Published November 20, 2019
At a time when concerns about opioids and their effects are ever present, a fascinating new book out this month by a UB faculty member puts these and the myriad other psychoactive drugs in the human experience into much-needed historical and scientific context.
The book, “Our Love Affair with Drugs: The History, the Science, the Politics,” (Oxford University Press) will be published Nov. 25.
This highly accessible, often entertaining book by Jerrold Winter, professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, begins with a brief explanation of basic pharmacology. The book introduces readers to some of the nuances that distinguish tolerance, physical dependence, addiction and withdrawal, referencing definitions and then examining some of the inaccuracies inherent in them.
Winter covers tremendous ground, from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and methamphetamines, to the most common stimulants caffeine and nicotine, to alcohol and other depressants, such as tranquilizers, from Miltown to benzodiazepines, including Valium.
The book illuminates the parallel forces of scientific discovery, social context and the perennial human drive to use drugs to address the unbearable pain of disease or to escape the drudgery and tedium of ordinary life.
For each pharmacological agent, he provides colorful anecdotes about how their psychoactive effects were initially described, the controversies many of them elicited, and how they are currently viewed by the medical and legal establishments.
One of the most interesting and relevant chapters discusses the history of the use of marijuana, which Winter calls a perfect example of how ambivalent Western societies are when it comes to psychoactive drugs.
He notes that it is regarded even currently as either “a serious drug of abuse, which if set free, will destroy the fabric of our society,” or is “one of God’s gifts to humankind” because of its potency in treating a range of conditions, including severe epilepsy, especially in children.
As early as 1890, he writes, marijuana was mentioned in none other than The Lancet, one of the world’s oldest medical journals, by the physician to Queen Victoria’s household as among the most valuable medicines available. Among the conditions it was used to treat were migraines, asthma, depression and epilepsy.
Winter goes on to discuss its active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, noting that while marijuana typically contains no more than 10%, its much stronger cousin hashish can contain as much as 65% THC.
Hashish received attention in the 19th century, especially after publication of a book called “Hashish and Mental Illness” by Jacques-Joseph Moreau, a French psychiatrist, in which the author noted that the drug seemed to bring on experiences akin to insanity, while he also claimed that hashish might be beneficial for those suffering from mental illness.
Winter says this is hardly surprising. “Virtually every psychoactive drug, certainly marijuana, has been claimed by some to cause mental illness, while others propose the use of such drugs as an aide to mental health and stability.”
Winter also examines the history of opioids and their unmatched ability to kill pain.
After discussing some of the earliest human interactions with plant-based painkillers, the story advances into the 19th and early 20th centuries. This is when items like Mrs. Winston’s Soothing Syrup and Dr. Buckland’s Scotch Oates Essence — whose main ingredients were morphine and opium, respectively — were widely available on grocery and drugstore shelves. Meanwhile, heroin, opium, morphine and even syringes to inject them were available through the Sears, Roebuck catalog.
Winter credits Aldous Huxley, the British writer and philosopher and author of “Brave New World,” with introducing mescaline to the general public in his 1954 book, “The Doors of Perception.”
He quotes firsthand accounts of scientists who often ingested the drugs they were studying in order to gain a fuller appreciation of how they worked.
Readers may be especially surprised to learn that from the 1940s through the 1960s, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) was available to medical providers from Sandoz, the Swiss company that manufactured it under the trade name Delysid. Winter himself was able to obtain a small sample for his research in the 1960s by submitting a written request.
It was used to treat anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorders, and even more surprisingly, psychiatrists and other mental health providers were encouraged to take it themselves to “gain a better appreciation of what their psychotic patients were experiencing.”
In the final chapter, Winter addresses the American war on drugs and its ultimate failure on multiple levels, noting the racism inherent in drug laws and citing an American Civil Liberties Union statistic that more than 90% of people incarcerated for drug offenses are African American or Latino.
But there is cause for hope. He cites the example of Portugal, which in the 1980s was undergoing a drug crisis so extreme that it was possible that as much as 10% of its population was addicted to heroin. To deal with it, authorities opted to decriminalize heroin instead of legalizing it, and referred users and those who were in possession of small amounts of the drug to treatment and social services.
The approach, Winter writes, has been extremely successful. In Portugal, the number of deaths from opioid addiction is now at 2.6 per million, whereas in the U.S. that number is 195 deaths per million.
Charles S. Grob, professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, sums up the book this way in a blurb on the cover: “Jerrold Winter’s ‘Our Love Affair with Drugs: The History, the Science, the Politics’… is a beautifully written book with compelling insights into the role these substances have played throughout time and the lessons learned that provide valuable direction for the path that lies ahead.”