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Intoxication
by Ronald K. Siegel
Publisher:
Pocket Books 
Year:
1990 
ISBN:
0671691929 
Categories:
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Seth R. Glick, 1/31/2009

Food and water, shelter, and procreation; the necessities of life. These three drives have been instinctively coded into the DNA of all animals to not only ensure the survival of the individual, but also the species. Whether primate or insect, bird or fish, meeting these needs is a requirement for survival. However, Ronald K. Siegel, an Associate Research Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, is not interested in the necessities of life, but rather those things that attract humans and animals when the three essentials have been satiated. Some people buy new clothes, some take vacations to tropical paradises, and some do nothing more than stay at home, smoke a joint and read a book. In Intoxication, originally published in 1989, Siegel focuses on that portion of the population who use drugs recreationally, habitually, and addictively. Using numerous anecdotes and studies, he argues that the non-lethal use of drugs and alcohol is a potential fourth drive of animals—one that dates back to the beginning of plant and animal life.

Siegel, an accredited researcher and pharmacologist, separated Intoxication into two parts, The Drugs and The Drive. The first part introduces the reader to the evolution of drug formulations and their early use. Beginning with a 1960s anecdote of a boy who started a massive forest fire in California after consuming a large amount datura, Siegel moves into more ancient history of drug use. He recounts an early discovery of coffee, when an Ethiopian herder stayed up all night after trying the red berries that gave his goats wild amounts of energy. Stories like these fill Siegel’s book and provide a nice contrast to the piles of evidence that he acquired through years of scientific research. While some of his stories seem dubious or unnecessary (for example, the one about Toby, the macaque who was addicted to cocaine), Siegel uses them to show the similarities and connections between humans and animals with respect to drug use. Additionally, this overwriting is also prevalent in the way that Siegel writes himself into the prose. A scientist by trade, Siegel comes off as the protagonist of the book rather than an observer. His arguments are almost exclusively supported with evidence from his own studies and stories. While a wide range of substances is covered, an equally broad collection of opinions is absent from Intoxication.

Before getting into the chapters on specific drugs, Siegel, who has appeared as a pharmacological witness at many celebrity trials, stresses the natural relation between animals and drugs. He points to the intrinsic lure of cats to catnip as an example of an evolutionary drive that extends beyond the three necessities of life. Siegel continues to weave animal anecdotes into the early chapters. He tells of the Siberian reindeer that fight and go berserk just for a taste of the fly agaric mushroom or even the urine-stained snow of their owners who consume the mushrooms for their intoxicating effects. Siegel suggests this picture of a jovial, tripping owner with his equally stoned herd as a potential basis for the mythical image of a red-faced Santa and his reindeer gliding through the sky.

A quick note to PETA members, animal sympathizers and people who give special brownies to their pets: Intoxication is littered with stories from the wild of animals whose experiences with drugs range from comical to revealing to fatal. Siegel uses these anecdotes to reiterate his point that the ingestion of mind- and body-altering substances is found in nature. Conversely, most of his scientific experiments introduce chemicals (cigarettes, alcohol, “street” drugs) to animals to see if they show human-like behaviors of enjoyment, self-moderation, or addiction.

In the middle chapters, Siegel addresses some of the more popular drugs individually. The structure of these chapters is very similar. Each one details the cultural history and current uses of the subject along with the usual smattering of animal anecdotes. Tobacco, alcohol, opium, cannabis and cocaine are each given their own chapter. These sections include tales of French opium dens, cocaine-addicted monkeys, and wild elephants who were fed opium by their owners upon capture as a sedative, only to become addicted and react unpredictably during withdrawal. The last chapter of the first half of Intoxication centers on the social impact of drug use. Again, Siegel draws upon his own research with animals to point out parallels to humans. He recalls the drugged, hallucinating monkeys who withdrew to the corner of their cages and grabbed the air for things that weren’t there. As he moves to the second half of the book, The Drive, he remarks that some of the potential social consequences of repeated drug use, such as irritability and removal of self from society into a group of other users, are similar in human and wild or laboratory animal societies.

The second half of Intoxication, The Drive, is shorter than the first and cements Siegel’s primary arguments: 1) That the use of drugs for their stimulating, anaesthetic, and medical properties is not unique to humans, 2) No matter what legal restrictions are present, human beings will always use and abuse drugs. Stress, one of the major causes of drug use, is a common element in both points. Siegel mentions a study that found that when lab monkeys were placed in isolation and given ample amounts of food and water, some of them continued to press a lever allowing them to smoke a DMT-laced cigarette. Siegel writes that these monkeys, when isolated and fed, chose to become intoxicated for entertainment and stress-relieving purposes. In the second half of the book he expands upon the idea of the cyclical nature of drugs and stress. Even though some use drugs to relieve stress, other users, especially addicts of what Siegel classifies as “street drugs” (cocaine, crack, heroin), find that drug use often leads to even more stress. He argues that this circle will never be broken.

Not surprisingly Siegel finishes with his look on America’s failing war on drugs. First published in 1989, perhaps as a reaction to the questionable policies of the Reagan era, the opinions and information contained in Intoxication have remained fresh and pertinent. Referencing the usual suspects of reform, NORML and the like, he calls out the American government on its hypocrisy in drug laws. Siegel offers George Washington’s hemp fields, cocaine in the original Coca Cola and the war on drugs as evidence of America’s attempt to whitewash its drug history while obscuring the current data. However, it is not legalization that Siegel calls for, but a fresh look and a new understanding of the effect of different drugs on individuals and society. He finishes with a glance toward the future of drugs, as a final example of the unstoppable combination of drug use and curiosity. He presents his perfect world as one where drug experimentation is recognized on the same level as sexual experimentation; where heroin and crack cocaine have been replaced by non-lethal, non-addictive chemicals that are able to produce the same euphoric, stress-relieving feelings. As Siegel writes in the new foreword for the paperback edition, “This ‘fourth drive’ is a natural part of our biology, creating the irrepressible demand for drugs. In a sense, the war on drugs is a war against ourselves, a denial of our very nature.”

While Siegel may not have tried every drug he mentions in the book, it is clear that he has a superior understanding of intoxicants and what they do to our bodies and minds. Free of any political or medical pretense, he deftly covers the past, present, and future of drugs. Moreover, he rarely reveals his roots in academia by drowning the reader with overwrought or technical language. His anecdotes are insightful, if occasionally suspicious, but help make Intoxication a snappy and informative read. As America enters a new epoch with a new administration, anyone with a progressive view toward the future of drug use and policy should hope that Intoxication finds its way to the bookshelves of our new leaders.

[Extensive bibliography with a decent index.]

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