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The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics

The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics

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by Richard P. Davenport-Hines, R. P. Davenport-Hines

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A startling account of the history of drug use. The Pursuit of Oblivion presents an often-ignored insight into the history of human need and addiction. Today the international trade in illicit drugs generates annually as much money as the oil industry, about $400 billion worldwide. In this elegant and uniquely comprehensive history of drugs and their role in society,


A startling account of the history of drug use. The Pursuit of Oblivion presents an often-ignored insight into the history of human need and addiction. Today the international trade in illicit drugs generates annually as much money as the oil industry, about $400 billion worldwide. In this elegant and uniquely comprehensive history of drugs and their role in society, award-winning historian Richard Davenport-Hines examines how licit medicines developed into the commodity of this huge illicit business.

Melding social, political, and cultural history, The Pursuit of Oblivion illustrates that intoxication is neither unnatural nor deviant, and it describes how for thousands of years human beings have taken substances to change their physical or emotional state. Davenport-Hines argues persuasively that drug use is a necessary part of human experience, recounting how many drugs that are controlled or prohibited nowadays were freely available until the early twentieth century.

Although intrepid seventeenth-century European explorers experimented with narcotics discovered in foreign lands, modern drug history was not firmly established until the nineteenth century. Innovative Victorian physicians, spurred on by the new availability of syringes and the discovery of new therapeutic substances, began to use morphine and other powerful medicines in the treatment of a wide range of diseases. Many patients became unwittingly dependent on the drugs that had been used to treat their physical or nervous ailments. Physicians, though, remained confident in the healing powers of new pharmaceuticals and many, including Sigmund Freud, enthusiastically endorsed the advent of cocaine.

In the twentieth century opiates, cocaine, and marijuana became increasingly associated with minorities, the lower classes, and deviant bohemians. Attitudes and policies were changed across the world by the U.S. anti-drug lobby's obsession with the total prohibition of recreational drugs. Fueled by class antagonisms, fear of crime, and naive idealism, the U.S. government took the global initiative in the drug wars, and behind the formidable Harry Anslinger launched a forceful -- but counterproductive -- prohibition policy to which the European powers gradually conformed. The last century has revealed that the War on Drugs, with its aim of unconditional surrender, is a war that cannot be won. Drug use can be dangerous and destructive, Davenport-Hines shows, but as long as it is sustained by an economic reward system made possible only by prohibition, it will remain gratifying to both suppliers and some users.

In its vivid depiction of the people and events that have shaped the history of narcotics, The Pursuit of Oblivion is a history of individual emotional extremes. Davenport-Hines tells the story of addicts and users across five centuries: monarchs, politicians, great writers and composers, exhausted laborers, pop stars, defiant schoolchildren, victims of the ghetto, and happy young people on a spree. Drawing on evidence from different continents and cultures, The Pursuit of Oblivion will force us to reconsider many of our views on a controversial subject of global importance.

