Tuesday, 15 March 2016

'Opium and the people' @JoannaMoncrieff in the Psychologist April 16

'Opium and the people' by Dr Joanna Moncrieff, the Psychologist, April 2016 Vol.29 (pp.320-323)

"Joanna Moncrieff examines the socio-economic history of psychoactive drug use.

Marx referred to religion as the ‘opium of the people’, something that promised ‘illusory happiness’ by disguising the realities of the real world (Marx, 1843/1970). The analogy refers to the ability of opium to remove the cares of troubled and desperate people, but it also plays on the ability of mind-altering drugs like opium to produce an other-worldly experience. Just as drugs take people out of the here and now and into another realm, so religion can supply a supra-human meaning to everyday life and the promise of a different sort of existence.

Psychoactive drugs (drugs that act on the brain to produce an altered mental state) have been a part of life in most societies and communities throughout history. They have been used for pleasure, to dull physical and emotional pain, to increase concentration and endurance and to induce states of religious ecstasy (DeGrandpre, 2006). Up until the late 19th century, there were no restrictions on the sale and availability of any sort of substance (except for price) and you could buy opium and cocaine-containing preparations from the corner shop, along with your groceries.

In a world where medical fees were beyond the means of most ordinary people, long before the formation of the NHS and other socialised forms of health care, people treated themselves as far as they could, using the drugs that were available to them. Medicinal and ‘recreational’ uses of psychoactive substances were not clearly differentiated. The intoxication produced by alcohol, for example, was used for its anaesthetic effects, as well as for pleasure. Opiates (opium, morphine and heroin), which effectively deaden physical pain and emotional anguish, were widely used to dull the physical and emotional strains of the labouring classes during the industrial revolution. Many substances were sold as ‘tonics’, which were advertised as promoting both physical health and mental wellbeing.

Similarly, in more recent times, benzodiazepines like Valium and Librium were widely marketed for their ability to reduce anxiety by producing a pleasant state of relaxation, but where anxiety reduction stops and euphoria begins is difficult to pinpoint.  

My argument here is that the use of psychoactive substances only came to be viewed as a social problem under particular social and economic conditions. In the medieval world, the peasants could get as drunk as they liked, and no one suffered much but themselves. When wage labour and factory labour became the norm, it suddenly mattered if labourers were drunk, or stoned, and less productive than they might be. Life in emerging industrial Britain was also more than conducive to heavy drinking and drug use. Dislocated from home and family, working 12 hours or more a day for seven days a week, alcohol and drugs provided the worker with a quick and easily accessible escape, maybe the only one they could hope for. ..." read complete article