Stoned, smashed, bombed, tight, tipsy, tanked, stewed, plastered, looped, blotto, swacked, schnockered, fried, ripped, besotted, blasted, shikker, reeling, soused, soaked, canned, potted, bent, crocked, shellacked, squiffy, jug-bitten, oiled, polluted, raddled, high, lit, loaded, stinko, pie-eyed.
There are reportedly more synonyms for intoxication than any word in the English language. For good reason. Catnip-sniffing kittens and alcoholic American presidents alike know that the urge to get high is a strong one.
The $6.1 billion the White House Office of Drug Control Policy is likely to spend fighting drugs next year isn’t going to change that. Ollie North’s anti-drug community service work won’t change that. Nor will Nancy Reagan’s urging kids to “Just Say No.”
At least that’s the view of UCLA psychopharmacologist Ronald Siegel, whose new book, “Intoxication--Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise” (E. P. Dutton) argues that the motivation to achieve an altered state of mood or consciousness is “a fourth drive,” as much a part of the human condition--and as important to most other species--as sex, thirst and hunger.
“I find it helpful to picture America in a tug-of-war between the laws of the land and the drives of the people,” he writes. Siegel doesn’t advocate legalizing the drugs society is now battling. But 20 years of research have convinced him that until America comes to grips with the reality of the powerful intoxication drive, the tug-of-war will be a stalemate at best.
Siegel looks like a hip high school teacher circa 1971. His hair flops over his ears. His eyes shift between intensity and mischievousness as he enthusiastically spins the tale of his life’s work.
He speculates that his curiosity about altered states of consciousness may have been triggered in boyhood, when a dentist gave him nitrous oxide. “William James, one of my heroes in psychology, had some very interesting experiences and thoughts about psychology as a result of his intoxication on nitrous oxide.”
Siegel said that his own use of controlled substances since then has been minimal and limited to research. Pressed to discuss that, he bridled. “That’s not important,” he said repeatedly. He later explained that he was a research subject in “less than a half dozen” tests more than 10 years ago, although he declined to discuss the substances involved.
“I’ve been really lucky,” he said. “I’ve been able to hire people to take it for me. I’ve had some very brave volunteers, and there’s no lack of drug users out there to study . . . " Until a recent injury knocked him out of the running, Siegel was a marathoner and something of a health nut. “I’ve always been extremely conservative about my own body. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve had alcohol in a year.”
If anything, Siegel appears intoxicated with curiosity; his addiction is to research. “I enjoy poking my fingers in the brains of humans and animals and studying them.”
Siegel did his undergraduate work in sociology at Brandeis University, and received a Ph. D. in psychology from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he experimented with the effects of LSD, marijuana and other drugs on pigeons and mice. While there, he started consulting to the Canadian government’s “Royal Commission of Inquiry Into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs.” He then went on to postdoctoral work at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
At Albert Einstein, “a professor made the statement that man is the only animal that intoxicates himself deliberately. I thought, ‘Gee, that has to be wrong.’ ”
In 1970, Siegel went to Czechoslovakia to study insects that were eating marijuana plants. Contrary to local folklore, he did not find that stoned grasshoppers were able to make enormous leaps.
But later he did find evidence that some insects seemed attracted to some plants such as the opium poppy as an intoxicant as well as a food source. For two decades, Siegel and research associates have been working their way way up and down the phylogenetic spectrum and around the world, watching California robins get smashed on Pyracantha berries and divebomb cats; observing jimsonweed-addled cattle on Maui; hearing tales of tigers in Sumatra that attack children to eat the fermented durian fruit they’ve gathered, and stories of elephants on the African savannas that get as drunk as Dumbo in the Disney cartoon.
‘Reacting to Stress’
“During the Vietnam conflict, our observers found that water buffalo were nibbling opium poppies more often than they naturally do. This was very similar to what our soldiers were doing with heroin,” Siegel said. “You can understand that in terms of both animals reacting to stress.”
Pursuing such connections, Siegel and his research teams also scrutinized primate species, both in the field and in labs and libraries.
At UCLA Siegel developed a “psychonaut” program for studying the effects of LSD on humans, and the effects of that hallucinogen and other drugs on chimpanzees and monkeys (although in his book’s acknowledgments, he thanks the non-human primates that propelled him “to shift my research out of the lab and into the field, where intoxication is not only natural but right”).
Sometimes the detective work took odd spins. Armed with a strand of John Keats’ hair he acquired from a private 19th Century collection of literary celebrities’ locks, Siegel used a process called radioimmunoassay to determine that the poet was an opium user.
In fact, lots of important people--maybe most--used some kind of drug, he said, proudly running his hand over folder after folder in the eight file cabinets dominating one room of his homey office suite in a Westwood apartment.
For example, his files contain prescription records, historical accounts, and correspondence on the drug habits of most of this country’s presidents. According to Siegel’s book, presidential drug preferences ran from cigars to whiskey and beyond.
As the book points out, “President Andrew Johnson was said to be rarely sober”; Abraham Lincoln used chloroform, “a popular recreational drug of the day”; and Ulysses S. Grant was an alcoholic and after retirement wrote his memoirs “sustained by cocaine.”
“The fact we once had drunks and addicts as presidents is not to say we made a poor choice in our candidates. It’s just that they are representative of us,” Siegel said, as he sat in his office, indulging in his mind-altering drug of choice: coffee.
