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Spice up your life!
Drugs in the Star Wars Universe


Submitted by Jennifer Cole
Published 10/5/99


"Glitterstim's okay if you're blue..."

To any fan of Star Wars, it soon becomes apparent that the universe our heroes inhabit has the odd dark corner that will never make it to a Hollywood screen. Some of the most interesting aspects of the world of Star Wars is its imperfections and shades of gray, and in just the same way that George Lucas made sure the ships looked liked they'd been flown through one asteroid field too many and the blasters looked like they'd been used to kill, so too do the planets looked lived on, and the people who make their homes there look as if they've seen a bit of life. In few places is this more apparent than in the realistic and refreshingly liberal attitude to recreational drugs in Star Wars. They're there, some people take them, and those who do don't drop down dead from an overdose or become uncontrollable addicts after their first drag on a spliff. Just like in the real world, drugs in Star Wars exist in a slightly tarnished world of semi-legality . They don't mess you up unless you let them and, mostly, the New Republic seems happy to turn a blind eye - a situation not unlike the current climate in Amsterdam, and the one to which Britain is slowly moving, where no one is going to be prosecuted for personal use and people talk freely about their use of cannabis and ecstasy.

Drugs in the Star Wars universe sneak up on you quietly, hardly giving you time to notice they're there before you realize that in fact, they're everywhere, and no one really seems to mind. Assuming that not even the most innocent movie-goer thought for a second that the 'spice' Han Solo smuggled for Jabba the Hutt was food seasoning, the initial role of recreational drugs in Star Wars is fairly consistent with a clean cut, PC Hollywood image: they're a tool to set up Han's character. He's a criminal, a mercenary, and not really all that much of a good guy. Han comes into the Star Wars story to be redeemed, the selfish outlaw who will, over the course of the trilogy, become something better than he was simply by hanging around with good people and knowing right from wrong when choices are put in front of him. This is, however, also the first indication that Star Wars' attitude to drugs is not as knee-jerk reactionary as, for example, Star Trek's, where the simple mention of narcotics sends the Enterprise's security officer off on an embarrassing tirade about their inherent evils. It's telling that Han, a drug smuggler in the employ of a major gangland boss, is never judged as anything other than a courier out for a quick buck. Essentially, he's a smuggler who just happens to smuggle spice. If anyone in the set-up can really be described as evil, it's Jabba, and even that is debatable. Slimy, yes, dangerous even, but not evil on a level with Vader and Palpatine. Spice just isn't that bad.

This general attitude slides comfortably through 'A New Hope', 'Empire', and 'Jedi'. No one ever takes Han to task for being a drug smuggler, or asks - or even expects - him to apologize for his actions or betray his former contacts. It's true that at this stage the Rebels are fighting to free the Galaxy, not to make a few arrests, but their lack of judgmentalism perpetuates the idea that actually, no one really cares all that much. When Han decides to go back to Jabba to pay off his debts, the Rebels care only about making it clear to him that he'll be welcome back any time he wants to come. While rescuing Han from Jabba's palace in 'Jedi', Luke and Leia show no interest in taking down Jabba's organization while they're at it. And surely I'm not the only one to smile at the description in the 'Episode One Visual Dictionary' of Yoda chewing his gimmerstick because this releases substances that 'aid meditation'? Yeah, right.

TalonKarrdeBong.jpg (76616 bytes)
In the Dark Horse graphic novel adaption of 'Heir to the Empire', Talon Karrde is quite clearly smoking a bong when Luke is presented to him at his planetside base. The scene is significant for two reasons: firstly, for Luke's lack of reaction the activity appears to neither surprise nor faze him and secondly for establishing Karrde as a user.

It's not until we get to the books, and the Star Wars canon is free of the confines of Hollywood, however, that there's chance to explore the idea further, and to spell things out in black and white for the first time. 'Spice' becomes more specific: glitterstim, yarrock, sweetblossom, pyrepenol, Santherian tenho-root ... there are a plethora of recreational drugs mentioned throughout the novels - in the worlds of Star Wars they are abundant and evidently not too difficult to come by. The Imperials seemed far more concerned about controlling their flow than the Rebels or the Republic. In fact, in 'Jedi Search', Han is sent to open trade negotiations with the Kessel spice mines for the sole reason, it seems, to assure that if production and distribution is going to go on, it might as well be regulated legally - an approach that, thankfully, more and more European countries seem to be moving toward as authorities begin to admit that the real problems lie in the organized crime caused by the criminalizing of drugs, rather than the drugs themselves.

It's interesting to note that nowhere in any of the Star Wars novels are we really given a straight answer to what use glitterstim would be to the New Republic. The Empire seems to have used it mainly for its properties as a truth serum, and therefore an aid to interrogation, but this hardly seems to fit in with the Republic's ethics. It's not an organization that goes into forced interrogation of any kind. So we're left with the conclusion that the Republic is prepared to open trade negotiations with Kessel because it sees no reason to not have a legal distribution network. If people want glitterstim, why not let them have it?

