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The Cyclic Psychedelics
Sidney Cohen, MD
Vol 125, Sept 3, 1968, 393-394

TO THOSE WHO LOOK upon the current drug scene as a final manifestation of the Decline of the West or perhaps as the portal to the Brave New World, a glance at the past may be revealing. Surely, entirely new aspects of group-bedrugged behavior are discernible to- day. Nevertheless, the surprisingly close parallels to earlier episodes of preoccupation with psychochemicals - indeed psychedelics - are worthy of our attention.

During every epoch of discontent, despair, and directionlessness there have been those who, sought the magic of a potion or a prophet that would provide quick answers, easy Utopias, or instant surcease. One such period was 19th century England which Carlyle, Houghton, and Morley all called "The Age of Anxiety." It was a time when some of the brightest people of the land took to mind-expanding drugs. Coleridge wrote, "Laudanum gives me repose, not steep, but you know how divine that repose is, what a spot of enchantment, a green spot of fountains and flowers and trees in the very heart of a waste of sands."

DeQuincey's "Confessions of an English Opium Eater" should be reread to savor the beautiful psychedelic descriptions of a tincture of opium trip. It is 150 years since he wrote: "Happiness might now be bought for a penny ... portable ecstasies might be corked up in a pink bottle, and peace of mind sent down by mail." Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Swinburne, Edgar Allan Poe. and many others spoke of the extract of the Oriental poppy capsule in terms singularly similar to the eulogies of today's LSD advocates.

Two points are worth remembering. First, opium eating was not the source of the creativity of these outstanding people. They were gifted, brilliant writers long before their drug encounter. Then, after the opium honeymoon was over, they turned against the drug and wrote bitterly of it. Coleridge called it "an accursed habit, a wretched vice, a species of madness, a derangement, an utter impotence of the volition." The barbarous neglect of his family and his inability to create during his later years he attributed to laudanum.

Nor was opium the only psychedelic of the day. Laughing gas, even before it came to be used as an anesthetic, had its delighted, "turned on" clientele. Both the newly discovered chloroform and sulfuric ether enjoyed a similar popularity before their more prosaic medical uses were established. At Harvard, ether frolics were popular with the undergraduates, and the good news spread rapidly across land and sea. No less an authority than William James referred to ether as a stimulator of the mystical consciousness in his "Varieties of Religious Experience."

Does that era and the other psychedelic interludes illuminate the current drug scene? Perhaps. They remind us that new psychochemicals or those new to a culture are apt to be overvalued and misused. This is particularly true during periods of heightened stress and frustration. The stories of opium, the anesthetics, and cocaine also seem to indicate that the smartest are not necessarily the wisest, and that their drug explorations and fashions may be far from sensible.

Finally, a scrutiny of the past suggests that the abuse of novel mind-altering drugs tends to be cyclic, with a rise and a fall which is not clearly perceived except from a distance. The proposition that we have experienced periodic surges and declines in drug taking behavior before is no plea for complacency. An active effort to teach the individual and society how to enjoy and endure without euphoriants and escapants is essential. Setting the drug abuse problem into a historical perspective simply avoids-the myth that things were never as bad as now. This myth happens to be prevalent among the drug subculture. It betrays a profound and potentially disastrous ignorance of the history of man.