Culture is a drug

Drugs: one of the most popular, most used, most banal and most exciting words of the 20th century captivating also, it seems, the discussions and secret/private rooms of the 21st century in all its magnitude and substance. Completely legal, easily available and utterly unknown for the popular masses at the beginning of the previous century, this incredibly potent “mega-phrase” has evolved into the most globally used the secondary substance of all times. The journey from an obscure substance, (ab)used in hermeneutical circles, to a top product for mass consumption by all layers of society, was one of decades-long transformation of awareness, supported and (probably) orchestrated by affluent business centres of power, realized through the cultural and popular movements starving for changes and greater freedom.

The mutual connection between culture (in its broadest sense) and dope, (a popular English term for drugs) was known even to primitive people. Nature around us has always abandoned in substances with the potential to change our consciousness. It was up to us to reach for a flower (plant) and discover its effects. However, it took a solid amount of curiosity, enthusiasm, even courage to translate these experiences of consuming fruits bestowed by nature into a sort of expertise. Fortunately, people never lacked curiosity or systematicity as evolutional survival tools. No wonder that tribal shamans or close associates (oftentimes the ones drawing pictures on cave’s walls or any type of early artists), as a rule, were the most interested and spiritually most open-minded. It was the type of people who would push an idea forward and who undoubtedly used opioid substances. The circulation of such substances among the general population was never a secret. The Vikings (berserkers) used them to transform into fearless warriors. Countless examples reveal the systematic use of opioid substances throughout history, from the banalest getting drunk daily (yes, alcohol is also a seriously potent drug), to the most sophisticated scientific research that has led to breakthrough discoveries.

But let’s return to modern times. The opium dens prevalent in the 19th century was well known and popular, imported from China by the British along the Silk Road. It is not common knowledge that opium trading was the main source financing the English industrial revolution, the crucial transformation that has led to what we now know, live in and call contemporary. Certainly, it must have occurred way previously, but Victorian Britain is an evident instance of an affluent business aware of the potentials of drugs, applied in different directions towards different goals. Drugs are notorious as well as prohibited. Even the legendary Sherlock Holmes would lose it for several days in an obscure East London opium den in order to relax and self-medicate. Of course, there were days when Mr. Holmes expressed quite the enthusiasm for cocaine, not failing to neglect smoking and alcohol. ;)

As long as we are on the topic of cocaine, a great enthusiast and fervent advocate was a certain distinguished Austrian gentleman and eminent psychologist, Mr. Sigmund Freud. You see, in the late 19th and early 20th century, you could simply stroll in the first decent pharmacy and quite politely ask for a gram of the finest quality cocaine, only to later use it peacefully in an honorable salon with a selected company for maximum social or research effect.

Those were the days, nice and easy for the extremely small number of opioid users deprived of the paranoia of criminal prosecution. A truly golden age for drug consumers and researchers of consciousness. However, the potential of these extremely beneficial and quite dangerous substances was disproportionately larger, something perfectly clear to traders. These were mostly represented by the pharmaceutical industry, popularly known as pharmaceutical mafia, one of the first global structures of legalized, organized crime.


The first popular musical movement to achieve global success, as early as the 1920s, was the jazz culture. Some of the most renowned names of the jazz world come from this period: Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Count Basie etc. From a present perspective, these were exceptional giants, mystical legends, unique individuals. It seems quite logical, doesn’t it, considering they wrote not only the blank pages of jazz art and music but also the first pages of club culture and contemporary behavior. What did they actually do? They would go to clubs with their orchestra around midnight, and in a quite authentic mood, intensified by heroin, amphetamines, cocaine, marihuana and who knows what else (wallowing in huge quantities of alcohol, of course :), tirelessly play until the wee hours of the morning, with the audience literally following along on the dance floor. Music and dancing all night long, ladies and gentleman. Afterwards, they would gather in a private residence and continue the same rituals with days. If you happened to recognize the contemporary club ritual of party and after-party, it should be perfectly clear where the concept of clubbing first originated. A significant number of people had become acquainted with drug use by then. If at first jazz was considered as notorious and underground, in the 1940’s and 1950’s it transformed into a dangerous mainstream globally. If drug use was a “privilege” of the few informed several decades previously, by then it had become a globally developing process. Literally, every consequent cultural-music movement would transform into a sensation and worldwide pop culture, and the music and fashion brought along the “life style”, in other words - frequent drug use. Everyone wanted to try this magic, glamorous ingredient that somehow prompted a peculiar shine and exceptional elevation in the appearance of the leaders of these cultural movements from the “legendary” eras.

