Ceremonial Chemistry: The Ritual Persecution of Drug Addicts and Pushers

Are some drugs dangerous and other drugs safe?

In his book, Ceremonial Chemistry, Thomas Szasz details how drugs such as opium has been used for thousands of years, yet only in recent history have been considered dangerous. For author Thomas Szasz, addiction lies in the meaning that we assign to chemicals; not the chemical makeup of the drugs themselves.

Opium was not banned in the US until the early 1900’s. Szasz says it was banned due to a dislike of the hardworking Chinese immigrants who smoked it in the evening. Opium was used in China and Asia for centuries as a folk medicine.

Prior to banning it in the US, doctors considered opium one of the most important substances in medicine.

Dr. Thomas Sydenham wrote in 1680:

“Among the remedies which it has please the Almighty God to give man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.”

And in 1762 Physician Thomas Dover, created “diaphoretic powder”, which was an opium preparation widely used for the next 150 years to treat pain. Heroin today, for example, is seen as a dangerous substance that causes the user to become instantly addicted, while derivatives of heroin – morphine, and codeine – when prescribed by a doctor are considered safe.

A Historical Account of Prohibition

Throughout the book, Szasz details the historical account of how the prohibition of drugs is used as a weapon for those who are in power to use against society’s unwanted. He says that just as witch hunts were used in the past to deal with society’s unwanted, so the banning of drugs is used today to symbolically deal with society’s unwanted. Poor “white-trash” who sell meth are locked up, while the doctor in a white lab coat writes a prescription for Adderall.

Freedom and Responsibility

Szasz shows the historical record of how drugs, even so-called dangerous drugs, were used in a responsible way. None of the substances themselves cause addiction. Szasz says looking for addictive properties of a drug, is akin to chemically analyzing Holy Water for healing properties.

For Szasz, it is not drugs that are dangerous, but the meaning people assign to the drugs. Paradoxically, Szasz says, the more we ban chemicals, the greater their meaning, and the greater potential for harm. Szasz admits of course, that one can habituate oneself to using a drug. But creating a drug habit is similar to any other habit we create. Habits are inherently difficult to change, but that does not mean that a person loses his free will.

Drugs Have Been Used Since Ancient Times

Ceremonial Chemistry gives us insight into the historical record of how various cultures treated drugs and the persecution or praise of drugs throughout the ages. The appendix of the book gives a brief historical overview of drug use, and itself is worth reading.

In the end, while the book is fascinating, at times, it was too detailed for my tastes and overly academic. Szasz will go down in history as one of the great writers of freedom. This book adds to the insight that he gave us.

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