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Exclusive Excerpt: This Is Your Country On Drugs

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This post is adapted from Ryan Grim's This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America, on sale today. He was also online for a live chat to discuss the book and other aspects of drug policy. For info on events and reviews, see the Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.

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One day in the fall of 2001, I realized that I hadn't seen any LSD in an awfully long time. I was living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland at the time, where the drug had been a fixture of my social scene since the early-nineties. Most of my peers had continued dosing through college or whatever they chose to do instead. Even some watermen and farmers I knew had tripped on occasion.

Because most acid users don't take the drug with any regularity--a trip here or there is the norm--its absence didn't immediately register. It's the kind of drug that appears in waves, so the inability to find it at any given time could be chalked up to the vagaries of the illicit drug market.

I began asking friends going to hippie happenings to look for the drug. Eventually, I had a network of people poking around for it at concerts and festivals across the country, as well as in towns where you'd expect to find it, such as Boulder and San Francisco. They found nothing--and no one who'd even seen a hit of LSD since sometime in 2001--even at Burning Man, a gathering of thousands in the desert of Nevada. Strolling around Burning Man and being unable to find acid is something like walking into a bar and finding the taps dry.

At some point, I decided that the disappearance of acid was nearly, if not totally, complete. I was in grad school by then and went to see a professor in my University of Maryland department, Peter Reuter, one of the most well-respected drug-policy researchers in the nation.

"Acid is gone," I told him.

"How'd you come to this theory?" he asked.

"I can't find it," I said, "and none of my friends can, either." I knew I sounded like a fool, but that was all I had.

"That's not how we do things in this field," he said. "Drug availability goes in cycles. That's not really a series of trends--that's just how it is." He pointed to a book behind me. "Here, hand me that."

He opened the 2002 Monitoring the Future report, which is produced by the University of Michigan and tracks drug use among American teens. "As you'll see," he said, running his finger across the LSD table, "use has been fairly steady over the last . . ."

He paused and looked up. "That's interesting," he said, looking at the data for high school seniors. "LSD use is at an historic low: 3.5 percent." He then regrouped and continued with his lecture, telling me about supply and demand and peaks and valleys--and that he was certain the numbers for acid would rise in the 2003 survey.

Drug cycles are widely presumed to be the result of a combination of cultural shifts and the effectiveness of drug interdiction, but they're generally not well understood. Supply and demand, however, inarguably play a large role. When a drug becomes scarce, its price increases, enticing producers and distributors to invest more heavily in it, which increases supply, Reuter explained.

I told him that I wasn't so sure. There simply was no acid out there, and there hadn't been for several years. I rambled on about the end of the Grateful Dead and the collapse of giant raves. He was unmoved.

"Check the 2003 numbers," he said. "They may be online by now. If levels remain the same, then you've got something."

The 2003 numbers had just come out. I checked annual LSD use: it was at 1.9 percent, nearly a 50 percent drop. I checked a few other sources. Evidence of acid's decline could be found practically everywhere--in the falling statistics in an ongoing federal survey of drug use, in the number of emergency-room cases involving the drug, in a huge drop in federal arrests for LSD. I took the numbers back to Reuter.

"This isn't a trend," he said. "This is an event."

Evidence of acid's decline was everywhere: in the number of emergency room mentions of the drug; in an ongoing federal survey of drug use; in a huge drop in federal arrests; and in anecdotal reports from the field that the once ubiquitous psychedelic was exceedingly difficult to score. In major cities and college towns where LSD was once plentiful, it couldn't be had at all.

I turned the research into an article for Slate magazine, but continued to wonder: What is it that makes drug rise and fall in popularity and availability? The result was this book.

Like all drugs, acid is a bellwether of American society. Its effect on our culture in the sixties and seventies was immeasurable, and its disappearance in the early years of the twenty-first century was limited to the United States. Cultural commentators who look for trends in unemployment numbers, presidential-approval ratings, or car and housing purchases are missing something fundamental if they don't also consider statistics on drug use. Little tells us more about the state of America than what Americans are doing to get high.

Life in the United States, of course, is similar in many ways to life anywhere in the developed world. But our nation diverges sharply from the rest of the world in a few crucial ways. Americans work hard: 135 hours a year more than the average Briton, 240 hours more than the typical French worker, and 370 hours--that's nine weeks--more than the average German. We also play hard. A global survey released in 2008 found that Americans are more than twice as likely to smoke pot as Europeans. Forty-two percent of Americans had puffed at one point; percentages for citizens of various European nations were all under 20. We're also four times as likely to have done coke as Spaniards and roughly ten times more likely than the rest of Europe.

