Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise

When I was writing The Cartoon Guide to Recreational Drugs I scoured the local libraries and bookstores looking for useful and interesting historical works. Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise is one of my sources.

The parts I generally took notes from were either about the drugs themselves or the prohibition of drugs. You’ll find the information garnered from these books throughout the Prohibition Politics section of this site. It will also have informed some of my own postings stored in the older Prohibition Politics archive.

If you find this information useful, you will want to search out the books themselves to read the text in context. All of the books here are at least moderately interesting.


Ronald K. Siegal hypothesizes that, along with sex, food, and sleep, that intoxication is a basic, natural need in humans. He makes a strong case that recreational drug use is not just something that people like to do, it is something that humans require to survive.

Ronald K. Siegal hypothesizes that, along with sex, food, and sleep, intoxication is a basic, natural need in humans.

Legends tell us that animals showed people how to use drugs. From frisky goats showing us the wonder of coffee beans to llamas showing us the coca leaf, there are persistent myths around the world that animals, like humans, use drugs for recreational purposes. Even the now ubiquitous alcohol was, according to Greek myth, discovered when man watched apes eating grapes, “displaying a special fondness for the fermented ones.”

After sampling the nectar of certain orchids, bees drop to the ground in a temporary stupor, then weave back for more. Birds gorge themselves on inebriating berries, then fly with reckless abandon. Cats eagerly sniff aromatic “pleasure” plants, then play with imaginary objects. Cows that browse special range weeds will twitch, shake, and stumble back to the plants for more. Elephants purposely get drunk on fermented fruits. Snacks on ‘magic mushrooms’ cause monkeys to sit with their heads on their hands in a posture reminiscent of Rodin’s Thinker.

Ethological and laboratory studies with colonies of rodents and islands of primates, and analyses of social and biological history, suggest that the pursuit of intoxication with drugs is a primary motivational force in the behavior of organisms. Our nervous system, like those of rodents and primates, is arranged to respond to chemical intoxicatns in much the same way it responds to food, drink, and sex. Throughout our entire history as a species, intoxication has functioned like the basic drives of hunger, thirst, or sex.

Siegel provides story after story of insects and animals and primates going to great lengths to, for no apparent purpose other than fun, use the drugs that occur in nature. He also summarizes archaeological and cultural evidence for the use of various drugs, from alcohol to cocaine, in antiquity and prehistory.

Siegel also looks at the efforts children will go to, to produce drug-like effects without drugs.

Dizziness is not only an ancient and adult form of intoxication, it is one of the first to be discovered by children. It is common to find three- and four-year-olds whirling and twirling themselves into delirious stupors. Many children have discovered that a good way to induce dizziness is to wind up a swing and let it unwind while they are sitting on it.… Many amusement-park rides are designed to induce other thrilling experiences through dizziness. For example, “tilt-a-whirls” move riders in vertical and horizontal planes while spinning them around.

Young children often experiment with such intoxicating “games” without the aid of a drug. They may deliberately hyperventilate and have other children squeeze them around the chest so that they faint. The panting hyperventilation, central to these effects, produces a lowering of carbon dioxide pressure, cerebral vasoconstriction, and a final dreamy collapse as the world starts to move around them."

Throughout history, attempts to end drug use through the most draconian of punishments fail.

Official edicts banning smoking were issued by several popes and by Bavaria, Saxony, Zurich, and many other states. Draconian punishments were introduced-the slitting of the nostrils in Russia and the death penalty in Turkey-yet tobacco use continued to spread around the world.

When the United States banned alcohol, its use continued even among those who signed the laws that kept it alive.

Despite Prohibition, President Warren Harding drank whiskey and beer behind the closed doors of his White House bedroom.… Outwardly dedicated to the law, [President Herbert Hoover] remained inwardly loyal to gin fizzes…

This is a fascinating book, and if you can find a copy I highly recommend it. It makes a strong case that recreational drug use is not just something that people like to do, it is something that humans require to survive.