“Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” proclaimed John Stuart Mill in his 1859 essay On Liberty. “What business of it is yours what I do, read, buy, see, or take into my body as long as I do not harm another human being on this planet?” demanded the American comic agitator Bill Hicks, before answering, “None of your fucking business. Take that to the bank, cash it, and go fucking on a vacation out of my life.” The Canadian journalist and citizen-of-the-world Taras Grescoe assesses the full implications of this individual “sovereignty” with eloquence and erudition in The Devil’s Picnic (2005) – his account of a year-long, around-the-world investigation into controversial and/or illegal substances – but he soon staggers away from sober libertarian principles, to discover that society is a rather more untidy business than he had first assumed. “If I started out as something of a libertarian…” Grescoe confesses, “I ended up with a more nuanced view of how prohibition, and particularly drug prohibition, could be handled.”
Grescoe is a reporter in the same sense as Tintin: he embarks upon adventures in a series of colourful and exotic settings, without being troubled by any onerous journalistic responsibilities. After Grescoe arrives in Oslo or Singapore, or La Paz, his contacts will guide him towards the authentic heart of some cultural secret. All of the local peasants are good ole boys, heartily munching away on their coca leaves or bulls’ testicles in defiance of attempts to interfere with their native traditions. At times, one wishes that all of the meddling prohibitionists and moralising spoilsports whom Grescoe rails against could be personified into a single arch-nemesis, whose wicked schemes to shut down moonshine stills and coca plantations could be foiled by Grescoe and Snowy, with hand-to-hand combat and explosions.
In truth, The Devil’s Picnic delivers a not entirely seamless synthesis of travel narrative and political manifesto. The observation and analysis jolt the reader in different directions, and whilst the book never quite gets into its polemical stride, its reporting stumbles over some dubious cultural assumptions. Grescoe is a great believer in national characteristics, and he recounts how the Norwegians’ attitudes towards drinking are attributable to the historical shortage of grain in a cold climate, or how Spain arrived in the twenty-first century “the way a bull storms into a ring: raging at its long confinement, with generations of atavistic impulses bred into its blood…” The reader will, of course, identify more with the aloofly cosmopolitan Grescoe than with those cast in the shadow of his national stereotypes. Luckily, Grescoe does not turn up in Britain, where our reputed love for drunken violence is presumably a historical reaction to Puritan repression or imperialist discipline, or something. It is plain, however, that any potential celebration of liberty is undermined by an insistence that peoples’ lives are an extension of their history and scenery.
But perhaps one is being too hard on Grescoe. After all, it must be a very jolly thing to be a peasant. At one point, Grescoe visits La Paz, which despite national strikes and street protests, still “knew how to show a visitor a good time…” Grescoe compares the northern “stockbrokers and PR people chopping up lines with their credit cards and snorting their savings” in a “culture of mindless consumption,” to the Bolivian peasants living simpler and happier lifestyles, epitomised by the easygoing act of chewing coca leaves. Grescoe’s Bolivian host remonstrates that, “The people you saw probably don’t snort cocaine themselves. They use the little money they get to fix up their roof, repair their vans, or buy toys for their kids.” These blameless peasants “could only tuck another quid into their cheeks and sigh: Son locos, these gringos. It had all been foretold: according to the legend, those who, rather than respectfully plucking the leaves, tore up the venerated plant by its roots – like the eradicators from the north – would inevitably be punished by Pachamama.” After bowing to this peasant wisdom, Grescoe hops on a departing plane for the next country.
The Devil’s Picnic provides a textbook portrait or performance of cosmopolitanism. At the end of his book, Grescoe reflects upon the nation in which he would ideally “seek asylum”: Switzerland is “a trifle boring and paranoid, and more than a little smug”; Norway and Singapore are terrorised by “paternalistic busybodies”; France is “so stagnant, stiff, and mired in its past glory that I’d be worried about developing premature arthritis”; Canada “gets a little too cold for my liking in the winter”; but one can always depend upon “sloppy, anachronistic, paradoxical Spain.” Only America is too complicated to be defined in a jingly little phrase: San Francisco, it seems, is quite different from Manhattan. Nevertheless, how splendid it must be to select a country like an item on a lunch menu.
