The Sixties Drug Movement essay   no comments

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Since the mid 1960’s, when youthful drug use began to make headlines, the entire issue has been debated with growing emotion and hysteria on all sides. The communications media, in their overwhelming, exhaustive, and sometimes boring coverage of the drug problem, have given the general public a certain amount of insight into the nature of drug taking among today’s youth. Which drugs are being taken, how, when, where, and by whom are aspects of the issue which have been thoroughly discussed. The background leading to the current craze, the reasons why the young were and are so amenable to drug-taking, and the attitudes which have made drugs a symbol of the current generation have yet to be objectively analyzed, at least in the mass media. Too much emphasis is usually placed on one or two aspects or factors of the issue; the drug phenomenon of the late sixties is actually a very complex combination of the influence of specific people and events with the general social atmosphere and attitudes of an age of change and confusion.

Drug-taking has always existed in American society, but in this century it has basically been limited to certain elements: the ghetto dweller, the derelict, the drifter, certain individuals in the world of art, music, show business, and some wealthy, usually young and psychologically disturbed, thrill seekers (a few of which I encountered during my years at boarding school). The drug culture was hidden and ignored, alien to the vast American middle class. The Beatniks of the fifties and the pre-hippie types of the early sixties experimented with drugs, especially marijuana. Though many of these people were children of the middle-class, they represented a miniscule group and did not receive much publicity. When they were noticed, they were regarded with a mixture of amusement and contempt; no one paid much attention.

It wasn’t until the mid-sixties that middle-class youth as a group actually became aware of the potential availability of drugs. Until this time, the vast majority of teenagers, like their parents, associated drugs with criminals, delinquents, and poverty. But starting around 1965, two influential forces of the latter half of this decade, aided by the mass media, played a significant role in introducing youth to drugs, which has been around for some time in the underground. These forces were the rock culture and the hippie phenomenon.
Beginning with the Beatles in 1964, rock music underwent a great change and renewal, not only in the beat but also in the lyrics, which began to discuss politics, sex, freedom, and social ideas, and in the amount of influence which rock singers and groups exerted over the young. References to drugs, particularly LSD and marijuana, were slyly and obscurely slipped into hit songs like “Satisfaction” in 1965, along with comments about sex and society. These references, while perfectly obvious to insiders and many kids, were vague and innocuous enough to be passed over by censoring radio stations.

The image that I’ve chosen of Bob Marley is one that truly represents a musical artist embracing drugs, in this case marijuana. By 1967, the awareness of drugs through rock had progressed to such a point that psychedelic posters were hung on bedroom walls, light shows representing drug trips were popular at rock concerts, and songs like “White Rabbit,” which unabashedly glorified drugs, were played constantly on pop radio stations. The great increase in youth’s awareness of drugs was partially the result of the influence of rock stars. Individuals and groups such as Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, the Byrds, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Doors, Donovan, and countless others, not only wrote and sang about drugs but were also reportedly using them, and some were getting arrested. Bob Marley was not afraid of getting arrested; rather he flaunted his pro-drug image. It was marijuana in particular that Marley was in favor of legalizing. There were many pictures taken of Marley smoking marijuana, or Kaya (The Jamaican word for Marijuana, and also the title of one of his albums). Bob Marley in particular, among the many drug-using rock stars of the sixties and seventies, stands out to me because the pictures of him weren’t from a drug bust, weren’t from anything he was trying to hide. Drugs were very much a part of his image. However, the entire rock culture of the sixties, with its anti-Establishment, pro-freedom attitudes, has been a continuing and sometimes underestimated influence on the young.

The hippie movement, which combined the San Francisco rock culture, Berkeley-inspired political and social rebellion, and the growing California drug cult, was from the beginning a hopelessly doomed phenomenon, destroyed by police persecution, community pressure, over-publicity, and the criminal element. In the press at least, 1968’s revolutionary replaced 1967’s hippie. But the hippies’ strong emphasis on drugs outlived the movement itself and spread to the high schools and junior highs; the kids, led by a small minority who were already familiar with the drug world, tired of hearing and reading about pot and other drugs and started taking them.

But why were the young so receptive to the idea of drugs which were, after all, against the law and in many cases very dangerous? The answer lies in the tremendous changes which occurred in that decade. The questioning and breakdown of traditional American political and social tension, the growing affluence, the infamous Generation Gap, and the aura of violence created an era of confusion and uncertainty, an era in which traditional ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, were questioned and found lacking in value and meaning. Many people decided that society’s approval was not necessary or even particularly important. It is easy to overestimate the effect of such social and political factors on the current drug scene, but, basically, it can be said that the sixties’ atmosphere of change and rebellion set the stage for the rock and hippie cultures which in turn influenced the rebellious young.