Why not indeed. There's never any indication that Han himself indulged in the glitterstim he smuggled (although surely he knows too much about its effects not to be first hand familiar with them and is certainly prepared to sell it himself rather than just deliver it to the Hutts, as he does in "The Paradise Snare" when trying to raise money quickly), but plenty of other people do. The attitude to glitterstim use seems to bear more in common with alcohol than anything else. Excessive indulgence can cause problems, but it's only in excess that the trouble lies. In Jedi Search, Han initially suspects that spice mine overlord Moruth Doole's blind eye is a result of hitting the glitterstim too hard, but in fact it turns out that the injury was inflicted by a henchman of Jabba's - Doole is clearly a long term, heavy user but the side effects have come from his involvement in crime, not his glitterstim indulgence itself. A similar portrayal is offered in the novel Planet of Twilight, by Barbara Hambly: when a Republic sergeant finds one of her crew slumped over in the mess hall, her initial thoughts are of problems with 'booze or spice or giggledust', again bracketing spice with alcohol. Planet of Twilight is perhaps the most liberal of all the Star Wars novels for establishing the position of drugs in the universe. In Leia's recollections of her conversation with Rebel pilot Greglik, her remembrance of him as "a good pilot but an addict" establishes firmly that being a user alone didn't preclude one from being a Rebel pilot, and the long list of narcotics Greglik describes to Leia - one of the leaders of the Rebellion - suggests that there's nothing very illegal in obtaining or taking them, otherwise he wouldn't be so open with his talk. Leia remembers him with pity, as a man trying to escape his depression by drowning himself in a quick and easy escape, but she clearly does not condemn his use, and does not move to have him taken off his duties when she finds out what - and how much - he's taking, although this would seem to be a mistake in retrospect. Greglik's words to her - "Few drugs are that deadly, it's what they get you to do to yourself that destroys you" again reinforces the attitude that only when the substances are taken to excess do the problems occur. Leia herself recognizes that her immersion in the Rebellion was her own way of shutting out the pain of Alderaan's destruction; Greglik's drug use was his way of forgetting all that he had been through. It was a means to an end, but not an evil means in itself, and it clearly gave a depressed and lonely man a great deal of pleasure.

Talonsmoking.jpg (42186 bytes) While undoubtledly a character on the fringes of legal activity, Karrde's place in the Star Wars universe changes remarkable little between his first appearance and the subsequent decade; unlike Han, he is not there to be redeemed, and soon becomes a trusted friend and associate of the major heroes. His indulgence in recreational drugs does not affect his ability to run, and run successfully, a reliable and widespread smuggling operation. In short, it has no ill effects on his ability to function.

In Children of the Jedi, also by Barbara Hambly, the expanded consciousness afforded by the drug yarrock is the catalyst brainwashed slaves need to escape their captivity; Drub McCrumb is able to reach freedom and warn Han (who once again is more than a little familiar with yarrock) of the danger posed during a moment of clarity resulting from taking the drug, and later in the novel Leia suffers no serious side effects from being pumped full of sweetblossom - here established as the most potent narcotic, with symptoms more than passingly similar to heroin - other than a sustained period of being too chilled out to actually do anything, an effect she easily shakes off once she sets her mind to it. It's also clear that Han still knows a fair bit about the spice trade and its major movers and shakers - in a novel set nearly 20 years after he's supposed to have left the game. He's had plenty of time to take down the criminals if he had a mind to, or the Republic wanted him to, but we all know that Han's involvement with his old friends is to regularly go drinking with them rather than threaten them with imprisonment. Han's judgment is that McCrumb would "need to be a millionaire to take enough [yarrock] to do himself that much damage;" in other words, in small amounts, yarrock's not going to do anyone much harm. People take it, and mostly they enjoy a bit of harmless mood enhancement. Welcome, science fiction, to the real world.

We have to go to the Rogue Squadron novels for the only outright condemnation of the spice trade. Corran Horn, perhaps the most clean cut of the recurring Star Wars characters and a former security officer, is the exception to the rule, the one man who condemns Han Solo's past. Horn describes Han as a "blot on Corellia's honor," because he "smuggled spice for a Hutt... he sunk pretty low," but is quickly admonished by Wedge Antillies for this unforgiving and judgmental attitude. Even Corran, though, is capable of putting things in perspective. In 'Side Trip', part 3, he describes the spice carried by the small time criminals with whom he has inadvertently become involved as "strictly joy-dust grade", presumably the cheap marijuana of the Star Wars universe that not even the security forces really think is worth their time.

I'm not saying that Star Wars is pro-drugs, but by the same token it's far from anti - treating them as part and parcel of a galaxy that is made all the more realistic for their part in it, and the writers' realistic attitude to their use. Sometimes people get drunk, sometimes they take drugs, but as long as they don't let their enjoyment interfere in activities and places where it doesn't belong, there's no real problem. It's a credit to Star Wars for putting things into perspective, and doing it in such a way that you hardly notice, until you take the time to look.

Webmaster's Note:  Please read our interview with Star Wars author Rebecca Moesta, in which she talks about the intentional creation of a drug-addicted character in the "Young Jedi Knights" series.

(Jennifer Cole makes her living editing the weekly Official Star Trek Fact Files, sold in the UK and across the world, but her fangirl heart lies with Star Wars and American comics. She has never quite recovered from the shock Harrison Ford had on her seven-year-old hormones, but regular rewatchings of the Star Wars saga have proved to be a helpful coping strategy.)

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