Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

April 14, 2013

On the belief in spirits in disease

Filed under: magic, science — Tags: , , , , , — paragardener @ 8:18 pm

Recently, I have read much of an ignorant superstition regarding disease: this, the concept of diseases being caused by malevolent spirits. These spirits are invisible creatures, which live in the air and seek to wreak mayhem on any human animal they come into contact with. They will attach themselves to a person, and even spread from person to person, or linger in the victim’s home. It is believed by the ignorant, that the home of the afflicted may be “cleansed” with herbs and smoke such as sage and wormwood, to drive the spirits out; for, these dark-minded individuals believe that the spirits of plants may be called upon to battle the evil spirits of disease. (Thus, the fools deny themselves the true and helpful medicines known to our doctors of today, such as preparations of arsenic and mercury.)

This belief in invisible agents of disease is known to be false by all Men of science, who know disease to be caused by an imbalance of the four humours (phlegm, black bile, yellow bile, and blood.) Thus, the barefoot primitive and the superstitious peasant will rely on the magical qualities of the witch-doctor’s plants, such as ephedra or belladonna, to treat asthma, to their great detriment, instead of looking to a medicine with the empirically-validated phlegm-drying virtues of “warmth” and “dryness,” such as Indian tobacco.

As one cannot argue with the willfully ignorant, I can only pray that our Legislators take decisive action for the licensing of doctors and pharmacists, and to punish swiftly and surely the selling of false and deleterious medicines.

[Disease really is spread by invisible organisms. Sage and wormwood are antiseptic. Arsenic and mercury were really put into medicines. Ephedra dilates bronchioles and belladonna reduces inflammations and spasms. And, tobacco was used to treat asthma under the Four Humours system of medicine, with rather limited success.]

November 26, 2011

The Devil’s Bean

Filed under: science, Soapbox — Tags: , , , , , , — paragardener @ 7:18 pm

One morning, I was in a hurry to get some herbs weighed out and packaged, so I skipped breakfast. Instead, I drank three or four cups of straight black coffee as I worked. The caffeine mobilized enough stored energy to float me through the task. By the time I was done, though, I felt pretty woozy and I had to go lie down. “Man,” I thought to myself, “this is worse than any drinking hangover of recent memory. I can’t get up and do anything — I might as well be dozing in a heroin nod, and that would feel much nicer anyways (so I’m told). Why is it that caffeine is treated as a soft drug, or even a non-drug? It’s clearly an evil, disabling substance!”

The acceptance or rejection of drugs into American society has been a bit arbitrary, as cultural taboos often are. Packaging and promoting tobacco like candy turned out to be a clusterfuck of global proportions — we probably should have left tobacco with its traditional indigenous users. On the other hand, ibogaine has mainly been used in this country as a one-shot cure for hard drug addiction, so you would think that the anti-drug folks would be promoting the stuff instead of banning it. I guess it’s too weird and African. There is a whole lot of culture and history reflected in the drug laws, sometimes pretty ugly. They weren’t exactly handed down by God on numbered tablets, you know what I’m saying?

So, let’s go together down the rabbit-hole of caffeine-inspired delusion, and imagine a world in which coffee, cocoa and tea have never been accepted into American society. For a long while, various state and local caffeine bans targeted Arab, Chinese or Latin American immigrant populations. Finally, in the late 1960’s, the federal government put caffeine into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act — that is, the lawbooks declared coffee to be dangerous and without medical benefit.

You can’t get coffee from a nice, safe grocery store in this world. “Coffee house” has all the sinister connotations of “crack house.” (Starbuck’s still exists, slinging different flavors of coca tea). Skinny, twitchy “caffiends” prowl the streets, committing petty thefts and muggings to raise cash for their next cup, because coffee is pleasurable, highly addictive, and illegal — much like heroin. It is also known to cause paranoia. Caffiends are totally consumed by a cycle of obtaining coffee, drinking coffee, acting wild under its influence, sleeping off the drain on their bodies, and then looking to score some more coffee before the dreaded withdrawals hit them. In this alternate reality, John Lennon still wrote the song “Cold Turkey,” but it’s entitled “This Headache.” Users are afraid to seek treatment for their addiction, or even discuss caffeine use with their doctor.

