Defend Truth


Welcome to the club: Thoughts on the war on drugs

Andrew Miller is a poet and freelance writer. He is also a founder of Unity Design, a socially orientated arts space operating in Newtown, Johannesburg.

By the time they're ten, our darlings are desperate to possess J-Lo's ass and Pit Bull's lyrical wisdom. Which is bad news for LeadSA's war on drugs.

LeadSA is currently on an anti drug blitz, courtesy of the two flagship radio stations of founding corporate member, Primedia: 702 and Highveld 94.7.

First, there are the radio ads, which describe in some detail how dangerous drugs are (the sniffing and scratching, the ruined lives etc., etc). Second, an aspect which is particularly strong on 702, the opportunity for members of the public to phone in anonymous tip offs re: drug dealers, drug hot spots and so on.

The narrative is generic. We (the upstanding public) need to stop them (the drug dealers) from infecting our society. We also need to make sure our kids aren’t lured by the horror of peer pressure (is there any thought worse than little Johnny falling under sway of terrible Tommy?).

There is no hint of irony on Highveld 94.7 as the drug literacy ad fades away, replaced by the latest slamming Miley Cyrus track, We Can’t Stop, the lyrics of which go:

Red Cups and sweaty bodies everywhere / hands in the air like we don’t care / cause we came to have so much fun now / got somebody here might get some now

Miley’s sexual ambition is seamlessly replaced by another Highveld top 40 number. This time it’s Avril Lavigne, with a track called Here’s to Never Growing Up. Next is Pit Bull with Outta Nowhere.

Highveld occupies, successfully, the middle of the middle road. There’s no cutting culture edge here. Rather, a never-ending stream of global pop culture standards. The kind of standards that are listened to by parents and children, together, the world over.

Fifteen to twenty years ago, the global, clubby druggy underground was split down the middle. Ravers (drugs of choice: ecstasy, cat, cocaine, LSD) listened to Faithless’ Maxi Jazz spinning lyrics about insomnia, while on the other side of the creative planet, hip hoppers (drugs of choice: weed, beer) listened to the likes of Cypress Hill rapping about Hits from the Bong, or Dead Prez espousing an oddly compelling social consciousness consisting of political awareness, heavy pot smoking and aggressive vegetarianism. Even at their most enlightened and socially aware, the two genres were polar opposites. All they had in common were drug use, and the idea of the club. The imagery of the club. The ideology of the club.

Over time, dance and hip hop both rose from the underground to be commercialised and commoditised. Somewhere along the line they mated, and spawned what for many is a new generation of auditory horror. Global pop now routinely features the swooping, rising and falling candy floss synths that were created specifically to titillate the senses of ecstasy takers. Ditto, the slamming four to the floor beat. The rapping and rhyming. The smoky crushed up beats of hip hop, developed and digested via countless puffs on countless joints. There can be no denying that the musical devices underpinning today’s global pop sound were originally designed to get people inside the club as high as all merry hell.

Today’s pop music is thus both the stuff of the middle road, and the stuff of club land. Indeed, there is no more compelling or dominant pop culture metaphor today than that of the club, landscape of youth and adventure.

The club is both escape and sanctuary from the stifling norms of regular life. The club is where you display your style and intelligence. It’s where you find sex, offer sex, dance all night, meet new people, and shake what your mamma gave ya. It is implicit in the culture that the club will offer you the opportunity to do it all the help of drugs: liquor, weed, pills, coke, etc.

Even if South Africans aren’t literally squeezed between four sweaty walls, the majority of us let it all (or much of it) go over the weekend, in the club of our psyche. Maybe at the rugby, maybe listening to Highveld 94.7. Maybe at the shebeen. Maybe getting hammered at a restaurant. Maybe having a few extra whiskeys in front of Noot vir Noot. We, like the global society in which we exist, are geared to the notion of mood modification via the use of substances.

It is natural, then, that our nine-year-olds flock to watch Justin Bieber mimic the modes of the club (the beats, the dance moves, the semi naked females, the swagger) in the mega stadium. The parents drive them to the stadium, proudly delighted at the precociousness of their little Beliebers. The tracks playing in the car are probably a mix of Miley Cyrus, J-Lo and Robin Thicke.

In positioning the drug dealers and takers as a nefarious force outside the stable norms of our society, are Highveld, 702, Primedia and LeadSA veering into a disingenuous denial of self? Does Primedia not make large dollops of cash flogging the culture of the club to all comers? Is there no sense of irony among the creative minds who created this particular war?

The core war on drugs idea is that the US military (or LeadSA, or any other force for ‘good’) will put its shoulder to the wheel to stop those damn South Americans (or Nigerians, or… you get the point) from shipping the stuff into the country. If they can finally stop the farmers and the distributors, the game will be won. This is supply side thinking. Eliminate the supply, and there is no equation.

