Historical Context of Interest in Drugs

Sobriety Success

At Home Drug Withdrawal

Get Instant Access

Before moving into the chronology of focused anthropological studies of drugs, the general historical context of drugs deserves brief attention. Western European biomedicine and its power to discover palliatives and topical remedies have exercised strong influence on the place of drug use in Western life. By the time anthropology was emerging as a discipline, the European pharma-copia included numerous remedies derived from plants, many of which were not native to Europe. Opium and its tinctures had many uses in 19th-century English medical practice, and cocaine hydrochloride, a water-soluble transformation of a single alkaloid extracted from coca leaves, appeared in scores of patent medicines marketed in Europe and the United States (Morgan, 1981; Musto, 1987). Avant-garde artistic enthusiasm for some drugs arose in 19th-century Europe and England, exemplified by Coleridge's enthusiasm for laudanum (a tincture of opium) and Baudlaire's Club Les Hachichins (a group of French literati who took hashish, or concentrated Cannabis resin, as a source of inspiration).

Hazards of Drug Use. A perception of the hazards presented by these and other drugs if taken for purposes of pleasure also began to develop in the 19th century (Morgan, 1981; Musto, 1987). Reports of obsessive use, called addiction, had become associated with consumption of laudanum, an opium preparation. Patent medicines containing cocaine somewhat later attracted the attention of journalists as stories of addiction to Vin Mariani and Coca-Cola began to circulate in late 19th-century newspapers and magazines (Morgan, 1981; Musto, 1987). Exotic, foreign patterns of drug use, particularly the smoking of opium among Chinese (a practice promoted by English trade in Asia), were portrayed in the print media as particularly debilitating and dangerous (Barth, 1964). Drugs, if misused, could become pathways to depravity and death, and the similarity between drug addiction and alcoholism was not lost on the burgeoning temperance movements in England and the United States of the early 1900s (Morgan, 1981).

Western Moralism and Drugs. Somehow, people had to be protected from the potential ruin brought by drugs used for pleasure or personal enjoyment, and for the 70 years between 1880 and 1950, adherents to Western biomedicine and Victorian moralism set out to protect people from ruining themselves through drug use. This movement was particularly convenient for politicians and police who at the same time had to deal with massive cultural diversity in their home polities. The United States was receiving people of color from all parts of the world at that time, many of whom used drugs other than alcohol and tobacco. France had intense interaction with Egypt in the 19th century. England received people from all over the world.

Prohibition of drug use gave the police a ready excuse to arrest and harass people who were non-white and culturally distinct, because they often brought with them different ways of consuming drugs. Attacks on opium smoking among Chinese immigrants, cocaine raids among African Americans, and, perhaps most egregiously, Harry Anslinger's famous onslaught against marijuana, primarily directed toward people of color, set the tone for intolerance of culturally distinctive drug-consuming behavior in the United States. These assaults also set a precedent for later persecution of the Native American peyotist practices in the 1960s.

The drugs targeted by prohibitionist fervor in the early 20th century, particularly opium, cocaine, and alcohol, in fact had extensive records of association with ruined lives, and therefore the cause of protecting people against ruin had legitimacy from a public health perspective. Curiously, tobacco, by far the most important killer among all drugs, slipped under the scrutiny of those who would police drug use in the world. Tobacco does not appreciably change users' behavior in the state of acute intoxication, and its sequelae either were missed altogether in the era when people did not live long enough to contract lung cancer or emphysema, or were confused with important killers such as pneumonia.

Prohibition and the Culturally Distinct "Other". In order to protect people against the ravages of addiction, polities prohibited people from using drugs such as alcohol, opium, and cocaine altogether, and this approach doomed all subsequent efforts to use law enforcement as the principal arm for prevention of drug misuse. Furthermore, prohibition gave law enforcers license to continue policies aimed at controlling the behavior of culturally distinct groups in their respective communities. On the other hand, culturally distinctive communities had an advantage in the continued procurement, sale, and distribution of forbidden commodities, because police forces did not understand them very well. Moreover, culturally distinctive sub-communities in large cities, such as San Francisco's Chinatown, New York's Harlem, and Miami's Overtown developed reputations as places where rules of "decent" behavior were in suspension, and one could seek pleasures there that one could not find in the city's "respectable" neighborhoods. In fact, the vast majority of the enclaves' inhabitants behaved as "decently" as the people in the "respectable" neighborhoods. It was only natural that some individuals in the enclaves of people who were excluded from the advantages enjoyed by their culturally different neighbors would take advantage of the opportunity to profit at the expense of those same neighbors by providing drugs and sex in covert fashion.

The perception of drug users as a kind of threatening "other" whose actions and lifestyle undermined the structure of mainstream society persisted, complete with interwoven threads of racism and xenophobia that had become established in the early 20th century. Anslinger's declarations that marijuana was associated with jazz musicians and people of color, newspaper reports of cocaine-crazed "black" fieldhands, and the ubiquitous portrayal of the heroin user as desperate dope fiend fostered a public perception of deviant otherness with racial and cultural undertones. These perceptions were reflected in sociological approaches to studying social problems in terms of deviance (Becker, 1963) rather than adaptation.

Mid-20th-Century Reaction to Prohibition. Specific questioning of policies on drugs and attitudes about their use spontaneously changed social environments of the late 1960s, both in the United States and in Europe. Young people who experimented with marijuana concluded that the official government position on that drug was riddled with disinformation. If the government's policies on that drug were flawed, then perhaps other drugs' properties were also misrepresented in the official literature. The United States and Europe experienced an epidemic of drug use between 1965 and 1975 driven by the questioning of questionable information on the drugs of choice—marijuana, LSD, and heroin (Chambers & Ball, 1970).

Participants in the epidemic aroused the concern of the medical community and curiosity among social and behavioral scientists. The former group asked if the widespread experimentation with illegal drugs would have health consequences in the future, and the latter group asked if the "tribal" lifestyles associated with drug experimentation constituted transitory or evolving cultural patterns (Partridge, 1973). The emergence of a "counter-culture" rebellion against policies aimed at eradicating the use of illegal drugs marked the beginning of an era in which anthropological inquiry about drug use of all kinds received increasing encouragement, both from the reading public and from agencies that fund research. That encouragement grew out of historical processes set in motion by would-be enforcers as well as the intellectually curious. The following sections attempt to chronicle subsequent developments in the anthropology of drug use while taking note of the social processes that supported them.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Drug Addiction Report

Drug Addiction Report

You're going to discover so many things on addiction with little effort Not only will you discover the thrill of breaking free from your addiction, but you'll also learn extra bonus tips to actually help other people This new breakthrough book is a guide, really. A guide as a result of years of searching, studying, and scouring hundreds of websites, stores, and magazines.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment