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history of drug abuse 60s


“But I would not feel so all alone, everybody must get stoned.” – Bob Dylan (Rainy Day Women #12 & 35)

I don’t want to generalize this decade as a decade of sex, drugs, and rock &roll, but that is probably an accurate description of it. At least for those who were involved with the counterculture, beat generation and were “hippies”. The 60’s were characterized by change not just in civil rights and the protests against Vietnam but also in music and the use of illicit drugs. An entire book could be written on the changes that happened in the 60’s and many books have been written.

Today, we are going to talk about the history of drug abuse and one of the biggest changes in the 60’s which was the widespread use of illicit drugs, primarily hallucinogens such as marijuana and LSD.

Before this time, drugs, specifically marijuana was primarily used by jazz musicians and hip characters in the inner cities.  This was known as the beat generation.

(Beat generation, is a term applied to certain American artists and writers who were popular during the 1950s. Essentially anarchic, members of the beat generation rejected traditional social and artistic forms. The beats sought immediate expression in multiple, intense experiences and beatific illumination like that of some Eastern religions such as Zen Buddhism. In literature they adopted rhythms of simple American speech and of bop and progressive jazz. Among those associated with the movement were the novelists Jack Kerouac and Chandler Brossard, numerous poets (e.g., Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso), and others, many of whom worked in and around San Francisco. During the 1960s “beat” ideas and attitudes were absorbed by other cultural movements, and those who practiced something akin to the “beat” lifestyle were called “hippies.”)

And, LSD, which was virtually unknown to American society in the early sixties and was still legal until 1966. LSD gained widespread recognition as a result of the very public exploits of so-called acid gurus, Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey. By the mid-sixties, seemingly overnight, marijuana and LSD use was common across the country, especially among the young.

People who were involved with drug use in the 60’s also began looking to religious ceremonies of Native Americans where peyote and mescaline were used, to references of marijuana use for spiritual and medicinal purposes in ancient texts, and to books like Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, where Huxley writes of his experimentation with mescaline in Mexico. Other more harmful drugs followed: cocaine, heroin, amphetamines and barbiturates, and the idea of using mind-expanding drugs to gain insight into the world gave way to plain recreational, often harmful use. And harmful use leads to overdoses and deaths.

NOTABLE DEATHS IN THE 1960s DUE TO DRUGS: Believe it or not Janis Joplin (heroin overdose) and Jimi Hendrix (asphyxiation on vomit) didn’t die in the 60s but in the early 70s. Who did die in the 60s are: Rudy Lewis (The Drifters) of an overdose, Dinah Washington (jazz pianist and singer), Brian Epstein (Manager of The Beatles), and Frankie Lymon (Frankie Lymon and Teenagers).

Drug abuse in the 1960s

Marijuana use in the 1960s: A campaign conducted in the 1930s by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs) sought to portray marijuana as a powerful, addicting substance that would lead users into narcotics addiction. It is still considered a “gateway” drug by some authorities. In the 1950s it was an accessory of the beat generation; in the 1960s it was used by college students and “hippies” and became a symbol of rebellion against authority. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified marijuana along with heroin and LSD as a Schedule I drug which means it has the relatively highest abuse potential and no accepted medical use.

LSD use in the 1960s: LSD has a really interesting place in the 60’s generation making its way into the military as well as social and cultural movements.  LSD was popularized in the 1960s by individuals such as psychologist Timothy Leary, who encouraged American students to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” (This cryptic message meant to tune into what is happening, turn on to drugs, especially LSD and marijuana, and drop out of society’s expectations of your future.)  Shortly after this news articles about how LSD had caused people to “blow their minds” became pretty frequent. One story told of two teenagers who were “tripping” on LSD and stared directly into the sun until they were permanently blinded. This and other fear-based stories were never documented, and were probably not true, but they demonstrated society’s strong reaction to the psychedelic drug craze. Regardless, Timothy Leary helped to create an entire counterculture of drug abuse that spread the drug from America to the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. Even today, use of LSD in the United Kingdom is significantly higher than in other parts of the world. And all the while the ‘60s counterculture used LSD to escape the problems of society, the Western intelligence community and the military saw it as a potential chemical weapon. In 1951, these organizations began a series of experiments. US researchers noted that LSD “is capable of rendering whole groups of people, including military forces, indifferent to their surroundings and situations, interfering with planning and judgment, and even creating apprehension, uncontrollable confusion and terror.” Experiments in the possible use of LSD to change the personalities of intelligence targets, and to control whole populations, continued until the United States officially banned the drug in 1967.

Heroin use in the 1960s: Injecting heroin believe it or not was still frowned upon in the 1960s. In fact Abbie Hoffman had this to say about “needle drugs” Avoid all needle drugs.  “The only dope worth shooting is Richard Nixon.” Throughout the 1960s, heroin remained the most feared and romanticized drug in America, with estimates of a half a million addicted heroin users by the end of the decade. However, there weren’t any truly valid methods of estimating the incidence and prevalence of drug use in these years and these figures are probably lower than the actual drug use and abuse in the 1960s.

Barbiturate use in the 1960s: Barbiturates were first used in medicine in the early 1900s and became popular in the 1960s and 1970s as treatment for anxiety, insomnia, or seizure disorders. With the popularity of barbiturates in the medical population, barbiturates as drugs of abuse evolved as well. Barbiturates were abused to reduce anxiety, decrease inhibitions, and treat unwanted effects of illicit drugs. Studies do show that the annual production of barbiturate drugs exceeded one million pounds, the equivalent of twenty-four one-and one-half grain doses for every man, woman and child in the nation, or enough to kill each person twice over.

No drug or substance was off limits during the 60s. The 1960s were probably the decade where drug use changed the most and is probably one of the only decades exclusively defined by a counterculture movement full of protest, spiritual expansion, rebellion, art, and music. This unknown quote probably says it better than anyone else could:

“If you can remember the ’60s, then you weren’t there.” -Unknown


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