In Drugged: The Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs, Richard J. Miller takes us on a historical journey, where he explains how psychotropic drugs are used, invented, marketed, and their effects (especially side effects) on people. Miller describes how many of the drugs, so common on the market today, are part of ancient practices, and how the new derivatives that has been synthesized have managed to stay on the market despite great competition.
Miller starts by exploring and explaining natural products, such as plants and mushrooms, and how the main mind altering chemicals in these products, such as muscimol, ergot, psilocybin, ayahuasca and mescaline, have prompted pharmacists and researchers to investigate and isolate their chemical compounds based upon the reactions and responses of natives using these natural products. The results have been tremendously varied, (although various side-effects are very common), but these natural products have been the starting point for other drugs, such as LSD, heroin and cocaine.
Miller also includes a great variety of other drugs and their histories, many of which are incredibly popular today and used by millions of people across the globe, such as Oxycodone, Valium, Xanax, Klonopin and Prozac. What Miller also does so well is to give the reader, not only the historical content of various psychotropic drugs, but an historical timeline from which to understand the major advances in technology, the "trends" in pharmacology, and the mad rush to come up with similar compounds once a company puts their new drug on the market and it becomes popular and widely used. According to Miller, the history of pharmacology has undergone two major scientific revolutions, during the mid twentieth century, leading to the discovery and development of both antibacterial agents and the way in which we treat psychiatric disorders. Miller ends with the question of where does science and pharmaceutical companied go next in a time when we are more or less at a "standstill" due to the difficulty of financing large scale experiments and discovering new drugs.
At the same time, Miller explains how we are still very much uncertain when it comes to understanding exactly how certain drugs work and what their side effects are (both in terms of past and present). That is why many drugs have been recalled, are restricted, or even illegal. In hindsight, heroin was not the best alternative as a cough suppressant, and amphetamine did more than work as a decongestant. The pharmacological blunders described, the interesting historical backgrounds provided, Miller´s investigative skills, and the humorous way in which Miller writes makes Drugged a very interesting read. In the book we not only learn about various psychotropic drugs, but also where the term "junkies" comes from, how cocaine came to be in Coca-Cola, how tea was smuggled out of China, why morphine is the most important and significant drug ever made, why marijuana became illegal under such restrictive circumstances and why the CIA was so interested in barbiturates and other psychotropic drugs.
At times, the historical content presented by Miller is so fantastical that is seems unreal, and perhaps that is partly why the book is so interesting. Miller also presents entertaining stories about well-known writers, pharmacists, artist and composers (among other professions) discussing and explaining their involvement with drugs. Consider the following story: "In 1960 Ken Kesey, who had graduated from Stanford´s creative writing workshop, answered an advertisement for human guinea pigs to take part in one of the CIA –sponsored research studies on psychedelic drugs at a local hospital and ended up working there in the psychiatric ward. Here the ample availability of both psychedelic drugs and mental patients inspired him to write his first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest – a considerable critical and popular success" (p. 68).
Drugged is a very interesting and fascinating read, but it can also be quite dense and difficult at times. Miller is a professor of pharmacology, and for those of us who do not currently study or have not previously studied pharmacology, psychopharmacology, chemistry or medicine, some of the chemical and molecular descriptions can be rather difficult to grasp and comprehend. But one does not need to have immense knowledge in these fields of study (even though it certainly helps) to enjoy Drugged. Despite its at times complicated content, Miller has managed to write a comprehensive historical book about psychotropic drugs that not only holds the attention of the reader, but that actually makes one laugh from time to time.
© 2015 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master´s degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women´s studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.