It is perhaps significant that the greatest amount of youthful involvement with drugs has taken place on the West and East Coasts, which have also been the areas where social change and the destruction of middle-class values have been most prevalent. It is obvious that in many cases the young take drugs as part of a protest against society, but this reason has been vastly overemphasized. In my opinion, the fourteen-year-old taking pep pills or smoking pot is not usually thinking about alienation in our urbanized, industrialized society. Most kids, even those who are aware of and affected by the problems of our society, smoke pot and take drugs because their friends do, because they are searching for identity, both individually and as part of a group, and because they enjoy doing so. Bob Marley, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin- all of these artists were also creating and shaping their own identities. They were and are popular artists who were not afraid of experimenting with drugs and showing publicly, their interest in these drugs. As a result, kids listening to their music try and either emulate this image, or possibly it makes them more curious towards drugs and far less inhibited. The great social changes of this decade have certainly helped set the stage for the drug cult, but individual reasons for drug-taking can be found only by studying each individual.

Certain widespread public attitudes toward drug-taking have also been instrumental in furthering its popularity, both in the sixties and today. Basically, the feeling has been one of shocked confusion. Elements of the Establishment, including the police, the courts, the schools, the press, the churches, the various civic organizations, and the legislators have generally adopted the attitude that over-permissiveness is to blame and have supported a harsh crackdown, not only on drugs, but on all forms of “immorality and lawlessness.” In some ways, the drug issue has become not just a moral and legal one, but a political one as well, with the Right favoring harsh repressive measures and the Left favoring liberalization.

The home has become another battlefront. Middle-class parents have not only become aware of drugs within the past twenty years, but have found, to their consternation and amazement, that their own children are expertly dropping, popping, smoking, and even shooting. Some parents have attempted to analyze the situation objectively and fairly, but large numbers have reacted with blind fear, anger, and panic. Deciding that they have been too permissive, they become bitter and suspicious, sometimes spying on their children and in extreme cases turning them in to the police. Naturally, this type of parental reaction has widened the so-called Generation Gap to awesome proportions.

Other attitudes of confusion and fear toward the subject result from the uncertainty and confusion about the use of the word “drugs,” which can include everything from harmless marijuana to possibly dangerous diet pills to very dangerous methadone. This inclusion of all drugs and narcotics under one basic label makes it difficult to separate the issues and to create fairer laws. Many people tend to see the issue in black and white; one is either for or against drugs, period.

The over-reaction of many parents and authorities, the harshness of laws against marijuana, the legality of liquor, cigarettes, and many types of pills for diet, sleep, and relaxation, the politicization of the issue, and the confusion and disagreement among adults themselves have in many cases resulted in greater support and defense of drugs by the young. Already questioning the authority of the older generation, the young may feel that the hypocrisy and stupidity of their elders’ attitudes toward drugs merely reinforces the idea that the older generation is hopelessly out-of-date and irrelevant. Thus, the young are able to rationalize their own heedless, who-cares attitude; they react to the extreme anti-drugs attitude of their parents with a just as extreme pro-drugs attitude. Both sides have developed their own rationalizations, their own myths, and their own sources (both sides, for example, claim that “medical studies” support their ideas). The greater the controversy, the more drugs become a cause, a source of youthful unity and identity, a point of alliance against the rest of society. The secret, underground nature of the drug cult has given added excitement and spice to the lives of the jaded, sophisticated, or pseudo-sophisticated young. Phrases such as “do you turn on?” and “are you holding?” distinguish friends from enemies. The existence of “the Man” and “narcs” merely adds to the danger and thrill of drugs, creating a sort of Prohibition Era atmosphere.

Clearly, something must be done. First, a cooling-off, calming-down period is needed. Nothing will be accomplished in the present atmosphere of emotion and suspicion. Second, the laws must be made fairer. Research on marijuana is going on at the present time and the results should be helpful and valid. But on the basis of what is now known, it must be realized that because there are such drastic differences in the strength and effects of marijuana, LSD, methadone, amphetamines, etc., there should also be drastic differences in the laws dealing with them. Marijuana, if not legalized, should at least be treated with less severity. The drug issue is unique in that it is a combination of many battles; moral, legal, political, social, and generational which are raging in this country. A rational solution to the problem might indicate a step in the direction of reason and justice.

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