The weakness of supply side thinking is that old chestnut, demand. Would the drug lords be pumping $320 billion worth of drugs into the USA and Europe all year if the kids on that side of the fence weren’t prowling the corners of the club for something extra to let them dance all night? Probably not. When viewed from the demand side, the drug debate becomes tricky. Who really drives the trade? The pot smoking, coke snorting, meth cooking American teenager? Or the Columbian meeting the demand?

Symptomatically, the LeadSA drug campaign has the ring of ‘the right thing to do’. South Africa’s urban areas are being ripped apart by drugs. That’s a fact. Tip offs and drug raids and area highlights seem like good supply side tactics through which to approach the scourge. So do those infomercials about how bad drugs are and so on.

Two issues remain, however.

First, we consume the culture of the club at pace, and so do our darlings. Our kids are primed from the age of four or five to respond to the beat structures, lyrical content and ass shaking of the club. Everything we do on our radio and TV stations makes the message clear. The club is where you, young one, will come of age. It’s where you will define your social ranking, your sex appeal, your intelligence and your dance moves. Why? Because mommy watches Idols and listens to Whackhead, who loves those slamming beats, and it all runs downhill from there. By the time you’re ten you’ll be desperate to possess J-Lo’s ass and Pit Bull’s lyrical wisdom.

Drug dealers are easy and obvious supply side targets in the drug war. But how should we approach the demand side forces? Kiddy TV, radio stations (stations like 5FM are particularly powerful in this regard. In 5 land, each DJ’s weekend club profile and activities are threaded into the fabric of their show. The clubs and the station exist in symbiosis), glossy magazines, cartoon networks and so forth. Drug culture is as embedded in these places as it is in the streets of Brixton. Fashion brands, technology brands and most of the global economy work as happily as radio stations with the imagery and metaphors of the club. Why? Because the club, a dominant metaphorical force in western brand-obsessed life, is a doorway to the target market. But, contrary to easy parental opinion, clubs are not filled with dealers and criminals. They’re filled with our children.

And then there’s literacy. The ‘drugs will kill you’ approach to narcotic literacy misses out on one crucial fact. Like it or not, millions of people use drugs and don’t die. They don’t end up in the gutter. Yes, those in the gutter will smoke Nyaope, but we need to be careful of making causal assumptions. Do you smoke Nyaope and end up in the gutter? Or do you smoke Nyaope because you’re living in a gutter? Does a doctor become a speed freak because he’s surrounded by pharmaceuticals all day? Or are there other issues at play in his life that get him writing his own scripts?

When drug messaging is geared entirely around instant death and destruction it creates a crucial loophole of logic for a young person already hormonally primed to kick against the system. Seldom, if ever, articulated is that the fact that drugs (beginning with liquor, the most pervasive and socially destructive drug on the planet) are frequently the source of fun. Many millions of people do drugs recreationally and then trot off to work without major side effects. The European instalments of the Love Parade festival enjoyed attendance that reached into the millions on seven occasions over the last two decades, right until the last 2010 event, which was estimated to have 1,500,000 revellers. (Unsurprisingly, there was a stampede, which resulted in deaths, and the event was cancelled). Look at the clip below. Are they all high on mineral water? These are Germans, mind you – the nation famed for its conservative business acumen. The nation currently dragging the rest of Europe through the economic mire on its back.

Watch: DJ’s United

Drugs can make you feel (very) good, as well as bad. Drugs offer escape. Drugs offer fun. Drugs offer rebellion and social cohesion among young people. The tragedy the ‘drugs will kill you’ ads refer to is actually very delayed. Many lives on drugs only go awry after months and years of use and abuse. But because the fun is never built into the education narrative, it’s very easy for an eighteen year old (or a ten year old, or a fourteen year old) to think, ‘ah, another con. They say drugs will kill you but there’s nothing wrong here. I feel fine. Suzy is passing Matric with A’s, Thabo smokes blunts before school every morning and then plays rugby in the afternoon. It’s just more parental propaganda.’

And then, three, four, five years later the recreation becomes a habit, and the habit becomes the killer. But if we never discuss the reality, the fun, the entertainment, our attempts to discuss the shockingly real downside will disappear down the same hole as ‘please turn off the geyser between 5 and 9’.

Yes, drugs are a scourge. But are they the cause of our social ills? Or are they symptoms of the weird collective pain of being alive right now, in this complicated time and place? More to the point, will LeadSA’s current drive do anything other than make some corporate people feel good, in a non-narcotic way?

Time will tell.

In the meantime, let’s get that radio on, and listen to another classic.

Everybody get your hands in the air…

And shake it around like you just don’t care…DM


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