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In the Drug Archives

Mike Jay, interviewed by Lucy Jakub

In the September 23, 2021, issue of the magazine, Mike Jay reviews two books that seek to broaden the conversation about drug use in society. Michael Pollan’s This is Your Mind on Plants and Carl Hart’s Drug Use for Grown-Ups ask provocative questions: Why have psychedelics escaped the stigma of cocaine and heroin? Why is our morning shot of caffeine legal, but a nightcap of opium tea not? And what’s so wrong with getting high for fun, anyway?

Mike Jay

Louise Burton, 2021

Mike Jay

Jay, a British journalist and historian, has been writing since the 1990s about the history of drugs and their influence on culture. In an e-mail this week, he told me that when he started out, “there was little media coverage of the subject beyond addiction and crime stories.” But, as a writer, he found mind-altering substances irresistible.

“I’m attracted to topics that cross boundaries and genres,” he says, and stories about drugs—who takes them, and how they experience them—offered avenues into diverse disciplines, “from neuroscience to anthropology, psychiatry to art, pharmacology to social history.” Jay has since explored these linkages in several books, including High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture (2010) and Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the Nineteenth Century (2012), and in exhibitions he has curated of art and visual culture.

Jay has been drawn especially to histories of drugs and mental illness, which “bring idiosyncratic private experience into dialogue with the norms and consensus reality of their time and place.” In the last decade, there’s been a surge of interest in his previously esoteric beat, as clinical trials around the world have demonstrated the potential of various psychedelic drugs to treat addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.

Since at least as far back as the 1890s, Jay says, “trip literature” has been characterized by “breathless first-person narratives, often fixated on sensory distortions, color changes, and so on.” Continuing a long tradition of first-person writing on drugs, Pollan and Hart both offer personal testimony of their drug use that goes beyond those tropes to enlighten readers and dispel misconceptions and stigma.

In his review, Jay refers to the “Pollan effect”—the singular influence of Pollan’s writing on public opinion, most recently in rehabilitating hallucinogens like LSD, “magic mushrooms,” and DMT to the extent that they are now considered positively as therapeutic supplements and aids for mental productivity. “The diffusion of new drugs into societies often has an identifiable source,” Jay told me, and that source has often been a writer. For example, the English writer Thomas de Quincey “transformed the perception of opium from a quotidian pain medication into an exotic, dark, and dangerous agent of visionary experience” with his 1821 book Confessions of an Opium-Eater. In Jay’s view,

the closest analogy to the “Pollan effect” is perhaps Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954), the bestseller that first introduced psychedelics to mainstream culture. Huxley, like Pollan, presented himself with great skill not as an initiate of an esoteric drug cult but an ingenue, undergoing and relaying extraordinary experiences on behalf of the general reader.

The power of such charismatic writing has also, however, had the effect of amplifying the experience of a privileged class of drug user. While the archives are full of accounts by educated white men, the first drug policies in the United States, in the late nineteenth century, targeted vulnerable, non-white groups—prohibiting the uses of opium among Chinese residents of San Francisco and of peyote on Native American reservations—and the “war on drugs” continues to be disproportionately waged against communities of color and the poor.

Hart, having come from such a community himself, decided to write openly about his own experiences to dispel the racist assumptions that fuel the drug war, arguing that responsible recreational use should fall under every adult’s right to “the pursuit of happiness.” Yet acknowledging “the obvious element of pleasure,” Jay says, has been tantamount to taboo in the drug debate “ever since the young Sigmund Freud described the pleasures of cocaine frankly in Über Coca (1884) and was blamed by his medical colleagues for recklessly encouraging its popular use.”

“The voices of the colonized and those of non-white ethnicities are systemically underrepresented in drug history,” Jay observes, “so I make the most of them when I find them.” In his review, he writes that “in contrast to the Western engagement with psychedelics…in Indigenous cultures these experiences are typically seen as private and in no need of interpretation.” While this dynamic presented a pressing problem for Pollan as he tried to find Native Americans who would speak openly about their peyote ceremonies over video-call, Jay says that the way such sources “generated two different types of history” was part of the appeal of writing his 2019 book, Mescaline: A Global History of the first Psychedelic:

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The Western engagement is characterized by subjective accounts that aim to capture and isolate the effects of the drug and present them for scientific or literary scrutiny.

The Indigenous story is strikingly different. There is a presumption against sharing or describing the experience; it’s regarded as crude and reductive to generalize from one’s own experience, or to attribute it simply to the plant in question (even more so to the chemical compounds that plant might contain). The ceremony, in turn, is not easily detached from the culture that underpins it. So, where the Western engagement is rich in individual experiences, the Indigenous history has a broader sweep: a collective tradition, embedded in the narrative and mental world of its people.

Gender represents another significant bias in the literature on drugs. While this imbalance “dates back to the era when medical science was an almost exclusively male concern,” Jay notes, “it persisted into the modern drug counterculture: it’s surely beyond coincidence that its canonical figures (Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs, Timothy Leary, Hunter S. Thompson, etc.) were all men.” As a corrective, he recommends the work of historian Erika Dyck at the University of Saskatchewan, who has “brought many female pioneers of the psychedelic era out of the shadows,” and Bett Williams’s recent memoir The Wild Kindness: A Psilocybin Odyssey (2020).

There remains much to uncover in the history of getting high, and Jay says that his next book will explore drugs and “the making of the modern mind,” the development of Western intellectual history in the nineteenth century. “Our current fascination with psychedelics and mental exploration has a longer history than we recognize.”

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