Socialist Worker

High Society: History of drugs reveals hypocrisy and wealth

Siân Ruddick explores a new exhibition about the hidden history of drugs—legal and illegal

Issue No. 2230

High Society, at the Wellcome Institute in central London, charts the history of drug use—from 16th century books discussing the medicinal properties of marijuana plants to the era of prohibition in the US and the production of cocaine today.

One cabinet contains artefacts from all over the world and throughout the ages.

A 19th century opium pipe sits alongside a packet of Marlboro cigarettes, and bongs commonly seen in student flats sit with silver tubes—used by some of the richest people in the world to snort cocaine.

There is a hint of irony that such an exhibition is held here—the Wellcome Collection survives on significant donations and patronage from pharmaceutical companies who play their own part in the drug trade, albeit the legal one.

Opium features heavily. Detailed prints illustrate the processing of opium in vast warehouses in 19th century India—owned by the British colonial East India Company.

Hundreds of workers can be seen making and stacking balls of the drug, ready for sale and distribution—much to the profit of India’s colonial rulers.

US space agency Nasa experimented on spiders during the 1970s using caffeine, Benzedrine (an amphetamine that was used to make breathing easier—which was soon discovered to be a stimulant) and marijuana.

Caffeine resulted in a spider spinning the most chaotic web. The research had no impact on US drug policy on average.

The exhibition also looks at the social and communal taking of drugs, from tribal cultures to raves in 1990s.

Fascinatingly, it examines the shifts in what is seen as socially acceptable and the role of the ruling classes in the “fight” against drugs.


Moral panics feature strongly, particularly when women use drugs. Many women, particularly those in the upper and middle classes, used the Victorian “cure all” laudanum—which was based on opium. The British government banned the drug in 1878.

The 1938 “Reefer Madness” campaign in the US featured posters with illustrations of anguished women—apparently maddened by the drug.

The priorities of the market, as well as government fears about losing control over the population, have shaped the ways drugs are produced, bought and sold.

The final piece of the exhibition is a startling reminder of how ordinary people—and the environment—pay the biggest price for drugs.

It charts the cost of cocaine

manufacture. Peasant farmers in Latin America are paid pennies for cocoa leaves. The cost rises as the crop is treated with chemicals to make the drug. But then it is cut with others to reduce the strength and increase the profit.

Cocaine on the streets has been reduced to 30 percent purity.

High Society shows the madness of the “war on drugs”. Billions of dollars pour into the coffers of the big pharmaceutical and tobacco companies for the sale of legal drugs, while those using substances deemed to be illegal are imprisoned and demonised.

The contradictions and double standards of the market are exposed.

Against this backdrop, calls to legalise all drugs have never looked so sensible.

A free talk to go with the exhibition discussing What is a drug? takes place on 20 January.

High Society is at the Wellcome Institute, central London until 27 February 2011, and is free. For more information go to

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Tue 30 Nov 2010, 18:17 GMT
Issue No. 2230
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