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Why do humans use drugs? A conversation with ‘High’ author Ingrid Walker

May 22, 2020

Ingrid Walker’s book High: Drugs, Desire, and a Nation of Users is one of the most important and thought-provoking works on drug theory and policy published in the past five years.

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Little-known at the time of its publication, High has since become a word-of-mouth classic among those who work in drug policy, legal reform, and cultural studies. In the past year Walker, a professor of American studies at the University of Washington in Tacoma, has pushed the edges of the current conversation around drugs, altered consciousness, pleasure, stigma, and research.

Her writing and study of the motivations behind drug taking, and the role of pleasure in drug use, have opened up new areas of discussion that may well have a profound impact on public policy in the near future.

High mixes strands of American history with social and political theory, drug policy insights, and oral history. Walker reveals and describes many of the frames that society constructs around the substances that alter human consciousness—everything from tea and coffee to amphetamines and ayahuasca.

I spoke with Walker recently for a special bonus episode of Leafly’s podcast The Roll-Up. What follows is a condensed version of that conversation.

Leafly: Let’s talk about the human desire to alter consciousness. Why do we seek to get out of our own heads?

Ingrid Walker:  The drive to change consciousness goes back far beyond modern life. We know from anthropological evidence that psychedelics, for example, have been part of almost every human culture throughout history. We have used psychedelics and plant medicines for millennia.

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Walker: Altering mind-state is ‘a very human drive.’

And it’s not just humans. Other mammals have been known to want to change consciousness, whether it’s dolphins passing around a puffer fish or wallabies getting high on poppies. There’s a lot of research that shows we, among other mammals, enjoy changing our perspective and our psychoactive experience of the world.

It’s important to point out that the use of psychedelics in ancient human cultures often had to do with a much more holistic relationship to spirituality, culture, and community. But it’s interesting that we’ve always wanted to do that, to change our state of mind.

Leafly: Is that driven by a simple need for novelty? Or is it more about the pursuit of pleasure, a happier state of being?

Ingrid Walker: I’m fascinated by this question of pleasure, and the role of pleasure in drug use. There are very few studies on that question, and it’s my new area of research. I wrote High as a sort of opening foray into that area, and now it’s where I’m headed full time. I’m very interested in understanding the ways in which people use, and the ways in which they define pleasure as it relates to that drug use.

'A lot of people use recreational drugs to create ritual and experience in our lives.'

Ingrid Walker

The impetus to change perspective has to do with many different kinds of pleasure. I’m going to use as an example a very mundane kind of pleasure that most of us participate in: our morning caffeine. I get up in the morning and the first thing I do is have some tea. I can go without it, but I don’t enjoy going without it. That’s not because I have withdrawal symptoms but because there is a ritual to the making of the tea and the drinking of the tea. It’s a way of starting my day.

A lot of people use recreational drugs—whether it’s alcohol, cannabis, psychedelics, opium—we use these drugs to create ritual and experience in our lives.

Psychedelics are an interesting example, because for most people it’s not something they’re using regularly in their lives. It’s not like I’m tripping daily. Or even weekly. It might be more episodic and involve a different kind of pleasure than, say, smoking a bowl of cannabis might. Just as there are different kinds of pleasure, there are different uses to which we put our drugs.

I’m teaching a class right now on drugs and U.S. culture. We’ve been talking lately about what are sometimes called club drugs, or party drugs, and how college students are unable to find a space in which to use those drugs now that they’re quarantined in a pandemic. They’re realizing how setting is as important as set when using drugs.

Leafly: We’ve been talking about the need for ritual a lot lately, because of the quarantine. For those of us fortunate enough to have jobs and work at home, we’re seeking a way to demarcate the periods of the day. There’s coffee or tea in the morning, of course. But now I find myself craving something to mark the end of the work day. Four-thirty or five o’clock rolls around and I find myself in the same physical environment of home. Whether that’s a beer, or alcohol, or a little cannabis, something like that. Just something to mark a new space of time. These substances often form the centerpiece of that ritual.

Ingrid Walker: Absolutely. I’m a pretty moderate drinker. I’ll drink socially, but left to my own devices I’d probably never drink alcohol. But I’m noticing that occasionally now, like on a Friday afternoon, I’m having a cocktail now that we’re in quarantine. And it’s partly because my partner does, but it’s partly because I need to pivot to something else. That seamlessness needs to be broken up.

It’s interesting how culturally we have come to accept that ritual. We’ve created “happy hour” as this hour when we can go “be happy.” And I would like to point out that happy hour, by the way, starts at four—before most work days end. You have two “happy” hours, usually four to six, when you go get your drink on. Drinks are cheaper, they’re more plentiful, and they’ll sell you as many as they can fit into those two hours.

If you imagine any other drug being situated in that kind of context, it might take people aback. But it’s a great example of how we experience communal pleasure around the consumption of a drug. One of the things about drugs and pleasure is that it is often about community connection, both building that social relationship and supporting that social relationship.

Leafly: But that drive for ritual and pleasure, is often tempered by the restrictions that society puts on substances. Some are acceptable, some are not.

Ingrid Walker: As I looked into the history of drug control through policy and law enforcement, that led me to look into the secondary level of control, which is social control—the social mores and norms we’ve developed around certain drugs.

