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        The politics of drinking

November 29, 2010



High society. Itís only human

A sigh of relief mingled with a gasp of something close to delight as I read the board at the start of the High Society exhibition now showing at the Wellcome Collection on Londonís Euston Road.

ďEvery society on Earth is a high society. Very few people live their lives without using some kind of mood- or mind-altering substance, whether itís a cup of coffee, a chew of betel nut or a tablet of MDMA.Ē

Or a glass of beer, of course. It seems to me you canít begin to address the problems relating to alcohol or drug use without accepting that human beings have a deep-set tendency to modify and manipulate their pyschological state just as they modify and manipulate their physical state to varying degrees of invasiveness Ė through piercings, tattoos, hairdos or a nice hat, for instance.

From this point of view it becomes a matter of harm reduction rather than consumption reduction. For some, reducing harm might involve reducing consumption, but if you think thereís an innate incompatibility between humans and drugs, that way lies the folly of prohibition.

By establishing the normality of the high society right at the beginning, the Wellcome exhibition is able to take an honest, clear-sighted view of drugs in history. It also avoids the agonised hand-wringing of reports like Movies with a Tick, published last week by the temperance-minded European Centre for Monitoring Alcohol Marketing.

Instead of accepting that cinema might quite reasonably want to reflect a society in which drinking plays a large role EUCAM is shocked by the depiction of drinking on the screen. It recommends banning product placement, which I wouldnít object to, and having a rating that would stop young people seeing films that show alcohol use, which is ridiculous.

According to its own research (going to the pictures) that would include Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, which has no fewer than nine scenes with drink in.

Back in the sane world, High Society demonstrates that itís drug control rather than the drug-taking itself thatís the novel feature of modern times.

Until the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920 patent medicines containing opium, cannabis and cocaine were on open sale. There was cough medicine, for instance, called Glayco-Heroin, which sounds a bit drastic for a tickle. Among First World War soldiers there was a popular pick-me-up under the brand name Forced March, which was cocaine.

Now, while some drugs are banned, with no impact at all on an interntional trade worth £200 billion a year, others, like alcohol, become subject to a ceaseless ebb and flow of regulation.

The exhibition doesnít shy away from drug harms though. One of my favourite exhibits is a pair of paintings from £19th century China. One shows rich people smoking good quality imported opium through silver pipes and looking healthy and jolly. The other shows poor people smoking home-grown opium through bamboo and looking emaciated and glum.

The back story is that opium was illegal in China but the British shipped it across from India as a recreational drug and exchanged it for tea and other commodities. Poor people were, meanwhile, starving and used it to stave off hunger.

One intended exhibit thatís sadly missing is a reconstruction of Bruce Alexanderís Rat Park, the experiment that demonstrated happy, socialised rats allowed to run around and play and have sex take less freely available pain-numbing drugs than sad, isolated rats.

Apparently, while there was no problem in exhibiting all kinds of illicit drugs and drug-traking paraphernalia, live animals were not permitted.

  •  2011. Entry is High Society is at the Wellcome Collection until February 27,free.

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