The Journal of
Cognitive Liberties

This article is from Vol. 2, Issue No. 1 pages 23-43 
All rights reserved worldwide.  ISSN: 1527-3946





Information War in the Age of Dangerous Substances

Sadie Plant

I am working on a book on the subject of drugs. It is a very difficult subject to tackle and, obviously, it is very controversial. The War on Drugs, as it is often called, has made drugs one of the most controversial issues that we are facing at the end of the twentieth century. It seems to me it is also one of the least understood issues as well. I have been trying to write about drugs for several years, and I am still having difficulties even doing the basic things such as defining what are drugs. Even the most basic questions continually escape a very careful analysis. I want to throw out some ideas today, mainly looking at the possibility that drugs are best thought of as technologies, as quite literally high technologies, as possibly communication technologies, too.

On this first issue about how we actually define what drugs are: the United States FDA, the Food and Drugs Administration, defines drugs—not only illegal drugs but drugs in medicines of all kinds—as “substances which affect the structure and function of the human organism.” That is quite a neat definition and the best one that I found, really. When we look at the drugs that are circumscribed by law, they tend to be specifically the drugs which affect thinking and perception. Specifically, they are drugs which affect brain chemistry. If we think of ourselves as information processing modules, amongst other things, then clearly the use of drugs changes one’s ability to process, retrieve and store information.

The original drug legislation, which now is a global situation, originally started with attempts to control opium, in fact, largely by the Chinese at the end of the nineteenth century. This was after the British were pretty much forcing opium onto Chinese culture at the time. If legislation began with opium, it now covers all of the opiates and cocaine, amphetamines, and a vast range of hallucinogens as well. As people will know, if you are familiar with this subject, the Americans, especially, are forever adding new substances to their drug schedules, not only the drugs themselves but also the other substances, which go into making new drugs, too. Clearly, the legislation covers a huge variety of substances and amongst the big questions that we can ask are, what do those substances have in common? Why has this handful of substances, out of all the chemicals that exist on the planet, why have those chemicals been singled out for such special attention? Why have they been so demonized? It is often forgotten that this isn’t just a legal situation, there has been a very direct military war on the drugs trade, at least since 1981 when Reagan, and later Bush, turned the campaigns against drugs from civilian to military campaigns. Many thousands of civilians and military personnel have been killed in this struggle. It is not simply a matter of legal controls, we really are talking about a military situation.

What is it about these particular substances that has allowed them to be seen as such a threat, why has there been such intense military interest, and how has it come to be such a big internationally coordinated project?

It seems to me that there are no easy answers to these questions partly because the War on Drugs has not only made the consumption and distribution of substances complicated but it has also made research very difficult as well. Until very recently, information of any rigorous hard kind has been very difficult to find and often unreliable. Certainly, in academic contexts, any serious discussion about drugs has been almost impossible. The issue is so controversial that very few people will dare to tread there. Also, the issue covers so many different areas and disciplines. For example, one needs to have a familiarity with chemistry, with botany, with economics, law, neurology, medicine and, obviously, all of the arts and social sciences have some bearing as well, so it demands a big breadth of knowledge and information. Also, the issue covers many different scales, right from the molecular action of substances in the human brain

to the action of those substances in the global economy, so it covers from the micro to the macro—very different scales.

In terms of the breadth, the scale, and the controversy, drugs are peculiarly difficult substances to research, to investigate, and to discuss. I think that these difficulties have fed a lot of misconceptions about what drugs are, how they work, and whether we are looking at how they work in the human brain, or how they work in the global economy. The whole area is still shrouded with mystery.

