The Devil’s Picnic, by Taras Grescoe (Macmillan)

Knowledge, according to Freud, is desire, and the strongest desire is reserved for what is forbidden. If you can’t have it, you want it. If you still can’t have it – if laws and terrible penalties stand in your way of getting it – you want it even more, and resort to ever more desperate and (because it is illegal) criminal ways to have it. Prohibition in America made criminals out of nearly everyone from the President down, and created a black market so lucrative that crime had to organize itself to cope with the size of the windfall. Today’s War On Drugs is one of Prohibition’s legacies, and the tactics haven’t changed one bit.

Taras Grescoe’s argument, in this entertaining book, is essentially that of essayist and philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill said that if a man wanted something, and no one else was harmed by him having it, the law had no business standing in his way. The proviso is important: it concedes the inevitability of some restrictions on human behaviour. Don’t ignore a red light – you might hit somebody. Don’t mischievously shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. Don’t punch your boss, or force drink on minors. The government has every right to legislate in these areas. But if you want to drink yourself stupid, or to inject heroin into your veins, or to end it all with a razor or a lethal dose of barbiturate, then as a thinking adult, that’s your responsibility, and no one else’s. (It goes without saying that the consequences of your actions are your responsibility, too.)

Mill is as relevant as he ever was, but no one much outside of philosophy departments reads him these days. Philosophy tends to be a dry stick, and dry sticks don’t attract readers. Readers don’t want a disquisition, they want a story.

Grescoe gives them one. He demonstrates the essential rightness of Mill’s position, and the essential absurdity of the position of nearly every government in the world, by deliberately seeking out whatever has somewhere, sometime, been deemed fit to ban. In Norway, he samples hjemmebrent, the lighter fluid that masquerades as moonshine. On a flight to Singapore, he packs poppyseed crackers, chewing gum and soft porn in his hand luggage. (Chewing gum has since been made legal in Singapore. The soft porn and poppyseed crackers still aren’t.) He smokes Cuban cigars in health-nutty San Francisco; eats French cheese made from unpasteurised milk in New York; guzzles absinthe in Switzerland; and chews coca leaves in Bolivia. Along the way, he examines the argument that the restrictive food regulations of the European Union and the United States are responsible for the extinction of many national and regional delicacies.

Some of these delicacies will not be missed, or not by me. I have no wish to partake of the putrid pleasures of surströmming, the herring savoured by Swedes that rots in the can. Nor do I wish to nibble casu marzu, the Sardinian cheese that is considered ready to eat when it is crawling with tiny, transparent maggots. (The maggots must be crawling; if they are dead, the cheese is no longer fresh.) And bulls’ testicles, however elegantly prepared, are still bulls’ testicles. The author devours a plateful of these in Spain, and complains about their small size – to be informed that it’s the off-season, when they serve pigs’ testicles instead.

Other bans are more baffling. Why, for instance, is the raw-milk Epoisses cheese, a speciality in France, banned in the United States? To sell to the Americans, the French must pasteurise the milk used – and destroy what makes the cheese so distinctive. Listeria is certainly a risk, but compared to the ground meat that is the ubiquitous staple of American hamburgers and barbecues, with its cocktail of growth-promotants, antibiotics, genetic modifications and bacteria, the cheese is a much safer and healthier bet. Yet the meat, which kills around 500 Americans every year, comes without any health warnings or labelling at all.

As Grescoe makes clear, the policies on banned substances have more to do with economics than with wellbeing. He argues for the decommodification of illicit substances – for state-controlled supply of, for example, heroin, free to addicts. This sounds a bit crazy, but Switzerland has had such a state programme in place for over 10 years. Crimes committed by addicts to support their habit no longer happen, and the criminal organizations that sourced and sold heroin have had to find new day-jobs. The addicts themselves are, in increasing numbers, voluntarily abstaining from the drug, thanks to the education and rehabilitation programmes available at the dispensing clinics.

Maybe it would only work in Switzerland. And maybe not. The War On Drugs waged by the Reagan and successive American administrations isn’t working anywhere. As long as you forbid something, you ensure that there’s a market for it. Mark Twain had it right when he said God’s mistake was in not forbidding the serpent. If he had, Adam and Eve would have eaten that – and saved us all a lot of bother.

Christchurch Press

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Tim Tweets