Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972

Chapter 63. The Haight-Ashbury, its predecessors and its satellites

During the 1960s, young people in substantial numbers–– most of them middle-class and white–– migrated to the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. Adopting strange hair and clothing styles, they rejected the platitudes of their parents and of the "square" communities from which they came, coining unconventional platitudes of their own. The mass media called them  hippies. A major feature of the hippie life-style was the use of illicit drugs–– many different illicit drugs.

Nothing quite like this, it was commonly believed, had ever happened before–– but that belief was mistaken. The "youth drug scene" of the 1960s was a continuation, under a new name and with minor changes in external style, of a continuing social process. Even in external appearance, the hippies of the 1960s–– and the Beatniks of a decade earlier–– markedly resembled the "Bohemians" who made their first appearance in Paris in the 1840s, founding a movement that spread to the United States. Male Bohemians, like male hippies, let their hair grow long; they and their female counterparts dressed in a manner deemed uncouth by the  bourgeoisie. Bohemians lived in poverty in attics resembling today's hippie "pads." They held unconventional philosophies and flaunted unorthodox sexual mores.

The Timothy Leary of the Bohemian movement was Henri Murger (1822-1861), a Parisian whose  Scenes de la vie de Boheme (1848) established and popularized the Bohemian life-style; but Murger's greatest influence, and the peak popularity of Bohemianism, came after 1898 when Puccini's opera  La Boheme, based on Murger's  Scenes, achieved worldwide renown.

Like today's hippies, the turn-of-the-century Bohemians were conspicuously drug-oriented. One of the drugs that the Bohemians (like their elders) used was alcohol. Murger himself became an alcoholic at an early age, and died in a sanitarium at the age of thirty-nine. In addition to alcohol, the Bohemians used coffee. They drank vast quantities of this stimulant, were preoccupied with coffee, and suffered coffee as well as alcohol hangovers. Respectable citizens of that era were as horrified by the Bohemian coffee cult as today's respectable citizens are horrified by marijuana smoking. Eminent scientists, it will be recalled, echoed this horror; for it was at the height of the Bohemian coffee cult that the public was being warned: "The sufferer [from coffee addiction] is tremulous and loses his self-command; he is subject to fits of agitation and depression. He loses color and has a haggard appearance. . . . As with other such agents, a renewed dose of the poison gives temporary relief, but at the cost of future misery." 1

The Haight-Ashbury of the 1960s also resembled New York City's Greenwich Village of the 1920s, another center to which rebellious young people migrated. In the Greenwich Village era, it was the short, "boyishbobbed" hair of the girls (rather than the long hair of the boys) along with their miniskirts, lipstick, and breastless "John Held, Jr." silhouettes, that shocked society. Necking, petting, and nonmarital sexual adventures were widely publicized features of the Greenwich Village scene and lifestyle.

The Greenwich Village subculture of the 1920s featured two drugs. One of them was alcohol. During the Prohibition years, socially rebellious Young people from all over the United States thronged Greenwich Village's illicit "speakeasies" to drink "bootleg" liquor. The fact that young  women were getting drunk in public, and could be seen staggering out of speakeasies at all hours (for a part of the cost of Prohibition was an end to the enforcement of legal closing hours) added to the popular revulsion.

The other Greenwich Village drug habit that deeply outraged the respectable was cigarette smoking. In 1921, it will be recalled, cigarettes were illegal in fourteen states and 92 anticigarette bills were pending in twenty-eight states. Smoking cigarettes in speakeasies and other public places was almost as alarming to some respectable members of society as engaging in nonmarital sexual encounters. Young women (Edna St. Vincent Millay among them) were expelled from college for smoking cigarettes much as in the 1960s young women were expelled for smoking marijuana.