My first attempt to unravel and answer this is to suggest that we can think of drugs as technologies, almost biotechnologies, or “wet” technologies, perhaps even communication technologies. The way drugs work in the human body and in the brain is that they basically intervene in the internal means of communication. If you think, for example, about the human body having its own internal communication system, it is using chemicals to do that: neurotransmitters and hormones. These are the body’s chemical communicators, messengers that take information between cells. Those communications can be aided, blocked, or imitated by the addition of other chemical compounds, and these are the substances we know as drugs. These other chemical compounds are foreign to the human body, but they so closely resemble your native communicators, your native media, that your body is happy to take them in and accept them as its own. In effect, drugs are by definition substances which have some affect on human biochemistry. They are chemical devices, molecular machines which intervene in the body’s internal systems of communication. If you think of nicotine, for example, in tobacco, nicotine mimics a particular neurotransmitter so well that the brain can’t tell the difference between the neurotransmitter it already has and the nicotine that you are adding to it. Morphine also binds to opiate receptors, which are already present in the brain, and which are configured to respond to the reception of endorphins, the body’s own natural pain killers.

Drugs are the substances that can slip through the chemical filters in the brain, evading its screening mechanisms and entering your system incognito disguised as an already existing chemical. In effect, they fool your body into thinking that it is dealing with an already existing, familiar chemical. From this perspective, this means that drugs are very direct and very intimate means of modifying human perception and human behavior. Once they have had the effect of changing the internal communications in the brain, then they go on to change the way in which we perceive and behave, not only on an individual level, but also as cultures, as populations, as the collection of brains which receive and process and store information.

Although drugs are usually included in most discussions of cyberculture, and especially around the more fictional end of cyberpunk fiction, they are rarely discussed in more serious terms in this kind of cybernetic technological context. But if drugs are technologies, and if we can think of them in that way, then this might be a way of making sense of the question of drug control. This would make the control of drugs almost a kind of subset or one angle of the control of technology itself. This might then allow us to get a better perspective of how and why the current drug situation has arisen, and what the whole issue is really about. If we really want to follow this line of thought, drugs would then be those communication technologies which are most tightly controlled, perhaps we could say the only communication technologies that are controlled by international law.

I would suggest then that the whole question of the illegality of drugs might then allow us to also reflect on the broader question of the control of communications technologies, and of technology in general, as well as the information that they carry. There are lots of other passing resemblances that can tie drugs to technology in this sense. Clearly, a lot of the response against drugs is very similar to the technophobic response that is often made to new technologies. The fear of drugs is often allied to a fondness for the natural body and the authentic, the unadulterated, the pure body, the human with neither any additional prostheses in the standard technological sense, nor any internal additions or prostheses either. This would also be a fondness for the body having a very stable function and structure, to pick up on that FDA definition of drugs.

It would also seem that drugs can also be seen not only as technologies, but also as particularly advanced technologies, very literally high technologies. As we are now seeing at the moment not only a shift from hardware to software, but increasingly from software interests to wetware, then we can see that drugs were always a kind of wetware technology on a molecular level—literally engineering the brain from within. This is advanced biotechnology that has been used for thousands and thousands of years. Drugs have always been at the forefront of technological developments. Throughout history, technology has moved from hardware to software to wetware concerns. Drugs have always been almost at the end of the road, the road which we have now been pursuing certainly for the twentieth century.

Not only are drugs engineering the brain in that very intimate sense, but one of the effects that they have is, arguably, to change the body to suit technological developments. For example, drugs will allow people to perceive slower or faster speeds than the ones which they are normally accustomed to, and also to perceive at larger and smaller scales. These themes of the very fast, the very slow, the very large, and the very small, are the new agenda for the sciences of the twenty-first century. The whole history of technology has also been about the possibility of perceiving smaller and smaller, and larger and larger entities. Drugs have almost been biological or biotechnological microscopes and telescopes long before those actual technologies were developed.

And as a matter of passing interest—I won’t concentrate on this—it is very easy to track the cultural uses of drugs through the nineteenth and twentieth century and see how nineteenth century culture was very reliant on opium. It is often thought of as a kind of pain killer, or a way of dealing with the new speeds and the traumas of industrialization. Likewise, cocaine became very fashionable at the same time as electricity and the late nineteenth century communications technologies were developed, arguably in an effort to bring the human body up to speed with those new technologies. In the twentieth century, the co-incidence of the use of MDMA (Ecstasy) and dance music, and all of the new technologies that I know everybody here will be very familiar with—that, too, is another possible way of tracking that sort of symbiotic evolution of drug use and technological use.

