Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 April - 2 May 2007
Issue No. 842
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Lubna Abdel-Aziz

'The bridge of sighs'

One more unfortunate, weary of breath
Rashly importunate, gone to her death!

Sadly we watched as yet another wasted young life crossed the bridge of this world, aided and abetted by the scourge of the century, drug use, or -- abuse.

Anna Nicole Smith

The bewitchingly beautiful Anna Nicole Smith died of an overdose of illegal prescription drugs, leaving behind a million unanswered questions. Though void of talent or meaningful productivity, Smith was nonetheless a symbol of radiance and glamour, with a league of female devotees and male hounds, relentlessly attracted to her ravishing animal magnetism and her flashy razzle-dazzle. Like her idol Marilyn Monroe, who also fell to a drug overdose at 36, Smith was only 39 and had just given birth to an infant daughter Danny-Lyn Smith. Three months earlier she had lost her only son Daniel, age 20, also to drugs. A lamentable story, of tragedy and tears and all for naught. Smith will not be the last.

"Drugs" have been the silent oppressor and liberator of human society for the last 200 years. They have saved millions and killed multitudes since the beginning of the drug revolution, which effectively began around 1800s, catapulting pharmacology into an important science and a formidable industry. One of medicine's major tools, manufactured drugs, once the dominion of the Germans, has been overtaken by the US, which now leads the world in drug production. We need drugs. They have endless benefits, but they also present overwhelming challenges. While curing and preventing disease, their misuse can lead to a fatal addiction. The widespread use of illegal drugs has created a monstrous black market trade, which continues to flourish despite the best efforts of enforcement agencies.

The pace of the drug revolution quickened in the 1900s when hormones, antibiotics, sulpha and other major drugs were discovered. It was likewise discovered that certain drugs caused physical and psychological dependence. Alcohol, barbiturates and especially heroin lead to addiction. Addictive drugs activate pain reward circuits that are normally activated by attention which causes the release of endorphins and dopamines. Addicts constantly need larger doses to maintain their "high," often at great expense to their health, family and friends. It was not always so. Prehistoric peoples probably used drugs long before the first civilisations arose. Most likely they observed that their ills disappeared after they ate certain plants. The oldest known written record of drug use is a clay tablet from the ancient Sumerian civilisation (2000 BC), listing about a dozen drug prescriptions. An Egyptian scroll about 1550 BC names more than 800 prescriptions containing about 700 drugs. The ancient Chinese, Greeks, and Romans, also used many drugs, including squill, castor oil, and opium to relieve pain. With the decline of science in Europe during the Middle Ages (400 -- 1500 AD) Arab knowledge flourished, but scientists remained ignorant of the functions of the human body. Opium ranked as the most effective pain relieving drug until the 19th century when they learned to isolate morphine from opium poppy (1898).

It provides a sense of extreme calm and well- being. Troubles seem unimportant, transporting us into an unreal world of contentment and harmony. is it any wonder that we smoke, sniff, or eat it for these calming effect?

Opium has now become relatively rare, as major traders prefer the refined version -- heroin -- which is not only stronger, but also 1,000 times more profitable. Powerful and addictive, heroin is emerging as the world's major drug killer. It produces intense euphoria, which disappears with increasing tolerance. Heroin began to appear as a cultural artefact within a few years of its discovery in 1874. It has since been both demonised and glamorised, but its popularity continues to rise. It made an entrance in literary circles with the likes of Thomas de Quincy in his autobiographical record "Confessions of an English Opium Eater". (1822): "Thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh just, subtle, and mighty opium." Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as well as his detective, Sherlock Holmes, delighted in the use of cocaine and morphine. Other giant figures also rejoiced in the use of opiates, like Leonardo da Vinci, Francois Rabelais, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sigmund Freud, Alexandre Dumas, Friederich Nietzsche, Samuel Becket and Oscar Wilde.

The music industry was the worst hit by the drug invasion and lost many of its young stars prematurely to what the medical profession prefers to call, 'substance abuse'. Following WWII many leading musicians became "jazz junkies". The emergence of Mafia-run drugs raised the bar from marijuana to heroin, readily placing them in the hands of sensitive, vulnerable performers. Legends like Billie Holliday, Miles Davies, and Ray Charles all served prison sentences. The trend moved from jazz to rock, killing the likes of young talents like Janis Joplin, Jimi Morrison, Jim Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. Other victims include Judy Garland, daughter Liza Minelli, the Beatles, and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Hearts break at the sight of fragile talents like Robert Downey Jr., Whitney Houston, Britney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan.

To qualify as being drug dependent, one must a) take a drug regularly, b) experience unpleasant symptoms if discontinued -- making it impossible to stop. The most common drug addictions however, are the legal ones, alcohol and cigarette smoking. They too can kill, indirectly, and in greater numbers.

With so much profit to be made in a trade that generated over $323 billion in the US alone (2003), higher than the amount of money spent on food for the same period, is there any conceivable way of stopping it? Perhaps further genetic studies will be able to isolate, remove, or even eliminate the addictive gene for good. Meanwhile our strongest weapon is knowledge, and the instinctive sense of self-preservation, before that too, is lost.

Owning her weakness, her evil behaviour,

And leaving with meekness

Her sins to her Saviour

From, "The Bridge of Sighs"

Thomas Hood

(1798 -- 1845)

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