DRUGS IN THE WORKS OF HUNTER S. THOMPSON
by John E. Benson
copyright 1998, used with permission
Here is a rather unique essay, an idea that I did not even really think about. John wrote this as a
"Partial Fulfillment for the Course
College Preparatory Communication Arts
11th Grade American Literature". John also maintains a 311 site. As well, the usual dogma: this essay
does not endorse drug use (duh).
Hunter Stockton Thompson is one of the most praised authors and journalists of the late
twentieth century. His writings do more than just describe the events of his time, they also
successfully portray the attitudes and feelings of the times. Thompson has published five
books, and hundreds of articles and essays. In 1997 a collection of his letters was published,
an event that normally does not take place until some time after an author's death. Hunter S.
Thompson is a member of the New Journalism
school of writing that originated in the 1960's.
Thompson turns how he got the story, into the actual story itself. This allows Thompson to be
more subjective and to enter his own opinions about the situation into the story. It is here where
his twisted and harsh style comes into view. By focusing on the events surrounding the author,
we learn much about Thompson's many habits. Alcohol and drug use permeates all of Hunter
S. Thompson's writings. Drugs and alcohol play a major role in the works of Hunter S.
Thompson, but he portrays them as mere accessories to his everyday life.
During the 1960's the motorcycle gang the Hell's Angels had been attacked viciously by
the mainstream media. They were portrayed as vicious thugs who raped and pillaged their way
through every town they rode through. The media had presented rumors as undisputed fact.
For an assignment for Nation magazine, Thompson decided to ride with the Hell's Angels and
find out what they were truly like. The article was very well received and was later followed by a
book deal. Thompson then rode with the Angels for six months compiling data. (McKeen, 9)
Although Thompson had used alcohol for years, this was his first time around hard drug
use. The Angels used many drugs including marijuana, alcohol, and many pills including
Benzedrine (Cartwheels), Seconals (Reds), and Nembutals (Yellow Jackets). In this section,
Thompson describes the drug scene with the Hell's Angels:
The Angels insist there are no dope
addicts in the club, and by legal or
medical definitions this is true.
Addicts are focused; the physical need
for whatever they're hooked on forces
them to be selective. But the Angels
have no focus at all. They gobble
drugs like victims of famine turned
loose on a rare smorgasbord. They use
anything available, and if the result
is a screaming delirium then so be it.
This is an example of the nonchalant attitude about drugs expressed by the Angels that later is
seen in Thompson's writings. While with the Angels, Thompson tried LSD, which later became
one of his favorite drugs. Once, Ken Kesey who was visiting Hunter and the Angels began to
give out free hits of LSD. Thompson had a great fear of these huge motorcycle gang members
hallucinating. He told his friend, "If this is going to get heavy, I want to be as f_____ up as
possible." He then ingested 800 milligrams of LSD which nearly, "blew [his] head off" (McKeen,
9). This was Thompson's first of many encounters with dangerous drugs. He began using drugs
more frequently after this assignment. While completing the manuscript for Hell's Angels, he
wrote for four straight days without sleep consuming nothing but Wild Turkey whiskey and
speed. (McKeen, 31)
Following Hell's Angels, Thompson's career was frenzied, while writing for many
magazines and newspapers. In 1971, Thompson was in Los Angeles covering the killing of
journalist Ruben Salazar when he received a call from his lawyer regarding a new assignment
from Sports Illustrated to cover the Mint 400-motorcycle race in Las Vegas. He decided to write
the piece in the Gonzo style, meaning that it was written as it happened, without editing.
Unfortunately, this goal was never met; he had to edit some of the manuscript. (Thompson,
Soon after receiving the assignment Thompson and his lawyer began collecting supplies
for their trip across the desert. It can be seen how large a portion of his life involved drugs in
this, his personal account of the preparations to leave Los Angeles:
The sporting editors had given me $300 in
cash, most of which was already spent on
extremely dangerous drugs. The trunk of the
car looked like a mobile narcotics lab. We
had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets
of mescaline, five sheets of high-power
blotter acid, a salt shaker half-full of
cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multicolored
uppers, downers, screamers, laughers
quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of
Budweiser, a pint of raw ether, and two
dozen amyls. (Thompson, 1971, 4)
A simple assignment to cover a motorcycle race quickly became one of Thompson's
best works ever. The story became not how he covered the story, but how he totally avoided
the story with the help of many dangerous drugs.