Interestingly enough, the whole notion of the cyborg as well. When it was very first floated in 1960 in a relatively famous essay called “Drugs, Space, and Cybernetics” by Clynes and Kline which has recently been reprinted in the Cyborg Handbook, the article was the first to mention the cyborg and deal with the cyborg as an entity. It didn’t concentrate on all the attributes of the cyborg that we now have grown used to associating with it, such as prosthetic limbs and so on. Their main concern was with the use of drugs. The additional prostheses which the original cyborg had was called an osmotic pressure pump which was a kind of built-in extra organ, which would allow drugs to be continually inputted into the human body. This is done in the context of space exploration but it was a very sophisticated idea of linking the human body to the possibility of introducing not only drugs in the psychoactive sense but all sorts of different substances that would regulate and modify the human body in space. So, even our beloved notion of the cyborg comes out of this history of drugs before it comes out of the history of information technology and cybernetics as we usually think of them.

That mention of the space program brings us close to military concerns. If drugs are pieces of high technology, it may also be that they are high technology communication systems, which also act as weapons and are very important in a military sense. I am sure people are familiar with stories about fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force being injected with amphetamines as they take off and being injected with barbiturates when they come down—literally, uppers and downers as they are flying the planes. As the fighter pilot gets more integrated into the machinery, then the possibilities of integration with drugs become more possible and more extended.

People will also be familiar with the extent to which drugs have always been used as weapons, most famously by the C.I.A. in the 1950s and 1960s. The C.I.A., probably more than anybody, made the use of drugs fashionable as a weapon. But even they were only jumping in on the end of a much longer story. Hitler, famously, not only injected himself with methamphetamine eight times a day apparently, but he also used mescaline in interrogation experiments. The Bavarian army is famous for having done endurance tests with cocaine. For many thousands of years, drugs have had this military use. When the Spanish were busily colonizing South and Central America, they found people using peyote (they thought) as weapons against the Spaniards by using drugs even in order to communicate with each other. This may well have been a paranoia of the colonists but nevertheless it certainly served as a functional weapon even if it was simply their paranoia.

In this military sense, drugs, even as they work on the human body have always functioned as weapons, as literal defense systems. If you think of the legitimate use of drugs as medicines, then you are using drugs to defend your body against the encroachments of diseases, of pain and so on. In the medical and military contexts, drugs have effectively worked as arms, as weapons. They are used to defend, augment, attack, or manipulate the structure and the function of the organism. If you use them as medicines, they combat pain and infection and instability. In other capacities, they can heighten perception, increase endurance and—as in the case of the cyborg cited by Clynes and Kline—completely rewire the organism to allow it to deal with different alien environments .

Interestingly enough, if you look back at, not the social history of drugs but the chemical history of drugs, it seems that this function of being weapons is incredibly long-standing. I have mentioned before that substances like nicotine and morphine fit the human brain with uncanny precision, but they actually have their sources in a completely different area of life. Many of these substances are thought to have evolved precisely as weapons in the long war between plants and their predators. Drugs effectively are the chemical weapons of the vegetable world. Obviously, if you are a plant—I know my name is Plant but I’m ignoring that—if you are a real plant, you can’t do a lot of the things which other organisms can do in order to defend yourself. You can’t run away and you can’t attack either. Plants have always developed very sophisticated systems of defense such as thorns, gristles, stings, gums, and widely-used tactics such as camouflage. Often plants will grow in with other plants so they are hidden from their predators.

Of all these defense systems, the most refined and the most effective plant defenses are chemical weapons. These include tannins, flavanoids, terpenoides, saponins, photosensitizers and alkaloids. These substances rarely play any kind of metabolic function in the plant: they are not nutritious, they do not aid it in any other way, they simply defend it against its predators.

