There is nothing peculiarly human about the use of drugs. Both in captivity and in the wild, many other animals have been shown to seek out intoxicants. In his book The Soul of the Ape, Eugene Marais — himself a morphine addict — showed that wild chacma baboons used intoxicants to disrupt the tedium of ordinary consciousness. In times of plenty when many other fruits were easily available, they went out of their way to eat a rare plumlike fruit, after which they showed all the signs of intoxication. Summarising his findings, which are supported by later research, Marais wrote: 'The habitual use of poisons for the purpose of producing euphoria — a feeling of mental wellbeing and happiness — is a universal remedy for the pain of consciousness.'
It is a result that applies as much to humans as to baboons. Consciousness and the attempt to escape it go together. Drug use is a primordial animal activity. Among humans, it is immemorial and nearly universal. What then accounts for the 'war on drugs'?
Prohibiting drugs makes the trade in them fabulously profitable. It breeds crime and greatly enlarges the prison population. Despite this, there is a worldwide drugs pandemic. Prohibiting drugs has failed. Why then will no contemporary government legalise them? Some say organised crime and the law are linked in a symbiosis that blocks radical reform. There may be some truth in this, but the real explanation lies elsewhere.
The most pitiless warriors against drugs have always been militant progressives. In China, the most savage attack on drug use occurred when the country was convulsed by a modern western doctrine of universal emancipation — Maoism. It is no accident that the crusade against drugs is led today by a country wedded to the pursuit of happiness — the United States. For the corollary of that improbable quest is a puritan war on pleasure.
Drug use is a tacit admission of a forbidden truth. For most people happiness is beyond reach. Fulfilment is found not in daily life but in escaping from it. Since happiness is unavailable, the mass of mankind seeks pleasure.
Religious cultures could admit that earthly life was hard, for they promised another in which all tears would be wiped away. Their humanist successors affirm something still more incredible — that in the future, even the near future, everyone can be happy. Societies founded on a faith in progress cannot admit the normal unhappiness of human life. As a result, they are bound to wage war on those who seek an artificial happiness in drugs.
John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (Granta 2002), p. 141-142.
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