It was a balmy day in rural Wyoming, and Ego the Living Hunger had a ferocious case of the shakes. Like most grazing animals in this region, Ego (née Cow #52932) had loco-blight: what they called withdrawal symptoms for the cows and horses who’d become addicted to locoweed in those surprisingly bucolic Spring months. At first it was just the usual miscreants who’d succumb to it’s sweet succor: Fitzel Cud-Swallower, Evergreen Daniel, Lorf the Incontinent. But soon, the entire herd had gotten their first taste. And after the first taste, well it’s difficult to want anything in life but a second.
It’s a disquieting process to have a conversation these days about drugs for several reasons, not the least of which being that it’s increasingly difficult to come to any sort of consensus as to what “drugs” are. Conventional wisdom is a bit reductive on the subject, while a purely scientific model becomes far too vague. “I know it when I see it” holds no water, but trying to distinguish between recreational drugs and medical drugs (prescribed by either a professional or one’s own self interest) becomes a largely philosophical pursuit. When it comes to talking about getting blasted, I hate these blurred lines.
The standard Western view of drugs holds them to be “unnatural” and often harmful. And it would be impossible to argue against the devastating toll that addiction and drug abuse have taken on societies throughout the modern era. But the use of substances to induce a shift in mental perception is anything but modern. In fact, many ethnomycologists (shroom doctors) would argue that getting stoned isn’t just in our DNA, it’s in the natural blueprint of nearly every species on the planet.
But while it would be a nice sentiment to imagine us and our fellow biota as harmonious Terran hippies, navigating the Universe high as a kite aboard Starship Earth (and would almost certainly make for a great ELO concept album), there’s the very sobering reality that humans and animals experience drugs in drastically different ways.
Animals, after all, don’t use advanced knowledge of chemistry to engineer nootropics to make themselves “better”, and animals would never resort to butt-chugging fermented fruit to get drunk faster. Animals will kill, steal, and manipulate for survival, but never to chase a high like humans do. Perhaps most importantly, animals don’t ostracize, abandon, or vilify members of their own species for repeated, even wanton drug use.[Of course, it’s intellectually dishonest to pretend that consumption of drugs amongst animals isn’t always destructive. It’s just that when it is particularly destructive, it’s usually due to human interference. Cats, for example, used to swarm around opium dens in the Orient, overcoming a natural distaste for opioids to catch the expelled breath of smokers. Monkeys in Gabon have picked up the smoking habits of the local people, and in 1985, 150 elephants participated in the ransacking of a Bengali malt-liquor distillery. The common theme here is not the proliferation of drugs, but the proliferation and manufacturing of super-drugs, so addictive they jump Special boundaries.]
It begs the question, is drug abuse strictly a human phenomenon? And if so, what would that say about us?
It started innocently enough in that at the time, as it just seemed like there was nothing else to eat. The stickly green plants with the tiny leaves and the red flowers (cousins to legumes if you can believe it!) sprung up seemingly overnight in dozens of varieties. But once the cows got a hold of them, there was nothing else that they wanted to eat.
Astrogalus lambertii was its technical name, but most just knew it by its effect-on-target. First, the afflicted exhibit signs of severe agitation and aggression. They isolate themselves from the rest of the herd, lose weight rapidly, and refuse to eat anything but the weed. If an attempt is made to physically move them, they refuse. Just turn rigid as a plank and plant themselves down. They’ll become frailer and frailer, eating nothing but the very thing that caused their symptoms to manifest.
Their human handlers (“Lady Kind-Eyes” and “Grimace-Man Sallow-Face, Envoy of the Tractor”) had tried to move the herd South, but the locoweed had spread faster than they could relocate. It had them.
They all belonged to the weed now.
An underlying question in trying to comprehend the use and abuse of drugs: “Why get fucked up in the first place?” Certainly, it can’t be for reasons of self-preservation (moths, when exposed to a Datura flower, get so high they fall helplessly stoned to the forest floor, at the mercy of predators and terrible poets looking to make equally terrible metaphors). Unfortunately, as simple as the question is, the effects of substances are as broad and ranging as the drugs themselves. While there may be some social euphoria associated with certain forms of intoxication (see: elephants passing on the location of alcoholic palm fruit to their young), other trips are distinctly individualistic in nature (like those of the Siberian reindeer and their beloved fly agaric mushrooms).