One of the hallmarks of American culture is the neoliberal drive to hold the individual responsible for a certain level of productivity and success. With that in mind, you start to see drugs fall into certain camps. Caffeine and amphetamines are stimulants, they are drugs that historically make people more effective. And they are drugs that are embraced and tolerated, if not celebrated.

Drugs like heroin, or any kind of opiate, tend to take people away from that level of productivity. Those are, as a result, not as tolerated. And I think cannabis was in that camp for a long time. The idea of a “stoner” when I was a kid in the 1970s, that image was not popular. The idea was that a stoner was worthless, not effective. The assumption was that you sat around all day on your sofa and ate Doritos.

Part of our tolerance of drugs—and our cultural norms around them—has to do with issues of productivity and the perception of whether those drugs make people more functional or less functional. That’s a very false binary, but it’s one that gets upheld in our perception of those drugs.

Leafly: There’s a great example in your book. It’s a short oral history from a long-haul trucker who finds that his boss, on a cross-country trip, pops some amphetamines just as a matter of course. And the boss is a strict Mormon—no caffeine or alcohol for him. But the uppers were somehow different and acceptable, because they were a tool that allowed him to get the job done.

Ingrid Walker: There’s a reason Adderall and Ritalin are so popular in our culture right now. As a cultural studies scholar I like to think about the many factors that impact any one element I’m looking at. So if I start looking at Ritalin I wonder, did we all just slide into this category of ADHD and lose our ability to focus? Or is it that we rediscovered the efficacy of stimulants when it comes to getting our work done.

Think about the way we work now. People are working longer hours, and if you’re working in labor, there’s always somebody ready to take your job. So you need to maintain a certain level of productivity to keep that job. If you’re in an office setting, your work is almost never over. You’re expected to be on email, constantly available. So it makes sense that stimulants are the drugs we’re embracing now.

There are several people who’ve done research on “work doping,” where people are deploying different substances to be more effective at work. The stimulant mephedrone is very popular in the U.K., for example, especially in the finance world. Day traders, you know, they’ve got to get that adrenaline rush going.

Leafly: You also deal with the idea of rational choice and agency in High. Whenever a serious researcher, writer, or scholar deals with the topic of drugs, there’s a kind of taboo about surfacing your own consumption of some drugs. There’s a sense that experience with the topic at hand undermines your own credibility, as if the drug has lured you in and now you’re captive to its desire to reproduce.

Ingrid Walker: Absolutely. I’m very out about my own drug use. I have a position of considerable privilege as a tenured professor. I’m a drug user and I research drugs, and my own drug use informs my research. I can say that in ways that other people can’t, so I think it’s important for me to do that.

I’m a pretty private person, to be honest. It’s not like I want to go around shouting about my private proclivities to everyone. But I think it’s important. Drug criminalization and the drug war have not changed drug use, but they have been incredibly effective in silencing drug users. We see the collateral effect of that in hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people. So I think it’s important to unsilence drug use where possible.

Absent any real discussion of drugs and how people actually use them, the vacuum gets filled with misinformation. For decades we’ve been plastered with narratives about drug use that represent only the most extreme cases, which in fact is only a tiny proportion of drug users. Most drug users are like you or me, we are parents, we have lives, we have jobs, it’s a tiny facet of our lives. But that undermining of the credibility of our work comes out of the drug war’s successful narrativizing of drugs users as suspect, as less than.

Leafly: Expanding that language around the sensory experience: We’re seeing it happen around cannabis, but is it really making a difference?

Ingrid Walker: Think about how culture changes, how people shift from one ideology to another. It’s usually through one-to-one human contact. I think about the way in which LGBTQ issues have come to be out and legally protected in our country. It’s not like we have more gay people or trans people now than before, it’s because there’s a recognition now that we all know them.

Those people started to come out of the closet. And once you know someone, and that person is your son or your uncle or your daughter, you have a different relationship to that issue. You have an opportunity to recognize that the person you’ve put in that category is not other. To a certain extent, unsilencing drug use is part of the same dynamic.

The legalization of marijuana has led people to have more contact with people who use marijuana—or more awareness of the face that some people in their lives use it. Once that happens, marijuana use in their mind is no longer represented by Cheech and Chong, for instance. Once you have a bunch of different examples of something, it becomes normalized. And you being to recognize that there are nuances in the way people use drugs and enjoy them.

Leafly: What are you working on next?

Ingrid Walker: I’ve started to mine a vein of academic work about pleasure. My field—critical drug studies—is a place where philosophy meets theory, and the language can be incredibly abstract.

I wrote High for a general public readership, not an academic audience, because I wanted to have public conversations like this one. And the academic language in critical drug studies can be incredibly off-putting and disembodied. So I’m trying to change that.

One of my favorite studies in the field is called ‘It’s a scummy-arsed drug but it’s a sick buzz,’ by an Australian researcher. It’s a study of how people talk about chroming, which is a term for huffing paint. And the people who talk about the embodied high in chroming are so articulate about the experience.

That led me to the belief that we have to actually talk to drug users in order to develop the language. So I’m now seeking ways to partner with people who use drugs, and come up with ways to create spaces for those narratives. In that way I’m hoping to expand the language around what a drug use experience is actually like.

Bruce Barcott's Bio Image
Bruce Barcott

Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.

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