A note to book publishers: When sending out books to prospective reviewers, pay attention to the title of the book and how it could possibly confuse the post office or recipients. Some office managers may express concern if their editors start getting packages with, say, the words "Illegal Drugs," emblazoned across the top.
Recently, such a book came out, written by Dr. Paul M. Gahlinger, MD., Ph.D., M.P.H. and yes, FACOEM. And after the initial confusion, the book turned out to be quite good.
Don't let the string of letters after his name fool you. This is no pretentious textbook written by a pseudo-intellectual on the fast track to tenure. This is a real, down-to-earth look at drugs-at their history, their role in society and their chemical breakdowns. It is also a user's guide to how to find, recognize and take the drug, what symptoms will be experienced and then what to do in case of an overdose. But best of all, it is full of useless, random facts that are a lot of fun to read.
Why it works
This highly comprehensive guide is not written in the sterile, multisyllabic, dull rambling of so many other text-style books, but in understandable English. It is littered with fascinating facts and scientific anecdotes. In a way, this book is a lot like "The Simpsons," in that it will appeal to all people of all ages for different reasons.
According to "Illegal Drugs," the United States "makes up four percent of the world's population, but consumes 65 percent of the world's hard drugs."
As such, every American is affected by illegal drugs, if only because they pay taxes that are used for social programs or prisons.
However, Gahlinger argues that not all drug use should be seen as lurid, bad or evil.
"Psychoactive drugs are, and always have been, a feature of every society and should be recognized as such. Since recreational drug use is inevitable, threats of ever-increasing penalties ... and just-say-no lectures will do little to stop it. The simple fact is that humans like to alter their consciousness. The goal, then, is not to stop all drug use, (which is impossible) but to reduce harm. This is best done by education," Gahlinger writes.
This book is guaranteed to teach random (but fun) trivia to just about anyone. For example, heroin addicts suffering from withdrawal will occasionally become so desperate for drugs that they will consume the fresh vomit of another user. (Wouldn't that be a great question on "Super Millionaire?")
We all know that Coca-Cola used to contain cocaine. Most of us knew that heroin was once produced by the Bayer company and sold over the counter as a cure-all (Maybe it became illegal after someone noticed the stuff was flying off the shelves at a disturbing rate?)
But how many people know the United States military used to experiment with using LSD as a new type of chemical weapon?
Accordiong to Gahlinger, the military's reasoning was that LSD caused temporary mental instability, and for a while, it was regarded with much interest. So much interest, in fact, that the military actually called for volunteers who could help them gain a better knowledge of the drug. In 1959, they paid people $150 to take a form of the drug, LSD-25, so they could gauge its effects.
Among those who volunteered, in the name of science, of course, were poet Allen Ginsberg, and novelist Ken Kesey, who later used his experience as a basis for his novel, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
Other celebrities who openly dabbled with drugs included actor Cary Grant, who admitted to having gone on over 100 acid trips, saying the experience "completely changed me." Lenny Bruce died with a needle still stuck in his arm, overdosing on heroin, which he got from his... mother.
Drugs and slang
Drug use has also made its way into the English language through slang. Gahlinger shows how the term "kicking the habit" can be traced back to the painful leg spasms that are a result of opiate withdrawal. And the word "hippie?" That can be traced back to the opium dens of the early 1900s.
When a person used opium, they would fall into a stupor, sitting on a couch or rug for hours at a stretch, and unsurprisingly, many developed sore hips. According to Gahlinger, this led to calling opium smoking, "on the hip," which eventually evolved to "hip." Eventually, "hip" was used to refer to anyone who was avant-garde. The young people of the 1960s, who were involved in music, art and psychoactive drugs kept the term, and eventually became known as hippies.
Drugs and fairy tales
One interesting thing this book explains is the evolution of witches in society. For centuries, in almost every culture, there have been healers who eschewed the more widely-accepted forms of medicine and, oftentimes, were feared as a result. We all remember the stories of the Salem witch trials or the Inquisition, but many are not aware of the strong links between so-called "witches" and drugs.
In fact, many occult practitioners in the days of yore used ergot, which is the natural base for LSD, as a way to explore psychic realms, according to the book. Gahlinger says a common way of getting the ergot into the bloodstream was to mix it with oil and to apply the mix to a broomstick. The stick was then rubbed along the vagina, and in this way, the hallucinogen was absorbed into the bloodstream.
"The sight of a woman laughing hysterically, naked and riding a broomstick to a psychic realm was terrifying to the less adventurous public. A woman found in this state was usually declared to be a witch and burned at the stake," Gahlinger writes.
Also, witches were closely tied to two other drugs. In bedtime stories, these crones commonly cook or grow toadstools, which many people now correlate to "magic" mushrooms, which are full of psilocybin, another hallucinatory agent. Witches commonly have pet toads, too. As it turns out, there is one frog, the Bufo toad, that excretes another hallucinatory agent.
Who will like this book
This book really will appeal to just about everyone. Those in law enforcement will definitely appreciate the information here, as it covers everything from street names to what some drugs look like to their chemical composites.
Those interested in learning about social sciences and the world around them will also find many answers in the book.
Drug users will learn information on how to test the purity of drugs and how to counteract bad effects, as well as fun lessons on how to speed up the growth of peyote by grafting the cactus to another cactus.
The mad scientist will like the book for the information on how to create chemical drugs and the average reader, looking for entertainment is sure to find interesting knowledge all the way through.
The big... but
While the book is well-written, many people could argue that this book is flawed in the same way that Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" program was. Namely, teaching people how to make or procure drugs, what kinds of effects they could expect and how to test drugs for purity may be a little too much information in a society where these drugs are illegal. However, under our First Amendment rights, the author is certainly within his power to share this information and ultimately it is up to the reader to be responsible and use the information correctly.
"Illegal Drugs" is published by Plume Books.
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