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Drug Culture And Denial

Around 100 years ago, the British government produced two well researched reports on opium and cannabis, drugs that were grown and used in India. They pronounced that each substance was relatively harmless when taken in moderation, that they were important to local cultures (opium was also important to the revenue of the Indian government, which sold it to China), and that their growth and preparation should remain under official control, including quality control. They were not prohibited.

How times change! In the aftermath of Clare Short’s public dressing-down for inviting a rational debate on cannabis use, the Anglican priest and social reformer Kenneth Leech wrote to NSS bemoaning regressive changes since the 1960s. As we saw in the intense moral panic over the death of Leah Betts, drugs operate as a signifier of pure evil in the worlds of politics and the tabloid press. While there are, in parts of the country, policies such as harm reduction–which imply acceptance of widespread use–a language of debate that frankly embraces the pleasures, as well as the dangers, of drug use is–as Leech pointed out–unwritable. The desire for drugs is the love that dare not speak its name.

Yet this particular love is all around us. Its devotees or analysts acknowledge its mysteries in guarded tones, fearful of unwanted media interest or even official intervention. There’s a real problem here. Why should people incriminate themselves? Will Self, introducing his collected journalism (Junk Mail, Bloomsbury, 12.99 [pounds]), is understandably defensive. Yes, he has in the past taken whatever’s going, but no, he isn’t going to paint himself warts and all. As for joining a more general debate about drugs, well, that is too constricted by hypocrisy.

Sarah Thornton in Club Cultures: music, media and subcultural capital is equally careful. She positions herself to one side of the culture built around a synergistic relationship between drugs and music. At the most journalistic point in her text, she acknowledges the consumption of half a tab of E in a London club–and then says nothing about the impact of that experience or any other, and next to nothing about the pharmacological-musical connections that drive the culture.

Nicholas Saunders, by contrast, has a mission to explain precisely this connection. He starts his handbook Ecstasy and the Dance Culture (from Nicholas Saunders, 14 Neal’s Yard, London WC2H 9DP; 9.95 [pounds]) with a brief history of his own experiences before moving into the wider culture and pharmacology of MDMA, its derivatives and substitutes. It’s a clear, confident text (albeit with a footnote system devised by a devotee of chaos theory) that mixes “useful” information, including an impressive bibliography, with a strong cross-current of personal accounts, some very negative.

Saunders is happy enough with his own and most others’ experiences of E, but he knows the dangers of aggressive criminality and/or contamination. He wants at least an interim “Dutch model” of tolerance and testing, backed by clubs with free water and chill-out rooms. In other words, not legalisation as such but legalised toleration or harm reduction, in which quality is controlled and sale–if not production itself–is policed.

The reasons for all this lie in the section on the dance culture, “contributed by Mary Anna Wright”, whose interviews with DJs show the music’s close connection with drugs. The case is clear. Most young people go to clubs or raves; most of them take drugs; they know that official campaigns are hypocritical nonsense; drugs should be quality controlled.

So why do so many young people rave on? Club Cultures is a commendably brief academic companion to Saunders’ exploration of the dance culture. The “summer of love” didn’t just happen, and Sarah Thornton looks hard at the pre-history of rave, noting the developments of recorded dance music (often against the furious opposition of musicians, who, even in the 1920s, feared for their future in an age of DJ culture). Using, but twisting, the now antique language of “subculture”, she examines the ways in which young people adopt the dress and musical vocabularies of “authenticity”.

They create for themselves imagined communities of the like-minded, by excluding a notional “mainstream”. Its borders-peopled by the mythical Sharon and Tracy, dancing around their handbags–are threateningly fluid for the elitist insiders, who react with defensive connoisseurship. Club Cultures’ insistence on the complexity of media intervention in this process, and young people’s reactions, is timely and useful.

Discounting her understandable defensiveness about the chemical aspects of the scene, Thornton’s account pales by comparison with the enthusiastic missionary work of Nicholas Saunders. Yet there is enthusiasm here too, and an important implicit argument about the feminising of popular culture through the foregrounding of dance and the subordination of music and drugs to this end. In contrast, the masculine individualism of “rock” and its criticism fetishises the individual creator, and the use of drugs a form of inspiration.

Male authority is too often stuck in this psychodramatic pharmacology. So it’s refreshing that Will Self argues that his own belief in this Faustian narrative left him a useless junky at 21. Of course, the rest of the story doesn’t match the unhappy beginning, and his concern with drugs policy and its surrounding discourse is not that of a habitual non-user.

Sometimes the tone is a bit prim; maybe Self was trying to hit the house style of a wide variety of papers and magazines. But when he relaxes, or when he’s excited, the prose flows and coruscates. Drugs are routinely the subject of these passages. He gets to hang out in crack houses and talks to drug-dependent prisoners, reviews books on drugs, genuflects before the self-proclaimed junkie William S Burroughs (my word, Mephistopheles will be looking forward to seeing him again) and discusses with Martin Amis whether or not smoking dope aids the writing process.

Whether or not it does–and whether we are dealing with individual inspiration or mass consumption–the use of stimulants, depressants and psychoactives is utterly routine within our culture. We had better get used to the idea. We may have “progressed” too far for a return to the liberalism of British policy in India; but we–by which I mean Clare Short’s shadow cabinet friends–should look again at those Victorian values.

External resource on ecstasy abuse:

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