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Stanton Peele Comments on Markel’s Cocaine Book

Submitted by Thinking CAP on Mon, Oct 24, 2011 - 5:55 pm

Background information:

Cocaine’s Historical Ties to Rubber Gloves, Beverages, Freud’s Nightmares

Cocaine: How ‘Miracle Drug’ Nearly Destroyed Sigmund Freud, William Halsted

Christians Against Prohibition is very glad to host an article from Stanton Peele Ph.D., J.D. An exclusive (currently) and the first place you could read it online.



by Stanton Peele Ph.D., J.D.

Howard Markel, a medical history professor at the University of Michigan (where I received my Ph.D.) has written “An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug Cocaine.” The book reveals the horrors of famous people becoming addicted to cocaine without knowing it was addictive.

Historical note: This oversight continued for quite a long time. Pharmacologists did not classify cocaine as addictive until the 1980s, when the last great popular wave of cocaine use swept the United States and the world. Apparently, people never learned the lesson Dr. Markel tells us that Freud and Halsted so obviously presented.

When we think of addicts, we think of down-and-outers whose lives are severely hindered by their addictions. But Freud and Halsted are two of the greatest turn-of-the-century medical figures. So we must come to grips with their simultaneous reliance on cocaine and their epochal reputations. (It is for such a purpose that the term “high-functioning” was invented. But does that term take some of the wind out of the sails of what addiction is supposed to mean?)

Let me confess beforehand that I am relying for the ideas in Markel’s book (aside from examining its title) on the New York Times review by Dwight Garner.

Here is what Markel (according to Garner) says about the men’s distinguished careers despite their addictions:

Freud’s major cocaine period was “between roughly 1884 and 1896, when he was in his 20s and 30s,” according to the article. He quit when he was 40. First off, how did he overcome the addiction? After all, AA and the Betty Ford Center had not been invented. But Markel implies that quitting his addiction did not end cocaine’s influence over Freud (did I hear someone from AA say, “Ceasing use doesn’t mean his addiction was over if he wasn’t attending nightly NA meetings”?)

Recent scholarship, he writes, has offered “nuanced contemplations on the connection of Sigmund’s cocaine abuse to his signature ideas about accessing unconscious thoughts with talk therapy; the division of how our mind processes pleasure and reality; the interpretation of dreams; the nature of our thoughts and sexual development; the Oedipus complex; and the elaboration of the id, ego and superego.”

He quotes the historian Peter Swales thus: “Freud’s [concept of the] libido is merely a mask and a symbol for cocaine; the drug, or rather its invisible ghost, haunts the whole of Freud’s writing to the very end.”

Now what does this mean — that addiction is forever, even is someone no longer uses the drug? Very AAish, don’t you think? And so, if I quit smoking when I was 40, would any work I did thereafter still be influenced by the drug?

But if Freud — a clever man — had quit the drug because he no longer found its effects positive, how did he not come to be fully aware of the negative aspects of the drug or recognize the effects it had on his thinking?

Moreover, are all of these ideas bad? After all, they held sway over the field of psychiatry for many decades.

According to Garner, “Dr. Markel makes the case here that Halsted never entirely got over his addictions, and remained an abuser — albeit a high-functioning one — of cocaine and morphine until the end of his life.”

What does this mean — that Halsted continued to abuse but was no longer so severely addicted as he had been? Can people cut back their addictions? Doesn’t that take the edge off some of the malevolence attributed to the drug?

As for high-functioning,

[Halsted] was perhaps the world’s greatest surgeon at the time, a pioneer of germ-free operating rooms at Johns Hopkins Hospital and of an extremely gentle surgical style called the School of Safety. He created the now-ubiquitous rubber glove for use by medical personnel, after watching doctors and nurses scrub their hands raw with harsh chemical disinfectants.

Damn, some of those addicts could really perform!

The review drops a number of other names from the book:

Admirers of Vin Mariani (cocaine tincturated in alcohol) included Ulysses S. Grant, who, dying of throat cancer, drank it while writing his memoirs. Celebrity endorsements arrived from Jules Verne, Henrik Ibsen, Thomas Edison, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas and Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s pleasant to imagine each in a newspaper ad for Vin Mariani with a tag line proclaiming, as Lenny Bruce would later say about his heroin use: “I’ll die young, but it’s like kissing God.”

But these men didn’t die young or suffer foreshortened careers. Verne lived to be 77; Ibsen, 78; Edison, 84; Dumas, 68; Doyle, 71. They were among the leading writers of fiction and, in Edison’s case, perhaps the world’s all-time greatest applied scientist. What does it mean to compare these men to Bruce, who died at 40? And should Grant have been denied the anesthetic relief provided by the beverage while he died of an extremely painful cancer?

I know, I know — drugs are bad. They’re addictive. People shouldn’t take them. Drug users can’t avoid becoming addicted. Addiction is bad because it destroys lives. When it doesn’t destroy lives, that is because addiction is so subtle that even highly successful — monumentally so — people are actually secret addicts.

But what does this mean about addiction — that all drug users are equally addicted whether they live long and prosperous lives or short, degraded ones?

Sorry — this doesn’t make sense.