Pubdate: Thu, 02 Dec 2004
Source: North Bay Bohemian, The (CA)
Copyright: 2004 Metro Publishing Inc.
Author: Martin A. Lee
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Ecstasy)
Bookmark: (Hallucinogens)
Bookmark: (Heroin)
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


Truth Is Often the First Casualty of War, and the Much Ballyhooed 'War
on Drugs' Is No Exception

When he was Los Angeles police chief, Daryl Gates declared that casual
drug users were guilty of "treason" and should be "taken out and
shot." A Republican congressman from South Carolina pegged narcotics
as "a threat worse than any nuclear warfare or any chemical warfare
waged on any battlefield." And First Lady Nancy Reagan (a prescription
tranquillizer addict, according to Patti Davis, Ronald Reagan's
daughter) called marijuana inhalers and other illicit drug takers
"accomplices to murder."

What /haven't/ they been smoking?

In /Can't Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000/,
(Simon & Schuster; $27.95), a sprawling, high-spirited and often
outlandish cultural history of illegal drug use in post-WW II America,
Martin Torgoff vows to tell the truth about the forbidden
pharmacological fruit. His ambitious chronicle packs considerable punch
as an antidote to official policies based on "myths, fears,
exaggerations and lies." But the author is also candid about his own
struggles with substance abuse, and he doesn't shy away from depicting
the misery of excess and addiction as he traces how illicit drugs
migrated from the criminal underground and the avant-garde fringe to
permeate mainstream society.

With considerable aplomb, /Can't Find My Way Home/ recounts the
travails of Charlie Parker and other heroin-jabbing jazz musicians,
who were lionized by their Beat contemporaries. Raging against the
ghostly reserve of the 1950s, these insurgent artists embraced
mind-bending chemicals as catalysts for creative expression. Allen
Ginsberg's howl of poetic protest and Jack Kerouac's exuberant bebop
yarns linked reefer and hallucinogens to a tiny groundswell of
nonconformity that would grow into a mass rebellion during the next

Much of Torgoff's book is a tour de force through the stoned
'60s--from Ken Kesey's madcap, cross-country bus trip to the Summer of
Love and Woodstock--when messianic delusions were nearly as plentiful
as tabs of black market acid. LSD was so powerful and so far out that
some devotees believed its molecular structure contained nothing less
than the key to world peace.

But not everyone was enamored of the psychedelic experience. The
so-called beautiful people who clustered at Andy Warhol's Factory in
downtown New York were partial to injections of opiates and
amphetamine. "Paranoia was really our drug of choice. . . . Once I
started to shoot up, I never wanted to come down," a Warhol acolyte
confessed. The consequences were predictably malignant.

"There wouldn't have been the '60s without the drugs, at least not the
'60s that we knew," says novelist Tom Robbins. He is among a bevy of
writers, musicians and drug-policy reformers who contribute snatches
of oral history that drive the narrative. /Can't Find My Way Home/
relies heavily upon recollections from the likes of David Crosby,
Michelle Phillips, Snoop Dog, Grace Slick, the venerable Wavy Gravy
and other denizens of the drug counterculture.

Taboo plants and their derivatives may have fueled the quest for
personal liberation and energized various social movements, but the
potential for harm grew as self-indulgent partying eclipsed youthful
idealism and big-time distributors began to cash in. Quaaludes
provided a quick feel-good for the wannabe-sedated '70s. And cocaine
("a bad breath drug," as Oliver Stone put it) revved up Wall Street in
the 1980s, while bringing life down to a dog-eat-dog level on the mean
streets of America's urban ghettos where cut-throat pushers owed their
existence to the fact that drugs were illegal.

Torgoff argues that the failed policies of prohibition, not the drugs
themselves, are largely responsible for the violence, crime and
corruption that plague so many communities. Government policies
actually foster substance abuse, according to the author, who
confides: "When I look back, I know that being told in simplistic
terms that smoking marijuana would lead to ruin and hard drugs had
only set me up to take more and more license once my own experiential
evidence proved otherwise."

But does /Can't Find My Way Home/ really give us the straight dope?
Not always. The book is much less critical of counterculture hype than
"the simpleminded rhetoric" and "self-aggrandizing alarmism" of the
drug-enforcement establishment. Dr. Carlton Turner, Reagan's drug
czar, is chided for telling /Newsweek/ that smoking pot makes you gay.
But there's no mention of Timothy Leary's missive about LSD being a
"cure" for homosexuality, as the defrocked Harvard professor turned
psychedelic evangelist once remarked in a /Playboy/ interview.
Tailoring his sales pitch to promote the chemical sacrament, Leary
claimed in the same Q&A that a woman on acid could "have several
hundred orgasms."

Public relations would also figure prominently in the transformation
of MDMA, once a promising therapeutic adjunct, into Ecstasy, the name
christened by a drug dealer for marketing purposes before "E" became a
staple of the neopsychedelic, techno-pagan rave scene.

Like it or not, says Torgoff, illicit drugs have become "as American
as apple pie." He and other proponents of drug-law reform maintain
that it's possible to take banned substances without abusing them.
Indeed, most people who try marijuana never become regular smokers or
hard drug cravers. But some do. "Drugs are a bet with the mind," said
Jim Morrison of the Doors. It's sobering to think that at age 27 he
wagered and lost. The idea that we can win the "drug war" is little
more than a pipe dream, but the collateral damage is real.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake