Are “drugs” the consequence of economic and political destabilizing factors?

Every society and culture has the stimulants and intoxicants it deserves, needs and tolerates. Since hallowed antiquity, alcohol has been THE intoxicant for the western culture. Alcohol is so much part of the culture that few can imagine life without it. Aside from stating this fact, can the link between drugs and culture be developed further? Some examples might help to clarify the concepts and categories that would allow a closer look at the interdependence between drugs and culture.

When heroin made its appearance in Pakistan in the 1980s, it is rumoured that connections between the cocaine dealers of Columbia and the local heroin dealers led to an exchange of their commodities. Thus in the 1980s, cocaine became available in Karachi during certain festivities. However, as one participant observed: “It could rain cocaine in Pakistan; but we would never take to it.” What is the reason for the rejection – valid until today – of cocaine, a strong stimulant drug, in Pakistani culture? The only explanation appears to lie in the contradiction between the effects of the drug and the cultural norms of the country. Cocaine, an extreme confidence enhancing drug which leads to perceive self-importance as linked to the talkative intrusion of the user into the personal space of others, is at odds with traditional Pakistani culture which values personal space and understated social interaction.

Why has the use of methamphetamine pills skyrocketed in Southeast Asian countries in recent decades? They are discrete, clean and easy to swallow, easy to hide; there is no treacherous smoke or paraphernalia, and they have the effect of accelerating perceptions and enhancing exhilaration. In short, methamphetamines are congruent with the demands of the fast-paced economy and the social control of the lifestyles evolving in Southeast Asia.
In Jamaica, the use of cannabis dates back to the mid 19th century when it was introduced by indentured labourers from India, hence its name ganja. The two social drugs used in Jamaica are alcohol and cannabis. While alcohol is usually associated with the rich, the use of cannabis is more prevalent among the poor also because it is cheaper than alcohol. The Rastafari movement incorporates cannabis as a sacred plant in its rituals; its most famous representative, Bob Marley, made reggae music part of the world culture. About the ongoing discussions on what came first, ganja leading to the music or music leading to ganja, Lutan Fyah, a Jamaican artist explains: “If you check where this music came from and the time when it started out, you realise that it really came from the poor. They saw reggae music as a chance to say what they wanted to say and share their views and that’s how weed came up in reggae.”
An even more telling historical example relates to legal stimulants. Before they started to import tobacco, coffee, tea and chocolate through the exploitation of their growing colonial empires, European countries knew no hot drinks. Water, milk, beer and wine were their everyday drinks and people were frequently under the influence of alcohol all day long. Farmers are said to have imbibed a few litres of beer or diluted wine daily, and even the Princess of Palatine Elisabeth Charlotte from the French court complained in her letters to relatives and friends in German-speaking countries that in France she missed her breakfast beer soup and had to take coffee instead. Given the gentle pace and kind of work done in feudal agricultural societies, this light drunkenness posed no problem and was shared by all social classes.
Coffee first appeared in Europe in the 17th century, the century of rationalism and social and economic changes. Activities in the newly developing manufacturing work places were organised rationally, characterizing the bourgeois spirit that drove these developments. The fundamental sobering feature of coffee became part and parcel of these developments, as sobriety and abstinence (rather than mild drunkenness) became the norm and the leading value of the work ethic (Schivelbusch, p. 215ff). Thus, changes in the production model of society or the culture led to changes in the use of and preference for drugs.
Initially coffee, tea, tobacco, chocolate were new drugs and, as such, were at first treated with mistrust and rejection, as it often happens in the case of new entries into an existing cultural framework with all their perceived dangers. However, over time, they became part of mainstream everyday culture. It is this mass consumption that shapes and moulds a culture. Drugs of the opiate type, as well as cocaine, remain excluded from mass consumption and are therefore not an integral part of mainstream culture. Their characteristics, use and effects are associated with minority groups, identified as outsiders, marginalised and often viewed with suspicion, depending on their class status. There is a substantial difference between the public perception and media reporting about affluent cocaine loving high flyers and opiate dependent poor youths.
These examples lead to the question of what stimulants modern western societies need today in order to function. What is the mainstream drug use that characterizes our societies: apart from alcohol, coffee, tobacco and chocolate which are deeply embedded in our culture and its rituals, what new substances have become part of mainstream culture? Above all the large number of prescription drugs that alter people’s moods, from anxiety to calmness, from sadness to ‘joy’, from rebellion to acceptance.The days when drug use was associated with innovation, the expansion of consciousness and the belief in the possibility of change, individual and collective, are over. Nowadays, the massive and mainstream use of mood-altering prescription drugs in western societies leads to adaptation to the functional demands of life, professional and private, and the subsequent adjustment of personalities to these demands, which seem to be the priority of the drug users.
Regarding the interdependence of drugs and culture, in all cases, drugs follow changes of the production model and the social norms in society. Economic and political changes give the impetus of subsequent changes in drug use. Thus, drugs by themselves do not stabilize or destabilize a culture or community. They do not create anything ab initio, neither on the level of the individual nor the collective. Drugs might intensify pre-existing tendencies or characteristics, but will never create or innovate by themselves. It is economic and political factors that stabilize or destabilize a society or culture, and the appropriate drugs will follow. Drugs by themselves have no independent power. Their power lies in the descriptions and ascriptions given to them.
To put it more comprehensively: “Drugs are multifunctional substances; the effects they have on human beings cannot be explained unless the way of using, the institutional settings, the legal status, the existing knowledge, the manifold desires and fears as well as the societal position of those who use them are taken into account. Substances that fall under the categories of ‘drugs’ can be used as medication for the informed treatment of physical and psychic disturbances, as part of medical experiments, as vehicles for the expansion of consciousness, as illegal addictive escapist substances, as military warfare material, as secret service ‘truth drugs’ or just simply as poison. Between use and significance there are interdependences and it is the societal goals – political, military and cultural – that break through this double contingency and stabilize the assessment of these substances in certain contexts.” (Tanner, p. 340. Translation DB)

Doris Buddenberg
Specialized in Slavonic studies, economics and ethnology at Heidelberg University, she was a visiting professor at Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad, Pakistan, working in the Anthropology Department. Work on drug control started with the first Pakistan National Survey on Drug Abuse in the early 1980s.
She taught at Heidelberg University and worked as a consultant for various regional and international organisations on topics including capacity building for governments, design and evaluation of drug control programmes, and the development of national drug control strategies. During this time, she worked in Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Afghanistan, India, Myanmar, Laos People’s Democratic Republic and Indonesia. In 1996 she joined the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and in 2000 she lead UNODC’s country programme in Viet Nam. In 2004 she led UNODC Office in Afghanistan. She was officer-in-charge of UNICRI and in late 2007managed the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN GIFT).