Voluntary Action and Illegal Drugs: Health and Society in Britain since the 1960s


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This cultural history starts from one basic question: how and why did heroin become so popular in the s? For the historian of drugs, analysing drug subcultures from the past is a difficult task.

short and insightful writing about a long and complex history

Concerning heroin use in the s and s, the historiography so far has focused on developments in addiction treatment as well as on local and national drug policies. By , the Dutch capital of Amsterdam housed 5, heroin users. Still, it is important to actively look for them, since life stories memoirs, autobiographies or interviews can shed new light on the way people explain their actions. A wealth of sociological, criminological and medical studies concerning Dutch heroin users exists as well.

Respondents were approached through institutions for addiction treatment, and prisons. The third type of life story that is used in this article is a collection of interviews with seventeen former heroin users. This data was collected as part of a project to collect oral histories of heroin use in the Netherlands, which I started working on in January My ultimate aim is to interview a substantial and diverse group of ex opiate users.

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So far, seventeen former heroin users have been interviewed. All participants responded to a call I did in a Dutch national newspaper, or came forward in reaction to an invitation on my project website, www. The use of oral history has not yet gained prominence in the history of intoxicant use.

However, since autobiographies, memoirs, letters or diaries written by heroin users are scarce, interviews form an important source for drug historians.


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Their worth is shown in Addicts who survived. An oral history of narcotic use in America, — , written by the American historian David Courtwright. In the s Courtwright, along with two other researchers, interviewed 32 ageing addicts who had started using opiates in the s, s and s. First of all, these respondents have all managed to break their habit, albeit after extended periods of use.


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Most of them are white 16 and male Their ages are between 55 and Although this is a limited amount of life stories, they are valuable since these respondents are in general very capable of reflecting on their past heroin use. Since they are clean now and motivated to tell their stories, their narratives are quite rich and eloquent. Moreover, in telling their stories many former heroin users tend to stress their own choice in the matter: they recount how they actively sought out heroin themselves, for various reasons.

In spite of the many regrets they developed later on, and the hardship and losses heroin caused them — as they readily admit — their stories also still reflect the positive connotations heroin use once had for them. On the surface, almost all respondents distance themselves from their past drug use. The dominant narrative in most 16 of the seventeen interviews that were conducted for this article is one of regret and loss.

The use of heroin, narrators told me, has cost them dearly in terms of mental health, social relationships, careers, personal development and wealth.

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However, when they start to recall specific places of use, fellow users, music they listened to and the feeling heroin originally produced, more positive functions and ambitions that once were connected to this drug shine through. For many early adopters of opiate use in the Netherlands the famous American beat generation writer William S. Confessions of an unreedemed drug addict , was published. Writing openly about the pains and pleasures of opiate use, Burroughs placed himself in the Romantic tradition of drug autobiographies like the Confessions of an English opium eater by Thomas de Quincey.

Burroughs however, avoided lyricism and wrote his opiate memoir as a straightforward, deadpan eyewitness report of heroin use in New York. Burroughs started using opiates in , when America was experiencing a wave of heroin use. Times Square was the centre of this post-war opiate epidemic in New York. Soldiers returned from Europe after the Second World War with an opiate habit and carried with them so called morphine syrettes: devices for injecting liquid morphine through a needle. Moreover, during the s many jazz musicians, like Billy Holiday and Charlie Parker, were using heroin.

To Burroughs and his friends, Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the Times Square crowd symbolised a unique kind of knowledge about life, stemming from direct experience. When Junkie was published in however, the book went completely unnoticed. It was not until the next wave of heroin use washed over America during the s and s that Burroughs became a hero for a new generation of drug users. He visited Amsterdam several times, around , to read at poetry festivals in the cultural centre at the Leidseplein, the Melkweg.

To Dutch heroin users he symbolised the fact that you could be famous and grow old with an opiate habit. Another vehicle for the association of cultural rebelliousness with opiate use was music. He took a needle from the pocket of his jeans, and — apparently — injected drugs. It was the highlight of the concert and it made the audience shiver in horror and fascination.

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He performed this act regularly during his European tour. The German historian Klaus Weinhauer, writing about drug consumption in England and Germany during the s and s, states that heroin consumers. Living in the Dutch town of Haarlem in the late s, Stoute was fascinated by a local countercultural hero called Max. This man had returned from his hippie travels in Asia with an opiate habit, and on his return to Haarlem he continued using opium, buying it — like most opiate users did at the time — in Amsterdam through the Chinese community.

It took a while before Max was willing to do so. Respondents started using heroin while being part of a group of friends or acquaintances, people they met regularly in bars, youth clubs or squats. Jim Pattiasina recounted how each weekend he went to Amsterdam with his Moluccan friends to go clubbing in the Red Light District, to chill out on soul music and to smoke joints. Like Keulemans, many respondents did not use only heroin. Many narrators had tried it all, from the early s up until the early s, starting out with alcohol and cannabis, later moving on to speed, LSD , magic mushrooms.

