‘Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ – Celebrities taking drugs

Image of Dr Rupert TillPopular Music expert Dr Rupert Till on the drug-taking culture of pop stars and musicians following Russell Brand’s appearance before the Home Affairs Select Committee.

“Speaking to the Home Affairs Select Committee recently in the House of Commons, Russell Brand made some good points about attitudes to drug addiction, although of course this subject is complicated and highly-emotionally charged.  His dismissal of the significance of celebrity to drug-related issues shows some lack of understanding of the history of drug taking.  Some common illegal drugs have become well known and commonly abused through celebrity use.  Cannabis, for example, first became well known amongst musicians in the USA, spreading from jazz and blues to pop musicians.  It was little known as a drug in pre-war Anglo-American culture, and it was through use by famous musicians, and in the music scene of the swinging sixties, that it became commonplace, so much so that half of young people in the UK have tried this particular form of criminal activity.

Brand argues that drug taking should not be criminalised, and indeed, if taken seriously, half of people in the UK aged between 16 and 29 are criminals because of their cannabis use, which makes little sense.  Indeed, those opposing drug use should note that when it was decriminalised a few years ago in the UK, cannabis use went down, not up, perhaps the kudos of illegality falling away.

War on drugs

The ‘war on drugs’ that governments have pursued has steadily failed to change the levels of addiction to drugs like heroin and crack cocaine.  But where does this war on drugs originate?

This policy is effectively prohibition, and I use this term deliberately.  From 1919 to 1933, the U.S. made alcohol illegal. Alcohol, drug taking, prostitution and gambling formed a powerful cocktail, that swallowed up the earnings of many American men, and they were all opposed by American women’s groups, as well as by the U.S. church.  Women were hugely empowered by the roles they played during World War I in the U.S. and their views could no longer be ignored when the war finished.  A year after the war ended, prohibition began, and a year later women’s suffrage was guaranteed in the U.S. constitution.

Alcohol, now an illegal drug of sorts, was still drunk, but those making, distributing, selling and buying it were criminals.  The result was a massive growth in illegal activity.  Gangsters took over nightclubs and music venues, and many blues and jazz musicians found themselves being employed by the mafia, whose power really developed because of this prohibition.  This is one of the reasons musicians became associated with drug taking.  What prohibition did was bring ordinary people who wanted to drink into contact with criminal organisations, and criminalise them.  Brand argues that current drug policy has a similar effect.

Social problem

Brand does not argue for all drugs to be legal, but he agrees with what many experts say, that rather than thinking of drugs as criminal behaviour, drug addiction needs to be treated medically and as a social problem.  Otherwise vulnerable young people with problems, are particularly likely to become part of a criminalised system, which will take lives.  Sadly some of these lives have been talented young musicians.  The current position makes otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals.  It prevents clinical study of illegal drugs, and means drug addicts have no certainty of what they are taking.

Meanwhile the most deadly drugs are of course legal.  Alcohol claimed 6,627 and tobacco 86,500 lives in the same year, according to the Office of National Statistics, whilst heroin, other opiates, cocaine, amphetamines and cannabis were implicated in 1,253 deaths in England and Wales in 2006.

As a researcher in popular music studies one cannot help but come across the issue of illegal drugs.  The sad truth is that the lives of many of the world’s most successful bands have been blighted by drug and alcohol abuse.  Drugs have been particularly lethal.  Of the top ten best selling UK music artists, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Deep Purple lost members to drugs, members of The Beatles, Queen and Pink Floyd as well as Elton John and David Bowie had serious and problematic drug problems, leaving only the Dave Clark and Cliff Richard unscathed.  Of course Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and members of the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, The Doors, The Beach Boys and The Who also died from drug abuse.  Imagine if such large numbers of the most successful actors of the 20th century had died young from drug abuse, or if in any field the most successful and popular figures had all had significant or deadly drug problems?

Some argue that fans take drugs because pop stars do, others would say that pop stars take drugs just like other music fans.  In reality most of us take drugs, from aspirin and penicillin to wine and tobacco.  Celebrities have had a role in popularising the use of some illegal drugs, but politicians’ approaches and prohibition do not seem to have made much difference.  It is odd indeed that Russell Brand of all people should be advising MPs on drug policy, and I look forward to hearing Madonna on women’s issues, Jeremy Clarkson discussing transport, and LSE graduate Mick Jagger helping the Chancellor with his next budget.”

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