At the beginning of "Drugs Du Jour" (Aeon) Cody Delistraty points out that Aldous Huxley was opposed to psychoactive drugs in the middle of his career, but that he changed his mind 1955 after he'd taken LSD for the first time.
What explains Huxley’s changed perspective – from seeing drugs as an instrument of dictatorial control to a way to escape from political-cultural repression? Indeed, in the grander picture, why are drugs universally despised at one time, then embraced by intellectuals and cultural influencers at another? Why do we have an almost decadal vogue for one drug or another, with popular drugs such as cocaine all but disappearing only to pop up again decades later? Above all, how are drugs used to affirm or tear down cultural boundaries? The answers colour nearly every aspect of modern history.Drug use offers a starkly efficient window into the cultures in which we live. Over the past century, popularity has shifted between certain drugs – from cocaine and heroin in the 1920s and ’30s, to LSD and barbiturates in the 1950s and ’60s, to ecstasy and (more) cocaine in the 1980s, to today’s cognitive- and productivity-enhancing drugs, such as Adderall, Modafinil and their more serious kin. If Huxley’s progression is to be followed, the drugs we take at a given time can largely be ascribed to an era’s culture. We use – and invent – the drugs that suit our culture’s needs.The drugs chosen to pattern our culture over the past century have simultaneously helped to define what each generation has most desired and found most lacking in itself. The drugs du jour thus point towards a cultural question that needs an answer, whether that’s a thirst for spiritual transcendence, or for productivity, fun, exceptionalism or freedom. In this way, the drugs we take act as a reflection of our deepest desires and our inadequacies, the very feelings that create the cultures in which we live.
But while drugs can both answer cultural questions and create entirely new cultures, there is no simple explanation for why one happens rather than the other. If rave culture is created by ecstasy, does that mean ecstasy is also ‘answering’ a cultural question; or was ecstasy simply there and rave culture blossomed around it? The line of causality is easily blurred. [...] ‘Every time a drug is invented that interacts with the brains and minds of users, it changes the very object of the study: the people who are using,’ says Henry Cowles, assistant professor of the history of medicine at Yale. On this reading, the idea that drugs create culture is true, to an extent, but it is likewise true that cultures can shift and leave a vacuum of unresolved desires and questions that drugs are often able to fill.
...if drugs can create and underscore cultural limitations, then drugs and their makers can tailor-make entire socio-cultural demographics (eg, ‘the depressed housewife’ or ‘the hedonistic, cocaine-snorting Wall Street trader’). Crucially, this creation of cultural categories applies to everyone, meaning that even those not using the popularised drugs of a given era are beholden to their cultural effects. The causality is muddy, but what is clear is that it swings back and forth: drugs both ‘answer’ cultural questions and allow for cultures to be created around themselves.Looking at the culture of today, perhaps the biggest question answered by drugs are issues of focus and productivity – a consequence of the modern ‘attention economy’, as termed by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Alexander Simon.
From time-limited intervention in acute episodes to long-term use:
Critically, it is the way in which we now take drugs that shows the shift in the notion of the ‘self’. So-called ‘magic-bullet drugs’ – one-off, limited-course drugs designed to treat highly targeted problems – have given way to ‘maintenance drugs’ – eg, antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills that must be taken in perpetuity.‘This is a big shift from the old model,’ says Cowles. ‘It used to be: “I am Henry. I am ill in some way. A pill can help me get back to being Henry, and then I’m off it.” Whereas now: “I am only Henry when I’m on my meds.” Between 1980, 2000, and now, the proportion of people on that kind of maintenance pill with no end in sight is just going to keep going up and up.’
Note that in the 18th and 19th centuries opium, usually in the form of tincture of opium, or laudanum, was the maintenance drug of choice in Europe and the West. That drug gave us "Kubla Khan".