The ridiculous drug investigation into Hindi film society continues to roll on, and what I find vaguely interesting about it (if anything), is the glimpse it gives into the morality of drug use as it is currently seen in Indian society, something that had not previously come into my awareness. And that started me thinking about the morality of drug use as it is perceived in general and how much it has changed just in my lifetime.
I’m gonna start by just throwing out some random historical examples for how drug use was perceived. In America, 100 years ago, “drugs” and “drinking” were synonymous. Not just in common usage of terminology, but the actual items referred to, if that makes sense. What was sold at bars as “alcohol” was highly adulterated with all kinds of substances. If you read literature from that time, it sounds like ridiculous hyperbole, talking about men driven mad by drink and killing their wives and children and so on. But that’s because we are thinking of what “drink” is in America today, highly regulated liquor. Back then, it was alcohol mixed with opium and morphine and cocaine and whatever else people thought of using.
The Women’s Christian Temperance League was started in America not against drinking exactly, but against a whole group of social ills that effected women because of drinking. Women had no right to their own money after marriage, which meant if they were married to an addict, he could take all the money they earned through their own labor and spend it feeding their addiction. They had no right to their own children, meaning if they tried to leave a marriage to an addict, he could call the police to keep his children with him as hostages. And of course, they had no right to a divorce, even if their addict husband took all their money, beat them, beat their children, and threatened to kill them. The fight against drugs in those days was really a fight for women’s rights, a fight to show that a non-addicted woman was stronger and wiser and worth more than an addict man. They didn’t care about the drugs themselves, or even the addicts themselves, just what the drugs and addicts were doing to the women they held hostage by the laws around them. The Women’s Christian Temperance League worked for rights for women, for divorces, for voting rights, for child custody reform, along with working for laws that regulated the drink sold in bars so that it actually was alcohol, not true drugs. Back then, being a “drinker” was seen as synonymous with being a wife-beater, a non-worker, a bad husband and father. Of course there were loads of people who drank a beer after work of the evening and never hit their wives or children or did anything wrong, but they would not consider themselves “drinkers”. Because they didn’t fit the narrative.
Now let’s look at The Opium Wars! This was a terrible thing the British did, a terrible terrible thing, using drugs as a poison for a whole society. China at the time was a strong independent nation, with a lot of very valuable trade goods to offer to the West. The British were desperate to have a more balanced trade exchange with China, to find something they could offer the Chinese in return for tea and silk and all kinds of wonderful things China could offer them. And therefore, the British started pushing Opium into China. They had control of Afghanistan which (then and now) is the center of Opium production worldwide. Opium was well-known in China as a medicine to be taken in moderation. But once the British started pushing it hard, the Chinese began taking it increasingly for pleasure, and then from addiction. The Chinese government realized the toll this was taking on their populous and attempted to limit the Opium trade into their country, which meant the British were once again at a trade disadvantage. So they went to war with China, truly and explicitly just because they wanted the right to get the Chinese population addicted to drugs and therefore make more money from them. The biggest drug dealers in the world, the British state. And the end result of this war, was a British stereotype of the Chinese as drug addicts. Somehow, in their clever double talk way, they managed to turn reality on it’s head. The idea of the evil Chinese district of London where good clean young British men went and became drug addicts is in all the British novels of the day. The true story, of the good clean young British men who forced the Chinese population to become drug addicts purely for profit, that is hidden.
What I am trying to show by those two examples is that the social meaning of “drugs” is always changing. In America 100 years ago, it was about women’s liberation, the way that drugs poisoned men and women could not escape the secondary effects of that poison. In Britain in the late 1800s, drugs became synonymous with the weakness of the East in a handy reversing of reality in which the drugs only came to the East because of the British.
As with all major social issues, there is also the backlash effect. For instance, after alcohol became fully illegal in America, it was legalized again (with a lot of the restrictions that the WCTU had been pushing for already in place), and suddenly folks were laughing at the whole “temperance” movement. I can see that in my own particular generational/class group. In the 90s in white middle-class America, there was this enormous fear of drugs killing children. As a child of that era, I got it from all sides, this vague sense that all my parents’ friends were worried about it, all the little lectures and things in school, the terrifying videos were were shown of the kid who tried marijuana once AND THEN DIED. It was a social construct of course, a way of expressing racial/class fears. Those children who died of drugs were always nice white middle-class kids. The hidden narrative was drugs from “the inner cities” coming and ruining children of “the suburbs”. The parental wisdom of the time was to make your kid do home urine tests if you suspected drugs, to search their rooms, to be a good parent even if it meant breaking their trust. And, if necessary, to send them away to a treatment camp for their own good.
So, okay, that was my generation. Well, my generation of white middle-class American kids. And then my generation of white middle-class American kids grew up and found their voices and said “That was a terrible terrible thing you did to us”. This isn’t a celebrity or pop culture issue I am talking about now, I knew at least one maybe two kids who were sent to those camps. They didn’t come from famous families, they weren’t sent there because of PR reasons, they were sent there because their parents believed they were doing the right thing. And it wasn’t. At the time, even I accepted it, so-and-so had a “drug problem” (this terrifying bogeyman monster) so it was good for him to be sent off to the wilderness for 6 months. There’s a growing number of memoirs and stories from people who had one minor rebellion as a teen, tried a few drugs, and in return were exiled from their family and sent off to torturous horrible prison camp like places (link here to a government report on the abuses, including at least 10 deaths of teenagers due to dehydration, bleeding, etc.)
The new wisdom (again, among white middle-class Americans, very specific group), is not “tough love”, but simply “love”. When a celebrity is learned to be a drug addict, or goes to rehab, no longer is it “they are evil people who are teaching Our Children to do bad things”, instead it is “I hope they get help”. And I haven’t heard for ages about “if you love your teenager, search their room and give them drug tests and send them to the wilderness if you find anything”.
What I can’t get a handle on is what the drug thinking is in India these days. It seems to be “drugs are a sign of moral failing”, but I’m not clear on why. Is it “because they are an escape from the world instead of struggling with it”? Is it “because drugs are general Bad and you should Just Say No?” Is it “because drugs are Western not Eastern?” Is it “because you are setting a bad example for The Children”? I am really at a loss.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got. If you can give any insight into why drugs are considered Bad in India today, I would appreciate it.
I also think the most productive discussion we can have is sharing personal stories about how drugs are/were perceived for us in our lives. So, if you feel like sharing that, please do.
I can tell you mine. I’ve never used recreational drugs, and I’ve also never drunk alcohol. Not as a moral stand at all, just because I tend to get horrible debilitating migraines when I try new things, so I don’t particularly want to risk it. As a kid, like under age 10, I got a lot of terrifying drug lectures from school and I found them confusing and scary and weird. As I said, I knew kids who got sent to drug rehab camps as teenagers. I didn’t know them well, but they were vaguely around me and I heard their parents talking to my parents. I went off to college absolutely terrified of drugs and ready for some horrible person to try to seduce me to taking them or something. Which never happened. In 4 years of college, I was never offered alcohol, let alone drugs. It was in my early twenties, when marijuana was already on the way to being legal in my state, that I was at a party and someone casually offered it. I turned it down, as did half the other people there, and about 4 people went out on the back porch to smoke, and then came back and were basically normal. Didn’t turn into demons or anything. And that didn’t surprise me, somehow between the ages of 14 and 24 I had grown up and realized that drugs weren’t some terrifying monster thing, but were just a thing in the world.