From the beginning of the trip to Las Vegas, Thompson and his lawyer are high on many
drugs at once. Throughout the book, The reader sees how inconsequential drug use is to
Thompson. To him the drugs are just accessories help him get through everyday life.
On their first night in Las Vegas, they pay a visit to the Circus Circus Casino. Before
their arrival, Thompson and his lawyer use mescaline, LSD, smoke hash, and inhale ether
before going inside. Thompson is especially fond of ether because of its unique effects upon
the body and the mind. Ether "allows yourself to watch yourself without being able to control
yourself." Walking around under the influence of the ether and hash they resemble drunks, and
"Vegas loves a drunk. Fresh meat" (Thompson, 46).
While sitting at a table in the casino, the hallucinogens begin to take hold of the two.
"Good mescaline comes on slow," Thompson says, "The first hour is all waiting, then about
halfway through the second hour you start cursing the creep who burned you, because nothing
is happening and then ZANG! Fiendish intensity, strange glow and vibrations a very heavy
gig in a place like the Circus Circus." (Thompson, 1971, 47) Thompson's attorney soon declares that
he has the "fear." Thompson realizes that he must get his lawyer and himself out of the casino
without drawing attention. They barely escape, nearly being accosted by a bartender near the
As the book progresses, the duo receives an assignment from Rolling Stone
to cover the National Conference of District Attorneys' Seminar on Narcotics and Dangerous
Drugs. This is the apex of the book where we see Thompson's views of the government and
law enforcement shine through, as well as seeing his most revealing statement of his view of
The motto for the seminar is "If you don't know, come to learn, If you know, come to
teach." Both Thompson and his lawyer know, but it quickly becomes apparent that they are not
going to teach. The opening speaker is the author of Marijuana, a book that attempts to give
the straight facts about drug use and users to the reader. In his speech he states that there are
four states of being in the drug culture: "Cool, Groovy, Hip & Square." (Thompson, 1971, 138). The
idea that this is possible is laughable to Thompson. As the speech continues, the author makes the
statement that "The reefer butt is called a roach' because it resembles a cockroach"
Thompson writes, "You'd have to be crazy on acid to think a joint looked like a f______
cockroach!" Thompson makes the comment that he uses drugs to make life. "The sight of a
344-pound police chief from Waco, Texas necking openly with his 290-pound wife (or whatever
woman he had with him) when the lights were turned off for a Dope Film", Thompson writes,
was just barely tolerable on mescaline" (Thompson,143).
Following Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson's mainstream popularity went through the roof.
He began to write for such mainstream magazines as Playboy and Esquire. His success did
nothing to curb his drug habit though. His coverage of the championship fight between George
Foreman and Muhammad Ali in 1974 proved to be disastrous. George Plimpton, who was also
covering the fight in Zaire later interviewed Thompson:
I asked him about the fight.
"What fight? Oh, I didn't go to the
fight. I stayed in my hotel swimming pool. I
lay on my back and stared at the moon coming up
and the only person in the hotel came and
stared at me for a long time before he went
away. Maybe he thought I was a corpse. I
floated there naked. I'd thrown a pound and a
half of marijuana into the pool-it was what I
have left and I am bot trying to smuggle it out
of this country-and it stuck together there in
sort of a clot, and then it began to spread out
in a green slick. It was a very luxurious
floating in that stuff, though it's not the
best way to obtain a high" (McKeen, 83).
In an interview while discussing a book written by friend and Fear and Loathing illustrator
Ralph Steadman, Thompson says that he uses drugs to make life bearable, "I rely on my
medicine to keep totally twisted. Otherwise, I couldn't stand this bulls___." He mentions his
drug use so matter-of-factly, that an outsider would believe that everyone in America used pills,
marijuana, and psychedelic drugs on a daily basis. (Thompson, 113)
The writings of Hunter S. Thompson are some of the most critically acclaimed writings of
the modern era. The point of view that he expresses is totally unique and it allows him to look at
a situation differently than a conventional journalist can. Hunter Thompson's writings are
permeated by alcohol and drug abuse. Drugs and alcohol play a major role in the works of
Hunter S. Thompson, but he portrays them as mere accessories to his everyday life. He began
using drugs while researching for his book about the Hell's Angels. In 1971, he wrote Fear and
Loathing in Las Vegas, which gives us a twisted view of the American dream through a week of
use of dangerous drugs. Later in his career, Thompson's drug use never subsided, once
causing him to miss coverage of a major story. Thompson's works stand alone in the literary
world showing us the world from a different perspective: through the eyes of drugs and alcohol.