CAN'T FIND MY WAY HOME

America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000

By Martin Torgoff. Simon & Schuster. 545 pp. $27.95

Each year, police make more than 700,000 marijuana-related arrests in the United States. Some 80 percent of public school districts still teach the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program even though the General Accounting Office has declared it ineffective. In 2003, comedian Tommy Chong went to federal prison for the high crime of selling bongs via the Internet. In such a climate, it takes courage to say anything positive about illegal drugs (or, as the federal government moralistically prefers to call them, illicit drugs).

So Martin Torgoff's Can't Find My Way Home is a brave book, simply because it seeks to "chronicle . . . the use of illicit drugs in America without sensationalizing, apologizing, moralizing or demonizing." It's also a generally successful effort, in many ways as pleasantly and richly intoxicating as a double hit of Humboldt County, Calif.'s finest.

Torgoff, author of Elvis: We Love You Tender and a biography of the musician John Cougar Mellencamp, ranges widely in documenting the profound influence of drugs on postwar America. Between an encyclopedic bibliography and dozens of original interviews with folks ranging from the Doors' record producer Paul A. Rothchild to National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) founder Keith Stroup to the "acid angel" Dawn Reynolds, the reader gets a contact high from touring a number of legendary drug-infused scenes. Allen Ginsberg's reading of "Howl" at San Francisco's Six Gallery; a typically debauched evening at New York's Studio 54, "the high temple of the Great Stoned Age"; the seminal '90s Ecstasy event A Rave Called Sharon -- Torgoff represents all these and more in well-rendered detail. He also gives due weight to gloomier tales, ranging from Charlie Parker's tormented love affair with heroin to '60s clown Wavy Gravy's showdown with Charles Manson at a California commune to the suicide of High Times magazine founder Tom Forcade.

Throughout, Torgoff drives home the point that not only have nearly half of Americans tried at least one "illicit" drug but also that such substances "have long since become part of a deeply personal and complicated prism of American life. . . . From politics to the arts, drugs have shaped the American cultural landscape . . . [and] entered the mainstream of American social experience."

While documenting everything from Timothy Leary's proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing "the individual's right to seek an expanded consciousness" to the origins of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign, Torgoff also mounts a convincing criticism of the "pharmacological Calvinism" that underwrites the war on drugs -- the roughly $40-billion-a-year law enforcement effort that has intensified the violence, crime and substance abuse patterns associated with black markets. As an alternative to prohibition, he champions "harm reduction" measures espoused by contemporary drug policy reformers such as former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, medical marijuana activist Dennis Peron and Ethan Nadelmann, a former Princeton University professor who now heads the Drug Policy Alliance. Nadelmann emerges as perhaps the most eloquent spokesman for new drug laws that "hold people responsible for their actions, but don't punish them for what they put into their bodies."

For all its many merits, however, Can't Find My Way Home is, in the end, something of a downer, a bummer -- maybe even a bad trip. Torgoff smartly acknowledges that public discussion of drugs is typically hyperbolic, oscillating between zealots who claim that certain substances can (and should) transform all of human society and drug warriors who unconvincingly see a future junkie lurking in every casual marijuana smoker. Torgoff knows better, writing "that for the vast majority of people the truth of drugs will always lie somewhere between the extremes."

Yet his personal experience with drugs, a significant part of the book, is nothing if not unrepresentative, veering as it does between abuse and abstinence. Coming of age in the '60s and '70s, Torgoff frankly admits, "The only time I ever turned down a drug was when I didn't understand the question." Later, he discusses his involvement with 12-step programs and writes that "in the fifteenth year of my sobriety . . . I have never been happier." While there's no question that "the extremes" make for much more interesting reading, it's disappointing that even a book seeking to "demystify" drugs ultimately reinscribes a longstanding dualism about mind-altering substances. If nothing else, it suggests that a truly measured discussion of American drug use is yet to come. *

Nick Gillespie (gillespie@reason.com) is editor of Reason and of the forthcoming "Choice: The Best of Reason Magazine."