Ceremonial Chemistry by Thomas Szasz

This review of Ceremonial Chemistry: The Ritual Persecution of Drugs, Addicts, and Pushers (1973) by Thomas Szasz is based on the 2003 revised edition. Szasz (1920-2012) was a Hungarian-American academic, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who spent the majority of his career at New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. An outspoken critic of the psychiatric establishment’s coercive interventions, he published numerous articles and books including Law, Liberty, and Psychiatry (1963), The Manufacture of Madness (1970), Our Right to Drugs (1992), and Pharmacracy (2001).



Ceremonial Chemistry
is a broadly libertarian response to the drug controversies of the 1960s and early 70s, and the swathe of legislation, regulation and prohibition that was introduced to counteract a perceived ‘drug problem’ in the United States and beyond. This problem, Szasz argues, was manufactured. He delineates the construction of ‘addiction’ and ‘drug addiction’ and thus the development of an ‘addict’ as ‘mentally ill’ through an analysis of the history of psychiatry. By doing so, he proposes that in fact these categories function as a form of moral, political and social control.

Central to his argument is the differentiation between the biochemical efficacy of drugs and their cultural role. For instance, using the example of baptism, he argues that the study of this ritual would be left to inorganic chemistry if one took a biochemical approach, rather than religion and anthropology. He writes, therefore, that ceremonial chemistry ‘is concerned with the personal and cultural circumstances of drug use and drug avoidance’ (Szasz 1974 [2003]: xix). The key question that then arises from this observation is why are certain ceremonial, or ritual, uses of some substances made illicit?

In order to answer this question Szasz examines certain historical precedents. Foregrounding this question in the book is a discussion around the Greek concept of pharmakos. Referring originally to a ritual scapegoating, a sacrificial act of group renewal, it came to refer to a drug (be it poison, cure, cosmetic or deliriant). This dual meaning is of course neatly summed up in the life and death of Socrates, and Szasz also notes that Christ functioned as a pharmakos. Nowadays it is a concept often used to allude to the scapegoating of (some) users of (some) drugs, and within a pharmacological context their sacrifice is for the purification of society.

One interesting comparison he makes is between the persecution of witchcraft and drugcraft. Although historically broad-stroke, it does neatly illuminate the religious/medical complex. Szasz describes witchcraft as a ‘ritual dramatization’ of defiance against a ‘dominant social ethic’ and as a conflict between a professional clerical class and an indigenous healer one, resulting in the persecution of the latter for conducting the wrong ceremonies. An exercise in power. The emergence of modern drug laws in the nineteenth century, he argues, was another example of this form of social control: one that scapegoated particular drug users through pathologization.

Szasz proposes the term ‘pharmacracy’. He describes it as a ‘system of political controls based on and exercised in the name of drugs’ and that is wielded by the medical establishment and physicians (comparatively as clerics) under the power of law (Szasz 1974 [2003]: 139). As noted, these controls are concerned with ceremony not biochemistry. ‘The ritual thus symbolizes and defines the character of the substance that is ceremonially sought or avoided, and the belief about the goodness and badness of the substance in turn supports the ritual’ (Szasz 1975 [2003]: 23). The pharmacracy thus determines acceptable ceremonial chemistry.

Moving beyond questions of literal interpretation, Christian communion functioned as a form of social cohesion, a shared in-group ritual. In secular modernity, our ‘shared beliefs—and gatherings—have to do with drugs rather than with deities’ (Szasz 1974 [2003]: 41) i.e. who partakes in the bread, rather than belief in the body (chemistry) of Christ. This implicitly involves social in-groups and out-groups. Alcohol, coffee and prescribed medicines being examples of the pharmacracy’s in-group. Szasz writes:

‘Those who reject the doctrines of our principle religions and who cultivate instead various heretical faiths, congregate at pot and acid parties and at gatherings where heroin and other even more esoteric and forbidden drugs are used; and they too have elaborate ceremonies symbolizing the counter-virtues of marijuana and LSD, incense and Oriental mysticism, and so forth. These are the unholy communions of our age.’ (Szasz 1974 [2003]: 41)

Just as medical missionaries make pagans out of natives in order to convert them to their in-group, so ‘clinical missionaries’ turn certain drug ceremonials into abuses in order to convert them to the dominant paradigm. In other words, it is a mechanism of social coercion.

Although originally written almost 50 years ago, Ceremonial Chemistry has lost none of its rhetorical impact and many of its points remain prescient today. Indeed, we still largely exist under the same pharmacratic governance, which has arguably increased its regulatory and prescribing power over time. Notably mass incarceration for drug use in the United States demarcates the ceremonies of social exclusion. If the pharmacracy is to be taken literally, however, it does lead one to question whether substances should simply be decriminalized, rather than medically legislated. After all, a prescribed ceremony remains a social control.

Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a historian, writer and editor. He is the founder of the Psychedelic Press, co-director of the Psychedelic Museum, and is currently undertaking his PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests focus on the history and literature of psychedelic substances, and the role of writing in spiritual and magical traditions during the 19th century. He is also the author of the novel 'Erin', and has occasionally be known to perform a poem or two.

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