Hold my drink: I’m going to make the case for intoxication.
There’s a significant historical precedent for the use of mind-altering substances. While the use of mushrooms by the druids of pre-Roman Europe is debated, although not implausible, there’s solid evidence of the use of all manner of psychedelics in the Americas dating as far back as 1500 B.C. There are even those who have argued that our religious impulses stem from prehistorical tripping.
Outside of ritual and medicinal use of substances, alcohol emerged as a way of allowing ordinary people some kind of release from their daily drudgery, and as a social lubricant. Five thousand years ago, Mesopotamian laborers were paid in beer, while halfway across the world, saliva-fermented drink chicha straddled both ritual and drink-of-the-people roles in South American cultures.
We have long associated various degrees of intoxication with creativity. While something of a cliché, there’s no denying the intertwined histories of altered mind states and artistic endeavor — no Apollonian without the Dionysian, and all that. Names like Baudelaire, Coleridge, or Poe possess almost narcotic qualities, evoking the mystic and visionary elements of their work.
Intoxication helped modernist artists see the overfamiliar world anew, as Eugene Brennan and Russell Williams describe in Literature and Intoxication: Writing, Politics and the Experience of Excess, referencing Walter Benjamin’s experiences with hashish. We might trace this through to Hunter S. Thompson, who used the lens of intoxication to lay bare the rampant absurdity of the modern world — although it should be noted that Brennan and Williams take issue with this brand of “countercultural valorization of intoxication.”
Intoxicating substances can afford us a wonderful sort of escape — from our habit-worn perception of the world around us, from our inhibitions, from our nagging everyday problems, and sometimes just from monotony.
There is scientific grounding for the connection between intoxication and creativity, but this will hardly be news to anyone who has enjoyed an evening of creative chaos while under the influence. The combination of stimulation and relaxation that comes with the (moderate) use of LSD, for example, actually creates new neurochemical pathways in the brain, strengthening our ability to see things holistically and solve problems.
We’re not all artists, but intoxicating substances can afford us a wonderful sort of escape — from our habit-worn perception of the world around us, from our inhibitions, from our nagging everyday problems, and sometimes just from monotony.
Crucially, it allows us sovereignty over our bodies. During work hours, most of us must give ourselves over to someone else’s demands, but getting sloshed is a socially acceptable way of asserting that we are autonomous, that our bodies belong to us and we can choose to seek pleasure in the way we want. This is why intoxicating substances have long played a part in countercultural movements. It’s a small way to stick two fingers up to The Man, even if you’re the most conformist jobsworth on the planet.
To be clear, when we say “intoxication,” we mean experiencing an altered state of mind, not complete oblivion or clinical dependency. One in eight American adults meets the criteria for alcoholism — a 49 percent spike since the turn of the century. This is not an argument in defense of using substances to escape serious psychological issues, but what the Oxford English Dictionary (referenced by Brennan and Williams) describes as “the action or power of exhilarating or highly exciting the mind.” This escape is from routine, nothing more serious.
Across the globe, younger people are shunning intoxicating substances in greater and greater numbers. Both those classified as Millennials and Generation Z are indulging less than those who class as Generation X and Baby Boomers. It seems from some angles like we’re heading toward an increasingly sober future.
This would be terrible. Intoxication can be wonderful. It can inspire, elevate, and surprise. It permits us a brief respite from the rigors and drudgery of workaday life. It can, quite simply, help us have a good time.
A 31-year-old woman we’ll call Sarah uses MDMA on a monthly or bimonthly basis. “I go to a lot of gigs and festivals, and while I don’t always get high when I watch live music, when I do it only intensifies the experience. I take small doses and it just makes me feel good. I drink less when I’m taking drugs, so I generally feel better the next day and I am more alert and coherent. I feel like I’m actually more in control when I’m a bit drunk and high than when I’m just drinking alcohol. It gives me more stamina for dancing.” She also mentions a heightened sense of affection for loved ones, something anyone who’s ever used MDMA will be familiar with.
We need to talk about the positive side of intoxication, because if we talk only about the negatives, we reduce the possibilities for measured, informed use.
One of the greatest dangers of using recreational drugs is contamination. This is a direct result of criminalization, because there are few accessible ways for users to check the purity of what they have bought. Research, including from the Global Drug Survey, shows that in safe doses, most recreational drugs are actually less harmful than alcohol — if you get what you think you’re getting.
A harm-reduction approach can help here, acknowledging that people seek pleasure, and allowing them to do so in a safe and healthy way. Anonymous drug testing—as is available in the Netherlands, for example—is a great start.
It’s also about the discourse. We need to talk about the positive side of intoxication, because if we talk only about the negatives, we reduce the possibilities for measured, informed use. If we tell younger users that their pursuit of pleasure is invalid, we turn it into a senseless act of rebellion, fostering irresponsible usage. But if we talk positively about the possibility of pleasure that comes with sensible, informed, and moderated use, then that is what people will strive for.
The legal status of many such substances is a deterrent to talking openly about them. Lawmakers are too concerned with short-term electability to seriously consider evidence that might help them shape more progressive and realistic drug policies. Legalization would be the perfect solution, because if users had reliable information they could make informed choices instead of falling back on urban myths and prejudice.
The atmosphere is changing, however. The wave of cannabis legalization in the U.S. is finally destigmatizing one of the most commonly used drugs in the world. For better or worse, we’ve seen a huge increase in younger people taking MDMA — bucking the general trend — and a spike in Westerners experimenting with South American ayahuasca to try to address spiritual and mental issues. Prospective users of all substances now have recourse to sites like the non-profit Erowid, which offers information and advice on safe drug use. Trials are also being carried out to explore the medical benefits of MDMA and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms).
Most inspiring is the decriminalization of drugs in Portugal. Addicts receive treatment rather than jail terms, drug-related crime is down sharply, and deaths by overdose are almost nonexistent. The change has fostered a shift in mind-set, allowing harm-reduction efforts to flourish. If anyone crosses the line into problematic usage, they can get help. If they don’t cross the line — well, then there’s no problem, is there?
The rest of the world is a long way from that kind of maturity and pragmatism. Perhaps it’s some sort of puritanical hangover that makes us ashamed of seeking pleasure, but more likely it’s lack of information and fear of the unknown.
Whether LSD, MDMA, hashish, or even just a cold beer, for sensible users intoxication can offer a beautiful pause. A brief flight to a more sublime plane of existence, before we have to come back to earth to deal with a maddening news cycle, long work hours, and the 1,001 demands of daily life. We can enhance our happiest moments, find consolation in the lower ones, and temporarily shed those inhibitions we must adhere to in normal life. Surely, that’s worth defending.