppression.


The final chapter is about multiple new drug that are getting created all the time, their various impacts on human body and histories of typical loop: creation of the new drug, its penetration through the market, alarms caused by some negative effects like overdose deaths or some other negative consequences, prohibition, and indefinitely ongoing and generally futile fight to enforce this prohibition.


This very detailed and thorough account of history of drug discovery, production, distribution, use, abuse, and prohibition is quite interesting. It provides very good description of how many of drugs work, their impact on human body, and long fight of multitude of authorities in multitude of countries to prevent or stop their use. I generally agree with author that prohibition does not work, but I would go as far as it is possible to allow people to use whatever they want in pursuit of happiness, and if it is just chemical reaction inside of body that make them happy, so be it. I think it is meaningless and cruel to deprive some people of resources they produce in order prevent other people from hurting themselves. I think that example of one of the most potent drug – alcohol is quite obvious: some people never use it, some use it very moderately without any negative consequences, but some destroy their lives with alcoholism. I guess it would be no different with all other drugs, so it would be better allowing people decide what they want and obtain drugs if they want to and medical help to get off drugs if they want to.  However I think it is very important that drug use started only when person is adult and can take responsibility of his/her action. Children should be educated at early age about potential consequences with visits to hospitals for addicts so that children had very vivid picture of consequences. Correspondingly pushing drugs to children should be treated as murder, since it does has potential to ruin human life.

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