By Terry Gotham
I’ve been exceptionally lucky to be able to report on new, interesting and potentially dangerous trends in drug and alcohol use/abuse for Burners.me. Whether it was novel psychoactive substances, designer Xanax, Fentanyl as the scourge of North America or even just about the commercialization of cannabis, I’ve tried to ensure my points were data-driven and relevant in the current day. This next segment of my reporting for Burners.me is going to be less focused on the present and more the past.
Tens of thousands of people have written about drug use, both recreational and medicinal, in addition to the nature of using. What far fewer have written about is the systematic segmentation of consumers of certain substances as “addicts” or “problematic users.” Drug use goes back as far as we have written records, but the labeling of certain populations as addicted/sick/bad for society is a far more recent practice. In researching to help me understand why and how this designation came about, I was stunned how many commonly held beliefs about substance use and who was using what and why were smashed. Everything from conventional wisdom surrounding The Civil War to how societal markets were shaped by tea, coffee & chocolate.
The earliest example of a group of people being persecuted for their substance usage alone (not as an adjunct of their race, class or religion) that I can find was in 14th Century Spain. During the Spanish Inquisition (bet you didn’t expect that), opium smoking was considered heretical behavior and potentially grounds for…Inquisition. Some that smoked it were natural enemies of the Church, where you saw the Church use it as a proxy to go after people they already didn’t like (that thing Nixon did). But there were also a lot who were punished for their choice of substance alone, which hadn’t really happened before. There are a lot of stories about substance users being persecuted or segmented off from society as the “other” and I don’t even need to bring up Hearst or Anslinger to do so.
For example, almost every single Islamic culture has punished Sufis for their use of cannabis and other psychedelic substances. While it’s quite likely the Sufis would also be persecuted if they weren’t smoking cannabis, their use creates a unique way for them to be pursued, again, not entirely different than how Nixon used the hippie consumption of LSD, psilocybin and cannabis to persecute them, even before those drugs were made illegal. In a dozen different countries, both the Shia & Sunni majorities have used substance use of the Sufis as a way to persecute them in the name of purity and Islam. The stories involving insurgencies in sects of locally practiced Islam are interesting, and will comprise an entire separate piece, as Sufism is the key to fighting Islamic fundamentalism, according to some.
One of the other aspects of substance use I’ll be looking at is how societies change when the drugs they take change. One fascinating shift that I’ll be exploring is the move from bars to coffee houses in Europe. While coffee had been used for almost a thousand years before it arrived in Europe, the place of meeting & business was the bar for centuries. When the coffee house arrived, you had major shifts in culture, and the stimulating vs. depressing effects on the populace was one of the reasons. Similar effects can be found scattered across the globe and continue to this day, as tobacco use wanes in the modern West.
The biggest reasons why substance use wasn’t always crucified as damaging might even be more basic than you think. Behaviorism, or the idea that conditioning can work (Skinner, the dog, the steak and the bell, for everyone who took Psych 101) is actually a very recent belief. The idea that you can become “addicted” to a behavior by doing it over and over is way less intuitive than you can imagine, and wasn’t even seen as solid science until very recently. To put things in perspective, the Opium Wars were fought in the mid-1800s and Pavlov’s famous experiments didn’t occur until the 1920s, with Skinner’s work not being published until the 1960s. Before that, we didn’t really believe that if you drank, you put yourself at greater risk for alcoholism. We just kind of chalked up “drinking” as a moral vice, like gambling or gossiping.
This is one of the reasons why it’s been so difficult to nail down where substance use was truly hated outside of Prohibition era society in the West and later. Temperance societies were seen as a moderating factor, but used coded social language that isn’t immediately obvious to the untrained reader. Was some substance use seen as beneficial? Sherlock Holmes was a famous cocaine, opium and alcohol user, but it’s not like Arthur Conan Doyle’s books have classified him to the world as anything but amazingly sober. Victorian England almost celebrated laughing gas, while these days, the east coast of the United States has spent over a decade fighting the nitrous mafia, scourge of the hippie festival parking lot. But when your society doesn’t even understand that certain substances can cause actual physical dependency, would you even have reason to portray them as addictive?
In retrospect, this makes no sense at all, but that’s because we exist in an age of reason, science and a belief that the human body is not made up of 4 humors. For the vast majority of human drug consumption, we didn’t really have this sophisticated understanding. How did this change drug use? Pretty fundamentally, from how treatment of injuries during the Civil War is incorrectly blamed for opiate addiction in the late 1900s, to the Pope blessing cocaine-infused wine. It’s so easy to view substance use with the lens we have now, but the more I’ve studied, the more I’ve found to be flat out our own cultural & modern bias. Hopefully this can be used to inform our current discussion of substance use in the Burner community, and how that appetite is satisfied. Not all habits are damaging, not all addictions are deadly. I hope you’ll join me as I explore the intersection between use, abuse, progress, prosecution and self-exploration.
Anything you’d like to hear about? Urban legends you’d like tracked? Arguments on playa you’d like settled? Leave a comment and if my editor & I like it, we just might add it to the list.