DRCNet Book Review: "Can't Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000" by Martin Torgoff (Simon & Schuster, 2004, 474 Pages, Notes/Bibliography/Index, $27.95) 7/2/04

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- Steve Beitler for DRCNet

Ronald Reagan's death and Bill Clinton's book have sparked a collective flashback to the 1980s and '90s. Drug reformers (and others) can be excused for not leaping aboard this unctuous bandwagon; they may be struggling to ride out a media bombardment that activates memories many would rather keep dormant. Sappy tributes to the Gipper exclude the Reagan whose transgressions include the vigorous launch of the modern dark age of the drug war. And when it was to spiff up the legacy, Bill Clinton, whose tenure brought a 100% increase in marijuana arrests, didn't devote a lot of space in his new book to drug policy.

Martin Torgoff's "Can't Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000" is a welcome antidote to the Reagan-Clinton media circus. The book energetically sketches the canvas of drug use in America, "not as a formal history but a journey through the experience and culture of illicit drugs." Torgoff has done a lot of good research and he writes well. He spoke to an impressive roster of luminaries and ordinary people, and they help make the book a useful primer on the social history of heroin, marijuana, amphetamine and cocaine use as well as (if you're old enough) an engaging stroll down memory lane.

Torgoff and his subjects frequently recapture the feel of different moments. "There was a short period of time... when it felt inevitable that our kind of life was going to grow until the institutions fell and we would simply be taking care of each other on a block-by-block basis," recalled Lynn House, who moved from New York to San Francisco just in time for the Summer of Love in 1967. Torgoff also weaves in his personal story without intruding on (or deepening) the larger narrative.

And a large narrative it is, organized chronologically and spanning a vast and raucous scene. Torgoff begins in New York after World War II, when Herbert Huncke and Alan Ginsberg and the Beats were finding their voices. He encounters and writes about (all lists are partial) the pioneers (Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Ann and Sasha Shulgin), the artists (Charlie Parker, Grace Slick, Andy Warhol, Oliver Stone), the one-of-a-kinds (Wavy Gravy, Augustus Owsley Stanley III, Hunter Thompson), the scholars (Terrence McKenna) and the reformers (Keith Stroup, Rick Doblin, Marsha Rosenbaum). Torgoff also brings to life some lesser lights such as Tom Forcade, drug smuggler and founder of High Times magazine, and Lance Loud, who became an amphetamine and amyl nitrate fan after he had arrived on and departed America's radar screen in 1973 as part of the first-ever reality TV show, "An American Family."

The book has a lot of good stories. Oliver Stone tells about the time he slipped LSD into his father's Scotch. "He was scared," said Stone, "but he was having a ball and suspected I had done it. He talked about it until the day he died." But Torgoff's encounters with regular folks are often more compelling. Sylvia Nunn, aka Rambo, is an OG – Original Gangster – who has been gangbanging as a member of the Bloods "since the very start of the scene... When she became Homecoming Queen [in high school], her mother gave her flowers and her father presented her with a sawed-off pump shotgun." Dawn Reynolds attended the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival as an 18-year-old "alabaster beauty" who was known as an "acid angel" in Los Angeles and who "looked sophisticated way beyond her years and exuded a bold open sensuality." Reynolds was in San Francisco for the Summer of Love, after which she "wandered from scene to scene, drug to drug, man to man, up and down the California coast." By the early '70s, Reynolds made the discovery that so many others would come to and that would give that decade its peculiar stamp: "The path was within, and the subject was me."

Torgoff recounts a conversation with his father "that would inspire this book." His father challenged him to "go ahead and tell me -- what did any of it really mean?" This is where Torgoff's book loses its freshness and lapses into platitudes. "... as a society we face enormously difficult and complex problems concerning the use of illicit drugs," he writes. "Only through the most rigorously honest appraisal of this subject will we ever be able to make sense of the past." True enough, but hardly new. Torgoff's book scores high for its profiles and its social history; readers looking for compelling interpretations of that history will be disappointed.

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Issue #344, 7/2/04 Editorial: Under Its Own Weight | Supreme Court Ruling Portends Massive Changes in Federal Sentencing -- Thousands Could Benefit from Reduced Sentences, Early Releases on Appeal | Federal Judge Declares Sentencing Guidelines Unconstitutional | Supreme Court to Hear Federal Government Appeal in California Medical Marijuana Case | International Anti-Drugs Day Marked by Executions in China, "Revolutionary Justice" in India, Silly Stuff Elsewhere | DRCNet Book Review: "Can't Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000" by Martin Torgoff (Simon & Schuster, 2004, 474 Pages, Notes/Bibliography/Index, $27.95) | Newsbrief: Bill Introduced in Congress Would Mandate Ten Years to Life for Some Marijuana Sales | Newsbrief: New Jersey Needle Exchange Battle Continues | Newsbrief: Iran Wants to Ban Water Pipes | Newsbrief: European Drug Agency Punctures "Not Your Father's Marijuana" Myth | Newsbrief: North Carolina Supreme Court Settles Dispute, Declares Cocaine Possession Is a Felony | Media Scan: Ethan Nadelmann in National Review | This Week in History | The Reformer's Calendar
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