Drugs: stigma and suspicion

Drugs: stigma and suspicion

Debate has always raged around drugs. Often anti-drug sentiment is rooted in science. But sometimes it isn’t. In this article we look at the murkier motives behind the demonization of certain drugs.

The convenient categorization of drugs

Heroin, coffee, tobacco, LSD, nicotine, cannabis, alcohol, cocaine.  

These are all “drugs”. That is to say, they’re all substances that cause a physiological or psychological effect when consumed.

Today they all sit in convenient categories. Recreational or medicinal. Legal or illegal. Some part of our daily ritual, others social pariahs. But it wasn’t always thus.  

For hundreds – even thousands – of years peoples of all creeds and cultures have been taking drugs in various forms completely freely.

The golden age of (drug) exploration

In the 16th and 17th centuries, explorers like Sir Walter Raleigh, Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus ventured to distant lands for gold, silver and spice.  

They returned with all manner of intoxicants and stimulants that would enter – then shape – mainstream Western society.  

It wasn’t just coffee and tobacco. In 1689, Isaac Newton’s fierce rival Robert Hooke is said to have bought a sample of cannabis from an East India Company merchant. He wrote in his diary that it “accounted very wholsome. though for a time it takes away the memory & understanding.”

By the 19th Century, exploration, globalisation and colonisation had brought cannabis, opium, mescal, coca and mescal to the streets of London. Indeed, they were part of the fabric of Victorian life. And perfectly legal.  

Pharmacies sold opium pills coated in varnish for the working class, silver for the rich and gold for the super-rich. Coca leaf (from which cocaine is derived) was advertised as a pain reliever. Of course, recreational drug use was pretty popular too. As the pages of Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater prove.  

But just as drugs’ role in society grew, so they were always stigmatized. And often for questionable reasons.  

Suspicion behind the stigma

For all their supposed medicinal properties, the association of drugs with far-flung, exotic, foreign lands had always aroused suspicion. And their somewhat mystical properties – that can now be easily explained by science – provoked fear.

Benjamin Breen, author of The Age of Intoxication: Origins of The Global Drug Trade, tells how inquisitors in Mexico City portrayed indigenous users of peyote as sorcerers.  

Jesuit priests in the Amazon jungle claimed that local shamans could conjure evil spirits with ayahuasca. Even coffee was described as a ‘foreign liquor’ that ‘bewitched’ consumers.

Of course, the eventual outlawing of particular drugs didn’t only have its roots in suspicion. The mental and physical toll of long-term drug use is clear – look no further than the squalid opium dens of Dickensian London.  

However, that does not mean the motives behind anti-drug movements shouldn’t always go unchallenged.  

Throughout history, anti-drug sentiment has often been allayed with a fear of ‘the other’. And it’s arguable that particular drugs have been stigmatized… in order to stigmatize particular people.

Stigmatization in the 20th Century

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the flow of Mexican immigrants into the US was increasing. And soon cannabis – their supposed drug of choice – was under attack.  

The right-wing press rebranded it as the more Mexican-sounding marijuana and a vigorous campaign against the drug was soon underway. The inherent anti-Mexican feeling behind this was clear. By demonising cannabis, the media were demonising Mexicans.

This pattern continued throughout the century. In the 1950s, black Americans were vilified because of heroin. In the 1960s, hippies – and psychedelics – were condemned because of their counter-culture values. In the 1970s, inner-city black youngsters were indelibly linked to cocaine, then crystal meth was used to taint “poor whites.”  

A new age of Enlightenment?

The destructive effects on mind, body and soul of long-term drug abuse are clear. But cultural biases and political agendas have also warped the conversation around drugs.

But now people are wising up. Attitudes are shifting. Laws are changing.

Fascinating work has been done demonstrating that the roots of addiction might not lie in the inherent addictive qualities of drugs themselves. In fact, addiction may be rooted in a deeper need for isolated human beings to feel a societal connection.

Research is showing that psychoactive drugs can help people suffering from poor mental health. And of course, we’ve seen laws loosen around cannabis use and the emergence of CBD.

There will always be debate around drugs. And the age of synthetics will blur the boundaries between “right” or “wrong” even more.  

But when we see a drug attacked, it’s always worth keeping an open mind. And asking if there’s a deeper agenda at work.