Youth culture and drugs: why are the two becoming more and more synonymous?
Discussing: the opioid crisis, film, documentary, youth culture and how these all tie together.
Despite living in western society, which prides itself on its stringent legal system and its practice of the law and delivery of justice, governments seem less and less able to get a hand on the illegal drug market. As an archetypal 21st century young person (curious, easily-influenced and keen to give off an image of carelessness and coolness) the abundance and prevalence of drugs in my own social circleis quite astounding. And whilst the purpose of this entry is certainly not to go over the bad sides of drugs (cos we all definitely know them), I do want to delve into why our generation, who have access to the best education, the best standards of livings and the best healthcare (all relative to previous decades), seem more and more engrossed in a xan-loving, k-holeing culture.
My own interest in this was sparked by one of the mediums which actually propagates this problem: film. If you have not yet endured the 101 minutes of engrossing whilst simultaneously repelling footage that makes up Daren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream I would highly recommend you do so, but not on an empty stomach…
The film explores four different forms of drug addiction which all lead to the characters plummeting into a world of reckless desperation, dystopia and destruction. Harry Goldfarb, played bya harrowing-but-still-goddam-sexy young Jared Leto, is one of the four principal characters who dreams of making it as a big time drug dealer, all the while using himself. He dabbles in almost everything but his speciality is heroine, and his fixation of both satisfying his own physical needs and his materialistic needs result in the fragmentation of his relationships, his happiness and his health. While the film’s content and acting are heavy enough, Aronofsky deploys his now iconic technique of using montages of very short shots throughout the film, whilst also alternating between extreme closeups and extreme distance. The effect of this, whilst primarily being in and of itself a visually stimulating spectacle, is also a continuous shift from the objective to the subjective as the camera serves as a vehicle for exploring the characters increasingly losing their grip on reality and time. One feels, at the end of the film, utterly exhausted but at the same time unnervingly buzzed…
This film, whilst certainly communicating the disastrous effects of drug use and the danger of uncontrolled addiction, also does undeniably create an aura of edginess to the lifestyle. Sure in the end all the characters end up essentially destroyed by their addictions, but throughout the film the fast-paced, euphoric side to the use of drugs is explored, possibly too much. Perhaps I am just too vulnerable for my own good, but the film led to me looking up in great detail the effects of heroine- not the long term health effects, but the short term euphoric ones that get an indefinite hold of people. Such curiosity is good, but also dangerous, as really the only way to ever experience the effects of heroine, is to use it yourself, something I plan on never ever doing….for what I see to be obvious reasons.
Yet why, despite the prevalence of the disastrous effects of such substances, is their use on the rise? The American Opioid Crisis is something I had heard about vaguely but never really understood. Following watching Requiem For a Dream, I found myself with what could perhaps be labelled as a slight addiction of my own. I obsessively watched documentaries and read articles about the opioid crisis. The more I watched and read the more shocked I was. And then the more angry.
In America swathes of suffering addicts’ lives are now ruled totally by pills such as oxycontin, and the numbers keep growing with 90 Americans dying every day due to opioid overdose. What sparked this crisis? Shockingly, it wasn’t drug-glorifying films or rap music or even disillusioned youth. The crisis can be traced back to the 1990s when doctors began prescribing potent painkillers in large amounts after pharmaceutical firms claimed they carried minimal risk of addiction. 71 million prescriptions were written in 1991 and two decades later this number almost tripled. Tragically there has been a corresponding increase in the number of opioid addicts. Many users started using the drugs to alleviate pain, perhaps from something as innocent as a school sporting injury. When they grew hooked, often they moved to the more readily available and cheaper heroine.
I have spent almost definitely too much time watching various youtube videos of heroine addicts recording their recovery journeys and sadly, many of them don’t end well. Yet one which was truly amazing was the story of Derek Lambert. He used video diaries to record his immediate withdrawals off heroine every day and continued the entries to present day, with his most recent being uploaded last week titled: Heroine- 792 days off! His story is truly remarkable and his insight into the life of addiction and recovery is inspiring.
The use of video and documentary to explore this endemic is on the rise, with the like of Louis Theroux, in his most recent BBC series, fittingly named “Dark States”, where he travels to these locations in the USA and one of the matters he explore is the heroine endemic increasingly prevalent among white neighbourhoods. Almost 90% of new heroine users in the past decade were white. As Opioid abuse increasingly becomes “a white problem” it is being given more attention by the media. It is easier to tackle and discuss a “medical illness” rather than “junkies” or “dopeheads.” The criminal side of opioid addiction in white communities is fundamentally viewed differently to that of similar abuse amongst ethnic minority groups. As it has moved into the principally white mainstream, those affected by the addiction are receiving more attention, sympathy and money. Of course I am not in any way suggesting we are doing too much in the way of tackling the Opioid crisis, in fact we aren’t doing anywhere near enough, with only 10% of the 21 million drug users receiving treatment for their addiction. Far more needs to be done in the way of rehabilitation, particularly given the US healthcare system, often those in most need of treatment cannot access it. Yet it is also just worth noticing and considering the difference in coverage of the “white drug endemic” versus the apparently ever persistent drug usage and dealings among ethnic minorities. There is less discussion about the fault behind the growing use of marijuana or crack cocaine and hence minimal discussion about re-evalutaing drug laws for these substances which come down harder on African Americans than on whites. This side of addiction is still criminalised and, as one of Louis Theroux documentaries aptly revealed, there are far more drugs available in prison than out of it, which in itself says something about our criminal justice system and social values.
So I have reached the end of my musings but what is the overall point? I suppose what I want to say is that addiction is a growing problem across our society and its roots are multifaceted and complex. Stemming from uncontrolled opioid prescriptions during the nineties in one case; from long running institutional racial inequality in another; and in terms of young people as a whole, the growth of social media, popular film, music and all other forms of culture, art and communication certainly dilute the dark sides of addiction and promotes a “live fast die young” culture. There is certainly growing awareness of these issues and many organisations are out there tackling these complicated problems. Documentaries such as those by Louis Theroux are great at revealing the troubling problems in our societies, yet they need to provoke more action. I see many teens (myself included) getting their hands on Homage Tees’ Theroux emblazoned t-shirts or subscribing to “Louis Theroux no context” meme pages, claiming the man to be their idol etc etc.
This just embodies the problems we are faced with as a generation where so much information is available in so many ways, yet we chose not to actively engage with it. We sit through our PSHE drug talks just as we sit through an hour long Theroux episode. Then we get up, slip on our Theroux t-shirt and (not in all cases but in far too many) hit the town and indulgence in our “innocent curiosities” or desires to “live fast die young.”