To understand why many scientists believe there is a natural impulse for a certain percentage of the animal population to consume state-altering substances, one must first be made aware of something that Edward de Bono referred to as the Provocative Operation (PO) factor, or “depatterning”. Really, this is shorthand for lateral thinking, or for creative problem-solving, but usually this kind of out-of-the-box thinking is thought of as applying strictly to the human mind.
Giorgio Samorini, an Italian ethnobotanist with a long and storied history studying the effects of psychedelics on humans and animals, has long held the belief that intoxication via drugs is, in fact, a primary motivational force. He argues that along with the basics of survival (nutrition, self-preservation, reproduction), it is an evolutionary imperative that animals be able to adapt to continual environmental changes. Conservation and maintenance of the status quo requires a rigidity of schemes and established patterns of behavior (“eat this, live there, run that way to survive”). Modification, or evolution if you’re feeling bold, requires what he would call a “depatterning instrument” capable of opposing these conservative ideals in favor of new neural pathways. His hypothesis is that drugs and psychedelics in particular have an intimate connection to PO Factoring. Lateral thinking to solve new problems for a different environmental landscape.
Perhaps that’s why some of the more progressive researchers in the fields of psychopharmacology eschew the term ‘drugs’ for the less politically charged adaptogens. Strictly speaking, adaptogens are usually defined as herbal or even homeopathic medications designed to ease stress. But taken a little more symbolically, they have also come to mean substances that facilitate adaptation to one’s surrounding environment (anyone who’s come home from a particularly challenging day to find themselves prone to pour a stiff drink can relate).
Stress management. Hormonal balancing. Progressive methodology for increasingly varied survival circumstances. Add to that the natural plants that have opaquely medicinal value (aspirin, quinine, opium), and you can start to get a sense of the larger picture, how the history of animal interaction with chemistry-altering drugs is also a history of that animal’s survival.
For their human handlers, it was an all-or-nothing gamble. They relocated the entirety of the affected herd to a rehabilitation center. It seemed a bit dramatic, to just up and move like that, but when they looked at their options, there didn’t seem to be much of a choice. Stranger still it started to work. Some of the calves began to recuperate quickly, and most of the herd seemed to be recovering. But they weren’t out of the woods on some of the older cows, the first ones affected. The ones that may have lost the will to fight for survival.
Ego lilts her head to one side, and turns big, milky eyes up towards the sky. “Kill me,” she thinks. Her hind-quarters have ceased receiving orders, and she has little else to do these days then sit uffishly in thought.
“Just do it already. This isn’t a life. This isn’t anything. Give me more of what I want or just kill me. Please.”
She didn’t expect for anything to happen, for the handlers to put her out of her misery, or for the world to open up and swallow her whole. She just expected to die like all the others before her. The locoweed had robbed them of their desire to sustain themselves on more nourishing grasses, and they all slowly became sickly, frail, and ultimately laid down to drift into Stygian eternity. Those were the lucky ones. Others had become so hysterical at the idea of being returned to the herd, away from their beloved grass, that they’d panicked, rebelled, fled… some straight off cliffs, some so quickly that they overtaxed their hearts and died of cardiac arrest. Still others abandoned their own calves, ignoring all evolutionary instincts of nurturing their young, to head out somewhere to be picked off by local predators. In the end, as so often is the case, it wasn’t the drugs that killed them, but the addiction.
Of course, in modern Western society we don’t tend to think of drugs as a part of a natural cycle of life, death and persistent change, but rather in heady terms that liken drug use and addiction to plagues and scourges. We’ve declared War on drugs, and launch campaigns like the nihilistic “Just Say No.” In the essay “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?”, noted Russian Romanticist Leo Tolstoy seems to answer the questions of our desire to self-medicate with dreary damnation.
“…the cause of the worldwide consumption of hashish, opium, wine and tobacco lies not in the taste, nor in any pleasure, recreation, or mirth they can afford, but simply in man’s need to hide from himself the demands of conscience.”
While it’s of the utmost importance to be educated about any and all substances we subject our bodies to, there is a critical difference between the drug phenomenon and a perceived drug problem. As evidenced, the drug phenomenon is an atavistic, vestigial throwback to our earlier days when we were as connected to the biosphere as the rest of the fauna on this planet; in contrast, our drug problem is a result of a strictly human ideal, that of culture.
