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The Pharmacological Era

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a history PhD student at Southern Illinois University.

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Stanton Peele

Psychologist Stanton Peele refers to the time we’re living in as a “pharmacological era,” one where “drug use, both approved and unapproved, is widespread, almost universal.” Currently, it’s dealt with through regulation and prohibition. Dr. Peele argues: “Instead, we need to accept drug use as socially and psychologically regulatable behavior to be incorporated into modern life.”

In some ways, we’re already there. It’s near universal, just two-tiered. A Vice News headline summed it up perfectly: “America’s Rich and Powerful have permission slips to get high.” We don’t have to look far to see these inequities in action. Recently, Elon Musk—of Tesla fame—smoked a blunt on the Joe Rogan Experience. Had it been a Tesla employee, they would’ve been fired. Ivy League students swallow smart pills to study just like their future selves, the businessmen burning the midnight oil. And a white woman popping a Xanax found in the seabed of her Hermès bag, totally normal too. But a black man smoking a joint—whoa, wait a minute, that’s unacceptable. So, yeah, like I said universal but two-tiered—same dynamic in Washington. Recall Dr. Ronnie Jackson, Trump’s (failed) nominee for Veteran Affairs Secretary. Apart from his stunning lack of qualifications and experience, we learned during his time as Physician to the President he regularly doled out Schedule II drugs for recreational purposes. As Politico reported:

Nearly a dozen current and former officials — including some who were treated by Jackson while working in the Obama White House — say Jackson is being unfairly labeled as a “candy man” and that casual use of some prescription drugs is an established fact of life at the highest echelons of government. “Not everyone wants it. But anyone who does gets it,” said a former Trump administration official who traveled extensively with Jackson and the president.

Like our tech overlords, Wall Street oligarchs are exaggerated versions of drug users themselves. These movers-and-shakers, responsible for lifting the country’s GDP like breasts suspended in a push-up bra, apparently do it, mostly, by continually dosing themselves with cocktails of smart drugsnootropics, Adderall, Ritalin, modafinil. And that’s just to get through the workaday grind. On special occasions, however, “the Silicon Valley Technorati gather for a drug-heavy, sex-heavy party,” sometimes at “mansions,” or maybe just at “lavish homes,” “châteaus” or “beachfront properties,” where these bacchanals can last an entire weekend, aided by MDMA. In between orgasm and amphetamine, those in the Valley have have also begun to revisit psychedelics, a favorite substance of Steve Jobs, by adding microdosing to their toolkit.

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Willie Nelson on CBS This Morning, April 2, 2017

The pharmacological era isn’t all hidden away. It’s online, on TV, and slowly being absorbed into the marketplace. On YouTube, designed by the nerds/sex aficionados just mentioned, you’ll find DrugsLab, a channel of “three hot twenty-somethings” who get paid to get high by the Dutch government. Turn on the TV, and you might see country and folk legend Willie Nelson on CBS This Morning hyping Willie’s Reserve, his signature strain of marijuana. Forget Bitcoin; Marijuana stocks are the new Bitcoin. As one commentator put it:

“We are all drug users. Coffee, alcohol, cigarettes, weed, Viagra, ecstasy, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills and more—people are using these drugs on a weekly or even daily basis. Why do we all use drugs? Because drugs work. We all have our personal reasons for using—whether for pleasure or treating pain or otherwise. And of course many people face challenges from their drug use.”  

Why am I mentioning this? Because where is this in the historical literature? I haven’t made an exhaustive attempt, but if you scour the literature, you’re likely to come up short. Few historians can satisfactorily answer questions like, “Why do people do drugs?” What you are likely to get is something along the lines of Wayne H. Morgan, whose explanation goes something like this: people use drugs because they desire “to escape a problem or relieve anxiety.” They do it in “the search for pleasure or for other kinds of experience beyond the daily routine.” Many of the major works, impressive in many respects, are tinged with fear-based features, their covers often unsavory, scary-looking photographs, whether syringes or skulls. Even the kilo of cocaine tied off with a rubber band featured on The American Disease suggests a seedy underbelly, a criminal world, and we all know criminals are bad.

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I prefer this sort of subtle lecturing more than the didactic lessons of Howard Markel’s An Anatomy of Addiction, chronicling the life of William Halsted and Sigmund Freud. Markel can’t let the reader believe cocaine was influential in a positive way to Freud’s career. This happens when he talks about Über Coca which marked a pivotal moment in Freud’s career. It contained many precursors that distinguished his later work, the insertion of himself into his writing, digressions and detours of various ideas, and the exploration of the subjectivity itself. Instead of letting the reader make this connection on their own, Markel must add his own tsk-tsking. Instead of a triumph, a prelude to Freud’s later innovation style, Markel asserts that the moment was a failed opportunity. Freud, we learn, overlooked—due to being high—cocaine’s anesthetic qualities, something Carl Koller, presumably stone-cold sober, exploited.

All of this is to say, maybe paradigm we’ve been working from and the assumptions we’ve been using have blind spots, missed opportunities.  



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