Kids and chemists. That’s drug culture right there. Albert Hoffman and Bobby Gillespie. Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. Somewhere between the geniuses and beautiful morons lies the future of getting high. It’s all between the kids and chemists. Oh, and psychopathic gangsters, they’re involved too.
We all know British pop culture is owned by dicks these days. We know it’s less likely to start a Riot in your Pussy than it is to go topless in the hot tub, in exchange for a Twitter hashtag and a follow back on Tumblr. Still, traditionally youth culture has been the gateway to gateway drugs, so – annoying as it is – a lot of our drug history was dictated in glass meeting rooms at Channel 4 and EMI. I guess how this costa del subculture might change, or rescue itself, or just piss off altogether over the next ten years, will greatly impact what chemicals we’re ingesting to make Friday nights bearable.
“I think the problem for youth culture is that it’s been incredibly successful,” says the incredible pop historian Jon Savage. “And that success has meant that it’s become a huge business, and therefore has gone on to the radar of the big corporations." Whereas in the past the arrival of a new drug often heralded the arrival of a new cultural movement, now music is no longer an integral factor in our chemical awakenings. The internet has scattered this focus and music is now everywhere; no longer a cultural force, but a service. And drugs have followed.
Savage laments how drugs have sunk from an experimental activity into a consumerist one. After the backlash against Thatcherism died away, we settled down to the comfy slippers of consumerism and our drug taking mirrored that. It was no longer a tool for stimulating change or kicking against the establishment, instead drugs, like everything else, simply became another product to be consumed.
That’s also down to the general complacency surrounding drug use. No one cares. The 60s and the 80s criminalised us all and now drugs – at least the ones used by the middle classes – have lost their taboo, normalising them. ”I think the most interesting thing about drug use,” Savage says, “is when it’s experimental and actually helps and assists a cultural breakthrough. But unfortunately that doesn’t happen very often.” Maybe we’re due another one soon. Just spare me the dreadlocks.
Some things will never change, I guess. I mean obviously amphetamines (or stimulants) and alcohol are a classic recession combo, due to both availability and cheapness. It makes sense, if you drink fuck loads you need a stimulant to help keep you standing – and if you can’t afford coke, then speed is the next best thing. But there are new things on the horizon. Synthetics or designer drugs or RCs or whatever you want to call them, are still relatively new breakthroughs into the mainstream, and they're going to keep changing, bit by bit, to stay legal, edging further and further away from the illegal equivalents they were initially based upon.
Mephedrone got all hyped in 2008. You probably remember that. After being banned, which fostered a decline as the media shut up about it and people lost interest, it then rose again in 2012, becoming the comeback kid. Now it’s no longer being sold in head shops but by criminals, and so it’s no longer just students experimenting with it, as was the case back in ’09. Now the clientele are your seasoned drug takers and daily abusers.
Dr Fiona Measham, senior lecturer in criminology at Lancaster University and member of Professor David Nutt’s Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, has been studying recreational drug use for 15 years. (You may remember Professor Nutt as the man who was sacked from his government position for saying that horse-riding was more dangerous than ecstasy.) Dr Measham told me that heroin users in Wales are injecting mephedrone instead of heroin because the quality of heroin is so shit these days.
She tells me that because of its availability and cheapness as a stimulant, and the short-term nature of the effects, it can do no wrong. Give it ten years and mephedrone could be sat up there with the big boys – ecstasy, LSD, coke, weed, etc. Come on mephedrone, you can do it.
A lot of the popularity that drugs like mephedrone and ketamine enjoy is symptomatic of the time-short lifestyles we lead these days. Who has time for an eight-hour mindwash on LSD, or to endure three hours of amphetamines? Instead we want our psychedelic experience in a nice, half hour timeframe from a line of K. It’s not about exploration anymore: now it's titillation.
Although their popularity may rise, synthetics are generally considered to be the bastard son of recreational drugs. They’re detrimental to the good-natured image recreational drug abuse has spent so many years building up. They occupy a murky grey area of legality and accountability, they’re cheap enough for young and poor and unfashionable people to buy and, as anyone who's ever woken up smelling of cat piss with a nose full of mephedrone and sore genitals will know, the comedowns are fucking harrowing.
Next year, and the one after it, looks set to be another chapter in the Great Experiment of Synthetics: On the Bluelight drugs discussion forums we’re excited about mescaline-based psychedelics, but we’re down on that synthetic cannabis that kids started snorting last year that left them convulsing on the floor. Perhaps we'll see a swing back to more trad substances by the time 2022 comes around. Synthetics might well plateau as the drug-taking populace gets fed up of experimenting with their health, not to mention trying to keep up with the ridiculous acronyms.
After this generational leap into the unknown, perhaps there’ll be an urge to return to the old favourites. People feel they can trust the more established drugs, and, let’s face it, while you might not have a clue what you’re putting up your nose, if someone calls it coke instead of XT5GH3, you’re gonna feel a lot better about doing it.
