The Historical Importance of Recreational Drugs

Everyone rails about drug use, but they forget about legal recreational drugs: alcohol, coffee, and tobacco, and the important role they played in history.

Wine pour 300Drug Problems

Americans have a complicated relationship with drugs.  We get our prescriptions filled at the drugstore but what we take home is medicine, not drugs.  Likewise we have a War on Drugs, but no War on Medicine, or War on Pharmaceuticals (although there is war brewing between the public and the pharmaceutical industry.)

The US currently spends about $30B per year fighting illegal drugs, over $1T to date.  It’s not going so well.  It appears that illegal drug use is still climbing, even among adults over 50 (I’m guessing the hippies are getting up in age).  Our efforts in the US have helped to create the largest prison population in the world, with about ¼ of our prisoners doing time for drug charges.  What is missing from those numbers, however, is that an enormous chunk of the non-drug offenses are still drug-related:  robbery and theft to feed drug habits, assault and murder to resolve turf and other drug disputes.

These considerations exclude, however, our three legal, highly popular, recreational drugs.  We don’t usually recognize the benefits of these beyond entertainment.


The most abused US drug is alcohol.  Here, ethics mandate that I issue a disclaimer:  on occasion I have abused alcohol.

Americans have a love-hate relationship with alcohol, since our earliest.  Some of our objections to alcohol originate with our puritanical heritage, although the Puritans themselves did not object to alcohol in moderation. But moderation is apparently a wide target; the Puritans made hot buttered rum, noting that “It makes a man see double, and feel single.”  And critics have compared the current war on drugs to the US Prohibition of the 1920’s.

Alcohol is also addicting, and traps many people.  One of the addicts is government: Louisiana, an averaged-sized state, collects almost $60M annually in alcohol taxes. The national haul is about $11B.


Cover of the nonfiction book, 'Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths'.

Multiple Awards: Biology, psychiatry, and how the two guided the course of civilization.
Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths:  From Alexander to Hitler to the Corporation.
(Click image for more information.)

Another legal recreational drug is tobacco, or more accurately, its active ingredient nicotine.  According to the CDC, tobacco is the leading preventable killer in the US.  But despite many efforts to discredit tobacco, smoking is strongly identified with dining, dancing, and drinking.

Coffee & Friends

Finally, there is coffee.  Or more accurately there are the three related xanthine stimulants:  caffeine, theophylline (tea) and theobromine (chocolate).  Even for this innocuous drug, Americans are suspicious.  I remember a report that came out in the 1980’s suggesting that coffee causes pancreatic cancer.  The research was quickly discarded.  But there are certainly people who are addicted to these stimulants; for instance, my kids have learned to hide their chocolate from my wife.

It doesn’t work.  She still finds it.

Recreational Drugs and Human Progress

What is missing from all of these concerns is how important these three were to human intellectual development.  Consider the word ‘symposium,’ from the Greek συμπόσιον, ‘to drink together,’ a drinking party.  Ancient Athenian men would get together, drink too much, and read lewd poetry.  Socrates showed up at one of them and turned it into a philosophical discussion.

Coffee emerges in the West during the wars with the Turks, and became acceptable to Christians upon the endorsement of no one less than Pope Clement VIII.  Monks found it could fortify them when sleepy and hungry (monks were always sleepy and hungry; suffering builds character).  Tea was similarly used by monks and other mystics in Asia, and chocolate was originally used by the Olmec peoples, again for religious purposes.

Like chocolate, tobacco also arrives from the New World, and an earlier nickname is ‘drunk weed.’  Tobacco can even imply status.  Cigars suggest manly pursuits and big money.  Slender, manufactured cigarettes were originally associated with the upper crust, while roll-your-owns were associated with the poorer levels.  Snuff was used by the very highest levels of European society, and chewing tobacco is associated with the US working classes.

Most of these are disappearing.  The pipe, however, is still a mark of the intellectual classes.  Images such as Gandalf and his long pipe create a connection between the university professor, and the magician.