"We're just a different kind of country," said Bush drug czar' spokesman Tom Riley, when asked about the survey. "We have higher drug-use rates, a higher crime rate, many things that go with a highly free and mobile society.''

Different, indeed. There may be no people on earth with a more twisted and complex relationship to drugs. Much of our preconceived self-image turns out to be wrong: libertine continentals have nothing on us in terms of drug use, and American piety hasn't prevented us from indulging--in fact, it has sometimes encouraged it. Much of our conventional wisdom about American drug use--that the Puritans and the members of our founding generation were teetotalers or mild drinkers, that the drug trade is dominated by huge criminal organizations such as the Mafia and the Bloods, that crack use has declined significantly since the eighties--turns out to be wrong, too.

If there's one certainty about American drug use, it's this: we're always looking for a better way to feed our voracious appetite for getting high--for something cheaper, faster, less addictive, or more powerful. Drug trends feed themselves as word spreads about the amazing new high that's safe and nonaddictive. Then we discover otherwise--and go searching for the next great high. We often circle back to the original drug, forgetting why we quit it in the first place.

The decision to get high is always a personal one. Ask a fan of psychedelics about drugs and he'll generally tell you that done responsibly, a regimen of recreational mind alteration aids one in living an examined life. But drug use has consequences for others, too, be they the children of the neglectful user or the doctor who handles highs gone wrong. The battle between common good and individual liberty has long defined the American story, and it has always been fought especially hard over inebriation of any kind.

American values are what you get when you mix democracy with America's fervent Christianity. The idea of the American republic as a self-perfecting phenomenon has blended with our religious idealism to shape the way that we've viewed drugs and insobriety throughout U.S. history.

When it comes to drugs, Americans have put precious little stock in the concept of pleasure, at least officially. Speed is acceptable as long as it boosts a kid's attention span and isn't just a good time. "Euphoria" is listed a negative side effect of pharmaceutical drugs. Ours is a nation in which medical professionals who prescribe narcotics face the real prospect of prison time even when staying within accepted medical boundaries. Ronald McIver, a doctor from North Carolina, is now doing thirty years in a federal prison for reducing more pain than the government thought appropriate, though his prescribing habits were well within accepted medical practices. Paul Volkman, a Midwest pain doctor, faces years in prison and financial ruin for the same, as do a number of other doctors. (The problem's so bad a nonprofit has launched to defend doctors against drug war prosecution.) When pleasure is suspected, American drug use gets tricky, particularly when that high might do some real good, as in the case of medical marijuana.

Thus it was in drugs that sixties radicalism found its most visible form of cultural disobedience. While mainstream America took prescription uppers and downers and drank eminently legal martinis, the counterculture dropped a new drug that gave it a perception of reality that matched its revolutionary hopes. "There are the makings here of a complete social division: revolution is in the head, along the highways of perception and understanding. The psychedelic experience, being entirely subjective, is self-authenticating," argues Colin Greenland in his book The Entropy Exhibition: Michael Moorcock and the British New Wave in Science Fiction, which posits sixties youth culture as an "alien" society. "It gave its first advocates an inexorable sense of rightness in opposing their holistic, libertarian ethos to the discriminatory and repressive outlook of their elders. In legislating against cannabis and LSD, the governments of America and Europe were not only outlawing drugs that encouraged disaffection among the young but . . . were reaffirming faith in Western materialism and a single objective reality."

Psychedelic drugs give one a very real feeling that there's some type of intangible divide between those who've turned on and those who haven't. The psychedelic experience--with LSD's being perhaps the most powerful--defies credible characterization, largely because accounts of it strike the uninitiated as highly unbelievable and seem to the initiated incomplete. "Non-acid takers regard the LSD trip as a remarkable flight from reality, whereas cautious devotees feel they've flown into reality," writes Richard Neville in his 1970 "guide to revolution," Playpower. "After an acid trip, you can reject everything you have ever been taught."

LSD didn't disappear after it was criminalized. The American government wasn't toppled, either. Rather, the nation was able to absorb acid and the counterculture into mainstream consciousness--probably because there was something fundamentally American about both from the beginning. LSD is for the questers, and Americans have always been on a quest, whether it's to go West, to go to the moon, or to spread democracy around the globe. Timothy Leary, who spent years in prison and was once called "the most dangerous man in America" by President Richard Nixon, went to his end a respected cultural figure in the employ of Madison Avenue. Jerry Garcia's death was commemorated by congressional tributes and fawning cover stories in big-time glossies.

