Speed Junkies


“Speed is the essence of modernity,” writes Dale Pendell. In fact, adds the impish italicized voice that pops up throughout the pages of his provocative new catalog of stimulants ranging from coffee to cocaine and from meth to MDMA, speed happens to be “our principal and ruling poison.” We rationalists tend to adjust our neurology upward, as evidenced by, for example, the spice wars, teatime, the double latte, the coked-up ’80s, and the ecstatic ’90s. Our stimulants not only help us create and transform information at a breakneck rate, they provide a shortcut to pleasure and a residue of guilt. Why? “Maybe . . . because Euphoria is the name of our culture’s True God, and to utter or display it nakedly is blasphemous.”

Pendell’s ongoing subjects are the botanical “allies” humans have always associated with, and the “pharmakon,” the drug that is both poison and cure. A poet, ethnobotanist, and amateur chemist, he’s the best writer on drugs to come along since the late Terence McKenna charted the beautiful and terrifying “invisible landscapes” revealed by DMT and psilocybin mushrooms. Pendell’s first book, Pharmako/Poeia (1995), focused on botanical substances of a visionary bent such as cannabis and the fashionable yet fickle hallucinogen Salvia divinorum. Pharmako/Dynamis, on the other hand, is mostly devoted to drugs that affect mood.

Pendell immerses himself in the substance—botanically, historically, personally—which gives the book a lot more existential validity than your basic narcographic tell-all or arm’s-length academic roundup. Pendell’s research ranges from a treatise on Mexican chocolate to a touching journey through the cocaine bardo. This begins, innocently enough, with John Pemberton’s Coca-Cola recipe and Freud. Suddenly, though, Pendell is poeticizing freebase and a subsequent vision quest that presumably curtailed his line-of-duty smoking.

Replete with quotes ranging from Lukács to Li Po, Pharmako/Dynamis is as sample-heavy as a Future Sounds of London album. All the intercultural references suggest a post-hippie Norman O. Brown, with Pendell advocating his own version of liberated eros in the form of hot floral-faunal interaction. Cognitive freedom is its own reward, of course, but Pendell also reminds us of the sensual delights of coffee, tea, chocolate, and nutmeg in their natural states. Natural or artificial, one rushes toward one’s paradise where one finds it.

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