The chemical weapons can be surprisingly elaborate and also surprisingly vicious. For example, there are plants that produce photosensitizers which can affect their insect predators by burning up their cells on exposure to light. In other words, an insect eats a plant, absorbs the photosensitizers and just literally burns up in the sunlight. They can also introduce lethal chromosomal abnormalities in predators, too. Some of these chemicals function by simply dissuading their predators from eating too much of them, but others have long-term effects on the growth of the offensive population as well as on individual predators. Sometimes you can get counter-measures on the part of the insects. Many predators will find ways to counter plant defenses. For example, there is one famous case of a bug which attacks tomato plants. It has learned that by eating the leaves it will ingest certain lethal chemicals. So it sits on the leaf and cuts a little perforated patch for itself, marks out its territory and then eats that patch, knowing that it has effectively cut off the supply routes by which the leaf can send the chemical to attack it.

These chemical weapons in the plant world are incredibly sophisticated. Chemicals which are evolved by a plant to attack a specific predator may be harmless to other predators, or they may be fatal to all consumers, or they may have no effect on them at all. Often, this is just a question of dosages. Obviously, too much of anything can be fatal, just as small quantities of many lethal substances can be harmlessly absorbed. Many of these weapons are transferable. Here, we come to the ones we use as drugs. Certain predators not only survive the ingestion of toxic alkaloids but can requisition them as their own means of self-defense. An example of this is the human use of morphine as a pain killer in the sense that morphine has been developed by the opium poppy as its own system of defense and we then use it as a system of defense against our own infections and pain. But in other cases, chemical weapons can have very different effects on the biochemistries of their new consumers. A very good example of this is catnip. It is often called cocaine for cats, but this plant is called catnip—in German and in English it has a reference to cats, but that is completely coincidental—the name has a completely different source. Catnip has certain terpenoids to repel its insect predators. Now most mammals, including humans, eat catnip or use catnip with very little effect on them at all. However, these terpenoids just happen to be identical to the pheromones which are released by male cats when they are sexually aroused. This is why cats go crazy over it: female cats love it because they are getting male cat pheromones and male cats love it because they are getting a good bit of male bonding going on. Both sides get really excited by using this plant. But this is a complete coincidence. The notion that this plant has developed this substance just to attack its insect predator and that substance turns out to have this peculiar effect on cats is, by extension, the same bizarre set of coincidences that we, too, are caught up in our use of drugs.

So, catnip contains a substance, which might have almost been designed for cats. In fact, if you were going to design a drug for cats, it probably would be catnip. It is so perfect. Other plants have more transferable compounds. Catnip only works on cats, but the coca bush, for example, can stimulate humans and other animals, too. The llamas that graze on coca leaves are stimulated by them in a very similar way to human stimulation. When goats eat the berries of the coffee bush, they, too, are stimulated by the caffeine. Those two examples, cocaine and caffeine, are among the many alkaloids which affect human beings. It is widely assumed that humans learned to use drugs by watching their effects on animals and, even there, they do not all translate. Presumably, there were people who tried catnip, and there probably are still people who try catnip just in case. It wouldn’t work every time, nevertheless, it is broadly assumed that this is how humans learned to use drugs themselves. But that too is a big mystery, and to say that they copied animals doesn’t explain it, not only because different plants work on different species but also because many drugs have to be prepared very carefully before they can be used. There is a big mystery as to how people ever came to try plants or fungi, for example, like fly agaric which can be toxic unless carefully prepared. People may have died in the attempt to try and work out how to use it, and it is a genuine mystery as to how that process would have developed.

In effect, just like cats on catnip, when humans drink coffee or chew coca, we, too, are the unintended beneficiaries of this ancient conflict between plants and predators. We are enjoying the spoils of a war which has been played out in a very different territory and over a huge length of time, long before humans used these plants themselves.

After many thousands of years of being synthesized in plants, the synthesis of these compounds has now spread to laboratories. This move was made in the nineteenth century. Morphine, which is the most powerful constituent of opium, became the first plant alkaloid to be isolated in 1803. Once morphine had been isolated, it was quickly followed by the other constituents of opium which include codeine and quinine, and then caffeine and the majority of the other substances, too. By the end of the nineteenth century, many alkaloids and other compounds could be detached from their native plants and synthesized, or at least extracted in the laboratory.

