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Drugs and History

The following is a transcript of a short talk which I recently gave.

Last term, I was reminded of a quote by Les Iversen: ‘‘It was amazing to find out how much they influenced our lives in the 20th Century’’1

He was talking about the amphetamines, but he could have been referring to any of many different drugs just as truthfully. Today, I’d like to describe how a few have influenced the modern world. The importance of medicines to maintaining health and extending life is obvious, so I won’t discuss it further. Instead, I’ll talk about more subtle effects.

This image shows a protein. Specifically, it’s the Nicotinic Acetycholine receptor. There are actually two slightly different forms of this protein: one found in muscle cells, the other in nerve cells.

Consequently, nictotine will bind to the receptors in the brain, but not in the muscles. If it bound to both, it would have the same effect as venom in the fangs of a cobra, or curare on the tip of an arrow - it would kill you, very quickly. But it doesn’t, and so smokers live long enough to get addicted2. This turns out to be extremely important, not only because it has caused countless millions of excess deaths, but also because it has enabled those who produce tobacco to make billions.

Those who profited included settlers in the Colony of Virginia. Despite what some people may tell you, the first permanent settlers in America were not puritans seeking religious freedom in Massachusetts, but pragmatists wanting to make a quick buck in Virginia.

First, they tried mining, but that wasn’t profitable. Then they tried growing silk; but that wasn’t profitable either. Finally John Rolfe, the husband of Pocahontas, grew tobacco, and the economic security of Virginia was established.

Interestingly, some realised the dangers of tobacco at the time: King James wrote a pamphlet calling it a ‘noxious weed’ that was ‘hateful to the Nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the Lungs’3. These comments were remarkably prescient, coming 350 years before the British Doctors Study was to provide conclusive evidence of a link between smoking and diseases such as lung cancer and heart attack.

As well as establishing a foothold for British colonies in America, Virginia was important to the American war of independence. It was in Virginia, at Yorktown, that the british general Cornwallis surrendered, ending the conflict on land. And during the war, Virignia’s Governor was Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of independence.

And now, back to amphetamine. It’s been used by a lot of writers, including Jack Kerouac (whilst writing On The Road) and Philip K. Dick4.

Mathematicians, too: Paul Erdos5, one of the most prolific mathematicians of the twentieth century, used to take it. Had he not, a lot of people would probably have rather higher Erdos Numbers.

Much has been written about amphetamine use by soldiers, especially special forces, both in non-fictional accounts in the medical literature, and in novels, such as Cruel Sea. But it’s also been used by politicians. Most notably, Prime minister Eden started taking it after a botched operation on his intestine. It is believed to have altered his personality, making him more paranoid, and ultimately contributing to his decision to become involved in the Tripartite Aggression6. The idea was that control of the Suez canal could be wrested from the Egyptian government if the Israelis invaded the Sinai, and then British and French troops entered as ‘peace-keepers’. This was an absurd idea, and, predictably, failed, after both the US and UN refused to support it.

The black discolouration of this rye is due to a fungus called Claviceps purpurea; or, more commonly, ergot.

During the middle ages, there were periodic epidemics of St. Anthony’s fire, a gangrenous disease caused by eating the fungus. In it’s more acute form, ergot poisoning has symptoms including seizures, vomiting, and hallucinations. Most hallucinogens have been used for ritual purposes, and ergot is probably no exception. Several bodies recovered from peat bogs - most notably Graubelle Man and Tollund Man, which were found in Denmark - seem to have been force fed ergot before their death.

Some historians have suggested that the girls whose allegations of witchcraft led to the Salem Witch Trials were suffering from the effects of ergotism7. However, this idea is controversial, and others claim that if it were true, there would be records of the girls vomiting, and others in the village would have also shown symptoms8.

Several centuries later, a swiss chemist produced a number of drug candidates from ergot. He decided to repeat the synthesis of one, ingested some, and had one of the most interesting bicycle rides home in history. The chemist’s name was Albert Hoffmann; the drug’s, LSD. Very soon, a lot of people were very interested in using LSD, including psychiatrists trying to improve the effectiveness of psychoanalysis and treatment for alcohol addiction, hippies wanting to ‘‘turn on, tune in, drop out’’ - and the CIA.

The CIA were very interested in using LSD to make uncooperative captives talk, and to modify the behaviour of foreign leaders. Its MK-ULTRA project included the administration of LSD to a variety of subjects, many without their knowledge or consent. At least two of them - Harold Blauer and Frank Olson - died as a result.

Such experimentation was in violation of the Nurenberg Code, which had been established after the trials of German doctors who’d conducted medical experiments on prisoners during the second World War. The US government had sentenced those doctors to death, and yet - just a few decades later -its own employees were conducting similar experiments. And, after 9-11, the CIA began to use interrogation techniques such as water-boarding, which it had considered a war-crime, when it had been conducted against, rather than by, US citizens.

Similar duplicity occurs not only in international relations, and the operating procedures of intelligence agents, but also in the enforcement of drugs policy. In January, for example, the government upgraded cannabis from a Class C to a Class B drug, against the advice of the Home Office Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs[^fnref9]. At the same time, it does nothing to increase the price of alcohol, despite the advice of experts that this would be the most effective way to reduce alcohol related deaths.

The CIA mis-stepped because it fixated on fantasy applications for LSD, ignoring the ethical implications of its experiments. Gordon Brown mis-stepped because he chose policies based on their appeal to voters, rather than their effect on public health. If there is a moral to this assembly, it is that little things can have big effects, and we should not lose sight of what is truly important when confronted with decisions. But you knew that already. Thank-you for listening.

T[^fnref9]: his advice was expressed in a report entitled Cannabis: Classification and Public Health. The Chairman’s covering letter noted that ‘You will note that, after a most careful scrutiny of the totality of the available evidence, the majority of the Council’s members consider, based on its harmfulness to individuals and society, that cannabis should remain a Class C substance.’

  1. Personal correspondence, 5 Jun 2007 

  2. Xiu et al. Nicotine binding to brain receptors requires a strong cation-pi interaction. Nature (2009) vol. 458 (26 March 2009) pp. 534-537 

  3. A Counterblaste to Tobacco, King James I, 1603 

  4. Williams. The true story of Philip K Dick. Rolling Stone (1975) (November 6) pp. 44-48, 50, 88, 91, 93-4 

  5. Hoffman. The Man Who Loves Only Numbers. The Atlantic Monthly (1987) (November 1987) pp. 60-74 

  6. Leslie Iversen Speed, Ecstasy, Ritalin: The Science of Amphetamines, Oxford University Press 

  7. Caporael. Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?. Science (1976) vol. 192 (4234) pp. 21-26 

  8. Spanos and Gottlieb. Ergotism and the Salem village Witch Trials. Science (1976) vol. 194 (4272) pp. 1390-94 

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