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Hallucinating stars and stripes
date: 13-September-2005
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paraphernalia likes "pharmacological McArthyism"....

The party was definitely over. It was 1989 when George Bush Sr held up a bag of crack-cocaine, seized "in a park just across the street" from the White House, and formally declared war on drugs. Thanks to a media obsessed with crack babies and gang-banging "niggers with attitude", most Americans soon agreed with their president: drugs, and the underclass that dealt them, were the greatest threats facing the nation.

The backlash was fed by puritan rage over the hallucinogenic Sixties when an entire generation, it seemed, had followed Harvard Professor Timothy Leary's advice to "turn on, tune in, drop out". While George Bush Jr's war on terror is not looking so good, his father's war on drugs has spectacularly failed - America is getting as stoned as ever.

Despite the most punitive drug laws of any Western society, almost half of the adult population has snorted, injected, popped or inhaled. Ecstasy, the cheapest cocaine in history, and more marijuana than ever are being consumed with just as much pleasure and pain as when George Sr vowed to create a "drug-free" America. In this context, a clear-headed examination of Americans' love-hate relationship with intoxication is to be warmly welcomed, especially one by a former addict who knows only too well what he's writing about.

Martin Torgoff's treatment is more or less a chronological trip, albeit one in which psychedelics, amphetamines and narcotics explain much of recent history. Jazz would not have been jazz without heroin apparently - every one of the greats, from Miles Davis to Chet Baker, injected at some stage on their ascent. Without copious amounts of Benzedrine, Jack Kerouac would never have managed to bash out On the Road in a manic stream of consciousness that has come to define the Beat Generation. Had it not been for peyote, acid and LSD there would have been no mushrooming of the counter culture, no Summer of Love on Haight-Ashbury, no Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and no peace movement. When America went to war in Vietnam, recalls the director Oliver Stone, the grunts tripping out to The Doors in Saigon brothels became just as reluctant as the peaceniks back home to pull the trigger on innocents. Tens of thousands would return to the US with addictions as lethal as were the Viet Cong.

The list of comedians, actors and rock stars who got loaded in the 1970s and 1980s is so long and stellar it seems that mountains of cocaine, forests of Humboldt County marijuana (the second largest cash crop in America) and the Golden Triangle's deadliest were essential to every decent album, TV show and film. The classic show Saturday Night Live was actually created for an audience that was assumed to be totally blitzed. Its manic star, John Belushi, personified the downside of the "Stoned Age", collapsing into an early grave after a speed ball of heroin and cocaine, one of many who burned far too bright. Indeed, 25 years after Woodstock, most of its headliners were also dead - Janice Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jerry Garcia, Tim Buckley, Keith Moon…

What goes up must come down, and so with the advent of crack-cocaine and Ronald Reagan, writes Torgoff, "the Great Stoned Age turned into the Age of Recovery." By 1990, 12-step programs had quadrupled in less than a decade. The times were indeed a changin' - so much so that Bill Clinton could admit to adultery but swore he had never inhaled. Addiction and its inevitable "dysfunction" became "the reigning metaphor - or meta-metaphor - for all human troubles in fin-de-millennium America". Meanwhile, the war on drugs was costing $20 billion a year and since 1989 has incarcerated millions - the majority black or hispanic - thanks to mandatory sentencing laws that were both racist and inhumane.

Such "pharmacological McArthyism" still shows no signs of abating. Otherwise law-abiding Americans are literally losing the farm because over-zealous DEA agents discover a discarded joint. Yet in poll after poll, especially concerning medical marijuana, most Americans show themselves more liberal than their government. And no matter how punitive laws become, counsels Torgoff, every generation will find the high it craves. The latest is no different - witness the world-wide popularity of a rave culture fueled by Ecstasy.

This vivid and compelling history will not satisfy either the "Just Say No" evangelists or libertarians pushing for all-out legalisation. So long as alcohol kills at least 30 times more people each year than illicit drugs combined, Torgoff concludes, the puritans will always have a problem convincing the well-informed that they are acting in the public interest. To make China White heroin widely available, on the other hand, would be a homicidal mistake: even the strongest-willed have quickly succumbed to its charms. The way to limit drug abuse, Torgoff argues, lies in education, responsible behaviour and moderation rather than outright prohibition - a cocktail which all Americans could enjoy if they had different politicians.

Alex Kershaw's books include 'Blood and Champagne: The Life of Robert Capa' (Pan)

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