Coffee now costs $200 a pound, and it’s a crumbly, pale-tan bean you can expect for that price. Often, the bean is processed into crystal caffeine by laboratories in the coffee-growing countries. The beans are crushed by exploited children working giant mortars, and then a mixture of acetone and other solvents is poured over the grind, collected in drums, and evaporated to leave a somewhat pure white powder behind. Crystal caffeine is more dangerous than the natural form, and overdose cases are common in most emergency rooms across the United States. The massive illegal profits of the coffee business have supported violent criminal cartels, who wage civil wars in Columbia and (of course) Java.

Lately a new form of caffeine has hit the inner cities, a liquid form cheaper than the crystal. “Snap” is manufactured by basement cooks who dissolve the caffeine in dilute carbonic and phosphoric acids, and then add flavoring and a chemically modified form of sugar. Especially appealing to children, snap causes an ugly condition of dental decay and gum disease known as “snap mouth.”

Tens of thousands of Americans are locked up for caffeine or coffee-related offenses, though critics of the drug war point out that rehab would be a better option than jail. Some also point to coffee’s spiritual use in certain Muslim prayer traditions, and its medical use by migraineurs, as reasons to accept use of the drug in limited contexts. Police and prosecutors claim that the reformers are just trying to get their foot in the door for full legalization — it’s a thought that scares everyone but the hardest-core libertarians and radicals. Society would surely fall apart. Do you want to see a coffee house on your block, or what?

Well, that’s just a drug-fuelled fantasy. Is it realistic? Some American consumers would still want coffee if it were illegal, and it’s a truly addictive drug, to boot. So I would expect a black market to form, something that would fuel organized crime and gang violence, as well as promoting purified caffeine over bulky (hard to smuggle) coffee and tea. Coffee addicts might well feel paranoid, face social stigma, and just possibly go broke supporting their habit. I’m not trying to minimize the danger of hard drug use by comparing it to caffeine, but many of the health problems hard drug users experience are related to issues like irregular eating and sleep or sloppy injection techniques, and they’re just not inherent to any particular substance. Use caffeine stupidly enough, and you could wind up looking pretty rough.

The government would propagandize against caffeine and Hollywood and the local news would follow, so people would drink coffee with fears of addiction and insanity in mind, and lots of health problems and insane behavior would be blamed on caffeine.  The relative dangers of coffee against other foods and drugs would be almost impossible to weigh rationally. (If coffee turned out to be socially and medically benign even under harsh prohibition, the establishment would fall back on the “gateway drug” theory — coffee users are driven to find something stronger, like methamphetamine or cocaine. Since you’d have to break drug law taboo and talk to a drug dealer to get coffee, it might well be the beginning of a broader relationship with illegal drugs.)

It looks to me as if the danger in a plant or a chemical has a little bit to do with what the chemical does to the human body, and everything to do with how we treat it. We’re a multicultural country with access to basically the entire world of drugs, traditional or designer, and we’ve not found a way to handle that yet. Pop (aka snap), alcohol and Zoloft are aggressively marketed by their makers, their dangers downplayed to a disclaimer at the most. Coca and opium products, and methamphetamine are used secretly, and frequently with the expectation of self-destruction, which enhances their dangers. And a pariah like marijuana would cause very little harm were it not legally outcaste — the big downside is the risk of being caught, which can lead to paranoia and secretive behavior, besides the possible financial loss and jail time.

I drank some more coffee to fuel this rant. Now I’m sweating and my hands are shaking, I’m wondering if I can eat with my appetite ruined by this powerful stimulant, and I might be raving like a lunatic. I’ve tried to quit coffee (on account of worker exploitation and rainforest destruction), broken the physical addiction, and relapsed weeks later because of the hold the stuff has on my psyche. I’ve also enjoyed its flavor and buzz, stayed awake when needed, and bonded socially over coffee. By a certain logic, I ought to be arrested and thrown in jail or rehab with years of urine testing ahead of me, but I think that it’s better for both society and me if I’m allowed to handle my issue with a little more independence. Anyways, in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Most Prisoners, you can at least make up your own mind, as to what’s your cup of tea, and which cup of tea you think ought to be spiked with stigma and prison time.

Coffe and Tea

Drugs of abuse.

Blog at