In each generation, moreover, the drug-subculture phenomenon was not limited to the Bohemian Quarter of Paris, to Greenwich Village in New York," or to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. "Little Bohemias," patterned on Murger's Parisian original, could be found all over the Western world–– including American-cities from New York to California. Similarly, bush-league Greenwich Villages sprang up throughout the country during the 1920s, and bush-league Haight-Ashburys followed in the 1960s. These deviant youth cultures, characterized by bizarre clothing, unconventional hair styles, sexual nonconformity, and illicit or "bad" drug use, were not only national but international. London, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Montreal, Vancouver–– all have hippie neighborhoods.

Finally, each of these life-styles also attracted "internal migrants," who patterned themselves on the deviant youth-drug-cult style of life without actually leaving home. Retired schoolteachers now in their seventies can no doubt remember the early 1920s, when almost every high school, even in Iowa and Kansas, had its "Greenwich Village crowd" –– drinking bootleg alcohol, smoking cigarettes, "necking," "petting," reading the  American Mercury, and writing poetry, to the distress of respectable citizens. Today, many (perhaps most) high schools have their pot-smoking, acid dropping deviant youth subcultures composed of "internal migrants" who stay at home. In what follows, references to "youth-drug-scene migrants" will include these internal migrants.

What happened to rebellious young people in between these luridly publicized waves of youth-culture migration and internal migration? While the available evidence is sparse, it suggests that essentially the same process continued, on a smaller scale, with less flamboyance and less popular alarm. Every large city in the nineteenth and early twentieth century bad its crowded, rundown "roominghouse district," sheltering not only its alcoholics, brothers, and street-walkers but also youthful migrants in large numbers. Young artists, young writers, and young musicians along with even larger numbers of would-be artists, writers, and musicians–– flocked to these "Skid Roads," "Tenderloins," and "red-light districts." While prostitution was generally limited to such neighborhoods, only rarely were thered-light-light districts limited to prostitution. Low rents and the sense of freedom and adventure attracted countless youthful migrants to the same areas. Many eminent Americans, such as Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Ben Hecht participated in this scene. The drugs in most common use were usually alcohol and nicotine–– though youthful deviants at times (as noted above) also turned to opium smoking and to cocaine, morphine, heroin, or a combination of such drugs.

The use here of the term  deviant should not be deemed a value judgment; it is a purely descriptive term. In any generation, a majority of young people tend to follow the path marked out for them by the society in which they find themselves. A minority deviate from this path. One group, for example, drops out of junior high school; another group continues through graduate school. Both groups, in this context, are deviants from the usual path.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, sermons, newspapers, and sensational popular fiction were the chief media informing young people of the perils of Bohemias and of roominghouse andred-light districts–– and incidentally publicizing their precise locations. The movies added their influence during the Greenwich Village era. The TV screen, the popular musicians and singers, and the mass media en masse played a generally similar role in publicizing the youth drug scene during the 1960s–– and with similar results. It is hard to say whether romantic glorifications of such scenes or moralistic warnings against their perils contribute more to attracting rebellious young people to them.

In all eras, law enforcement has also played a crucial role in publicizing Greenwich Villages and Haight-Ashburys. The periodic nineteenth-century "vice squad" crackdowns on roominghouse and red-light districts, the Prohibition agents' raids on speakeasies during the 1920s, and the multitudinous drug raids by narcotics agents during the 1960s–– each wave of raids accompanied by a wave of sensational publicity, and by pictures of young people defiantly confronting the police–– added to the glamour of the youth cult centers, and made it certain that even the naivest teenager in the remotest country village knew (and currently knows) precisely where to go and approximately how to behave, including what drugs to try, when he or she reaches the scene.

Against this briefly sketched historical background (let us hope future social historians will fill in the details), the current youth drug scene can perhaps be more objectively understood and evaluated.

One potentially fruitful way to view the youth drug scene today, like the Bohemias, roominghouse districts, and Greenwich Villages of earlier generations, is as a  competing way of life. Such scenes compete with conventional institutions and life-styles for the allegiance of each youthful generation. The more young people find unattractive the way of life mandated by their elders at any moment in time, the more they are likely to run off, or wander off, or embark on an internal migration toward what appear to be greener pastures.