But what about a post-prohibition future? Surely, that’s going to happen? No, not likely, not in this country, not in the next ten years. While Spain and the rest of Europe have their cannabis clubs and their heroin workshops and their ecstasy creches and whatever else, we in the UK have our puritan heritage, ballbreaking work ethic and bipolar, wet fart of a weather system. We're just too uptight. Besides, there are far too many vested interests from criminals, the government and the police. But what a wonderful world it could be: regulated drugs would mean improvements in quality but a decrease in risk and price. Heaven.
Photo by Manuel Vicente
Mike Jay, the cultural historian and author of High Society Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture postulates a place where cannabis develops its own niche market, like wine connoisseurs: “I reckon in a free (legal, regulated) market, cannabis would develop a connoisseur niche – as it does already with the top skunk breeds in California. But if global trade were legal then 'classic' products like Afghani, Colombian etc, would have a premium. Also, rather than government regulation, producers might form trade organisations with quality marks for members – like organic certification, or 'appellation controlee' for wines.”
But that’s not going to happen here, is it? Most likely we’ll be stuck in the same no man's land we find ourselves in now, one where drugs are neither completely illegal nor legal in the minds of the populace of this little island. The police won’t bother prosecuting recreational users as they don’t have the resources, and unless you’re caught smuggling gear into the country inside your child’s arse, most people won’t give a judgmental shit. Still though, the market will still be controlled by criminals – criminals making shoddy products to earn the maximum amount of profit while your dilapidated body continues to collapse in on itself.
Jay also speculated on the rise of the two-tier market, something that will be familiar to anyone who spends Friday afternoon deleting text messages from strange, borderline-illiterate men they can't remember meeting. “Most drugs seem to be settling into a two-tier market – high price connoisseur stuff and rock bottom 'economy' product. Expensive MDMA crystal and cheap pills. Pricey clean coke for the uptown elite, cheap gak for the estates. Strong skunk and adulterated soapbar is the equivalent for cannabis. It's the same for many comsumer products – think Mac and PC.”
So, what of the criminals who control the markets, both illegal and otherwise? Well, there’s been a shift in who’s controlling these, a shift from the middle-aged former bank robbers who rose to power in the 80s, to the young gangs who don’t give a shit, who like violence and are happy to deal directly with the Mexican cartels and Russian mafia.
“What’s been happening since the early 2000s,” explains Graham Johnson, journalist and author of The Cartel: The Inside Story of Britain's Biggest Drugs Gang, “is there’s a hostile takeover of these kind of hierarchical drug cartels with hundreds of millions of income and assets, by these teenage street gangs who are armed to the teeth.
“These gangs will also start trafficking the legal drugs, the synthetics,” Johnson tells me. “The younger gang members are familiar with this market, because they’re out selling drugs in the clubs, and they’ll realise people are buying the legal highs and synthetic drugs before they’re coming to the clubs. They’ll see this as a semi-legal industry, which is great for them to invest in, so you’ll have underworld people starting to invest in the legal high market and the synthetic drug market. What they’ll do is rationalise it and they’ll make it mainstream. So they’ll be flying over chemists, through China, where most of these synthetics get made, and say this is what we want making because they’ve got the money to do that.” [We also spoke to Graham for our "The Future of Crime" article – read that here.]
Photo by epsos.de
British gangs are also starting to stretch out to places like Thailand, which is a gateway into the criminal gangs in China and the Far East – manufacturing drugs and making contacts in these burgeoning, new global economies. Expanding out from the tried and tested stomping grounds of Amsterdam and Spain into these new developing cities, constantly upscaling and expanding their businesses.
Maybe they should also look into how they deliver the drugs to the customers too. Climbing into crappy cars full of thugs isn’t an edifying shopping experience for the consumer. They should embrace the 21st century and look into some kind of drone delivery system. UAVs flying across the London skies to drop a ray of chemical sunshine off at your doorstep. Give it a little pat on its cold, metallic head and off it goes with the cash. No one would have to leave the warmth of their expensively rented, globally warmed homes either, if society would just chill out and let the deep web evolve from its current Napster-like pariah status into a fully legal Spotify for soft drugs. Well it’d be nice, right? Just order it on Tor 10.0 and never have to meet a drug dealer ever again.
If the police wanted to sort themselves out too, they might think about intercepting drugs in the Far East and RFID-tagging the narcotics. Then they could monitor them as they travelled West and found their way into the toilet bowls of Europe.
I've got some bad news for those of you who were looking forward to a future of digital drugs targeting neural centres in our brains, stimulating our receptors and creating more specific stimulations than a pill ever could. Or those of you who dream of tailored drugs for your own individual genomic makeup. Or of microscopic nanobots co-hosting our bodies and feeding us the good stuff. Forget about it. That’s still the stuff of 1990s Wired magazine articles and Neal Stephenson novels. Not going to happen by 2022.
Sadly, you’ll be gumming that wrap for the foreseeable. That or taking drugs to counteract the long-term effects of the ones you're currently snorting, swallowing or shoving into yourself. Soz.
Follow Kevin on Twitter: @stewart23rd
Illustration by Marta Parszeniew.