When Barack Obama solicited questions from the public on his presidential-transition Web site and allowed users to vote on the most popular, sixteen of the top fifty questions had to do with liberalizing drug policy. In the midst of war and financial collapse, the question voted most pressing asked whether Obama would legalize marijuana. The media ridiculed the result, but in doing so, they showed how much they misunderstand the importance we currently place on getting high in America. Today, huge majorities support legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, and almost half of Americans support legalizing it for everybody twenty-one and older.

America, we like to boast, is an amalgamation of many different cultural strains. One class or community--say, impoverished southern manual laborers--might be doing something completely different to get high from what another group--say, well-heeled northeastern hipsters--would do. Or it might not be: meth has been popular at the same time with both the trailer-park set and the urban gay community. Such odd similarities and stark differences reveal both something particular about a given socioeconomic milieu and something of the essential character of the American people.

In the late sixties Andy Warhol's New York scene was openly driven by meth; the drug only later infiltrated LSD-centered San Francisco. In the spring of 1966, Warhol's performance-art extravaganza/troupe of speed freaks, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, accepted an invitation to play the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, a legendary hippie venue. The result was a collision of drug cultures, reports Martin Torgoff in his book Can't Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000.

"We spoke two completely different languages because we were on amphetamine and they were on acid," Warhol follower Mary Woronov told Torgoff. "They were so slow to speak, with these wide eyes--'Oh, wow!'--so into their vibrations; we spoke in rapid-machine-gun fire about books and paintings and movies. They were into free [love], the American Indian and going back to the land and trying to be some kind of true, authentic person; we could not have cared less about that. They were homophobic; we were homosexual. Their women--they were these big, round-titted girls; you would say hello to them, and they would just flop on the bed and fuck you; we liked sexual tension, S&M, not fucking. They were barefoot; we had platform boots. They were eating bread they had baked themselves--we never ate at all!"

That disparity had more to do with cultural differences than with drug availability. Warhol and his band had ready access to all the LSD they could have digested, but it didn't fit as well with their lifestyle and values as meth did. The same type of choice was evident among the hippies: bennies and other forms of meth were there for those who wanted them, but the egoism and aggression that those drugs provoke didn't fit the counterculture ethos. Although drugs are often given credit for creating or driving a culture, sometimes it can be the other way around. When a culture can freely choose one drug over another, it will pick the one that fits best with its worldview.

So much has been written on drug use and American culture that it would take weeks to roll all of that paper up and smoke it. In much of that writing, the story of American drug use goes something like this: The party started in the sixties, got crazy in the seventies, and got out of control in the eighties, as greed and addiction took over. That was followed by a period of recovery and maturity. Yet America is not a rock band, and its real history wouldn't neatly fit on VH1. Very few popular authors bother to look at what drugs Americans themselves say they're on--which is a shame, because that information isn't hard to get.

What the numbers reveal is that although things were indeed crazy in the seventies, things stayed crazy even after Americans supposedly sobered up. And while the standard drug narrative begins in the oh-so-wild late sixties, let's not kid ourselves. Future Americans were getting obliterated on their way to the continent, and perhaps no decade has witnessed as much better living through chemistry as the 1890s, a time when the movement against alcohol ushered in a buffet of modern highs.

And because drug use is at once a private and a social affair, drug trends can tell us a lot about where we've been, where we are, and where we're going. A lot of smart people have spent careers poring over these numbers, and the insights they've come to have often been overlooked. But the data have frequently been presented as if they had no cultural or social implications--as if, for example, cocaine just appeared out of nowhere or LSD simply vanished. A lack of cultural or historical context allows partisans on both sides of the drug-policy debate to fill the void with their own stories: the CIA introduced crack to the ghetto; take acid and you'll jump out a window.

In reality, there's no such thing as drug policy. As currently understood and implemented, drug policy attempts to isolate a phenomenon that can't be taken in isolation. Economic policy is drug policy. Healthcare policy is drug policy. Foreign policy, too, is drug policy. When approached in isolation, drug policy almost always backfires, because it doesn't take into account the powerful economic, social, and cultural forces that also determine how and why Americans get high.

Cultural movements change our drug habits; our drug habits alter our culture. In both cases, the results might not be apparent for years. Yet a sober look at them makes it clear that America's twisted relationship with chemically induced euphoria has left a trail of consequences that have been as far-reaching as they've been unintended.

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