Is the term “drugs” still meaningful? Many of us would confess to being at least mildly dependent on some substance, be it single-origin coffee or Sancerre, antidepressants or anti-inflammatories, Red Bull or Ritalin. Because such a wide range of substances characterizes everyday middle- and working-class life, their indiscriminate lumping under the heading “drugs” is proving increasingly unhelpful, even nonsensical. Who among us actually experiences the supposed ideal of an utterly drugless, unmedicated existence? If you’re raising your hand, consider that even you might be less troubled, pained, or smug if you were on something.
Although many individuals abjure drugs, almost no society in human history ever has: in each one, some psychoactive substance ritualizes rites of passage, seasons relationships, and lubricates communities. Perhaps the distinction, then, should not be between an individual’s pure or mediated experience, but between solitary and communal use. The most obvious basic human needs—for food, water, and shelter—are met collaboratively and collectively. So too are the less quantifiable but equally important ones: community, sociability, spirituality, sensuality, and pleasure. Here, substances have a vital role to play. As the three books under discussion here demonstrate, drugs have always been part of the answer to the question of how to live a meaningful life. Each blows open even the broadest views about “drugs” like prescription sleep aids, crack, methamphetamine, and LSD. And each exposes the slimy lie at the bottom of “drugs,” that garbage can of a category: the false belief that my natural experience is more authentic and valuable than your artificial one.
In Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, “drugs” are the tools of the nameless antihero’s absurd project: to overcome her past trauma by sleeping for a year and awakening to a brand-new life. It’s a misanthrope’s fantasy, and it’s not easy. Sleeping continuously, it turns out, takes work. At the 24-hour bodega near her apartment, she narrates, “I’d get two large coffees with cream and six sugars each, chug the first one in the elevator on the way back up to my apartment, then sip the second one slowly while I watched movies and ate animal crackers and took trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I fell asleep again.”
Our protagonist also takes “Neuroproxin, Maxiphenphen, Valdignore, and Silencior,” supplemented with “Seconols or Nembutals when I was irritable, Valiums or Libriums when I suspected that I was sad, and Placidyls or Noctecs or Miltowns when I suspected I was lonely.” Some of these are real drug names; others are thinly disguised. Our drugs now have well-enough-known personalities to merit pseudonyms. They form the narrator’s pliable, reliable friends.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation builds its satire, and sentiment, on the spectacle of self-medication that has doped the hyper-individualized American soul. The heroine’s prescriptions flow from the purple feather-tipped pen of the funniest and most appalling psychotherapist in the pages of recent fiction, Dr. Tuttle. Her advice? “Dial 9-1-1 if anything bad happens. … Use reason when you feel you can. There’s no way to know how these medications will affect you.” Dr. Tuttle’s true expertise is in gaming the insurance system and prescribing drugs not despite but because of their side effects. The protagonist’s only friend, Reva, chastises her for being “on drugs,” yet self-soothes with gum, workouts, self-help platitudes, tequila, wine, and whiskey sours, “popping Advil between drinks.” Their tenuous bond consists in abusing different substances in each other’s presence.
Moshfegh has built a brilliant fictional corpus by literalizing moral disgust with American self-centeredness. Her heroines abuse laxatives and leave the house with faces crusted over with toothpaste. Uneasy in their bodies, her self-anesthetizing protagonists numb themselves with television as well as pharmaceuticals: “Hours clicked by in half-hour segments. … I watched The King of Queens. I watched Oprah. Donahue. The Ricki Lake Show. Sally Jessy Raphael. I wondered if I might be dead, and I felt no sorrow, only worry over the afterlife, if it was going to be just like this, just as boring.”
the slimy lie at the bottom of “drugs,” that garbage can of a category, is the false belief that my natural experience is more authentic and valuable than your artificial one.
What will it take for Americans to admit that their most authentically human states are ones of dependence on each other? My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s last chapter gives a devastating political answer to this question—one that anyone who noticed the novel’s setting in 2000 and 2001 might have seen coming. In 1929, Marxist critic Walter Benjamin described self-centered bourgeois narcosis, as “that most terrible drug—ourselves—which we take in solitude.”1 Moshfegh’s novel similarly asks how to approach trauma from a standpoint beyond toxic individualism.
If Moshfegh demonstrates how such self-centeredness instrumentalizes “drugs” to enact futile fantasies of rest and relaxation, Carl Hart’s brilliant book, High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know about Drugs and Society, proves how other imagined nightmares involving “drugs” are equally unfounded. Part scholarly autobiography, part policy argument for drug decriminalization, High Price should be required reading in every university.
Hart came of age in Miami in the late 1970s and early 1980s, just before the crack panic, in a working-class Black family that overcame alcoholism and domestic violence. He credits his career achievements as a Columbia University neuroscientist to the early discipline instilled by his grandmother, high school football, and a stint in the Air Force; to the intellectual stimulation and support supplied by a variety of girlfriends and academic mentors; and to his racial and class politicization through the music and lyrics of Gil Scott-Heron and Bob Marley.
Hart’s research on crack demonstrates that it is no more addictive than other drugs; his test subjects would often choose cash over hits. Such experiments proved his hypothesis, that habitual crack and methamphetamine use is the rational choice of people with few other pleasures and purposes. What the media dubbed the crack epidemic would have been more accurately described as a panic. Contrary to the popular notion that it ravaged Black communities, “whites are actually more likely to use the drug.” Two decades later, the so-called methamphetamine “epidemic” replayed the same drama. “At the height of methamphetamine’s popularity, there were never more than a million current users of the drug”—a number far lower than the then 4.4 million prescription opiate users or 15 million marijuana smokers.
