Getting high: London exhibition charts global love of drugs

11th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Whether they are used for medicine, inspiration or pure pleasure, the world's use of mind-altering drugs is charted in a new exhibition that opened in London Thursday.

Without exercising any moral judgment, "High Society" at the Wellcome Trust relates how every society has its own favourite drug, from cannabis, opium and magic mushrooms through to the legal highs of coffee and alcohol.

In manuscripts and texts, the exhibition highlights the writers who used drugs as an inspiration, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge who wrote the poem "Kubla Khan" after an opium dream, and Charles Baudelaire, who related his experiences of hashish and opium in "Les Paradis Artificiels".

But it also charts the damaging effects of the drugs and in particular the often violent drugs trade, and highlights how the opium business contributed in large part to the the rise of the British Empire.

In addition, "High Society" details some surprising research into the impact of drugs, including a NASA experiment on spiders which found that caffeine, more than any other drug, caused them to spin crazy webs.

More than 200 exhibits are on show from tobacco pipes to injecting kits, hookah pipes and the cutters used on betel nuts (which are chewed as a mild stimulant), charting drug usage through the ages.

While many drugs -- whether hallucinogenic, stimulant or sedative -- are still used in indigenous populations, the use of cocaine and opium-derived substances are subject to widespread prohibition.

In the early 20th century, it was common practice in many Western cultures to treat a coughing child with heroin syrup or give asthma sufferers cigarettes made of cannabis, but the tide began to change in the 1920s.

Fears over the health problems caused by drugs grew and by 1961, a United Nations convention on narcotic drugs led to their widespread criminalisation.

"High Society" runs until February 27 next year.

© 2010 AFP

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