Rock ‘n’ roll has been an unprecedented cultural revolution, from its very beginnings in the 1950s until today. This incredible abundance of forms continues to fascinate each generation from an auditory and sociological aspect. Rock ‘n’ roll (and its consequent musical styles) was and continues to be “sold” as a glamorous form of rebellion. All your parents never dared to do. All that is forbidden. It seems not quite by coincidence that almost all famous/popular drugs were banned in this period. Affluent corporations, enlightened by the experience of the 1920’s prohibition, banned legal drug use. The 1950s become a true paradise for rebellion, with young people following in its stride. Somewhere there, on the pedestal, halfway through the century, above everyone else resides Elvis Presley. He was everything your parents weren’t: young, handsome, noisy, shaking his hips seductively. Elvis Presley later died from an overdose of all types of drugs. Food as well.

The 1960’s were a story in itself. It is when rock ‘n’ roll, on the one side, married the socio-political emancipation and human rights movements; and the newly-discovered, tested by CIA and released for mass consumption psychedelic drugs (LSD) on the other. The Beatles are the most popular band in the world and they openly proclaimed drug use. On the other side of the Atlantic, professor and psychologist Timothy Leary, together with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and the founders of acid-rock music, The Warlocks (Grateful Dead), high on acid marched through the streets of San Francisco, carrying a LOVE AND PEACE banner. I sincerely think that for several months many followers of the movement truly believed they would succeed in changing the world for the better. In a micro way, in the long-term, they actually managed to do so.

In the 1970s, rock ‘n’ roll culture reached its peak and completely transformed into the mainstream. New musical and subculture styles appeared: Punk, Post Punk, Hip Hop and Disco, fascinating for being poles apart to rock ‘n’ roll, musically as well as in terms of lifestyle. Despite the attempts for ideological distancing and opposition, the drug culture remained integral to these tendencies. Continuing where rock ‘n’ roll stopped, these authentic scenes became more extreme in expressing its art, as well as in using new drugs and manners of use.

The end of the 1980s and the beginning of 1990s delivered the electronic dance music/culture/scene, and with it a fresh perspective on the already famous consumer and humanity benefits of the previous decades. Radical new technologies, radical new drugs as well (ecstasy and different modern synthetic achievements), led to a seemingly new, at times pre-revolutionary spiritual state between socio-political enthusiasts and, of course, young people. Carried on the wings of love, togetherness, and incredible musical-technological creativity, a great revival and liberation of the social and political, as well as the drug scene occurred, now experienced and treated as the official fuel for youth cultural revolutions. The great liberation was a direct consequence of drug use, long past its days of selectivity and now present literally in everyone’s pocket. No more limitations, no more closed circles, no more secrets. Everyone was on drugs now. Everyone! Add to this the “global village” effect, a layer achieved with the latest information technology revolution, and you arrive to the current state. A world in which not so long ago “lethal” drugs, the most demonized occurrence of the 20th century, is a subject of gradual, yet certain decriminalization and legalization.

All of a sudden, drugs are acceptable. People are speaking of harm reduction, recreational use, permitted amount for personal use… The War on Drugs is slowly becoming a thing of the past, and the number of countries legalizing and decriminalizing drugs is growing. It is only a matter of time when a decisively large part of the world would once again live without the paranoia of being persecuted because of the desire/need to personally choose what you put in your body. How did we reach the point inconceivable only 20 years ago? The answer is pretty simple: the economy. Affluent business factors (the pharmaceutical industry and the state and private institutions under its control) made a profit from the decades-long prohibition, recruiting almost the entire population on the planet as a potential customer. In just several decades, with the influence of sub-cultural movements and “human rights” development, we all became quite desirable and legitimate users of more drugs we could have ever imagined. Economy and turnover demands are truly magical. It might sound cynical at first but there is nothing cynical in reality. And reality clearly revealed that unity and the mutual bond among business, drugs and the most exciting cultural and humanity achievements always have been and remain, particularly now, the threshold of civilization. All this is truly challenging food for thought for the modern man, the reader of this modest text. Even for me, convinced in this civilization bond, it is not so simple, particularly from a moral aspect, to calmly participate in the entire process. However, the process is bigger and more important than the individual. The increasing awareness gained by using (NOT ABUSING) drugs is a precious experience. The development of thought, art and networking of experiences with the use of new technologies comes at a price. It seems to me that we should set foot in this process with utmost awareness and responsibility, with open minds, ready to pay the price of progress.

Mirko Popov
 

Born in 1972 in Skopje, in the last two-three decades Mirko Popov has become one of the leading music workers in Macedonia, a composer, producer, DJ, radio host, promoter of musical/cultural events. PMG Recordings is a leading independent record company in the country, with more than 150 releases issued under his leadership. He is a producer and screenwriter of numerous music videos and a documentary. He has directed and wrote radio plays and has been writing music articles for more than 20 years. He lives and works in Skopje.

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