Taking potshots at America’s war on drugs
Can’t Find My Way Home
America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000
Simon & Schuster: 560 pp., $27.95
It’s been said that 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 called marijuana inhalers and other illicit-drug takers “accomplices to murder.” What haven’t they been smoking?
In “Can’t Find My Way Home,” a sprawling, high-spirited and often outlandish cultural history of illegal drug use in postwar 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 addiction as he traces how illicit drugs migrated from the criminal underground and avant garde fringe to 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 decade.
Much of Torgoff’s book is a tour de force through the stoned 1960s 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 amphetamines. “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 Sixties without the drugs, at least not the Sixties 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.
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 1970s. And cocaine revved up Wall Street in the manic 1980s while bringing life down to a dog-eat-dog level in America’s ghettos where 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 of “the simple-minded 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 interview that a woman on acid could have “several hundred orgasms.” Public relations would also figure prominently in the transformation of MDMA, a promising therapeutic adjunct, into Ecstasy, which became a staple of the neo-psychedelic, 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.
Martin A. Lee is the co-author, with Bruce Shlain, of “Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties and Beyond.”