High times and low blows from an unwinnable war

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The Independent Culture

Writing on Drugs by Sadie Plant Faber & Faber, £9.99, 276pp; Artificial Paradises edited by Mike Jay Penguin, £ 9.99, 384pp

Writing on Drugs by Sadie Plant Faber & Faber, £9.99, 276pp; Artificial Paradises edited by Mike Jay Penguin, £ 9.99, 384pp

IT IS claimed that one of John F Kennedy's favourite parlour games - at least, among those playable while vertical and fully-clad - involved one player offering an arbitrary or nonsensical phrase as an answer, to which the other was required to invent an appropriate question. So the answer "9W" produced the question "Do you spell your name with a V, Herr Wagner?"

Our current debate on drugs often resembles this game. Official representatives and elected leaders have a series of prepared "answers", and the only questions which it is permissible to ask are those guaranteed to elicit the responses we have already decided.

Drug discourse is limited to the notion of drugs as a problem - or, in slightly more sophisticated terms, as a linked series of moral, social, medical, political and economic problems - soluble only by prohibition and punishment; coercion and cautionary tales. When these fail, what is to be done? More of the same. The question "why do they fail?" is not on the official list, partly because there is no acceptable answer.

Into the maelstrom arrive these two books, seemingly joined at the hip. Mike Jay's eclectic anthology offers text while Sadie Plant's elegant, erudite survey provides commentary. Jay treads the territory and Plant unrolls the map. Indeed, they could quite easily have swapped titles.

Jay's (borrowed from Charles Baudelaire) also serves Plant as a chapter heading, while Plant's neatly straddles the ambiguity between writing "on the subject of" and "under the influence of" - which is just as well, since both books deal with both possible interpretations.

Jay assembles his hundreds of text-bites - from Herodotus and Lucius Apuleius via De Quincey, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Huxley and Crowley to William Burroughs, Terry Southern, Timothy Leary and Hunter S Thompson - into an intriguing chorale of experience and conjecture. My own favourite comes from that venerable bigot Chapman Pincher, writing in 1951 in the Daily Express: "Is there a link between dope and hot jazz dancing - apart from the fact that coloured men who peddle reefers can meet susceptible teenagers at the jazz clubs? It is surely more than a coincidence that primitive peoples dope themselves with narcotic drugs before beginning their frenzied tribal jigs."

It is something of a relief to turn to the poised clarity with which Plant anatomises our species's varied relationships with stuff that makes your head go funny. Her sources range from opiated aristos and psychedelic philosophers in pursuit of poetic visions and scientific insights (Arthur Koestler was merely the first of many ruefully to announce "I solved the secret of the universe last night, but this morning I forgot what it was") to the mundane uses of amphetamines during the Second World War (with both Hitler and Churchill speeding off their heads) and beyond. John F Kennedy was speeding during the Cuban Missile Crisis; as for Khrushschev, he was probably just drunk.

But Plant is at her most dazzling effective when sketching the twisty little mazes which link drugs with politics and commerce. The real "classic Coke" at the turn of the century contained the equivalent of a substantial line of its namesake. "If Coca-Cola's cocaine taught the mass consumer markets of the 20th century its tricks, opium taught mercantile capitalism some even more basic lessons about trade - raw opium was the very stuff of raw capitalism."

The international "war on drugs" was essentially an American operation, and it started primarily because, in the early part of the present century, "the United States was one of the only leading nations to which opium brought virtually no economic advantage".

When trading in heroin or cocaine did bring an economic or political advantage, Uncle Sam was right in there. Communism - or what successive American administratioins deemed Communism - was clearly a greater enemy than drugs. Hence the deals cooked up with the likes of the Taliban in Afghanistan, or the Iran-Contra affair.

In other cases, the war on drugs "legitimised widespread US intervention in the military, political and economic affairs of a number of other countries" and, domestically, the targeting of minorities and dissidents, Plant argues.

Let us give the last word, or almost the last, to Michel Foucault, who was planning a book about drugs but did not live long enough to write it. "Just as there is good music and bad music, there are good drugs and bad drugs," said the philosopher. "So we can't say that we are `against' drugs any more than we can say we're `against' music."

It is not simply that we live in a drug culture and need to get used to it, but that we have always lived in a drug culture. It may be somewhat harder getting used to that - particularly since, as we saw last week in Bournemouth, declaring a "war on drugs" is once again the last refuge of scoundrels. Go ask Alice.

Charles Shaar Murray's book `Boogie Man: the adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American twentieth century' is published this month by Viking