“Absolute sobriety is not a natural or primary human state,” asserts Richard Davenport-Hines at the beginning of this voluminous and comprehensive history of drug-taking. The evidence he produces is overwhelming. For the past three centuries (he barely glances at the previous two), humanity has found ever more ingenious and effective routes to oblivion. Until the second half of the 19th century, governments made little serious effort to intervene.
Apart from the ubiquitous desire to get stoned, the other constant attribute of the past is hypocrisy. Narcotics, it emerges, have always been a passion mainly of the upper classes and the lower orders. The first group tends to grumble about the debauchery of the second. There, for instance, is Samuel Taylor Coleridge demanding “legislative interference” because he was shocked by the quantities of laudanum (opium in alcohol) sold by country druggists to the poor. Rather rich from a man whom Dorothy Wordsworth described as “the slave of stimulants”.
However, he was not alone. Every familiar name in British history, it seems from Mr Davenport-Hines's painstaking research, was swallowing, sniffing or (after the helpful invention of the hypodermic syringe) injecting something. George IV's “ungovernable” affection for laudanum (and cherry brandy) horrified the increasingly prim middle classes: he needed 100 drops of laudanum before he could face Lord Aberdeen, the foreign secretary. William Wilberforce, scourge of slavers, ascribed to opium his powers of public speaking. Wilkie Collins described in his novels how boredom and the social stigma of alcohol consumption drove wealthy Victorian women to share his addiction to laudanum.
Hypocrisy marked Britain's approach to the drug trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. In spite of the scruples felt by William Ewart Gladstone, that puritanical prime minister, who sipped laudanum before appearing in the House of Commons, great trading barons such as the founders of Jardine Matheson made fortunes from shipping opium to China. In the 1890s, the British government was still dithering over allowing its colonies to export drugs.
A greater hypocrisy has coloured the 20th century's approach, and especially that of the United States. America was quick to ban the sale and consumption of heroin and cocaine: by 1919, it had even banned maintenance prescriptions by doctors to suffering addicts, something that Britain long allowed. And, while the British government was deeply reluctant to outlaw hashish in the 1920s, America pushed through an international agreement to do so. But drugs produced by pharmaceutical companies escaped such treatment. Barbiturates became one of the century's most popular drugs. American troops in Vietnam were fed huge quantities of amphetamines, in order to stimulate their fighting zeal. When President Nixon came to the White House and launched a “war” on drugs, American pharmaceutical companies were producing 8 billion amphetamines a year. The 1972 Vienna convention, which constrains national drug policies, treated such stimulants and depressants far more lightly than heroin, cocaine and marijuana.
Mr Davenport-Hines's prejudices are firmly on the side of the liberalisers. “Drugs remain dangerous, but they can also be rewarding to both suppliers and users; accordingly they remain ineradicable,” he argues. In a few final paragraphs, he suggests some wiser policies than the harsh criminalisation of the past 30 years that has over-crowded prisons with narcotics offenders and manifestly failed to alter people's drug habits.
His book's main shortcoming is a lack of sign-posting, so that chapters often lack argument or form. Had he allowed the passion of his final argument to shape his account, he would have written an even better book.
Published at THE ECONOMIST