Once these compounds had been isolated, once they were in the laboratory, they could then be altered and combined as well as designed to treat particular conditions or to induce particular effects. For example, once morphine was freed from the opium poppy, then it could be altered to make heroin, which happened at the end of the nineteenth century. As an aside—I’m sure people know this story—heroin was developed in the search for a non-addictive form of morphine. That obviously didn’t work.

But for all the opportunities this process of extraction and isolation opened up, this was what they now call “bucket chemistry.” It was very crude and involved mixing relatively large quantities of compounds together. It worked at relatively large scales at relatively slow speeds, and its engineering was far from precise. A hundred years later, at the end of the twentieth century, the research and development of these chemical compounds has moved to much smaller scales and far higher specifications. We now have new techniques that allow compounds to be engineered not only at the level of their molecular composition but also at the level of the molecules themselves. In the mid-1990s, these developments in chemistry met digitization, they met computing. At that point, these fields in chemistry became even more sophisticated and advanced. This was really the point at which you could properly talk about “designer drugs,” drugs which are designed from scratch in the laboratories, and they are not even extracts from a plant. The sheer speeds and capacities of the microprocessor have now made it possible to trawl through huge numbers of molecular combinations in a way that was simply impracticable until very recently. So endless different combinations of drugs can now be tried out on a computer screen before they even touch base with chemical reality. Now, mathematical modeling allows compounds to be designed and assembled as virtual compounds. Often these compounds are tried, tested, and manipulated atom by atom on the screen. They only meet the wetware world in the very last stages of their development, when they are finally tested on humans.

This is the point at which other even more advanced possibilities come onto the horizon. We can begin to think about where these trends—from plant to laboratory, and now to computer—are really going. The latest research in drugs, as I say, only tests them on organisms in the final stages of their development. Parallel with the development of this chemistry, and with this convergence with computing, has been the development of knowledge and research on the human brain. They have all pretty much coincided at the same moment at the end of the twentieth century, so you’ve got the chemistry, the brain, and computing all just now coming together.

This raises the possibility that if drugs can be completely designed by computers, maybe brains can be changed just by manipulation on the screen. If you imagine you’ve got one screen with your chemical, and you’ve got another screen with a map of the brain, then you could imagine the possibility of almost skipping the level of using drugs at all and just directly manipulating the brain. Again these are ideas which have come up in cyberpunk fiction, but are very rarely discussed in a less fictional context. The whole idea of, say, biofeedback systems, of a neural jack directly into the brain, or direct ways of manipulating the molecular activity of the brain without using drugs at all becomes increasingly possible. It almost begins to seem as though the last couple of decades of developments in information technologies have been catching up with the techniques already possible with drugs, the techniques that have been possible for thousands of years. We are certainly now seeing a convergence of wetware and software in an unprecedented sense. Often in cyberpunk fiction, the notion of jacking into the matrix or jacking into cyberspace has been associated with the use of drugs: the idea of connecting the brain into a global network, making the individual a nodal point in the mesh of chemical and information flows.

The other side of this whole process—the brain side of it—is as recent as computing. Both computing and a renewed interest in drugs and also knowledge of the brain really kicked off in the 1950s. It was only in the 1950s that neurotransmitters were discovered. It was only at that point that this notion of the brain as a kind of internal communication system really began to be developed. In fact, LSD, the substance developed at Sandoz, by Albert Hofmann, (who, if you know the story, famously says he discovered by accident and was very shocked when he found himself tripping on the way home from work that day) actually preceded the understanding of the brain as being a chemical system and having neurotransmitters. Interestingly enough, LSD turns out to be very, very close to a neurotransmitter and, in fact, that is precisely how it works because there are already these receptors in the brain. LSD was discovered before neurotransmitters were discovered by a few years. In the last 50 years or so of these developments, we have come incredibly close to some understanding of the brain. Nevertheless, it still is an incredibly unknown organ, even though the United Nations designated the last ten years as “The Decade of the Brain.”