A curious fact about deviant youth subcultures must next be noted.  In each generation, respectable society itself dictates the direction that much of the deviance will take. During alcohol Prohibition, for example, hostility was focused on alcohol–– and it was alcohol that rebellious young people drank. Through the 1960s, society dictated  drug deviance to young people, and that was the path youthful deviants followed.

This concept of  dictated deviance can best be understood through a prototype example. Consider the anxious. parents who keep watch over their unmarried teen-age daughter for fear the daughter will become pregnant out of wedlock. The parents harp on dire warnings of the perils of illicit intercourse, accompanied by emotion-laden accusations and predictions: "Where were you all evening? Whom were you out with? Why weren't you home on time? You're going to get yourself pregnant and ruin your life and ours–– we can see it all coming."

The daughter gets the message loud and clear: "If you want to get even with your parents (or with society in general) for grievances real or imagined, the best way is to get yourself pregnant." The peril becomes a lure, and the prophecy proves self-fulfilling. In almost precisely this way, society as a whole dictated drug use as the dominant mode of deviance for disaffected young people during the 1960s. "Watch your step. Be careful. We can see it all coming. You're going to start smoking marijuana and progress to heroin. You're going to end up a hippie!"

No doubt a few years in a nineteenth-century Bohemia or in Greenwich Village in the 1920s contributed positively to the maturing of many young people of those generations. Certainly a number of distinguished writers, artists, musicians, even philosophers, came through such deviant youth scenes. Whether the same will prove true of contemporary Haight-Ashburys remains to be seen.

There can be little doubt, however, that future histories of music will cite the youth drug scene of the 1960s as one of the transforming influences on musical development. Whether psychedelic art will similarly survive seems less certain. Future histories of religious mysticism may well hail the current Haight-Ashburys as the sites of a major religious resurgence comparable to New England Transcendentalism in the days of Emerson and Thoreau. Canada's Le Dain Commission in particular has stressed this possibility:

We have been profoundly impressed by the natural and unaffected manner in which drug users have responded to the question of religious significance. They are not embarrassed by the mention of God. Indeed, as Paul Goodman has observed, their reactions are in interesting contrast to those of the "God is dead" theologian. It may be an exaggeration to say that we are witnessing the manifestations of a genuine religious revival, but there does appear to be a definite revival of interest in the religious or spiritual attitude towards life. As one drug user put it: "The whole culture is saving, 'Where is God?' I don't believe in your institutions, but now I know it's there someplace." Another witness said, "I just find that a lot of people are becoming a lot more aware of what's happening and joining in on a universal cause, a cosmic sort of joyousness and people are getting interested in spiritual things as well, because this is what our generation and the previous generations have lacked. . . . 2

 

Society's evaluation of today's Haight-Ashburys may ultimately be raised, as the accepted evaluation of the Greenwich Villages of the 1920s has already been raised. For now, many view the youth drug scene as an unmitigated evil and want to know what can be done about it. Three suggestions arise out of the above analysis.

First, a good way to lessen the likelihood that young people will migrate to the youth dug scene, or to any other forrn of social deviance, is to make the conventional pattern of life back home more attractive and challenging to young people better able to compete with the deviant alternatives.

Second, a good way to decrease the likelihood that young people will select the youth drug scene rather than some other mode of deviance is to turn off the propaganda and the warnings that center so much attention on drugs–– and thereby in effect dictate  drug deviance.

Third, the number of participants in the youth drug scene at any moment depends only in part on how many young people enter it; the other determining factor is how many graduate from it and how soon they graduate. Thus one way to curb the Haight-Ashburys, large and small, is to keep the door wide open so that drug users can emerge from the scene. Indeed, affirmative steps can be taken to encourage and facilitate emergence. We shall review these possibilities in more detail in Chapter 67.

 

 Footnotes
Chapter 63

1. Sir T. Clifford Allbutt and Humphrey Davy Rolleston, eds.,  A System of Medicine, vol. II, part I (London: Macmillan, 1909), pp. 286-287.

2. Le Dain Commission Interim Report, pp. 157-158.

 

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