Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 27 Jun 2018

The Pursuit of Oblivion: A global history of Narcotics 1500 – 2000 by Richard Davenport-Hines

It’s funny how the stars seem to line up. I’m half way through Richard Davenport-Hines’ magnificent and provocative, The Pursuit of Oblivion, when William Haig – now Lord Haig – goes public with his view that the ‘war’ on marijuana has been comprehensively lost and that the only way forward is legalisation.

The splendid irony of this is that Davenport-Hines’ book is a cautionary tale about the way politicians have constantly used the issue of drugs as a tool for their own social or moral bandwagons. It’s a fabulously entertaining analysis of the way in which political action on drugs and the constant demands by politicians for prohibition have actually always made the situation with drugs, criminality and medical dependency worse.

This book was a real eye-opener for me because it sets out in meticulous but lively and accessible detail a social history of drug usage that’s pretty much been excised from the public discourse. You get a flavour of the ideas – one in particular – that drives this book forward in the author’s prologue:

“This book is a history of drug-taking and therefore a history of emotional extremes. It tells the story across five centuries of addicts and users: monarchs, prime ministers, great writers and composers, wounded soldiers, overworked physicians, oppressed housewives, exhausted labourers, high-powered business men, playboys, sex workers, pop starts, seedy losers, stressed adolescents, defiant schoolchildren, the victims of the ghetto and happy young people on a spree…….Although it is primarily a history of people and of places, it is also the history of one bad idea: prohibition.”

And it is this central proposition – that a drug policy built on the idea of prohibition is fundamentally idiotic and idiotically applied – that really marks out the difference between this book and so many others that more earnestly seek to evaluate why there needs to be a ‘war on drugs’ and then puzzles over why it isn’t working. For Davenport-Hines the finger of blame for screwing-up drug policies across the globe points inexorably to one agency – the government of the USA:

“Essentially prohibition has been a technique of informal American cultural colonisation.”

He argues – effectively I think – that the US move from regulating and overseeing the supply of drugs to criminalisation was a critical moment in policy at the end of the 19th and beginning of 20th century. “Criminals”, Davenport-Hines claims, “were provided with a new commodity in which to deal after the raising of alcohol prohibition.” He goes on to list a formidable array of the damage that prohibition has done – including hugely raised number of drug users, the trebling of opium production, the collapse in the street price as supply escalates, the wasted millions in failed enforcement – and he also sets out just how comprehensively the so-called War on Drugs has been lost.

However, it would be wrong to give the impression that this is a political or polemical book because it isn’t. The story of drug usage and drug legislation when it’s researched and presented in the way it is here really does speak for itself – and some of that message is unavoidably political in its broadest sense. The social history that we are given here will provide you with plenty of colourful stories – some of which feel barely credible to anyone who has grown up constantly being told that drug usage is the last resort of the dissolute or desperate.

It wasn’t until the dawn of the 20th century that social attitudes to drugs moved from the fundamentally medical to the explicitly moral – and again it was the USA that led the way:

“Opiates, of course, were not the only misused drugs. American consumption of cocaine and cannabis resulted during the opening decades of the 20th century in restrictive legislation, which soon acquired world-wide ramifications. Both drugs were stigmatised in the USA by their association with poor labourers drawn from racial minorities.”

And so the enduring notion that drugs are a ‘problem’ for and of the working class, the poor and the marginalised. In fact, Davenport-Hines illustrates brilliantly, it isn’t drugs that are the problem, it’s the lack of sensibly controlled access to them that causes the difficulties.

In the final third of the book there is a section that is dedicated to the British drug scene which picks up the history of social attitudes and political policies from the mid-1930s onwards and I found this really fascinating. Official fears of an emerging drugs sub-culture is linked inextricably to the fear and mistrust of the exotic foreigner – especially those we have allowed to come and live amongst us. How familiar is this:

“The police felt that with ‘young girls’ visiting ‘Bebop dance halls in London’ and consorting with ‘negroes’, ‘hemp may sap their moral fibre’ so that they prostitute themselves ‘to pay for the drug’.”

This book is an absolute goldmine of information, anecdote and superb research and it should be given to every politician as the sort of indispensible background reading that’s needed to help them envision a sensible, humane and sustainable drug policy in the future.

It’s a brilliant book and, you’ll be glad to hear, available from online second hand book dealers for very little – especially if you’re happy to read a paperback. It is pretty hefty though, so not really recommended bedtime reading if you’re prone to drop books on your head as you fall asleep.


Terry Potter

June 2018