drug culture

drug culture
   British drug culture has its origins in the youth subcultures of the 1950s and 1960s. While some aficionados of jazz smoked cannabis in order to enhance their enjoyment of music, it was the mod scene (mods) of the early 1960s that heralded the large-scale consumption of drugs. In particular, mods used a variety of legal and illegal drugs in order to facilitate all-night dancing at mod and Northern Soul clubs. While mainstream opinion suggested that drug usage led to dependence, many mods found that they could use drugs recreationally at weekends, with few side effects. However, many mods found themselves in difficulty due to the physically addictive nature of the ‘uppers’ that they consumed. This mirrored problems connected to many prescribed drugs at the time, in that doctors were prescribing amphe-tamine-based compounds for a variety of illnesses including narcolepsy, obesity and respiratory complaints. ‘Amphetamine psychosis’ and other unpleasant side effects led to a decrease in the popularity of these stimulants. As the mod phenomenon declined in popularity, a new youth culture took its place. Within hippie culture (see hippies), drugs were a central element of the lifestyle. Whereas for mods the use of drugs was functional, in that it allowed them to dance for longer than they had previously been able to, the use of drugs by hippies was connected to their political values. Whereas mod culture was a culture of the ‘weekender’ and most mods held down steady jobs, hippies rejected what they perceived to be the materialism of western culture. In particular, hippies took hallucinogenics such as LSD as part of their rejection of the ‘work ethic’ central to mainstream British culture.
   Although LSD does not lead to dependence in the same way as many stimulants, it is nevertheless a powerful drug that produces visual and other sensory distortions. In a sense the hippies created the first proper ‘drug culture’, in that the consumption of hallucinogenics was central to their everyday lifestyle. Many of the media texts spawned by hippie culture were connected to the consumption of LSD. In particular, The Beatles’ album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is said to have been influenced by John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s experimentation with LSD. This connection is made explicit on the track ‘Day in the Life’ with its lyric of ‘I’d love to turn you on’. As with Mod culture, hippie culture suffered problems that were directly connected to drug usage. Although LSD has few physical side effects, it has a disturbing power to alter the mind. Many hippies never mentally recovered from their heavy LSD usage. There were some famous casualties; for instance the singer Syd Barrett left the band Pink Floyd as a result of psychiatric problems, and has never fully recovered.
   As the hippie dream lost its potency, so British drug culture declined in popularity. The early 1970s are not connected with any specific drug. Although amphetamines, LSD, cannabis and increasingly heroin were used by many people, no culture sprang from their usage. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, at the time, many young people were opposed to drug usage, perceiving it to be ‘oldfashioned’ and connected to delinquency.
   This changed with the punk rock explosion of the mid-1970s. The aggressive nature of many punks led them to take amphetamines at punk clubs and concerts. Amphetamine-based stimulants appeared to be the ideal drug for many punks. In particular, amphetamines led to aggression, perceived to be a desirable state of affairs by many punks. Central to the punk ethos was a desire for ‘speed’ and alertness, a violent opposition to ‘the establishment’, and a decadent rejection of mainstream values. This led many punks to be attracted to drug misuse. Again there were casualties. Solvent abuse in the form of glue sniffing took many young lives. Poly-drug use, the use of more than one drug at a time, led to other fatalities, including that of Sid Vicious, a leading punk musician with The Sex Pistols.
   Towards the end of the 1970s, rising unemployment led to a widespread disillusionment within youth culture. With no likelihood of paid employment, and with right-wing attacks on ‘benefit scroungers’, many young people perceived themselves as having no place in British society. This led to an increase in heroin consumption in the early 1980s. Heroin is a different drug to cannabis, amphetamines and LSD in that it is very addictive, and users suffer severe withdrawal symptoms if they are unable to obtain the drug. Whereas amphetamines and, to a lesser extent LSD, can make the drug user outgoing and more communicative, heroin use leads to the individual withdrawing from the world around them. The heroin culture of the 1980s was particularly insular, while impurities in illegally imported heroin led to many fatalities. The widespread drug culture of today has its roots in the shift in drug usage in the late 1980s. In particular rave culture has been credited with a general shift in drug culture away from physically addictive ‘hard’ drugs such as heroin towards the use of ‘soft’ drugs such as Ecstasy and cannabis. Whereas previously drug usage was perceived to be rebellious, anti-social and immoral, contemporary youth culture holds different views. Recent research has shown that up to 50 percent of young people in certain areas have tried an illegal drug at least once, and some figures suggest that up to 3 million young people use drugs such as ecstasy. Indeed, perhaps contemporary youth culture is not as different to mod culture as may initially appear. The use of ecstasy or cannabis is said to enhance music and to enable dancing for long periods of time, while not affecting the users’ ability to maintain steady employment and function as a ‘normal’ member of society. However, these views are not held by the medical establishment, who suggest that the long-term effects of consuming amphetamines, ecstasy and cannabis are by no means clear. While some have predicted a softening in society’s attitudes to drug consumption, these medical uncertainties mean that those drugs that are currently illegal will remain so.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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