How Drugs Got A Bad Rap

“Drug addict,” “drug control,” “drug culture” – it wasn’t until around 1900 that we used these terms the way we mean them today, explains Mike Jay:

Largely couched in medical terms as it was, the whole notion of ‘drugs’ carried moral and cultural implications from the start. Within the temperance debate, intoxication was an evil in itself and abstinence a corresponding virtue. Also, a good many of the substances that caused concern in the West were associated with immigrant communities: opium in the Chinese districts of San Francisco or London’s docklands, cocaine among the black communities of the southern US. In the racially charged debates of the day, these substances were presented as the ‘degenerate habits’ of ‘inferior races’, a ‘plague’ or ‘contagion’ that might infect the wider population. Such ideas might no longer be explicit, but the drug concept certainly carries a murky sense of the foreign and alien even now.

That’s why it rarely applies to the psychoactive substances that we see as part of normal life, whether caffeine in the west, coca in the Andes, or ayahuasca in the Amazon.

During the first years of the 20th century, opium, morphine and cocaine became less socially acceptable, rather as tobacco has in our era. Their use was now viewed through the prism of medical harm, and their users correspondingly started to seem feckless or morally weak. The drugs themselves became, in a sense, ‘legal highs’: not technically prohibited but retreating into the shadows, available only under the counter or from those in the know. And then, once their sale was formally banned in the years around the Great War, ‘drugs’ became a term with legal weight: a specified list of substances that were not merely medically dangerous or culturally foreign, but confined to the criminal classes.