Culture | More than just chemicals on the brain

Aaron Vansintjan on different cultures’ approaches to drugs

W hat do we think of when we say “drugs”? A rough sketch: we use them and abuse them, we don’t really need them, and the people that use them make the choice to do so. Anthropologists and sociologists think such an understanding of drugs is problematic. They stress that drugs are an integral part of many societies, and we need to start looking at these substances as part of our self-identity. More and more, we are finding that drugs are part of what it means to be human. By looking at the history of drugs and how they are differently represented in other societies, we can find ways of approaching drugs differently in our own culture.

In his book The Chemical Muse, D.C.A. Hillman shows how drugs were an important part of the culture of the ancient Romans, Egyptians, and Greeks. Recreational drugs were popular; opium, cannabis, and psychotropic fungi were used regularly. Drugs were readily available at markets, in gardens, and at social gatherings. Drugs were snorted, smoked, ingested, and individual experimentation with psychedelic drugs was commonplace. As Hillman says, “For a variety of reasons, the topic is largely taboo. It’s a bit difficult for many serious academics to imagine that the great poets, sculptors, and statesmen of Western tradition might have used mind-altering drugs.”

While we may not be sure about the extensive use of psychedelic drugs, the consumption of alcohol is well-documented and as ancient as civilization itself. The earliest Sumerian writings mention a recipe for making beer. Some speculate that beer-making dates back to around 9000 BC, and evidence of its production has been found in China, dating back to 7000 BC. It’s considered likely that beer, in different forms, has been around ever since the development of agriculture. And due to the fact that certain hunter-gatherer groups currently make beer and because it involves a natural fermentation process, it has been suggested that beer has been around for even longer.

In his book A Brief History of Drugs, Antonio Escohotado remarks that in hunter-gatherer societies, “subjects learn and reaffirm their cultural identity through experiences with psychoactive drugs.” Drugs are tied to religious rites and have sacred meaning; Shamans used drugs to bring people into states of ecstasy or hallucination, and even Jesus’ blood is represented by wine.

Some societies define themselves by their drug use. Christian ideology often hasn’t been able to deal with such ways of life and has branded extensive drug use as pagan and as witchcraft. When the Spanish discovered the new world, they found a society that functioned through drugs. The Aztecs, along with other Mesoamerican groups, were experts in plant medicine, and regularly consumed plants that contained mescaline, LSA, DMT, nicotine, caffeine, and various hallucinogens. However, since these drugs were associated with paganism , they were quickly outlawed by the Spanish settlers and clergy. Even cocoa and tobacco seemed threatening to Christianity, due to their association with sacrificial rites fundamental to Mesoamerican religions. The suppression of narcotic drugs by the West, and the imperialistic appropriation of soft drugs like cocoa, coffee, and tobacco reveal some of the anxieties of the Western mindset.

The drug practices of other cultures can tell us a lot about what drugs mean to individuals within society. In the article “Coca, Beer, Cigars, and Yagé,” Stephen Hugh-Jones, a social anthropologist at Cambridge University, documents the consumption of drugs by the Barasana, a group of Amerindians in the Amazon. His analysis shows how coca, beer, tobacco, and yagé (a hallucinogenic drink made from the bark of a vine) are a central part of the social events of the Barasana, and how the characteristics of the drugs change relative to the social event. Coca, in one instance, signifies speech – specifically, “the giving of coca parallels the giving of speech” – and in another, it allows for more concentrated and ceaseless dancing. To the Barasana, drugs don’t have specific characteristics – their features change along with the setting. In addition, the items – which we would consider “drugs” – have no such connotations for the Barasana. The line between items we “use” (food) and items we “abuse” (drugs) is blurred for the Barasana, who distinguish between food – the mundane and routine – and non-food, which is identified with status, rituals, and sacred meaning. Hugh-Jones stresses that the way we normally deal with “drug problems” is thus rooted in ignoring the social forces and the “emphasis on substance rather than on people.” He remarks that their illegal status tends to make them invisible – and that we are often forced to ignore how the consumption of drugs is a social activity.

All these examples should show not just how drugs are prevalent in other societies, but that the understanding of a drug as “just a chemical” is wrong. We should be open to understanding drug use differently, and know that the way we deal with chemicals often says a lot about the society we are a part of. Dangerous as some drugs are, ignoring their social aspects and focusing on “the drug problem” will not present a solution. Different societies show us that we shouldn’t regard drugs as a menace; they can be part of our ways of life and our daily interactions. In other societies, this is nothing to be ashamed of.


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