The cosmopolitan Grescoe has outgrown his appetite for narcotics as well as for nationalism. He observes that “the idea isn’t too far-fetched: a well-fed but uninvigorating urban existence can lead people to seek toxic stimulation, just as bored, caged animals welcome almost any drugs their captors give them.” He finds that the “drive towards sexual pleasure; the urge to temporarily escape day-to-day consciousness through intoxication; the questioning of the value of one’s existence, particularly when it seems too painful to endure – all are part of what it means to be human.” The idea that human reality is in itself unbearable – and deserving of transcendence – is a rather unhappy one, but Grescoe has himself graduated from narcotic escapism. In his youth he overdid it with “codeine, morphine, heroin, methadone, paregoric, anything I could get my hands on” and he consequently experienced “mononucleosis, several candid infections, an overdose, and, finally, an epileptic fit.” He is now older and wiser, and he enjoys illicit things as a connoisseur rather than as an addict.
Grescoe contends that true libertarianism demands liberty from both the prohibitions of the state and the addictions of the body: “The only complete pleasures, I’d come to realize, were voluntary ones.” He notes that when “an infernal hankering has robbed you of your free will,” narcotics provide a “predicable euphoria… more relief than joy.” He finally ends up championing “moderation”: he is anxious to remain only acquainted with profound highs, and to keep addiction at arms length.
In Switzerland, Grescoe learned that absinthe distillers often oppose the legalisation of their product because they fear that big brewers will popularise a bastardised version of the old, original drink. After observing coca farming in Bolivia, the development of the tobacco industry, and Swiss euthanasia clinics, Grescoe concludes that commerce tends to corrupt the social use of drugs, and that it should be ideally removed from the equation altogether. Yet although The Devil’s Picnic has already ventured some suspicious cultural assertions, the bombshell in the epilogue remains genuinely jaw-dropping. An “unregulated free market in drugs” is, it seems, “an absurdity.” Grescoe warns that the idea “that users will somehow regulate their consumption and sagely reject harmful products fails to take into account the insidiousness of addiction, or the deferred health consequences of products like tobacco and alcohol…”
Grescoe claims, of course, that he has himself conquered addiction under his own volition, but like any good paternalist he is worried that others will not fare so well. He admirably denounces “paternalistic laws” which “keep us in protracted adolescence by professing to protect us from ourselves,” only to contradict this somewhat by declaring that in his youth “prohibition, I still believe, almost killed me.” But Grescoe, you were sufficiently at liberty to have “almost killed” yourself. The bossy government of Singapore incites Grescoe to a rampage of petty adolescent rebellion, whilst many of the acts which he claims that the state should not interfere in all sound, well, kind of teenaged: “growing cannabis in your own garden, and smoking marijuana in your own home. Getting shitfaced drunk. Masturbating.” Naughty boy!
Grescoe concludes that the “resolution to the War on Drugs…” lies not in legalisation nor decriminalisation, “but in decommodification.” We can only hope that drugs will lose their price and glamour, that nobody will have to go to prison, and that the prohibitionists’ laws will lie about unused. Grescoe wishes to extract drugs from the capitalist economy, and to thereby protect the potential consumers of legalised drugs from wicked pharmaceutical corporations. Legalising drugs “would be tantamount to selling the world into chemical slavery.” The little people, it seems, would be helpless to resist the thought of cocaine on the supermarket shelves, but after the necessary refinement of the palate, cultivated in a legal twilight, they would attain a maturity as consumers, or a post-consumer status, in which they would freely give each other drugs like Christmas presents. At this Devil’s Picnic, we end up dining on a hearty portion of fudge.