Drugs that do not fit in with the “American way of life” are distanced from the normative image of productive America. Drugs that are perceived to fit in with a work-hard-play-hard mentality and allow users to be productive members of society are accepted. Craft-beer entrepreneurship is celebrated for the productive blending of business and leisure. Marijuana legalization advocates are rebranding weed as a substance that can be part of a productive American’s life, useful both medically and recreationally.
Drugs that are painted as social ills are accused of causing lazy behavior, risking the virtue of women and safety of children.They are labeled a danger to society and the future of America. The reasons giving for prohibiting the drug are linked to dangerous consequences of consumption. Yet, a pattern of underlying motivations has emerged in studying different drug types and policies; the prohibition of a drug can also be used to target particular social groups or movements.
In the case of opium users, they were labeled as dangerous ‘others’, largely targeting opium smoking in an attempt to deter Chinese immigrants from coming to or staying in the US. Likewise, Harry Anslinger painted marijuana as the “Assassin of Youth” in writings and propaganda films like Reefer Madness. Steven Bender points out that prejudice targetted at African Americans and Mexicans acted as a catalyst for states to make weed illegal.
For white Americans who use drugs, they become outcasts for “wasting their whiteness.” Opium smokers take on a yellow tint to their skin. Marijuana smokers in stoner films take on an ambiguous racial identity, rejecting their status as white Americans. Cornelia Sears and Jessica Johnston note:
“Inspired in part by the 1938 anti-marijuana film Reefer Madness, and the unintended humour such propaganda films begat amongst marijuana smokers, stoner films are comedies that satirise both marijuana culture and its prohibition…’The spectre of seeing white domination go ‘up in smoke’—via wasting, as opposed to hoarding, white privilege—amounts to racial treason, and helps not only to explicate why whites in the film find stonerism so menacing, but also to explain the paradox of ‘pot [making] the people who don’t smoke it even more paranoid than the people who do”(Patterson).” –Wasted Whiteness: The Racial Politics of the Stoner Film
While fear was a powerful force in pushing for anti-marijuana and anti-opium policies, it was not the only way that drugs and the associated social groups were disenfranchised.
The Hippie Movement of the 1960-70’s is most often associated with youth amped up on psychedelics advocating for an unrealistic-love-driven world, protesting the US involvement in Vietnam and doing copious amounts of weed and LSD (among other drugs). The Hippie generation was critical of capitalism, consumerism, and rejected many facets of what it mean to be an American. At a time when fear of communism was high, the hippie movement was a direct threat critiquing the foundation of what it meant to be an American. While anti-drug policies passed under Nixon against hallucinogenics such as LSD targetted the movement, the push to make LSD illegal was not done by associating it with a ‘dangerous other’ as was the case with opium and marijuana.
Perhaps the very fact that the most visible users of LSD were from the same social standing as those who sought to reject what the Beat Generation and Hippie movement of the 50’s and 60’s represented created a need to ‘Other’ LSD users other than through fear of a particular race.
LSD, lysergic acid diethylamide, is a drug that screams privilege. It does not take far into Tom Wolfe’s ‘new-journalism’ whirlwind novel about the misadventures of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, to see that. Wolfe recounts how Kesey, a Stanford graduate, novelist, and counter-culture icon built and funded a community known for wild parties, frequent use of psycholedics, and ‘acid tests’ funding this lifestyle through this writing, including royalties from the popular One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Similar sentiments of LSD as a drug of privilege are captured in LSD-focused-films such as The Trip, portraying the beatnik-hippie culture as one unmistakably white and affluent. The culture was one that rejected a comfortable elite lifestyle, yet came from a well-educated background, affording participants the ability to pay to play. They refused to neatly fit into the social order, pursuing a policy of live first, work later.
Instead of generating fear of the hippie movement, the anti-war protesting, capitalist-critiquing threat was disenfranchised by making the beatnik-hippie generation a comedic other. In New Social Movements and Creative Dissent, Sharon Monteith writes:
“The image of peace protestors as beatniks-turned-hippies protesting via love-ins was designed to damage the movement.”
Protestors were stripped of power, labeled as ridiculous and transformed into a tourist attraction. A journalist for LOOK magazine William Hedgepeth wrote a 1967 ethnographic work on the Hippie movement and remarked:
“Every day – and unbearably so on Sundays- Haight St. is chocked with automobiles stuffed with sighseers who snap photos of the hippies from behind locked car dors and window glass rolled up as tightly as if this were a tour through the reptile house a the zoo.”
Hippies were othered, not through fear, but as an oddity to be studied, observed, and documented. They were a source of entertainment. The image of the hippie movement became less about the movement’s critiques of American inequality and involvement in Vietnam and more about the overly-loving and perpetually stoned ‘children’.