Source: The Independent
Since we first prowled the savannahs of Africa, human beings have displayed a few overpowering and ineradicable impulses—for food, for sex, and for drugs. Every human society has hunted for its short cuts to an altered state: The hunger for a chemical high, low, or pleasingly new shuffle sideways is universal. Peer back through history, and it’s everywhere. Ovid said drug-induced ecstasy was a divine gift. The Chinese were brewing alcohol in prehistory and cultivating opium by 700 A.D. Cocaine was found in clay-pipe fragments from William Shakespeare’s house. George Washington insisted American soldiers be given whiskey every day as part of their rations. Human history is filled with chemicals, come-downs, and hangovers.
Yet in every generation, there are moralists why try to douse this natural impulse in moral condemnation and burn it away. They believe that humans, stripped of their intoxicants, will become more rational or ethical or good. They point to the addicts and the overdoses and believe they reveal the true face – and the logical endpoint – of your order at the bar or your roll-up. And they believe it can be ended, if only we choose to do it. Their vision holds an intoxicating promise of its own.
Their most famous achievement – the criminalisation of alcohol in the United States between 1921 and 1933 – is one of the great parables of modern history. Daniel Okrent’s superb new history, ‘Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition’, shows how a coalition of mostly well-meaning, big-hearted people came together and changed the Constitution to ban booze. On the day it began, one of the movement’s leaders, the former baseball hero turned evangelical preacher Billy Sunday, told his ecstatic congregation what the Dry New World would look like: “The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever rent.”
The story of the War on Alcohol has never needed to be told more urgently – because its grandchild, the War on Drugs, shares the same DNA. Okrent only alludes to the parallel briefly, on his final page, but it hangs over the book like old booze-fumes – and proves yet again Mark Twain’s dictum: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
There was never an America without chemical highs. The Native Americans used hallucinogens, and the ship that brought John Winthrop and the first Puritans to the continent carried three times more beer than water, along with ten thousand gallons of wine. It was immediately a society so soaked in alcohol that it makes your liver ache to read the raw statistics: by 1830, the average citizen drank seven gallons of pure alcohol a year. In 1839, an English traveller called Frederick Marryat wrote: “I am sure that Americans can fix nothing without a drink. If you meet, you drink; if you make acquaintance, you drink; they quarrel in their drink, and they make up with a drink. They drink because it is hot; they drink because it is cold… They commence it early in life, and the continue it until they soon drop into the grave.”
America was so hungry for highs that when there was a backlash against all this boozing, the temperance movement’s initial proposal was that people should water down their alcohol with opium.