The cover of Narco-Imaginary (Essays Under the Influence), forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Press in May 2016.

The narco-imaginary, circa June 14th, 1966: Allen Ginsberg addresses the Judiciary Committee of the US Senate regarding his experiences with psychotropic drugs. He explains his participation in Stanford University studies of LSD, and then he chronicles his own personal experiments with LSD, mescaline, and ayahuasca. And with peyote—under the influence of which, Ginsberg notes, significant portions of “Howl” were composed.

Let Allen Ginsberg’s congressional testimony stand as a signpost for the rugged, largely unmapped terrain of the narco-imaginary, in which the profile of the stoned artistic luminary and countercultural hero sparks and flickers amidst the gloomy atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion cast by the establishment. Thus Ginsberg, to the committee: “I hope that whatever prejudgement you may have of me or my bearded image, you can suspend so that we can talk together as fellow beings in the same room of now, trying to come to some harmony and peacefulness between us.”

References and rituals incorporating the hallucinogenic power of narcotics appear throughout the world’s religious texts, from the mysterious soma that appears in the Vedas, to the tobacco, peyote, coca, and mushrooms used by native peoples throughout the Americas. In his forward to The Greek Myths, Robert Graves hypothesizes that, like its pre-Hellenic predecessors, Greek mythology is rooted in the ritualized use of amanita muscaria, a moderately poisonous, powerfully psychotropic toadstool native to most regions of the Northern Hemisphere, from Asia and Europe to North America.

Heroic dose: the narco-imaginary establishes a circuit, maps an ancient course. The mystique that surrounds the narco-imaginary concerns its mythical beginnings; intoxication names the cipher through which mere mortals correspond with gods.

In his biography of Charles Olson, Tom Clark writes that, at the behest of Allen Ginsberg, Olson “drove to Cambridge, met with Harvard Psychology Department researchers Timothy Leary and Frank Barron at the Center for Personality Research, and was taken to the ‘Mushroom House’ in nearby Newton.” After taking psilocybin, Olson described the experience as if “he had ‘literally tak[en] a bite straight out of creation.”

“A bite straight out of creation”: there is no beginning to the narco-imaginary, no point in time that can be marked as its origin. As Robert Graves would have it (after R. Gordon Wasson), the creation myths with which humans have for so long intoxicated themselves originate in the hallucinations of our ancient predecessors, reeling under the influence of psychotropic substances. The myth of creation is the creation of the narco-imaginary; the narco-imaginary creates the creators.

Reduced to its most common aspect, the narco-imaginary concerns the representation of drug use. The considerable pedigree of the narco-imaginary encompasses a vast assortment of cultural artefacts, religious myths, legends of creative reverie: the opium-laced visions of Coleridge and De Quincey, the mushroom-induced chants of María Sabina, Freud’s cocaine dreams, Benjamin’s experiments with hashish, Warhol’s speed-driven Factory, Huxley’s hallucinogenic visions, the LSD-inspired improvisations of Jimi Hendrix.

Though it may have no identifiable origin, the narco-imaginary nonetheless indicates the limits of the imagination. By claiming access to states of mind that cannot be reached without the supplemental help of certain chemicals, the narco-imaginary demands that distinctions be made; thus, even as its most famous adherents peddle fantasies, the narco-imaginary remains unequivocally rooted in reality.

Dose of reality: the narco-imaginary depends upon raw materials. Naturally, as might be expected, the narco-imaginary is substance-dependent.

Colonization reads as a diary of addiction fuelled by the boundless desire of the narco-imaginary. Before the caffeine-driven exploits of the East India Company, consider, for example, the discovery of tobacco in the Americas. The tobacco plant serves as the cover illustration for Nicolás MonardesJoyfull Newes Out of the Newe Founde Worlde (part II), first published in Spain (1571), and translated into English in 1577. “According to Monardes, among the Indians not only did shamans use tobacco to conjure ‘visions and illusions,’ but laypeople also used it recreationally, ‘for to make themselves drunk withal, and to see the visions.’”

Ecological dose: the narco-imaginary is a biological, environmental, climactic, geographical phenomenon.

Amanita muscaria is native to most regions of the Northern Hemisphere, from Asia and Europe to North America; cannabis, Central and South Asia; the tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum, tropical and subtropical America. From the Europeans’ first encounters with tobacco in the New World, to the Anglo-Chinese Wars over the opium trade, to the more recent interventions of the United States in Vietnam, Laos, Afghanistan, Columbia, Panama, and Nicaragua, the chronicles of war and conflict are also chronicles of the narco-imaginary. The narco-imaginary fuels the economic, cultural, and political mechanizations necessary for massive mobilizations of people and resources. The creative reserve of the narco-imaginary underwrites propaganda and poetry, xenophobic panic and religious ritual, scientific research and organized crime. Rooted in and bounded by the same variations of terrain and climate that shape human populations, cultures, and conflicts, migrations of the narco-imaginary are marked by a history of violence.

