Published December 18, 2019
Jerrold C. Winter, PhD, professor of pharmacology and toxicology, is the author of an entertaining and informative new book, “Our Love Affair with Drugs: The History, the Science, the Politics,” published by Oxford University Press.
Winter covers tremendous ground, from the most common stimulants — caffeine and nicotine — to alcohol and other depressants, such as tranquilizers. It also covers the use of amphetamines and Ritalin for treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The book gives readers a brief explanation of basic pharmacology, and introduces them to some of the nuances that distinguish tolerance, physical dependence, addiction and withdrawal.
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 states is a perfect example of how ambivalent Western societies are when it comes to psychoactive drugs.
He notes that it is regarded even today 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 percent, its much stronger cousin hashish can contain as much as 65 percent THC.
Hashish received attention in the 19th century, especially after the 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.
This is hardly surprising to Winter.
“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 aid to mental health and stability,” he says.
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. Winslow’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 and Co. 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.”
Winter 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 obtained multiple samples for his research in the 1960s merely by submitting written requests to Sandoz. Distribution of LSD to investigators is now carefully controlled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
LSD was used to treat anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorders. 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.”
But there is cause for hope. Winter cites, for example, the country of Portugal, which in the 1980s was undergoing a drug crisis so extreme that it was possible that as much as 10 percent of its population was addicted to heroin. To deal with it, the authorities opted to decriminalize heroin instead of legalizing it. Authorities also referred users and those who were in possession of small amounts of the drug to treatment and social services, in much the same way Erie County is doing today.
The approach, Winter writes, has been extremely successful. In Portugal, the number of deaths from opioid addiction are now at 2.6 per million, whereas in the U.S. that number is 195 deaths per million.
Charles S. Grob, MD, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, summed up the book this way: “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.”