In all his research, he has yet to find a contemporary or historical culture that hasn’t pursued some form of intoxication or consciousness altering. “There may have been pockets but they probably utilized other non-drug methods of intoxicating themselves: Religious ecstasy . . . ritual dancing, drumming, jumping up and down . . .
“What I’m saying is, we have always done this. The tobacco industry financed the American Revolution. We were the drug traffickers to the world.”
During the Colonial period, other countries were as enraged with our tobacco exports as we are with the golden triangle’s heroin trade, he said. “Russia had a punishment of slitting the nostrils of tobacco users. In Turkey, they instituted the death penalty. And despite these Draconian measures, tobacco use spread all over the world, and America grew strong because of it.”
Which is not to say Siegel discounts the tragic consequences of this or any of America’s more modern drug habits. Nor does he endorse legalization of outlawed drugs.
“My position is that none of these drugs are good,” he said. “I’m not advocating the use of any of the drugs we have today. I don’t think any of them are healthy or safe. I wish to God we could re-evaluate and reconsider alcohol and let that go through an FDA trial. I don’t think it would ever make it.”
Tobacco may be even more dangerous. “I don’t care how many filters you put on it, tobacco is killing 1,000 people a day . . . and there are 125,000 Americans who die every year from prescription drug problems. That is more than all the illegal drug deaths put together.
“Our use of intoxicants is just getting worse and worse,” he said.
Cocaine abuse is a good example. “Cocaine tickles the fourth drive and seduces it better than any chemical we have on this planet,” he said. “We’ve never come across our fourth drive as strongly in our history as we have today.”
A Futile War on Drugs
“That’s why we have a war on drugs,” he continued. “But it’s a war against ourselves. We are fighting against the way we are, against the way in which we’re chemically wired.”
And cocaine use is spreading throughout the world despite measures that have grown so extreme that Peruvian surgeons recently announced a new technique. “They have taken users who refused to say no to cocaine . . . done a procedure known as the bilateral cingulectomy,” Siegel said. “Simply put, they’ve tried to sever some of the pleasurable connections in the brain.
“You know, we do the same thing in this culture. We’re severing people from their jobs, and their livelihoods and sometimes their freedom on the basis of chemical tests we do on them every day in the workplace. That’s a panic reaction too. We’re all panicking because we don’t know what to do.”
Which leads to Siegel’s unorthodox and controversial conclusion. People use drugs, from caffeine to heroin, for one purpose, he believes. “They’re medicating themselves. They’re changing their mood. They’re changing the way they feel. These are legitimate medical uses.
“Our choices of drugs may not always be legal or prudent or safe, but that’s what we’re doing.” The way to clean up our drug problem, he believes, “is to clean up the drugs themselves.”
In 1979, while digging at an archeological site in Peru, Siegel unearthed an ancient pottery shard depicting a llama eating a coca leaf as an Indian watched with outstretched arms and an open mouth. Siegel was elated, and not just because he, too, had been chewing the coca leaf (legally). The shard, he decided, demonstrated his hypothesis that primitive man learned to use drugs safely by observing animals.
“What went wrong?” he asked himself. “There has been not one reported death because of coca leaf chewing in 5,000 years,” Siegel said. Indians he researched are disgusted by the idea of snorting purified cocaine. “They think it’s a filthy gringo habit.”
‘Messing With Mother Nature’
Siegel concluded that “we have a drug problem because we have ripped apart these leaves, isolated the chemicals, stripped them down, and injected them directly into our bloodstream, or our nose, or our lungs . . .”
After working with several presidential commissions and the United Nations, Siegel still believes that this misuse of natural intoxicants is the crux of the world’s drug dilemma.
“The problem is we’re messing around with Mother Nature. We’re taking relatively safe medicines, benign intoxicants, and turning them into poisons by concentrating the dose and changing the pattern of use. All the problems that I’ve seen on this planet . . . are really problems of misusing the dosage and the pattern of use.”
If society would invest as much money as it does on the drug war in finding a safe natural drug, or in creating safe synthetic drugs, the war might become unnecessary, Siegel believes.
“What would be wrong if we had a drug that never caused addiction, never caused dependency, never caused death, never caused dysfunction such as driving under the influence, never caused liver problems? What would be wrong if it were safer than alcohol, safer than caffeine, safer than aspirin, which still kills dozens of people a year in the United States?”
Answering his own question, Siegel said: “I think Americans would say, ‘That’s morally unacceptable, because we don’t need to get high.’ ”
He gave a slight, professorial shrug. “I’m not taking a moral stand. I’m just saying it is something we do. That’s why we have a drug problem. We are medicating ourselves. We have always done this as an animal. Let’s learn the reasons for this ancient habit and do it right.”
Siegel said he has heard that someone at William J. Bennett’s White House Office of Drug Control Policy is reading his book. But official sanctioning of the safe new or natural intoxicating “adaptogens” he proposes will come only far in the future--if at all, he conceded. “Right now we have to start to change our thinking about this.”
In the meantime? What would he tell Bennett to do?
“I’d first of all give him my condolences,” Siegel said. “I’d say don’t abandon any of the efforts you’re engaged in now. But I’d advise him to look ahead. And to do that all you have to do is to look back” at how humans and other animals have behaved throughout history.
“It is natural that being chemical organisms, we’re going to react with the chemistry around us,” Siegel said. “It’s too late to take a step back. To ‘just say no’ is to deny everything that we are and all the things we could be.”