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Surprising Science

The Health Benefits of Intoxication

New medical claims have brought once illicit drugs back into fashion, argues Cambridge University fellow Victoria Harris, showing how capricious our attitudes toward drugs really are. 

What’s the Latest Development?

Socially accepted intoxicants like alcohol and tobacco are facing a new wave of government regulation as policy makers try to control the economic toll exacted by an unhealthy citizenry. Meanwhile, new research has found that psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin mushrooms effectively treat conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism. Cambridge University fellow Victoria Harris says that in addition to medical data, cultural norms play a strong role in determining which drugs society will ultimately allow its members to consume. 

What’s the Big Idea?

Harris draws on the history of German pharmaceutical companies, which during the age of tuberculosis produced two new medicines to alleviate symptoms of the cough. One was today’s ubiquitous aspirin, the other was heroin. Harris argues that “Germany’s heavily interventionist state structure made regulating consumption rituals and the trade of products between companies and citizens relatively simple and acceptable.” The English and American societies, by contrast, emphasized a liberal individualism which placed emphasis on criminalizing personal possession. 

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