Editorial Reviews

Philip Jenkins
[A] highly literate and readable account...an author who is thoroughly conversant with the international and intercontinental aspects of drug policy.
James R. Kincaid
An amazing, knock-your-socks-off book, argued with depth and cunning....A stunning and vital book.
Roy Porter
The best general account of the subject . . . thoroughly researched and expertly written.
Publishers Weekly
Davenport-Hines offers a sharply opinionated history of drugs structured around three major premises: Human beings use drugs; for many that choice will be debilitating, sometimes fatal; and government prohibition of drugs, as opposed to regulation, is counterproductive and doomed to vainglorious failure. Davenport-Hines, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and author of a well-received work on W.H. Auden, builds his case with a body of evidence encyclopedic in scope and varied in perspective. He explores the effects of drugs on families and private lives, for example, by sampling diaries of ordinary citizens, the writings of literary figures as diverse as Balzac and Ken Kesey, the theories of notorious cult-leader Timothy Leary, and the reports of a host of journalists. He is equally focused on exposing the high public costs that, he argues, have resulted from governments' treatment of drugs (both in American and elsewhere) as a criminal rather than medical problem a choice that, the author says, is a product of political demagoguery rather than honest conviction. To give credence to his charges, he quotes the inflammatory words of presidents, drug czars, and moralist such as William Bennett. U.S. policymakers exported this punitive approach to Europe and Latin America, which he deems a form of cultural imperialism. Davenport-Hines also finds hypocrisy in government support for pharmaceutical companies, whose advertising and marketing contribute to the cultural acceptance of drugs. He takes care to provide readers with useful information about the effects of both legal and illegal drugs, and to carefully discriminate among the relative dangers of different classes of drugs. The effort adds credibility to his strong writing, and his well-documented positions will be difficult to dismiss. (Sept.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Prominent British historian/journalist Davenport-Hines here offers a thorough and exhaustive history of addictive drugs and their abuse, spanning the globe and covering all eras for which there exists documented evidence of such activity, primarily from the 18th century forward. The author's approach is that of a historian at work, carefully detailing all known verifiable references to the insidious development of, trade in, and use/abuse of narcotics and other addictive substances. In addition to a thorough discourse on the manufacture and abuse of derivative drugs such as cocaine and heroin, Davenport-Hines also goes into great detail about naturally occurring herbs and weeds that have been abused over the centuries. He pays considerable attention to attempts by governments and world bodies to come to grips with the social, economic, and political ramifications of the drug trade and its side effects, such as organized crime, loss of government revenue, decreased productivity, and strains on healthcare infrastructures. The reluctance or inability of several powerful Western nations to suppress the popular appetite for drugs (only recently considered inappropriate) is cited as perhaps the greatest impediment to reform. Society's attempts over the years to treat and rehabilitate the victims of drug abuse are also documented. This comprehensive study is replete with references to primary and secondary sources. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/02.] Philip Y. Blue, New York State Supreme Court Criminal Branch Law Lib., First Judicial District, New York
Kirkus Reviews
A British historian trains an eye on the vast history of human experience with illicit drugs. Beginning roughly in the 18th century, the author relates how opium, cocaine, heroin, cannabis, and many other substances that have bedeviled modern society began their once-innocuous trajectories. Most were first used for healing purposes ("Heroin" was the brand name used by Bayer to market a cure to calm respiratory ailments) or as a means of sedation. Marijuana had medical applications; cocaine was distributed to miners and plantation workers in hot climates to maintain their productivity. As the title implies, what all these substances have in common is their ability to transport the user to a more pleasant state of mind. The author views this human desire for peace, serenity, and "paradise" as a natural impulse and rues the fact that since the early 20th century it has instead been defined as criminal. He points out that prohibition of narcotics arose not from concern for drug use but as a means of criminalizing or marginalizing such specific minorities as youths, blacks, and Asians. Punitive treatment of drug users has not been especially effective, he avers, even though prison sentences for using or supplying drugs remain draconian. Because tough punishments and crackdowns drive up risk and therefore price, they actually end up serving as business incentives for drug suppliers. Davenport-Hines (Gothic, 2000, etc.) offers few specific remedies, although he discusses the example of the Netherlands, where legal, affordable marijuana has reduced dependence on harsher narcotics and addiction-related crime. Making narcotics similar to alcohol in availability by restricting children's access andclosely regulating purchases will ultimately be most helpful to individuals and to society as a whole, he argues. But this is not so much a polemic as a compelling sourcebook whose sheer heft of information, supported by the author's intelligent take on drug history, grants it the power to persuade. A well-drawn, comprehensive account of a troubling subject.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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6.58(w) x 9.46(h) x 1.67(d)

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Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Carrie suffered from a recurring nightmare. It began when she was a child and tormented her off and on for many years. She feared her father. Her mother tried to control her every step, but shelacked motherly love for her. As a young woman, Carrie worked through her nightmare and discovered that she had been sexually abused as a very child. Escape From Oblivion is not an easy book to read. Carrie, the lead character, is the narrator. From the first page, my heart ached for Carrie. It is obvious throughout the book that her parents know the ¿secret.¿ The prevailing attitude seemed to be, ¿pretend it didn¿t happen and it will go away.¿ I found myself wanting an explanation. Why did this person do this to this child? I still do not understand. Perhaps that is the purpose of this book. Perhaps Toby Smith wants readers to know that there is no rhyme or reason. There is no logic. There are no answers. How can anyone harm a child? Escape From Oblivion definitely aroused my emotions. The beginning of the book caught my attention the ending of the book was excellent even though it left me with questions. Unfortunately, the middle of the book did not flow smoothly. There were a few rough spots. The cover of this book is beautifully done but does not depict what is inside. However, that did not detract from the strong message of this book. ¿What matters in life is an individual¿s response to reality¿¿ ¿We can choose to survive by choosing to heal the wounded soul, and being willing to face demons powerful enough to destroy.¿