As Samorini points out in his excellent and informative book Animals and Psychedelics, “Pleasure seeking is an instinctive behavior intrinsic to all humanity, and only its excesses acquire pathological characteristics. Moralistic ideologies tend to identify the search for pleasure with its pathological forms.” In other words, you can’t blame the drugs themselves for being available and effective the same way you can’t blame a hammer for being the wrong tool to change the channel with. The disparate extremes with which people, cross-culturally and across gender lines, go to modify their ordinary state of consciousness is indicative not of prevalence of drugs in our culture, but of the neuroses inherent in modern society.
It’s possible that these neuroses lie in human perception and communication, with something called Relational Frame Theory (RFT). RFT is a psychological theory that proposes that humans have an innate ability to form exformative relationships between objects that non-sentient beings can’t. While a dog might be able to learn that its name is Cindy, it can’t, for example, understand that Cindy is the name of someone you were friends with in high school and be filled with a sense of regret for not staying in touch. To the Dog, “Cindy” is what you call it; while to you, “Cindy” is a name, the name of your dog, the name of your old friend, and all associated emotional reactions. In RFT, we can begin to associate the things that we use to relieve pain with the things that cause pain. If someone drinks because they feel sadness at being alone, the brain will work out after not too long that drinking is also a symbol of their loneliness, and it will become another thing to worry about, leading to an ever-expanding latticework of semiotics and self-medication.
So the ultimate question in understanding the proliferation of drugs in culture becomes one of both cognition and recognition. Humans have the ability to understand motivating factors for drug use, unlike animals, but there exists the possibility of accidental, dangerous exposure to this knowledge. We can no longer claim ignorance to cause nor effect, making us responsible both for the use and abuse of mind-altering substances. For us, one simply cannot exist without the other.
It would be, it seems, imprudent to either demonize or glorify insobriety and yet there seems to be an inherent societal motivation to pick a side. As with all things that have become politicized, there has become a bifurcation of people to either side: staunch prohibitionists arguing about the moral fabric of society on one, social autonomists deploring officious over-regulation on the other, and anyone else with a nuanced or complicated view on narcotics left disenfranchised.
This kind of thinking lands one in trouble. It’s like answering something without figuring out what the question is. It becomes just an exercise in the fundamentals of logistical resolution without any purpose or call to action.
The kind of thought-process that could use some lateral thinking.
Six months have passed, and Ego the Living Hunger rarely thinks about the time she was lost to locoweed. How could she? To give it that power would be to return to the days she wasn’t herself, when she was just a husk waiting to willingly be swept away like so many of herd-mates. She could remember their names though. And it was in their memory and their honor that she grew stronger, and independent of the plant that had nearly consumed her as she had once consumed it.
She thought about that from time-to-time. The irony of it all. Like a parasite that allows itself to be devoured because it can only sexually reproduce in intestinal lining, she had almost been eaten by something she ate. Where had she heard that before? It’s not as though cows are privy to that kind of information…
…ah, of course. It must have been something that she’d heard the human with the Kind Eyes say. Those steely, blue eyes that had looked at her with such sadness. Such desperation. “Here she comes now,” thought Ego, “all that sadness wiped away.”
“Just fine,” says the Lady. “You’re gonna be just fine”.
Ego took a moment to appreciate what she’d been through. What she’d survived. She was strong now, stronger now than ever before, and she repeated the words to herself for validation. “Ego is a fine cow.”
And indeed Cow #52932 was a fine cow. Fine and healthy enough to be grist for our industrialized cattle industry. Once cleared of her bout with locoweed, Ego was butchered (humanely, of course) and distributed to a manufacturing plant that dealt exclusively with free-range beef. From there it was another long haul to a Co-op in Park Slope where my drug dealer shops – he himself is aware enough of the hypocrisy of drug use, and refuses to pump himself up with all sorts of artificial hormones.
After a thoughtful lunch (a sandwich consisting of thin slices of Ego, some melted extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, caramelized onions and [here’s the secret] pickled green tomatoes [!] on a nice focaccia bread roll with a bag of Sea Salt and Vinegar potato chips), he’s driving over to my place to drop off the Modafinil I requested so I could finish writing this article. It’s a narcolepsy medication, primarily, but boy I’ll tell ya: it gets you focused like a god-damned laser beam. Ya know that movie Limitless with Bradley Cooper? They say that’s what it’s based on.
Anyway, I hope he gets here soon. I really need to get this thing done by deadline. ◥