After some experimenting, heroin entered the game. In , when he was fourteen years old, he was smoking joints with them. Soon after that he was introduced to LSD. I thought it was all very hip, very interesting, fuck the duck, you know… This was where I belonged. Soon after, De Roos was introduced to heroin. Heroin simply was one of the drugs that were available during those experimental years in the late s and early s.

As one respondent told criminologists Janssen and Swierstra, heroin was recommended by word of mouth. If one was bored with speed, then why not try heroin, the latest drug novelty? Tjeerd Keulemans put it into words like this:. The reason I kept on using heroin, after I had tried it once, was that I was so confused because of all these trips on LSD and mushrooms.

Heroin made me feel quiet. It was the perfect antidote to all the chaos and confusion in my head. Around a small wave of problematic intravenous speed use had been going in the Netherlands.

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Interestingly, many former Dutch heroin users looking back describe their first experiences with opiates in life-embracing terms. They say they did not use heroin to escape from their problems, or were pushed to use it by peers; they actively went looking for the drug. For instance, when she was a teenager Nelleke Oldenburg was hanging out with the hip crowd in the Dutch town of Hilversum. One day she watched a man shooting up heroin.

Interestingly, this sudden release from worries, fears and insecurities apparently generated a feeling of mental freedom. They experienced a new type of energy and confidence. The stereotypical image of the nodding heroin addict, staring at his shoes, clearly does not apply to heroin users who have only recently started using heroin and can still make do with lesser amounts of the drug. And we listened to good music.

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An addict junkie gets an injection shot of heroin in his arm at the Nieuwmarkt in Amsterdam, Netherlands, April 3, His friends, he claims, were all aspiring artists. One of them, when he was high, worked on a huge painted picture on the walls of his apartment. Other interviewees told similar stories about opiate use and creativity. One of them, Karel Groote, was an aspiring photographer. He claimed heroin made him feel inspired. On heroin, you do. They appear to have been role models for heroin users in the s, since they were able to use drugs and be creative, famous and admired at the same time.

Creative ambitions are a significant theme in many of the interviews with, and memoirs of, former heroin users. Social commentary by Dutch heroin users is less explicit and harder to come by in comparison to the cultural criticism that was voiced by psychedelic revolutionaries. Heroin users did not publish underground magazines or organise happenings.

There, a discourse emerges in which key elements are the stigmatisation of heroin users, as well as the hypocrisy, materialism and competitive drive of the so-called normal people. Former heroin user Chiel van Zelst, in his autobiographical novel With his girlfriend, he made cynical comments on passers-by:. On their way to their nice jobs […] All radiant and fresh, living in houses full of fluffy towels and fresh fruit. Ready for success and glory in a white world where nothing is impossible.

They have picked up the glove of success, and entered the battle to shine on stage. Being serious is a scary disease. They had to either stop using, or resort to begging, some kind of criminal activity or prostitution. Many of them stole bikes, handbags, expensive clothes, LP s or electronics from stores. Peter Derks for instance, used up about four hundred Dutch guilders of hard drugs each day by the early s. In fact he did not have any video players in store, but the advance payments bought him a good shot of heroin, which he enjoyed while the client was waiting in vain for him to return.

This was the worst of it, he thought, feeling like a complete outsider, like being already dead yet still walking around among the living. Drug related nuisance and criminality became significant social problems in the Netherlands from mids onwards. Bitter memories of being ignored and humiliated are a feature of many interviews and autobiographies. Teun Weening remembers how even the alcoholics in the clinics looked down on them:. In the clinic they made sure you felt that too.

View Larger Image. Ask Seller a Question. By considering the work of voluntary organisations with illegal drug users, the authors provide a lens through which wider developments in the relationship between the state and civil society are examined. She is the author of books and articles on the history of health with a focus on drugs, other substances, public health and health policy.

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Voluntary Action and Illegal Drugs: Health and Society in Britain since the 1960s Voluntary Action and Illegal Drugs: Health and Society in Britain since the 1960s
Voluntary Action and Illegal Drugs: Health and Society in Britain since the 1960s Voluntary Action and Illegal Drugs: Health and Society in Britain since the 1960s
Voluntary Action and Illegal Drugs: Health and Society in Britain since the 1960s Voluntary Action and Illegal Drugs: Health and Society in Britain since the 1960s
Voluntary Action and Illegal Drugs: Health and Society in Britain since the 1960s Voluntary Action and Illegal Drugs: Health and Society in Britain since the 1960s
Voluntary Action and Illegal Drugs: Health and Society in Britain since the 1960s Voluntary Action and Illegal Drugs: Health and Society in Britain since the 1960s
Voluntary Action and Illegal Drugs: Health and Society in Britain since the 1960s Voluntary Action and Illegal Drugs: Health and Society in Britain since the 1960s
Voluntary Action and Illegal Drugs: Health and Society in Britain since the 1960s Voluntary Action and Illegal Drugs: Health and Society in Britain since the 1960s

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