Drug Subcultures in the American City, 1800–present

Chris Elcock

in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History

Published online November 2018 | e-ISBN: 9780199329175 | DOI:

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The use of illicit drugs in US cities led to the development of important subcultures with shared practices, codes, discourses, and values. From the 19th century onward, American city dwellers have indulged in opiates, cocaine, amphetamines, cannabis, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), crack, and 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (also known as MDMA or ecstasy). The population density of metropolitan America contributed to the spread of substance use and the rise of communities that centered their lives on drug consumption. In the history of urban drug use, opiates have outlasted all the other drugs and have naturally attracted the bulk of scholarly attention.

The nature and identity of these illicit subcultures usually depended on the pharmacology of the drugs and the setting in which they were used. Addictive substances like heroin and amphetamines certainly led to the rise of crime in certain urban areas, but by the same token many urban Americans managed to integrate their addiction into their everyday lives. The more complex pharmacology of psychedelic drugs like LSD in turn gave birth to rich subcultures that resist easy classifications. Most drugs began their careers as medical marvels that were accepted as the product of modernity and often used by the middle class or medical practitioners. Race, age, and class prejudice, and the association of drugs with visible subcultures perceived to pose a threat to the moral fabric of society can partly explain their subsequent bans.

Keywords: US cities; drugs; subcultures; deviance; opiates; amphetamines; cocaine; LSD

Article.  8211 words. 

Subjects: US Cultural History ; Urban History

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