Saturday, 5 February 2011

High Society, Mind-Altering Drugs in Culture and History - Review

High Society, Mind-Altering Drugs in Culture and History. Exhibition at Wellcome Collection, until 27 February, Admission Free. Details at
And book,

As you walk in the door, the first thing you see is a massive display case. It is choc-a-bloc with drug-taking paraphernalia from all around the world and throughout the ages, from ancient South American vessels for psychoactive snuff, through bongs, opium pipes, a crack pipe made from a pierced cola can to some wineglasses, full of red and white wine, sealed across the top for some recent corporate event or other. If you needed convincing of the basic idea of this exhibition, that 'Every society on Earth is a high society', then you probably needed look no further.

Artefacts around drug-taking are what this exhibition displays, not only the drug-taking kits themselves, many of which are a tribute to human ingenuity in the matter of achieving extraordinary states of consciousness, but also artworks - paintings, photos, sculptures and audio-visual installations about both the effects of psychoactive drugs on the individual and on the society he or she inhabits.

'High Society' is divided into themed sections, and one of those themes is 'The Drugs Trade'. Paintings of opium warehouses and factories give us an idea of the breathtaking scale of Anglo-Indian opium manufacture, a cornerstone of the vast wealth of the British empire at that time. Do all empires depend on addictive drugs?

The section 'From Apothecary to Laboratory' traces the medicalization of drug use, via the enormous number of patent medicines rich in heroin and cocaine which were freely available until a little under a century ago. Some of these are part of drug mythology, like the original 'Forced March' cocaine pills, produced until 1924, and popular with troops in WW1.

'Self-Experimentation' covers a wide range of the drugs people use for transformative experiences and fun, from hashish and mushrooms to the delights of nitrous oxide intoxication in the 1823 etching 'Doctor and Mrs Syntax with a party of friends, experimenting with laughing gas', in which the good Mrs Syntax and the Doctor look like they're having far too much fun, by modern medical standards.

There are some absorbing video installations, among which is the delightful 1955 BBC film of (in)famous psychedelics researcher Dr Humphrey Osmond sitting with Christopher Mayhew, whom he has just dosed with a substantial hit of mescalin. Osmond was infamous for poisoning various animals, including one unfortunate elephant, with LSD in an attempt to interpolate an LD50 for humans*, but here we see him in a more humane mode 'experimenting on a human', as the blurb has it.

It is not often one gets the chance to see a Tory MP tripping his tits off, talking about how, when Osmond questioned him, he was calling him back from an experience which took place in a realm beyond time. The BBC decided they'd gone too far on their Panorama programming with this one, and it didn't appear on our screens for many years later. Apparently, Mayhew said the experiment was one of the most interesting things he had ever done.

In 'Collective Intoxication' we sample the earliest report by a European, Richard Spruce, of intoxication with the DMT herbs of Amazonian shamanism, in the 1850s, and see a photo of Queen Elizabeth receiving a bowl of sacred kava drink from the Fijian head of state in 1982. In 'A sin, a crime, a vice or a disease?', we learn of the dilemma, voiced in those words by a public figure of the day, of how late Victorian society was to cope with mass availability of the highly addictive derivatives of poppy and coca then commonplace in high street pharmacies.

History has shown us that the decisions those legislators made have turned out to be bad ones. We have a 'drug problem' where over a billion pounds a year are spent on drug enforcement in the UK, and the official estimate of the proportion of heroin that is actually stopped from entering the country and getting distributed is 1%.

One percent: it is clear to any but the most blinkered individual that the 'war on drugs' (which, as Robert Anton Wilson pointed out, should be called the 'war on some drugs') has been 'lost'. I use quote marks because the expression 'war on drugs' is so utterly silly, it could only have been coined by a cynical politician, for a public deep in the throes of the hallucinations engendered by a skillful blend of fear and lies.

Just before we leave the exhibition, we walk through a room filled with an installation called 'Afyon', consisting of a 4-screen projection of opium fields in Turkey. The effect is mesmeric, both serene and troubling at the same time, and just outside the main rooms, on the wall of a side-corridor, there is a framed news clipping, a review of the show from The Independent. The reviewer found the exhibition a little too tempting for his taste, advising anyone trying to kick a habit to give it a miss; thinking of those fields of poppies, it's hard not to sympathize with such a view.

However, what are we to do with the facts about drugs? Sweep them under the carpet and not have exhibitions like this? I'm reminded of the disgraceful debacle over Prof David Nutt, the UK government's chief advisor on drug policy. This man was sacked for speaking the truth, as uncovered by studies on the official figures for hospital admissions and other parameters, about the relative scale of harm done by different drugs, legal and illegal.

The government didn't like the truth, and didn't want the Prof going round telling it to people, so they sacked him and issued a statement containing some drivel about what 'messages' Nutt's discoveries were sending to young people. In other words, they preferred convenient lies to proper science.

This illustrates the delusional thinking underlying all contemporary drug legislation. There is a belief afoot that humans just 'don't need' drugs, that they are some atavism of our stupid past, or some evil terror inflicted on us. This flies in the face of everything this exhibition is showing us, graphically, repeatedly - that the human being is a drug-taking animal, that this is part of a drive to transcendence that must be in our very genes, it is so universal.

Modern thinking about recreational and sacramental drug use is stuck in a fingers-shoved-tightly-in-ears-whilst-mouth-gibbers- outright-nonsense denial of the facts of nature. It reminds me of Victorian attitudes to sex, how the medical profession was at the forefront in denying the universal importance of sexuality to human beings.

Sure, there are individuals who don't take drugs and don't want to, just like, to wring some more use out of the sexual analogy, there are medically healthy couples who only have sex once a month. This doesn't invalidate the basic truth and the core message of this superb exhibition: broadly speaking, humans take psychoactive drugs: deal with it. When we deal badly with it, we get the results indicated by the final exhibit: a photograph of gold-plated handguns, from Mexico City's Museum of Drugs.

Surely we need some sort of socialized control over drugs - no-one wants to see children taking powerful psychoactives, but at the moment, we seem to have legislated the worst of all possible worlds. The responsible drug-user is punished with draconian jail sentence, young people are criminalized for possession of a herb, and the gigantic profits made possible by illegality make drug dealing the profession of choice for the most violent elements in society. If, for instance, the possession and small-scale growing of cannabis were decriminalized, I would bet any fortune I could lay my hands on that youth crime figures would slump to a fraction of present levels; much of the economic basis for the vile culture of youth gangs would be swept away overnight.

'High Society' only has another 3 weeks to run. Go and see it. I shall go again. There is also a book of the same name, which a very generous breathwork client gave me after visiting the exhibition. It's beautifully made, full of pictures, carries the message of the exhibition and would make a fine item on any coffee table, or wine table or....

As if to draw a final thick line under this message, when my friend and I got on a bus back to South London, we noticed that the well-dressed, neatly coiffed young woman seated across the aisle from us was doing her texts or somesuch whilst nipping on a bottle concealed in an orange Sainsbury's carrier bag. Humans take psychoactives: deal with it.

*He got it wrong: the lethal dose he came up with was a fraction of the 'heroic' dosages later ingested by some of the most hardcore 60s experimenters, like the poet Robert Hunter.

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