(Davenport-Hines 2002) The pursuit of oblivion

Davenport-Hines, Richard Peter Treadwell. The pursuit of oblivion: a global history of narcotics. 1st American ed. New York: Norton; 2002.

Davenport-Hines traces the use of psychoactive drugs throughout world history, but focuses principally on the era of prohibition in the 20th century. His work is anti-prohibition, but without any hint of the subtext of positive advocacy of drug use that is common to so much of the anti-prohibition literature. It’s hard to tell which group of people Davenport-Hines despises more, drug prohibitionists or drug users. For example, he writes (page 13):

Opiates can provide a way of re-inventing oneself as a remote, pitiless and superior being. They provide the semblance of control with the reality of degradation. They are for people for whom existence seems to be an implacable enemy.

Nevertheless, he warns that prohibition is self-defeating in the extreme (page 17):

This book is a history, not a contemporary polemic; but it marshals evidence that conflicts with many assumptions of the prohibitionists. It indicates that it is not a drug itself that drives an addict to crime but the need for the drug. It is not the supply of a drug that turns a user into a criminal but the illicitness of that supply. Enforced abstinence and punitive treatment of users are generally ineffective. Drug-suppliers are not averse to the risks posed by law enforcement, and never have been, because higher risks always raise the potential profits.

Besides the documentation of these points throughout more than 500 pages, this book is remarkable for the light it sheds on the irrational and unsavory (especially, racist) origins of the prohibitionist legal apparatus, particularly in the USA and the UK. Davenport-Hines recounts how U.S. Representative Sam Rayburn of Texas was asked about the provisions of the Marihuana Tax Bill of 1937, which he had presented to his colleagues for passage. He responded (page 347): “It has something to do with something that is called marihuana. I believe it is a narcotic of some kind.”


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