It seems that many people can be very precise about how information goes in and out of a computer, how it retrieves, processes, and stores information, but when we talk about ourselves, our own computers if you like, our own wetware, then we are incredibly vague about it. We have almost no knowledge about how the brain works. All we are beginning to appreciate is simply how vast and complex it is. As I say, we can speak in very precise terms about how a computer network functions, but when we speak of ourselves, we tend to say very crude things like, “Are you taking it all in?” or “You’re absorbing information,” in a very crude and imprecise vocabulary. Not much more is known about the brain now than was known 50 years ago except for the fact that we have an increasing sense of its complexity. Just to give you an idea of the scale that people think they are dealing with: if you were to lay out all of the neurons in the human brain end to end, this would cover 250,000 miles. I don’t know if these statistics really convey anything, but perhaps they give a sense of the enormous scale of processing power that you have in your own head.

Increasingly, ideas about the brain are being enhanced and are converging with developments in computing. As neural networking and parallel distributive processing develops, it is increasingly thought that the human brain also operates in a kind of distributed, hierarchical networked kind of way. Deleuze and Guattari have this often quoted line about “The brain is a population.” This is, indeed, how it is increasingly thought of in neurology, that it is in fact a population of millions of molecular elements.

Given that discussing drugs at least informs our thoughts about how we work inside, is it then possible that the War on Drugs itself has something to do with controlling the exploration of the human brain? Is it even possible, and many have suggested this, that the use of psychoactive chemicals, possibly even chemicals contained in certain foods, has something to do with the emergence and development of human intelligence in the very earliest days of human evolution? That is a very contentious notion but it does make a certain intuitive sense. In other words, is it even possible that the War on Drugs is, amongst other things, partly about the control of intelligence? Is it actually about what you do with your brain, how you configure it, and, consequently, how you think with it, how you perceive with it and how you behave with it?

When we try to think about the War on Drugs, from this angle that drugs are effectively soft or internal technologies, then clearly one of the first things that we can say is that the War on Drugs has never been, as it says itself, a war on drugs, it is not a war against drugs, it has always been a war to contain and to control them. The propaganda always speaks as a “war against drugs,” but if you think about the extent to which pharmaceutical companies, not to mention the medical establishment, are very keen to impose drugs on the population, it is not a war about stopping drugs, it is about certain drugs or certain uses of drugs. It is control rather than prohibition.

It seems to me that if we can get to the point and analyze the control of drugs, then not only would that be interesting in relation to the issue of drugs itself but also it could provide us with a very revealing diagram of the most basic mechanisms of control and its evasion at the end of the twentieth century. In a sense, it seems to me that the drugs situation is almost like a microcosm of global capitalism. As William Burroughs’ famously said, “Drugs are the ultimate commodity. They are the only things which don’t need any advertising.” Which is obviously just as well, given that the War on Drugs would make that impossible. They come free with their own adverts and, as Burroughs also said, they are the only substances that you don’t have to try to sell to people. People have to come to you to buy them. Also, in terms of the market for drugs and drugs as commodities, they are, on the one hand, the most freely available in the sense that they are distributed in a black market, but also they are the most controlled, I think, of any commodity that exists at the moment. Arms would obviously be the only other possible contender. But if, as I am suggesting, drugs are weapons, then this would come down to almost the same issue. There are no other substances, which are controlled at every level of their operation: from the point where a farmer plants the coca bush through to the final consumption of the wrap of cocaine; on every step of that process, drugs are subject to stringent international controls.

They are also the first substances to be controlled on an international basis. In fact, arguably, they are at the very heart of international law itself. When the League of Nations was established in the 1920s which then became the United Nations, drugs were cited as one of the reasons for establishing an international body. Not only were they the first commodities or the only commodities to be regulated at every stage of their production, distribution, and consumption, it seems that they are fundamental to the very possibility of international law. At the very least, they provided a legitimate excuse for international law to be developed.

