Why you should care
Because while trends come and go, rehab lasts for … well, a few weeks, at least. Last we heard. From a friend, you know.
Is it legit to use pop culture to chronicle drug trends?
Well, look, while we may not be equipped to ferret out exactly what drives drug trends, we can trace their ebb and flow in film. It may not be a one-for-one account of who used what on the actual streets, but it does tell us what drugs were most on the minds of Hollywood and moviegoers alike. While the precise mechanism eludes us, perhaps a walk down bad-memory lane will offer insight into, wait for it … high fashion.
Heroin Epidemic, Part 1
As evidenced by 1971’s The Panic in Needle Park, Al Pacino’s second film ever, and scripted by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, being a junkie never seemed quite so fashionable. In a doomed, pretty, cinematic sense. Pimps, pushers, hookers, hustlers and a whole Vietnam-era demimonde of edge dwellers were caught on the silver screen in a nightmarish style that either accurately reflected the collective PTSD marking many soldiers’ return from ’Nam or modeled all future depictions of it. In either case, this vision of heroin use had a short-lived popularity, and was soon lampooned in film (see: the animated Fritz the Cat) as junkies themselves just started to look bad. Just in time for people’s attentions to shift to…
Nixon resigns; the Vietnam War ends; R&B mutates into disco; and the need to stay awake, thin and relatively ambulatory during the never-ending party that ensued became a front-and-center concern. Backgammon, Perrier, oatmeal-colored unconstructed suits, platform shoes or EarthShoes, and a drug that cost enough to warrant its status symbol standing. Cocaine was tailor-made for the time (see: Superfly, The Godfather, with Al Pacino, again, North Dallas Forty). And when compared with drooling junkies on the nod around the city, cocaine users were positively positive about life and their prospects. Whether at Studio 54 or in Malibu. Until everyone realized that this shit actually WAS addictive. Just in time for the scourge that was…
Essentially a bastardized form of cocaine, crack was easy to make, cheap to buy and responsible for the kind of high that caused you to want to renew that high as soon as the previous one concluded. Purportedly aided and abetted by CIA influence according to journalist Gary Webb in a much ballyhooed and controversial series, in the 1980s crack ran a bulldozer across every bit of America it touched. From New Jack City to Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society and a whole raft of serious dramas, crack’s destabilizing influence on inner city communities was intensely chronicled on film. And once crack fell out of fashion, it, too, became the object of lampoon, from endless riffs on Whitney Houston’s proclamation to Diane Sawyer that “Crack is wack,” to Dave Chappelle’s Tyrone Biggums character.
Dave Chappelle as Tyrone Biggums
Heroin Epidemic, Part 2 (aka Heroin Chic)
A conflation of fashion, photography and a stylistic sensibility (see: 1994’s Pulp Fiction or Guns & Roses’ 1987 song Mr. Brownstone), heroin chic played off of looking thin, disinterested and maybe not-so-slightly dissolute. It was trumpeted from full photo spreads in magazines to stories of rock stars not only getting arrested with it but dying from it again (Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley). Sad to say with Owen Wilson on the upside, having beat back a heroin thing, and Philip Seymour Hoffman on the downside, we’ve not really yet emerged from this period, even if downmarket drug fashion has migrated over to the last two entries on our list…
A pharmaceutical-grade painkiller that even Rush Limbaugh came to love, oxy had people all over America developing aches and pains they never knew they had before. Not superexpensive, oxycontin, or oxy for short, was crushed, snorted and eventually shot. However, it had rather limited social cachet. How do we know? While it may have put in an appearance on nearly every teen TV drama of the ’00s, how many oxy movies have been made? When compared with…
At one time major news organizations were announcing that the age of meth was ending. Which caused meth to laugh long and hard. Still going strong around the world, meth is cheap, smokable, snortable, injectable and lasts a long time. It’s a drug that maximizes your efficiency for whatever harebrained scheme you might cook up, all while killing your appetite and guaranteeing preternatural thinness; and the number of movies, songs and pop culture references to it are legion. Take Breaking Bad and then move back through Requiem for a Dream, Salton Sea, SLC Punk, Winter’s Bone, Jason Statham in the appropriately named Crank (street slang for a type of speed) Parts 1 and 2 — well, it just goes on and on and on.
But there’s a catch with meth: When rating the fashionable index of drug futures, meth will never have any long-term cachet. Why? Simple: Long-term users end up looking like shit. Thin, but BAD thin. Like junk food or Crocs: people may use meth, but no one will confuse their use of it with the drinking of Cristal.
So our final guess as to what’s driving drug trends and our perception that this drug or that drug is more or less fashionable? In true monkey-see-monkey-do fashion: It’s us.
This OZY encore was originally published June 4, 2014.