Drugs: The Power to Unite

American drug history has a reputation for encouraging anti-drug sentiment as an agenda to oppress minority groups. In Emily Remus’ “Tippling Ladies and the Making of Consumer Culture: Gender and Public Space” and Eric Schneider’s “Smack Heroin and the American City”, both pieces of writing discuss the struggles of minority groups such as women and people of color who were drug users. Remus’ work highlights the rise of women’s privilege to drink in public in the early 20th century. These women, however, were of high status and were called “lady tipplers” with regard to their socioeconomically advantaged background. Remus addresses the “emerging forms of female pleasure” in terms of the rise of consumerist culture and indulging in alcohol as a feminine hobby. Because women did not inherit, but received a steady supply of money from their family due to the city’s new structure in a capitalistic society, women were able to comfortably venture outside monotonous life at home. Schenider’s work about impacts of drugs on the jazz community explores the exclusive subculture that developed in the early twentieth century. He discusses the exclusivity of tea pads, social clubs where people used drugs, among black people and the bustling jazz clubs that encouraged marijuana and heroin usage. At the turn of the century, gender and racial stereotypes began to, but not completely disintegrate. Minorities still faced oppression due to societal perception of drugs, but we must ask: How do drugs bring a community or culture together even when users are marginalized by society?

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the world changed rapidly due to industrialization and a strong focus on capitalism. A byproduct of this societal change was the rise of women taking part in consumerist culture. Emily Remus’ “Tippling Ladies and the Making of Consumer Culture: Gender and Public Space” analyzes the political and social changes of monied women through their consumption of alcohol. Socioeconomically advantaged women engaged in consumption of alcohol in public, which was frowned upon in the Victorian era. These “lady tipplers” suffered from the decay of the domestic life as capitalistic and consumerist culture rose. A new niche of public consumption of alcohol brought together a community of monied women, “Many establishments introduced separate quarters where ladies could enjoy dainties and drinks removed from the gaze of men. By century’s end, unescorted women could find female-only accommodations in department store tearooms as well as many large restaurants, hotels, and candy stores” (Remus). The introduction of a new type of social drinking created an important informal alliance of women who enjoyed spending their leisure time in similar ways. Because these monied women believed that drinking spirits would uplift health and well-being, public drinking became a relevant hobby. High-class women in the early twentieth century belonged to a community that encouraged indulging in vices in response to widespread feelings of female frailty and dependence. In response to backlash against women’s public drinking, “Chicago women made their first significant push into city politics by battling a newly proposed municipal charter. After being denied representation at the Charter Convention and then disappointed in their hopes for municipal suffrage, local clubwomen organized broad-based opposition that demanded a greater voice for women in city affairs. In the same month that Hopkins initiated his anti-booze effort, they helped defeat the charter referendum” (Remus). Although women failed at first with municipal suffrage, they were able to persist and defeat Hopkins, a reverend who adamantly fought against women’s public drinking. These seemingly small pushes against authority and opposing social movements prove to set precedent for women fighting for suffrage rights. Monied women of Chicago were arguably overshadowed by their family’s wealthy patriarchs; however, their audacity to push boundaries of the status quo in terms of voting and gender roles proved to be the most powerful moves of the century as women gained suffrage rights soon after. It is evident through Remus’ work that elite community of women in Chicago united under one cause that engendered change in seemingly unbreakable gender roles at the time. 

Jazz in the early twentieth century incited a groundbreaking musical, social, and drug counterculture that impacted society greatly. The jazz community brought together people of color who were marginalized for centuries. However, jazz also brought together a community of people who were frequent drug users. Eric Schneider’s “Smack Heroin and the American City” analyzes the social effects of drugs on the jazz community, specifically discussing the impacts of marijuana and heroin. Although marijuana was concluded to give rise to non-aggressive and non-addictive behaviors by NY Academy of Medicine’s Committee on Public Health, users were still attacked by the oppressive Marijuana Tax Act of 1904. However, the law that targeted minorities did not stop or hinder the use of marijuana. Instead, marijuana enhanced the connections between the audience and the user in jazz performances. Jazz songs were titled in reference to marijuana and some musicians smoked on stage as the audience watched. Mezz Mezzrow, a jazz musician and leading marijuana dealer in Harlem describes the energy derived from marijuana usage during the performance as, “‘some kind of electricity was crackling in the air and it made them all glow and jump’” (Schneider). The formation of a tight-knit community unified by the passion and experience of jazz music stood strong in the face of oppression. Another way the jazz community was unified by the use of drugs and solidarity against oppression was through the rejection of traditional values. The use of heroin and other debaucherous activities on Swing Street near Times Square counteracted “square America” (Schneider). Instead of engaging in the American battle against the use of heroin, the drug was “a badge of distinction, the trademark of a unique jazz generation. ‘It was the thing that made us different from the world’” (Schneider). Heroin usage in intimate settings of jazz clubs made the culture exclusive. Similar to marijuana, audience members became addicted to heroin as their jazz icons valorized the drug as key to their performances.The community of jazz was strongly unified by the degradation of rhythm and order in musical and social settings.

Today, it is evident that perception of drugs in American society have changed drastically from the times of early struggles of women’s public drinking and drug culture of jazz. Throughout American history, society has perceived drugs differently due to various groups of users. Socioeconomically disadvantaged and ethnic minorities usually suffered the most from anti-drug sentiment. Today, recent increase in legalization of marijuana in many states have the capability of creating a unified community of like-minded people across all levels of class and race in society. The de-stigmatization of marijuana and other drugs is important to development in society as a whole in reducing tensions and discrimination and promoting equality.

1 thought on “Drugs: The Power to Unite

  1. I never thought about drugs as something that unites different people and communities, but I definitely agree. For one, drugs are common in social gatherings, such as alcohol at dinner parties, and this is usually the case because it brings people together. Another example is that sometimes people who were formerly addicted to a certain drug may come together because they have that in common as a bond. Drugs are also still very relevant in music and musical settings, where different people can come together based on their shared interest both. Unfortunately, I would say that it is still the case that drugs can be used as a way to separate communities in the way that crack and cocaine are very similar drugs and are still used in different communities and criminalized to different extents in a way that harms minority communities most. Even within Remus’ article, alcohol could arguably have been a way to separate different women from each other in that monied women engaged in drinking publicly, while poor women could not, and black women were often even denied access to the locations. However, I agree that there is potential for change in the stigma of drugs and what that means for different communities given the way marijuana laws are changing, and if this could happen with other drugs everywhere, it would definitely remove a route through which to discriminate.

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