Why is one of the most powerful psychoactive drugs we have so socially acceptable in so many countries? … is a question you don’t hear many in the wine trade asking very often. In fact wine is seen as sophisticated in a way most alcohol isn’t so it is especially privileged in the world of ‘drugs’. I do not think that there is a conspiracy and many wine writers do engage with health issues but ‘we invite you to a vertical tasting of…’ sounds very different from ‘come and indulge in a drugfest with likeminded heads….’. Wine is the most sublimated of drugs in the way that the social ritual of imbibing has become sign of sophistication rather than inadequacy or dependency. This could be seen as rooted in the ancient ideas of wine having metaphysical connections and being an aid to contemplation. Linked to this was the idea that it was noble to ‘hold your drink’ and not become base or drunken.
I know people say that they would drink wine and be fascinated by its taste even if it was non-alcoholic (and am sure this is true for a small minority) but the vast majority of people associate this juice with a pleasant intoxication (or unpleasant when a hangover results). They buy it for a buzz as well having something nice to go with food and to display their sophistication.
‘Big Pharma’ has to do a few good deeds to distract people from the massive profits it amasses (although Glaxo have just lost a fortune on one new product that had some unfortunate outcomes in trials) and the Wellcome Trust excels at this. The latest exhibition ‘High Society’ at the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road is aposite because it focuses on drugs. The exhibition guide opens by stating “Every society on earth is a high society” and continues by suggesting that consciousness alteration is a “universal human impulse”‘. Whether use of specific substances is categorised as a crime, vice, disease, recreation, ritual or everyday practice is very much arbitrary and rooted in socio-historical dimensions not in the nature or effects of the substance itself.
In the spirit of scientific categorisation an excerpt from the ‘Exhibit Captions’ follows;
21 Amyl Nitrite, 22 Digital cannabis vaporiser, 23 Wine, 24 Lophophora williamsii (Peyote catus), 25 Opium pipe
It was also sobering to see some of the prohibition posters presenting wine as a gateway drug (image above)! The website (here) also has some superb images and they are free for educational purposes. This great exhibition runs until 27th February and the standing collection, library, bookshop and cafe are well worth the time too.