Pop culture and drugs

Photo collage of celebrities where drugs contributed to their death.

The following article is part of a continuing series of articles examining illegal drugs in Fayette County.

Whether it is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writing about the cocaine and heroin use of the fictional Sherlock Holmes in the late 19th century or rapper Kanye West and others singing about the drug Molly, there have been drug references in popular culture for centuries.

Drug use in the 1960s and 1970s was, in some circles, considered the norm for musicians and artists.

“What we are seeing today is that generation growing up but not letting go of that element of the subculture. The young people of the ‘60s did not raise their children with a harsh judgment of drug use,” said Dr. Susan Jasko, a communications professor at California University of Pennsylvania with an interest in examining popular culture.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, drug abuse is on the rise among individuals over the age of 50, the baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964. SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that 4.7 percent of Americans over the age of 50 had used an illicit drug in the previous year, based on data from 2006-2008.

Jasko said there is a greater interest in society today to legalize marijuana at least for medical purposes.

“We are seeing a change, at the popular level at least, of something that had been treated harshly. There is a willingness to reconsider and readdress that type of thing in a popular framework,” Jasko said.

The depiction of marijuana use has become more commonplace on television programs and in movies.

“There is a casualness about marijuana use. It’s not even a plot point, it’s just background noise. I don’t think that’s mainstream America, but you’d think it was from the movies,” said Patrick Daugherty, who teaches American Art History at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, drawing at Westmoreland County Community College and painting at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

Jasko notes that writers write about things with which they are familiar, not necessarily about what is happening at the moment or to influence what happens in the future.

“You write what you know to a large extent. In fiction writing, you draw on your own experiences,” Jasko said.

Mark Brazil, producer and writer for “That ‘70s Show”, was born in 1962, putting him in high school at the end of the 1970s, a decade that culminated with the peak of drug use in America, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency Museum’s website.

Jasko also pointed to “The West Wing” writer Aaron Sorkin, born in Scarsdale N.Y., in 1961.

“You see how the times in which he grew up are still at the core of his writing,” Jasko said.

The comedy series “Weeds,” about a suburban mother who turns to selling marijuana, had both critical acclaim and popular appeal during its 2005-2012 run, Jasko said, though she said that doesn’t necessarily mean more people are using marijuana or other drugs.

“I think students are much less judgmental regardless of their practice,” Jasko said.

“Drugs and alcohol are part of our culture, and it would be foolish to deny it,” Daugherty said. “Prohibition proved that if people want something, they’re going to get it. The war on drugs is over, and drugs won. I think people are perceiving that with taxation and regulation, this human desire could benefit us as a whole. There wouldn’t be organized crime if it weren’t for Prohibition, and people haven’t learned that lesson or they don’t want to know.”

Daugherty said in talking to his students they felt it was cliche to think that artists have more interest in drugs than those in other professions.

“I can’t think of one artist, as an artist, who could create art when they weren’t sober. Warhol didn’t really do drugs. The man just had an incredible work ethic that you need to succeed. You can’t have that work ethic if you are otherwise engage,” Daugherty said.

Salvador Dali, whose surreal art fit in well with the psychedelic world of the 1960s, has been quoted as saying, “I don’t do drugs, I am a drug.”

According to a SAMHSA study looking at 21 occupational groups from 2002-2004, Daugherty’s students are partially right — artists are not at the top of the list for drug users. The highest drug use was found among those working in food preparation and serving, with 17.4 percent, followed by construction workers at 15 percent, then those in the arts, design, entertainment, sports and the media third at 12.4 percent.

The occupations with the lowest percentage of drug users were protective service at 3.4 percent, community and social services at 4 percent and education, training and library at 4.1 percent.

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