Drugs of Our Fathers

As someone fascinated with history, it’s interesting to observe the changing fashions in drug use over the years. While some – like marijuana and heroin – seem to have an enduring popularity, others fade in and out of fashion for no clear (at least to me) reason. Quaaludes were ubiquitous once; now they’re basically gone. I remember some “60 Minutes” expose a decade or so ago on the dangers of whippits, and haven’t really heard anything since. Opium, way back when, was the Great Satan of drugs; it’s still around, of course, but not like it once was. Uppers and downers and Roofies were once the bastion of the college students; now prescription-drug abuse is largely the realm of the affluent and well-to-do. And, hey, let’s not forget that old standby, huffing paint or glue, eh?

I had some free time to kill (note to fledgling linux geeks: if you don’t bother to specify which character sets you want your computer to use, every time you install a new version of “locales”, it’ll rebuild every freaking character set on the planet… which takes a while. Doh.) so I thought I’d dig through the Life Magazine photo archives for some interesting, historical looks at drug use…

It’s easy to think of the “war on drugs” as a product of the Reagan era, but that’s not really true. These are U.S. Customs agents tracking the national marijuana market in 1969. Going prices at the time varied from $400 a kilo in New York to as little as $150 a pound in Las Vegas. (In today’s dollars, that’s ~$2300 for a kilo in NY, ~$850 a pound in Las Vegas, which I’m told isn’t that far from today’s wholesale “street” prices. Yet, they tell me, a “dime bag” is still $10, but you get less than you used to, decades ago. I think there’s some kind of economic lesson there…)

Heroin packaging, 1951. Not a scale in sight… but what a snazzy suit!

Heroin addicts in a hotel room, 1965. “John (fore) taking a shot within minutes of his release from jail.” Heroin, oddly, seems to be one of the few drugs that nobody has ever expended any serious efforts towards legalization. Even in the 1970s, the “legalize cocaine” movement (no, really) agreed that heroin was bad stuff. (From what I can tell, one of their talking points was that cocaine wasn’t addictive and had no negative side effects, so shouldn’t be treated, legally, the same as “bad” drugs like heroin.)

The tools of the trade for opium use, 1946. Maybe it’s false romanticism or something, but it kind of seems like opium was the opening front in the “war on drugs”, way back in the teens and twenties. It doesn’t seem to have turned people into crazed, paranoid killing machines, or led to an epidemic of theft, the way certain other drugs (cough, methamphetamines, cough) have. Rather, if old newspaper accounts are to be believed, it was objectionable chiefly because its users were unproductive louts who did little but smoke opium and sleep a lot. Heaven forbid we turn into a country of lazy hedonists, right? 🙂

Japanese “hippies” sniffing glue in a subway station(?), 1969. I guess the guy on the floor, in the tight pants and leopard-skin jacket is a “hippie”, but what’s with the guys in dark clothes, trench coats, and sunglasses? The one on the left looks like he’s wearing rubber wellies. Ah, those crazy, crazy Japanese…

Published in: General, History | on January 20th, 2009| 3 Comments »

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  1. On 1/25/2009 at 2:21 pm Tim Said:

    According to a recent Frontline episode on meth, quaaludes have gone away because some guy in the DEA found that the process to make the chemicals for making them was really complex and thus was only done by 5 or so factories around the world. They apparently then made the importation of those chemicals illegal and went to the factories and worked with them very closely on their customer list, eventually cutting down the supply to the folks producing the underground drug. So basically, they removed the supply at the source. I may have some of the details wrong, but the context of this was that they apparently did not do this with the meth precursors because of industry pressure, and thus it ballooned into a big problem.

    As for whippets, they still are definitely in use. I picked up what had to be a couple hundred under a couch that was in front of our camp at burningman a few years ago, and hear mention of them every once in a while at parties still.

    Love that Japanese subway picture, though. 🙂 I like to think that people will look at pictures of us someday and will say similar things. Somehow it comforts me that we will pass into cultural irrelevance down the road. Means I can relax and enjoy it. 🙂

  2. On 1/25/2009 at 3:52 pm Nemo Said:

    Yeah, regulation of precursors works wonders, and that’s one of the reasons that meth is, sadly, nearly unstoppable: most of the precursors are just too widely used, and thus available in basically unregulated quantities on an essentially commodity basis. (Not necessarily in the U.S. anymore, but certainly elsewhere – like South and Central America.) It’s similar to the way that the ATF keeps running into problems when trying to ban/regulate explosives precursors: a lot of the materials needed to make “sexy” explosives are fairly obscure, but the ingredients to make, say, flash powder, are just too widespread to effectively regulate.

    I’m sure whippits are still around, but the hysteria surrounding them was sure short-lived. I forget exactly what the whole shockingly dangerous aspect of them was, but I seem to remember that, like a lot of television exposes, it was fairly laughable, if you looked past the breathless hype.

    I kind of wonder how many whippit users are Neal Stephenson fans? 😉 Sangamon’s Principle, and all that.

  3. On 10/3/2009 at 3:34 am jen Said:

    a) loving the suit pic (let’s just say that the attire has slightly shifted in recent years)
    b) japanese subway pic looks like bob dylan dressed as a matador downing a bag of flour.. maybe he was on tour there at the time and those guys were security.. or maybe they were blind and didn’t even notice he was lying there with the flour.