The Pursuit of Oblivion by Richard Davenport-Hines

This is a thoroughly researched history of the drug trade showing that all the efforts of governments and law enforcement are futile against global trafficking and desperation to escape the nightmare which is human experience.

Spanning five centuries and several continents in a sweeping portrait of addiction, The Pursuit of Oblivion (2001) traces the history of the use and abuse of narcotics, revealing their subtle transformation from untested medicines to sources of idle pleasure and, relatively recently, to illegal substances.

Richard Davenport-Hines (, an eminent, prize-winning historian, uncovers the centrality of drug abuse in our modern industrial society, from the drug habits of Charles Dickens and John F. Kennedy to today’s $400 billion annual worldwide trade in illicit substances (the same volume as the oil industry). A vivid portrayal of the people and events that have shaped the history of narcotics, The Pursuit of Oblivion reveals that, contrary to the assumption underlying current drug policies, our need to escape reality and our body’s need for physical pleasure are both ineradicable aspects of our humanity, unchangeable by any government activity.

Check your local library catalogue here  or consult ( for further bibliographic detail.

Available in Kindle format for £6.49 (

Listen to the R4 ‘In Our Time’ 45 podcast on the subject of drugs at the link With Richard Davenport-Hines, historian and author of The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics; Sadie Plant, author of Writing on Drugs; Mike Jay, historian and author of Emperors of Dreams, Drugs in the Nineteenth Century.

Postscript – Listen also to a June 2019 BBC Radio Documentary podcast ( entitled ‘Morocco’s Hash Trail to Europe’. Notes that 750,000 people are actively involved in cannabis production in Morocco across an area of 50,000 football pitches. Entirely corroborates Davenport-Hines’ view that attempts to defeat the trade are completely futile. The latest hypocrisy and muddle-headedness is revealed in 2019 in the disclosure that a candidate to be British Prime Minister, Michael Gove, was a cocaine user ( Some might see it as hypocrisy to lecture others not to take drugs (

584 pages in W.W. Norton & Co. paperback edition.

First published 2001

ISBN 978-0393325454

Richard Davenport-Hines


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