Normally, I use this segment to write about past heroes involved in countercultural movements, such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Timothy Leary. Today I want to focus on something a little more recent. On Friday, the 27th, I will be attending an amazing conference in Toronto, known as the A Rising Revolution, which will cover a lot of different topics surrounding the world of drugs, and drug policy. I’ll also be moderating a panel on drug testing, and my coworker Munroe Craig, will be talking about our work in nightlife harm reduction in Vancouver. In my day to day life, I have tried to help facilitate the creation of both safer partying culture, as well as a safer subcultures. That being said, there is still a lot of work to do in these fields in order for them to be satisfactorily safe, including dealing with longstanding issues of who has access to harm reduction supplies, and also ending a war on drugs that takes countless victims annually.
Drug cultures have always fascinated me for the simple reason that they are groups of people who go against the norm of our society, sometimes in rebellion, sometimes in self-help, and sometimes in exploration. A lot of the history of the War on Drugs, which has been going on for over a century, can be linked to the oppression of minorities, and ideas. It boggles the mind that Richard Nixon could call Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America”, when protest movements like the Black Panthers, and the Civil Rights movement were breaking down racism in the United States, and feminism was tearing up certain pre-existing roles for women. Would these not constitute the greatest threats to the highly racist and patriarchal 1970s America? Yet somehow it was a man who told people to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” and taught psychology at Harvard, who would be the face of evil in America.
But it begs the question then, what is it about these substances that people have ingested for thousands of years that makes our society so afraid of them? Often when this question is posed, some writers will establish our obsession with other drugs in our society, like alcohol, coffee, tobacco, and pharmaceuticals, in an effort to establish that these substances allow us to continue our lives in society unhindered; be “mind controlled” or something along those lines. I would argue against this hypothesis though though, as each of these drugs has at some point in time played a role in social upheaval. Alcohol was at one point also prohibited in the United States for making men uncivilized, and that prohibition led to the establishment of the mafia, and led to a new class of criminal, purely because the profit margins and demand were so high. The history of the coffeehouse is one of social revolution too, the place where people gathered their news about the state of the Union, and rules about class association broke down. Whenever these substances become attached to social movements or identities, they become threats, or at least associated with threats. Our current regime of drugs is based in our past protests.
We could identify then, a few different social upheavals that have occurred alongside drug culture. As drug policy in the west has actually only been a project of the 20th century, we can look at some bare bones movements that have occurred in the past, to help us evaluate the future. I’m only going to go into a very brief conversation of each. There are better authors who have written more in depth and sufficient topics on each. The War on drugs began with opium. In Canada, opiates were first banned because of their connection with riots in Vancouver by Chinese immigrants. The deputy minister at the time Lyon MacKenzie King (also Canada’s longest running prime minister), argued that the Chinese men (who paid an extra head tax to come into Canada), were seducing the innocent and well-to-do white women, and corrupting their innocence. It obviously had nothing to do with the fact that they were protesting against mistreatment by the government though, or that they were all around treated poorly. That was the first justification for a drug reform in Canada. Similarly, in the United States, the first laws against drugs surrounded the taxation of opiates, eventually leading to their ban.
From here, things spiraled, with drug conventions covering more and more drugs as they continued to be associated with either protests (ie the New Left in the US, or anti-Vietnam Hippies), poverty (ie the regulation of meth amphetamine, or more recently the transformation of oxycodones to harder to break down neo-oxy’s, called affectionately by the media called “hillbilly heroin”), or race (ie. cocaine was only banned when it was associated with black minorities, same with cannabis, and crack cocaine). Each new generation has had a drug counterculture, whether it was the Beat Generation/jazz, the hippies, rave culture, Hip Hop, or EDM now, something draws us back to these substances, whether for expression, fun, or to help us deal with how messed up the world we live in is.
Keeping drugs illegal is in the best interests of a lot of people. Particularly in the United States, where the prison industrial complex makes money off the labour of those who are incarcerated. There is a lot of money and power associated with the manufacturing of a social problem. Which leads us back to where we started, namely, what is the face of drug culture to come? We live in interesting times when access to knowledge about drugs is pervasive, and the current system favours DARE’s fear tactics over honest drug education. A further complication has arisen, namely the flooding of the market of research chemicals. Research chemicals are designed by labs to mimic other drugs, and can be used to sidestep laws that currently prohibit only certain substances. This has created an impossible battle for enforcers in that it is impossible to stay on top of every drug that comes out (trust me, I’ve tried). While harm reduction of the past has centered on covering the chemicals people were using that’s simply impossible now. Do we create general information for 4-FA (amphetamine) or etizolam (thienodiazepine), LSZ/25-i,25-b,25-c (drugs normally sold as ‘acid’)? There are small communities on the internet that try these substances and then share their information about its effects. An online subculture of those who are willing to experiment on their own bodies has cropped up, and while some may be safer in their use, others will make mistakes.
This is why our conference is a Rising Revolution. Currently the system is falling apart. New drug subcultures are emerging online, and then being snuffed out only to resurface again. The original silk road had discussions on what would be allowed in the market (they decided against guns for example), reddit’s /r/drugs, /r/drugnerds, and /r/psychonauts, attract tonnes of traffic everyday, with people learning about the history of drug use, and prohibition, and where to access drugs and even how they might work on your brain. This is where the new drug culture lies, in these spaces between a small group of people who share similar interests, but don’t often have a place to discuss them with people. People are still going to these massive festivals, and taking a drug that might be MDMA (affectionately known as ‘molly’), in the hopes of experiencing fun, and connecting with others, in a form of modern hedonism, or what Alan Harrington described as: smashing our sense of separateness in temples of fragmentation in a form of electronic Buddhism. When we often look at these drug cultures, we examine their existence in terms of their problems. Rarely do we look at their role in creating a sense of community and unity.
Yet, there are few ways they can really be 100% safe, and the festivalling culture itself sometimes promotes unsafe activities, such as not testing your MDMA, or not even having access to testing kits, not frequently getting water, or not eating because food is expensive! People are identifying with these temporal communities, an allusion to their 90s rave predecessors. The tides are changing, but until we bring in responsible cultures of trust, and knowledge, people will still end up in hospitals, or die because they accidentally took something that even a testing kit could not detect. The War on Drugs has casualties, and those who choose to fight to maintain it, and who choose to call it a war, implicitly accept that people are going to be hurt. Have you ever heard of a war where ‘the enemy’ was not expected to have casualties? Yet, we hope that change is in the air. That our society stops looking at those who are marginalized by its rules as the enemy. That changes is happening, but it only happens with constant vigilance by those who want to see a better world.
Countercultures is a bi-weeklyish series on Thursdays at Existential Awe that looks at life histories of artists and thinkers who pushed against the system and created countercultural social change.