Paranoid dose: in the media, the narco-imaginary provides a set of ready-made narratives, vehicles for fear mongering, racism, police aggression, mass incarceration. The plagues and locusts of the 20th-century narco-imaginary: the marijuana epidemic, the heroin epidemic, the crack-cocaine epidemic, the methamphetamine epidemic. The drug epidemic is the fable by which Americans have repeatedly authorized governmental violence, racism, and oppression.

The narco-imaginary contributes to countless racial, ethnic, sexist, and classist stereotypes; enacted through legal means, the racist projections of the narco-imaginary scapegoat and criminalize entire communities. Thus, the notorious history of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, a piece of legislation drawing upon rampant racist sentiment sweeping across much of the West during a period of increased immigration from Mexico—not to mention the notorious disparity between the sentences for those convicted of possessing crack cocaine, versus those convicted of possessing the same amount of powder cocaine (recently reduced from 100-to-1 to a supposedly more equitable 18-to-1).

Dose of revenge: the creative and cultural achievements associated with the use of psychotropic drugs provoke reactionary, sometimes violent responses by established authorities, institutions, and the state. Propaganda campaigns, stereotyping and racial profiling, anti-drug laws: if the concept of the narco-imaginary shelters the avant-garde’s intoxication with intoxication, prints tickets to the underground, and preserves the right of the individual to remake experience as his alone, it also invites the paranoid minds of the pleasure police, the anti-poets, the modern-day Puritans, those whose desires can only be realized in the perverse enforcement of a fascist, equally imaginary sobriety.

1971: John Sinclair, activist, poet, musician, and founding member of the White Panthers, was arrested for selling marijuana to an undercover agent. The agent, as it happens, has hounded Sinclair for months, repeatedly requesting that Sinclair supply him with large quantities of marijuana, despite the fact that Sinclair is neither a drug dealer, nor seems to know one. As news of his arrest spreads, activists gear up for his defense; a benefit is planned, Allen Ginsberg is involved, John Lennon and Yoko Ono want to perform, and the government discovers that it has supplied its domestic spies with a host of new targets: individuals provoked to participate in political activities following the arrest of John Sinclair.

Accidental dose: in its attempts to control, alter, or eliminate its appeal, the state validates the countercultural potential of the narco-imaginary.

That a propaganda film such as Reefer Madness (1936, rediscovered circa 1971) shall have justifiably achieved the status of cult classic attests to the inevitable limitations of the narco-imaginary in the hands of the inexperienced, the non-user, and the uninitiated. Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, addressing Congress, circa 1937 (while advocating passage of the Marijuana Tax Act): “Marihuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.”


The 1936 film Reefer Madness

Legal dose: Charles Whitebread notes that in the years following Anslinger’s outrageous claims, defense attorneys in at least five prominent murder trials claimed their clients suffered from “insanity” as a result of marijuana intoxication.

In 1948, Harry Anslinger appeared before Congress once again to discuss marijuana use, now declaring that his agency required additional funding to stamp out this growing threat to American sanity and sobriety. Americans, Anslinger said, are still smoking marijuana, perhaps in greater numbers than ever before. Which Americans? “Musicians,” Anslinger claimed. “And I don’t mean good musicians, I mean jazz musicians.”

Indeed, as Malcolm X chronicled in his autobiography, jazz musicians—including some of the greatest names in the history of American music—were smoking reefer. Malcolm knew because he sold it to them. Even if he later espoused the Nation of Islam’s party-line prohibition of drug use, Malcolm also understood that the story of redemption requires a story of sin; moreover, he understood that there is no anti-drug message. Every anti-drug message confirms the power and appeal of drugs as the gateway to a new consciousness—supposedly dangerous, apparently subversive, possibly revolutionary.

Dose of the Land: the egg in the frying pan (“this is your brain on drugs”). In the prohibition of drugs, the state commits to the sanctity of the narco-imaginary, acknowledges without reservation the revolutionary potential of the drug experience. No shaman but the state preserves the potency of the narco-imaginary.

From The Narco-Imaginary (Essays Under the Influence) by Ramsey Scott. Copyright 2016 by Ramsey Scott. Reprinted by permission of Ugly Duckling Presse. Forthcoming: May 1st 2016.

Ramsey Scott teaches at Brooklyn College, CUNY.  His essays, poems, and fiction have appeared in various print and online publications, including Southwest Review, Seneca ReviewThe Massachusetts ReviewShampooTarpaulin SkyConfrontation, and Mirage #4/Period(ical)The Narco-Imaginary (Essays Under the Influence) is his first book.

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