Living In A State of Ecstasy

November 3, 2014
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Living In A State of Ecstasy

In Part Three of our new series, A Selective History of Hard Drugs, Henry Vespa looks at the influence that church and state had on drug usage…

Yes, when it comes to prohibition and criminalization, we can thank those twin scourges of recreational drug use, the church and the state. Naturally, these two fine, upstanding institutions have undoubtedly also had an impact on the terrible social plague of narcotic addiction – but at a time in history when the world seems to have more drug addicts than ever before, I’m not entirely sure what that impact is. Anyway…

The church has been and remains staunchly anti-drug. Even in the 21st century, a 2001 Catholic manual titled Church, Drugs, and Drug Addiction links drugs to pleasure-seeking and states that while pleasure has a “legitimate function in our lives,” (thank you so much for that!) it should be controlled and ordered and drugs are an attempt to bypass that order – and we can’t have that, can we? But it’s hard sometimes not to look back and see the church’s efforts as a little counter-productive; missionaries in China handing out morphine to opium addicts; the temperance societies of the 1800s laying the foundations for the banning of alcohol under Prohibition in 1919. Basically, the church encouraged a taboo mindset (in all ‘God-fearing’ folks) when it came to any habit-forming substance and that gave the government a powerful fear to tap into for its own drugs agenda.

For the U.S. government, it was a busy 20th century. It started with seemingly innocuous legislation; it always does… The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act required that certain drugs – including cocaine, heroin and morphine – should carry accurate labels and dosage information. You could still get your fix over the pharmacist’s counter and now you’d know exactly what was in it. Sounds good, right? And if government had stopped there, it would have been, but they wouldn’t let it lie. A mere 8 years later, the Harrison Narcotic Tax Act regulated distribution of substances containing opiates or coca. The reasoning at the time was purely commercial, after all, you really should be giving the government a cut if you’re dealing drugs on their turf. Apparently, the motive was to address opium addiction (apparently one in every 400 citizens were addicts in 1911) but doctors were soon being prosecuted under the Act and imprisoned for prescribing opiates to addicts as part of their cure. Add to this the fact that the media and political commentary prior to the Act being passed was soaked in racism – even the New York Times ran an article titled “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are New Southern Menace: Murder and Insanity Increasing Among Lower-Class Blacks” (incidentally, white Americans at that time were by far the greater drug-users) – and an atmosphere of fear around drug use ensued that paved the way for the more stringent anti-drug policies to come.

These policies would mainly be driven by the new Federal Bureau of Narcotics, predecessor of the more famous (notorious?) Drug Enforcement Agency. Established in 1930, the FBN was headed by one Harry Anslinger, who was to drugs what J. Edgar Hoover was to communism – i.e. they made him foam at the mouth and he didn’t hesitate to use propaganda and scare tactics (usually based on shaky evidence) to whip up public support against them. It should be noted however that, unlike J. Edgar, no one has yet accused Harry of wearing ladies’ undergarments. Anslinger held his post as FBN Commissioner for a staggering 32 years and in that time, assisted the passage of ever-tighter anti-drug legislation and ever-stronger penalties for use. It only remained for Nixon to declare the ‘War on Drugs’ in 1971 (because so many U.S. servicemen in Vietnam were spending so much time off their heads) for society’s drug paranoia to be complete.

So, after a century or so of religious and governmental efforts to combat hard drug addiction, what was the impact? Well, all that legislation and law enforcement effort forced those in the business of drug distribution to get organized. Some, like the Big Pharma companies, chose to operate openly and within the law. Others, the cartels and ‘unofficial’ dealers, became better at evading the law. It’s hard to say who’s made the bigger profits. As for the recreational user, he or she – with no change in behaviour – became a criminal and was therefore stigmatized. And finally, drugs became cool. Inevitable, really. Just like the glamour of speakeasies and bad gin during Prohibition in the 1920s, drugs found their niche in the arts and pop culture: literature (Brave New World), cinema (Easy Rider), fashion (‘heroin chic’), and music (pretty much anything by the Velvet Underground for a start)… Previously, people took drugs for pain relief or recreation (or addiction), but now the authoritarian anti-drug stance had created a new reason to do drugs: rebellion.

But while everybody was being hip, cool and rebellious, the drug companies were getting rich…

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