Intellectual Drugs

Beyond the monasteries, which constituted what scant scholarly life that existed in Medieval times, these recreational drugs are deeply ingrained in the intellectual life.  All three were consumed in 17th century Dutch and English coffee houses, where sketchy Ponzi-like schemes originated.  These eventually morphed into the stock market, and the modern corporation.

Many of the ideals of the American Revolution were products of discussion in colonial taverns.  High-brow Europeans in recent centuries have congregated in their salons (a term which in American becomes the not-so-melodious ‘saloon’) for food, drink and tobacco.  For centuries the cafés of Europe were and still are intellectual centers where artists, writers, and the odd scientist congregate to drink and smoke.  After WWII, intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus passed evenings at the famed Café Tabou in Paris, to indulge – and on occasion, over-indulge – in licit drugs.

My favorite example, however, was the Café Voltaire in Zurich, where WWI draft dodgers congregated.  To decry the nonsense of trench warfare, some of the literary and artistic patrons began making nonsense art, which they called DaDa.

They failed, of course.  That is, they failed to make nonsense art, and instead discovered that they had found an exciting way of generating new art and ideas.  DaDa became Surrealism.

They were occasionally joined by an odd Russian immigré, one Vladimir Ulyanov.  He eventually changed his name to ‘Lenin.’

Read about DaDa, and its ties to biology & progress.

The Importance of Recreational Drugs

Alcohol, tobacco and caffeine serve as mental stimulants that have proven, time and again, to be important to the intellectual life.  And so we might reconsider how we view them.  Many cities regard smoking and liquor as problems to be combated, or at least limited.  This is happening here in Lafayette (coffee, of course, is a welcome addiction among the Cajuns and Creoles).

As we have done in this blog with so many other things, it might be worth examining the legal drugs by their functional definitions.  It is not whether something is good or bad so much as it is when something is good or bad.

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Photographic still courtesy of a video by Dave Dugdale on Flickr.


  1. M

    I recall reading once that at some point during the history of the Ottoman Empire that consumption of coffee was a capital offense. I don’t know but would guess it had more to do with economic reasons than any others. I really don’t know.

    Steve Jobs’ open recollection and praise of his own LSD use always intrigued me (in an appalled “you’ve got to be kidding” sort of way.)


    I had a friend (still do) that became profoundly depressed for no apparent reason about 25 years ago. As he relates “things had never been better” objectively but over the course of a year or so a darkness came over him that was so complete that he would stay in bed 20 hours a day and look at the wall.

    As you can imagine that led to a meet and greet with America’s psychiatric profession and a laundry list of “medicine.”

    Long story short, three years into it, a couple of friends decided to get him some kind of medicine, I forget the name, that’s usually manufactured somewhere with windmills and tulips and gave it to him and then babysat him for about 24 hours.

    He describes it as dropping a hydrogen bomb on his depression — you only have to do it once and the landscape changes forever. I questioned him on the idea that certainly the drug must wear off within some hours and he immediately agreed but went on to point out that the knowledge that he could, in fact, experience happiness and joy persisted even though the drug itself does not–that it was akin to having a mentor for Calculus, i.e. “O! That’s how you do it!”

    Very strange but I’m not one to (or in a position to) argue with success.

    Consequent to his firsthand explanation, it occurred to me that I understood the puzzling aspect of Steve Jobs’ praise of hallucinogens that had bothered me for years.

    Alternatively, in my (soon to be former) profession, I’ve watched beautiful 20 years olds slowly die from multi-system organ failure after they’ve cooked their brains—loving families standing at the bedside sobbing at 3 a.m. and I’ve done it more than once–so there’s that perspective as well.

    But for to say that everyone of those situations was induced by the patient intentionally “destroying the evidence” by swallowing it as they were about to be arrested — which is a certain kind of irony.

    • Bookscrounger

      Interesting stuff. As we discussed here, there is no one-size-fits-all. One’s meat, another’s poison; which relates a bit to the pharmacological saw, It’s not the drug, it’s the dose that makes the poison. Sometimes those psychiatric drugs change people’s lives, but certainly not always. The one-time ‘trip’ of your friend is interesting, it was giving him the power to know he could change it. I wonder what hypnosis would have done, but repeatability is a luxury of the lab, and is of little use in big decisions.

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