Cody Delistraty in Aeon:
The drugs chosen to pattern our culture over the past century have simultaneously helped to define what each generation has most desired and found most lacking in itself. The drugs du jour thus point towards a cultural question that needs an answer, whether that’s a thirst for spiritual transcendence, or for productivity, fun, exceptionalism or freedom. In this way, the drugs we take act as a reflection of our deepest desires and our inadequacies, the very feelings that create the cultures in which we live.
To be clear, this historical investigation predominately concerns psychoactive drugs. It accounts for a large family of drugs embracing LSD, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, barbiturates, anti-anxiety medications, opiates, Adderall and the like, but not anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen (Advil) or pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol). These pharmaceuticals are not drugs that alter one’s state of mind and are consequently of little use when making sociocultural analyses.
The drugs up for discussion also cut across boundaries of law (just because a drug is illegal does not preclude it from being central to a cultural moment) and class (a drug used by the lower class is no less culturally relevant than drugs favoured by the upper class, although the latter tend to be better recorded and retrospectively viewed as of ‘greater cultural importance’). Finally, the category of drugs under scrutiny cuts across therapeutic, medical and recreational usage.
To understand the way we create and popularise drugs to match the culture we have, consider cocaine. Readily available at the turn of the 20th century, cocaine was outlawed in 1920 with the passing of The Dangerous Drugs Act in the United Kingdom (and in 1922 in the United States under the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act). Cocaine’s initial popularity in the late-19th-century was in large part due to ‘its potent euphoric effects’, according to Stuart Walton, an ‘intoxication theorist’ and author of Out of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication (2001). Cocaine, Walton told me, ‘helped potentiate a culture of resistance to Victorian norms, the abandonment of rigorous civility in favour of an emergent “anything goes” social libertarianism in the era of the Jugendstil, and the rise of social-democratic politics’.