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This Article Was Originally Published in the Respected Scientific Journal "New Scientist" Date noted below:



Magazine section: Review

A pint of bitter with the opium, please: Forbidden Drugs by Philip Robson, Oxford University Press pp 245, 14.95 hbk, 9.95 pbk

New Scientist vol 144 issue 1952 - 19 November 94, page 58


HUMPHRY Davy was quick to realise the potential of nitrous oxide gas. At the beginning of the 19th century he wrote that, besides its powerful anaesthetic properties, the gas induced pleasurable hallucinations when inhaled. His friends were so taken with the idea that they talked of setting up a "nitrous oxide tavern". Drug use and addiction have been recorded throughout history, and some researchers have even referred to the need for intoxication as one of the basic biological drives, along with hunger, thirst and sex.

Neither is drug use a highly evolved, uniquely human activity. There are many examples of other animals searching for oblivion, from elephants gorging on fermented fruit to dogs sniffing the fumes from rotting vegetation until they lose coordination. Yet human societies tend to frown upon the deliberate consumption of intoxicating, behaviour-altering substances.

Philip Robson gives a readable and thorough overview of the drugs that are currently used illegally throughout the world - their effects, treatments for addiction, their use throughout history and changing social attitudes towards them. Heroin, for example, is now considered one of the most dangerous drugs. But 150 years ago, before its addictive nature was fully understood, English farm workers in the Norfolk fens would turn their noses up at a mug of ale unless it had a lump of opium in it.

Robson questions the usefulness of the taboos associated with drugs. Labelling drug use as abnormal has led to the two extreme reactions of medicalisation (treating it as a disease) and criminalisation. But neither response has eradicated the use of drugs. And that is Robson's point. Recreational drug use is here to stay, and shutting it in the cupboard with all the other skeletons will not make it go away.

Why do people use drugs? There is no simple explanation, says Robson. But much research has focused on psychological factors, producing endless correlations. Low self-esteem, for example, is common in those with drug problems. But is that cause or effect? Robson rightly advises caution in interpreting the data.

What Robson highlights is that treatments will be effective only when they draw on all the contributing factors - biological, psychological and sociocultural. In the legalisation debate, he offers a well-reasoned argument in favour of controlled availability of recreational drugs and a more "user- friendly" approach to addicts.

Robson asks as many questions as he answers. He does not attempt to find a comprehensive explanation of addiction but he does imply that it will evade us unless the strands of research are drawn together. Meanwhile there are tricky moral questions to be answered. Politicians take note.


LAURA SPINNEY