Media sensationalism consistently overstates drug use and especially demonizes that of African Americans, driving the epic tragedy of racist mass incarceration for truly victimless crimes. As Hart’s research proves, both the depth of the pharmacological effect of crack on its users and the range of its use throughout US society have been vastly overstated. The good news is that “most people who use any drug do so without problems. This is not an endorsement for the legalization of drugs. It’s just a fact.”
Hart’s strong autobiographical narrative distinguishes his book from drug histories and other research into recreational drug use. His own life throws common perceptions of drug addiction to the winds, exposing their racist presumptions. How, he asks, when his community appeared so stereotypically dysfunctional—burglary, firearms, unprotected sex, casual drug use, and domestic abuse were common—did he escape addiction, prison, and poverty? It turns out that the very same family and friends who took or sold drugs also nurtured and supported Hart, not least by offering him social, intellectual, and sexual pleasure. What could be more fun than playing football, dating, and spinning Technics SL-1200 turntables as “Cool Carl” to crowds of 2,500 on Friday nights at rented skating rinks? “I knew how to keep the house rocking. I could sweet-talk the girls and have them out of their jeans by the end of the night. I thought I had mad skills.”
With so many positive reinforcers, drugs held little allure, and Hart used them socially and sparingly, keen to maintain his status as a top performer on the football team. Years later, when he returned to his community and won back the trust of family and friends suspicious of his Ivy League life, their stories confirmed his research: the purpose of drugs, taken in moderation as most people use them, is to smooth out life’s rough edges.
Addiction arises only when drugs replace community—see exhibit A, Moshfegh’s narrator. The War on Drugs, Hart shows, is more properly understood as a war on communities of color. Under the minimum sentencing guidelines that sprang up in the wake of the crack panic, African Americans disproportionately serve prison time for possessing and selling drugs whose pharmacological and social effects are far less severe than anyone in power claims. The ideology of “drugs” denies the reality and authenticity of the life of Black communities.
The purpose of drugs, taken in moderation as most people use them, is to smooth out life’s rough edges.
Hart claims he never thought of using drugs to alter his consciousness, yet his work finds surprising common ground with Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, which takes the pulse of psychedelia in academic and clinical research. Like Hart, Pollan demonstrates that hallucinogens such as LSD, psilocybin, ayuahuasca, and DMT are “far more frightening … than they are dangerous.” The waning of the 1960s ethos and the War on Drugs toppled psychedelics from their pedestal in youth culture by popularizing scare stories about flashbacks, suicide, and permanent mental derangement. Such lore certainly kept me away from LSD as a teenager in the 1980s. Riding the new wave of enthusiasm for psychedelics, Pollan proves the absurdity of such scaremongering. He elucidates their ability to produce profound spiritual experiences and their promising use in clinical trials to treat depression, addiction, and the existential despair that accompanies terminal diagnoses.
How To Change Your Mind narrates Pollan’s own change of opinion about the drugs it discusses. He starts out a humanist skeptic who has read William James but had few spiritual experiences. After taking well-researched, curated trips on LSD, psilocybin, and ayahuasca, he ends up appreciating the ego-dismantling lucidity they afford. As befits the eminently reasonable, award-winning Berkeley journalist who wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan cites a psychiatrist, Julie Holland, who describes a future in which consumers take psychedelics at “mental-health clubs,” which might be “a cross between a spa/retreat and a gym … a safe, supportive environment.” He doesn’t say this, but without much distortion, you could simplify his message into the catchphrase, “Take drugs. Not too many. Mostly plants.”
Pollan’s most interesting question is whether psychedelic experience should be judged authentic or illusory. The ideology that targets “drugs” as a crutch dismisses psychedelic-induced spiritual experience as phony because it is artificially induced. By contrast, Pollan presents psychedelic experiences as loosening the fixed mental habits we have built up over our lifetimes, allowing us to think and feel differently, and more openly—hence the provocation of his title. As an ego solvent, psychedelics are so transformative that their users metamorphose into apostles, and are quickly sidelined.
And yet, in the future history of drug use, I predict no wider cultural renaissance for psychedelics. As Pollan explains, Big Pharma can find little profit in drugs that require only one or two doses to yield profound mind alterations. And Big Pharma determines which drugs will become global commodities, whether licit or illicit. The current fad of microdosing LSD among wealthy coastal professionals in therapy and tech industry drones cultivating their productivity suggests the likely extent of the market.
The drugs that hit it big and endure in spite of their potential for addiction are, as Hart implies and as Pollan put it in The Botany of Desire, the ones “that merely inflect the prose of everyday life without rewriting it.”2 Moshfegh’s narrator, gobbling her sleep aids and anxiety relievers, mixes up the two: she should have taken mushrooms. Yet the peculiar myopia of psychedelic enthusiasts, in the 1960s and now, is their faith in a magic bullet. Merely reversing the ideology of “drugs,” they indulge the same overhyped, sloppy thinking one usually finds at the intersection of technology and capital.
You can dissolve your ego in ergot, but without a community to support the practice and give it meaning, your visions will remain solipsistic, uncommunicable. Pollan’s drug experiences are every bit as self-involved, and banal, as Moshfegh’s narrator’s antics when she sleepwalks, sleeptexts, and sleepshops in her prescription fog. Hart offers the radical challenge: stop demonizing “drugs”—and stop fetishizing them. If we accept that drugs themselves are usually beside the point, then perhaps we can meet human needs the old-fashioned, low-tech way: together.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism,” in Selected Writings Volume 2, 1927–1934, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, translated from the German by Rodney Livingstone and others (Belknap, 1999), p. 216. ↩
- Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World. (Random House, 2002), p. 142. ↩