Excitantia is the scope of this central volume of Pendell’s unique Pharmako trilogy. In his scheme of plants and drugs, this category covers all varieties of stimulant, the major players for us Westerners being coffee, tea, chocolate and coca (and its bastard offspring). The history sections for each of these substances cover some of the most important streams of social development from the past five centuries; more than any of the volumes, this book doubles as a vital slice of historical perspective as well as a cornucopia of lore and information. With the story of nutmeg bringing the spice trade and associated wars into the picture, it becomes harder the further you read to refute the playful suggestion that humans are merely pawns in a biospheric battle between various plant powers.

Less significant (in the West at least) stimulating powers such as the Betel and Kola nuts, Ephedra and Khat supply equally fascinating stories and anecdotes. I wasn’t wholly converted by Pendell’s arguments for Ephedra being the fabled Soma. However, his lack of dogged conviction allows the points he makes to sink in for what they’re worth, without the repulsive air of belief to taint things. Most important is his observation about the frequent disbelief that the effusive praise heaped on Soma could have been for a “mere” stimulant. So immersed are we in stimulation, he argues, we have forgotten the truly wondrous sense that these plants can induce.

Equally crucial is his increasing insistence on the basically religious nature of the War on Drugs. The equivocation central to his “Poison Path” cannot entirely maintain its twisting course in the face of this modern nightmare, and strong tones of condemnation become essential. Relating the explosion of crack use—and its associated virulent condemnation—in the ’80s, the suggestion is made that this virulence stemmed, in the end, from how crack was subconsciously seen to parody the “true religion”: consumerism. Like a Black Mass formed through absurd intensification rather than reversal, crack is a blasphemy against the Corporate State, and cannot be tolerated.

The most rewarding section here is the Vision Quest. I might have expected this sort of topic to be covered in the psychedelics-centred Pharmako/Gnosis, but here it’s included as a tale of detoxification, regaining power in the wild after having it sapped by addiction. It’s the most richly evocative narrative so far in these works—and that’s saying something.

See also Pharmako/Poeia and Pharmako/Gnosis.