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It has always been thus

Alan Braunholtz

Now that he sluggish hours of post-New Year’s stress disorders are behind us (if not, your parties are better than most), one perennial resolution is to ask why do we do this. Older is definitely less resilient and apparently no wiser, at least where New Year’s Eve is concerned. I’ve yet to get to bed at a reasonable hour, stubbornly waiting for that mythical moment of happiness, celebration and beer commercial reality. Confused groups huddled around communal coffee supplies tend to have age-related filters on the big night’s excesses. A youthful “brilliant!” as the festivities refocus to be relived with exaggerated bravado compared to the groaning, very mature “never again!” – if enough brain cells survive to remember the promise.Why do we love getting out of our heads? It’s not only alcohol. Mind-altering drugs are a part of daily life. The coffee machine is a morning ritual, smokers feed the nicotine in on an hourly basis, and dinner without a bottle of wine just isn’t the same. These are all mind-altering, psychoactive substances that happen to be legal and their use is widespread. Half of the U.S. population drinks alcohol at least once a month, over a fifth of the world’s population smokes, and most of us are enjoying the effects of caffeine almost all the time. Caffeine enjoys worldwide legal and cultural acceptance.The simple answer to why people take intoxicating substances is that we enjoy it. The word “drug” has bad connotations and the current focus on prohibition definitely zeroes in on the harmful and addictive properties of addictive drugs. They’re a health risk and can lead to violence, accidents, crime, large social impacts, health issues, etc.Visit any emergency room early on New Year’s morning to see the downside of intoxicants. But then, almost all the people celebrating New Year’s managed to have an enjoyable drink (or 10) without going too far, and they aren’t alcoholics. Intoxication can be a fun, sociable, memorable even therapeutic time. I don’t know if “drowning one’s sorrows” works, but we’re always dragging each other out for a drink.Human history, animal behavior and some research suggests that this desire to change our minds now and again is an integral part of us, a desire to feel different than normal. As a child, I remember spinning and being spun around and around until collapsing in a giddy laughing sprawl. It’s a favorite playground pursuit. Wanting to feel different or taking a holiday from reality is probably behind many of our pursuits, whether sports, love, chocolate, power, religion or travel.Ephedra, a herbal stimulant prominent in the recent media, has been found in a 50,000-year-old Neanderthal burial site in Iraq. Perhaps we can lay the world’s current drug problem there, too. Evidence from man’s earliest agriculture (10,000 B.C.) suggests the cultivation of tobacco, coffee, cannabis and mandrake plants. Opium poppy seeds appear in burial sites in Spain in 4200 B.C., before evidence of beer- and wine -making in Egypt in 4000 B.C. Drugs in various forms have been around us from the start.Elephants like to browse on fermented fruit and will go on a binge if stressed by overcrowding or the loss of their mate. Water buffalo became addicted to opium poppies during the Vietnam War. Research by R. Siegal, a pyschopharmacologist at the University of California, found that although monkeys normally refused an LSD-based drug, when sensory deprived (a cruel isolation in darkness), they started to take it. Apparently anything is preferable to boredom, and who would deny their cat its roll in the catnip?Feeling different or doing something new could be hard-wired by evolution into our heads. It’s a risk with unknown dangers and/or rewards. Stumble across a hungry lion or a better place to live. Making risk-taking feel good encourages inquisitive behavior. Outlawing drugs never seems to stop them, even with the campaigns portraying them as a human weakness to be suppressed before harm befalls the user and society. Some compare this approach to trying to solve AIDs by banning sex. Perhaps you can influence the what, where, when, but it’s a part of human nature. If you understand that drug taking plugs into the brain as novelty, excitement and therapy, you can see why prohibition has its work cut out.Starting to smoke is probably one of the stupider health decisions you can make in your life, and I’m guessing tobacco companies are working on ways to make their drug less harmful. I don’t know if you can take the toxic out of intoxicants – it might be a yin and yang thing – but would it make cigarettes and other drugs more socially acceptable?Alcohol would be a good one to start with. Imagine a New Year’s morning without a hangover, liver failure or bar fight. Instead science gives us new face creams for men. Come on!Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.Vail, Colorado


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