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Full Review
Focus on Hallucinogens (Drug Alert Series)
by Jeffrey Shulman, Illustrated by David Neuhaus
Twenty First Century Books 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Lux, 8/22/2008

The cover of Jeffrey Shulman’s Focus on Hallucinogens accurately conveys the ideological perspective of this book. Four smiling cartoon children wearing “Just Say NO to Drugs” t-shirts sit in a classroom beneath a golden logo announcing that this is “A Drug-Alert Book”. Sure enough, Focus on Hallucinogens systematically excludes any positive characterization of psychedelic substance use and exaggerates the harms. Hallucinogens, we learn, “make the world everyone knows look strange. They make the world we know look like a bad dream.” It is clearly not intended to provide a balanced or nuanced picture of why people take psychedelic substances.

That said, Focus on Hallucinogens is much better than it could be. While it does not acknowledge that anyone in the modern world could take psychedelics and have a pleasant or useful experience, it is well-researched and it contains some good information. Shulman offers a decent middle school primer to hallucinogens and gives a serviceable overview of the history of their use in traditional cultures. He is careful to distinguish between the dopers of today and “ancient” cultures like the Fang, Mazatec, or Huichol people. I don’t agree that these people who still live today are best described as “ancient”, but at least they are mentioned.

The book explains that “magic” mushroom use had important religious uses in the New World before they were violently suppressed by Spanish colonial forces:

The Spanish leaders tried to stop the use of hallucinogens by Native American tribes. But they wanted the Indians to give up more than just hallucinogenic drugs. They wanted them to give up their own religions and to become Christians. These conquerors from across the Atlantic Ocean were determined to destroy the native way of life.

Such candor is refreshing, and it follows a good description of why some cultures used psychedelic entheogens. The book briefly describes the use of mushrooms in divinatory, initiatory, visionary, and healing rites, and quotes an unnamed shaman as saying “’If I ask them why this man or woman is sick, the mushroom spirits will tell me.”

Focus on Hallucinogens draws a sharp distinction between the religious use of drugs and recreational use. Traditional cultures “did not use hallucinogens the way many people use them today. They did not use them to get ‘high’. They did not use them because they thought hallucinogens would give them a ‘good time.’ The ancient people of the world knew how powerful these drugs could be, and they used them carefully and for very special reasons.”

I’m intrigued that Shulman says traditional cultures did not use hallucinogens “the way many people use them today” (emphasis added). Some people in the modern world do not use psychedelics to get high, but instead for reasons that resemble the religious uses described in this book. Shulman stops short of saying that some people might have positive experiences with some of these substances, but the dots are all there—they just need to be connected.

Despite such tantalizing promises of a complex picture, the book characterizes the modern psychedelics user as someone who takes drugs to flee a difficult and painful world, and finds themselves locked in a bad dream.

The chapter on LSD contains a description of Albert Hofmann’s discovery, probably drawn from his account in LSD; My Problem Child. Shulman describes Hofmann’s Bicycle Day discovery and catalogs the effects he experienced during his first full-fledged LSD trip, noting “The faces of the people around him began to look like horrible masks” and “He ‘babbled’ nonsense and ‘shouted half crazily.’ He couldn’t control his thoughts and emotions.”

As a matter of intellectual conscience, I would pose the following question to the author. How could you carefully and accurately report those experiences, but omit all of Hofmann’s positive observations? Yes, Hofmann saw the disturbing images you describe, but he also said:

Now, little by little I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes. Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux.

Hofmann described awakening the next morning with a “sensation of well-being and renewed life”, feeling enthusiasm and optimism for his new discovery. [LSD; My Problem Child, pg. 50]

The crucial word from Hofmann’s account that Shulman omits is “enjoy”. In the dismal world of this book, a million people took LSD in the 1960s only to experience harrowing nightmares. MDMA causes “nausea, vomiting, and strong feelings of depression and nervousness”, but not euphoria, empathy, stimulation, disinhibition, or fun.

A thoughtful young reader will perceive the obvious contradictions in the information that this book presents. When will prohibitionists learn the obvious? The attempt to purge drug information of any positive mention backfires. It is transparently manipulative, and in the long run it robs the one-sided information source of credibility. Witness the total failure of D.A.R.E.

While most of the information contained in this book is accurate, there are some errors. For example, Shulman claims that “People who continue to use LSD begin to need stronger and stronger doses of the drug to get the same effect they did at first. They have developed tolerance to the drug.” This is clearly misleading. LSD tolerance is well known to be extremely short-lived—3-4 days at the most.

A practical problem with this book is that the author seems undecided about the age of his intended audience. The illustrations and the simple grammar suggest it is intended for young readers, perhaps under the age of 12. However, some passages may be too technical for a reader of that age level, and indeed, library catalogs list it in Young Adult (Grades 7 through 9).

It is possible that in our current political climate, this is the best we can expect from a middle school book on hallucinogens. The majority of the information is accurate even though only one side is presented. It is arguable that the book’s good qualities outweigh its obvious flaws.

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