On the other side of things, they also proved just as impossible as information to contain and control. As they are notoriously transnational, drugs are no respecters of boundaries and, in fact, they slip through those boundaries exactly in the same way as they slip in to the brain; they are disguised as other things. Arguably, they have the same kind of disruptive effects on a culture or on a nation as they have on the brain as well. You have an almost fractal picture where exactly the same processes that happen on the relatively small-scale level of the brain, and even on the molecular level, of the way drugs work in the brain, is repeated on almost every level of their distribution. Drugs work in global economy almost exactly in the same way as they work in the human brain. The way in which the War on Drugs is cashed out, on the one hand, having these absolutely rigorous international controls and, on the other hand, having a remarkably free market which really produces the opposite of regulation with the black market, then it seem to me that this is trying to tell us something.

It is a stark example; it is a situation writ large in terms of the control of all kinds of technology by implication, or perhaps control of any kind. For example, we have a situation now where we have nation-states, the military, and pharmaceuticals corporations all involved in trying to monopolize the use and control the production and distribution of these substances in exactly the same way that states, the military, and information technology corporations or media corporations, are effectively monopolizing their markets. It maps on almost exactly, except for the fact that everything is more extreme in the case of drugs. Clearly it is not a matter, on the part of any of these bodies of doing away with drugs. What they want to do is to contain and monopolize their use. As I mentioned before, it is often the case, as in psychiatric medicine, where drugs are positively imposed on people; it is a question of control and regulation and monopoly, rather than strict prohibition. So again, this is very similar to attempts to control information or to control the distribution of technology. And on the street level side, the counter to that, also is remarkably similar to the way in which, attempts to free up the distribution of technology and information work as well. We’ve got a kind of street level black market trade, if you like—this would be the chemical hacking side of it, undercutting the legitimate trade, people effectively exploring their own brain chemistry rather than it being sanctioned by some centralized body. It also seems that this has big geo-political implications. Again, this maps onto the distribution of information and technology itself.

It seems to me that the Western world, and obviously the United States in particular, but certainly the Anglo world, has always promoted the War on Drugs. Britain and America have always been on the forefront of the War on Drugs. Historically, Britain and America both did very well economically in the past from their own drug trade. The American War of Independence was largely financed by tobacco and Cannabis, and industrialization in Britain was also largely funded out of the opium trade. In fact, that was the same opium trade, which eventually began the spiral of international controls against all drugs. At one point in the nineteenth century, half of the British government’s revenue came from opium—so this was by no means a small element of the income, it was a huge part of it. So, the Western world, or at least the Anglo world has obviously done very well from the drugs trade. One could say, if you were going to be cynical about it, that having achieved its own economic and industrial success through the drugs trade, that the West is now determined that other regions of the world will not enjoy the same benefits of an inevitably buoyant trade. We now find the situation where it tends to be the poorest and the least developed areas of the world which are producing drugs. Presumably, if there was a possibility of an international legalization of drugs, then all of those countries would be in the position to participate in that trade legally and they would be a lot more economically successful. The War on Drugs may well also be something to do with a global protectionism on the part of the Western world.

If there is any credence in these last thoughts, it would also seem to me that current debates about legalization of drugs can be very naïve, just as naïve as the attempts to argue against the legalization of drugs. Whilst we do have pockets of legalization of certain drugs such as in the Netherlands, it seems to me that any more serious legalization would be very difficult to contrive. For a start, it would have to be global. Because it is one of the few things that is controlled on an international level, then it would have to be uncontrolled on an international level as well. It is not something that could be done piecemeal. It seems almost unimaginable that we could have a situation in global politics where that would be either desirable or practicable. It could well be that if you did, though, have such a global legalization, then this would not only have all of the cultural effects that we often imagine it would have, but it could impact the geo-political balance of power on a global level. It is in these terms of drugs as technologies, as weapons of international importance, that I think the whole issue of should be considered.


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Sadie Plant, Ph.D. , is a writer. Her recent books include Zeros + Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture and Writing on Drugs. She is a member of the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethic's Board of Advisors. This is a transcript of a lecture she delivered at Public Netbase Media~Space in Austria on April 22, 1998.