Many years ago, on a teenage bicycling trip in Europe, my brother and I returned to the hostel to find our companions roaring drunk. While we were out riding, they bought beer—the cheapest they could find. Now the beer was gone and our friends were flying, or at least they were until my brother read the German label and pointed out that the beer was cheap because it contained no alcohol. Never have kids sobered up so fast.
Today we have the opposite problem, and one reason is craft beer. Not long ago, “two beers” meant two 12-ounce bottles of 5 percent alcohol for a total of 24 ounces of beer, 1.2 ounces of alcohol, and 300 calories. But craft beers are served in 16-ounce pints and often contain 6.5 percent alcohol or more. So “two beers” is now 32 total ounces, 2.08 ounces of alcohol, and 545 calories! Two beers and you’re flying—or would be, but you’re too fat.
Afterward, we wake up in the morning to a choice: Make coffee or hold out for Starbucks—and we now often choose to drive and to pay much more. Is it the ambiance? Or is it because Starbucks feeds our addiction with the highest caffeine content in the land? I have never tried an “energy” drink because they seem such an obviously bad idea, but I’ll drive out of my way for a Starbucks vente, which has 415 milligram of caffeine—about the same as a scary time bomb called 10-Hour Energy. After reading Peggy La Cerra’s caffeine article on page 58, I started my morning with a 200-milligram capsule of God’s Speed pure caffeine and felt my desire for coffee evaporate—and I thought I really liked the bitter black brew.
Caffeine from coffee originated in Ethiopia, where legend has it that goats ate the berries and stayed up all night—giving humans a bright idea. But earlier humans probably followed the bees, which choose caffeine-laced nectar whenever they can get it. The drug makes bees smarter. People too.
Bees and people also benefit from nicotine, but purveyors of nicotine now have to be especially clever because tobacco has become so unfashionable. Last year the Massachusetts Department of Public Health noted that the nicotine content of cigarettes hadn’t changed from 1998 to 2012, but the nicotine “yield” (the amount of nicotine delivered to the smoker) increased by 15 percent. Somehow, cigarettes had become both more potent and more addictive—without requiring a change in labeling. I might be more aghast by this insidious manipulation if it weren’t that my neighbors are doing pretty much the same thing. They grow marijuana that is nothing like the giggle weed I tried as a kid. One hit of this now-legal recreational drug knocked me flat.
This isn’t a modern problem. Starting about 10,000 years ago, tobacco began to extend its natural homeland from the Andes to as far north as Michigan by becoming symbiotic with people—and the bond was nicotine. Some ancient tobaccos packed 20 times the nicotine of modern cigarettes. The contact high from picking these plants could cause hallucinations and even kill. Not only were the shamans addicted, their gods were addicted. And that raises a cool question: Did shamans pack tobacco leaves into leather pouches for symbolic reasons or because the sappy leaves transformed the leather pouch into a nicotine “patch.” Ironically, to become a mass-market recreational drug for the Europeans, tobacco had to become much less potent.
Brother David Steindl-Rast describes spirituality as “total aliveness,” and our addictive substances clearly help make us feel that way. Once upon a time they were hard to find or hard to process, so the use was ritualized to fully experience the gifts. But now they are so cheap and ubiquitous that we can easily get caught up in a mass-market arms race that we are not equipped to handle. We get hooked without noticing, feel intoxicated when we’re not, and don’t feel intoxicated when we are. This is not really a moral problem or a legal problem. It’s a lack of calibration. The solution is to step back and create mindful new rituals and processes so that we are able to safely experience all the naturally interesting and wonderful things we are able to do ourselves.