Happy New Year, dear readers! How were your celebrations? Did you have a responsible Zoom Years, toast your iPhone screen, hit the vape pen and call it quits? Or did you throw caution to the wind, learn the secret knock for the speakeasy door, and dance the night away? We are officially one year into the Twenties and there is some serious historical rhyming going on. It’s not Prohibition per se, but the ambiguous mix of quarantines, lockdowns, and social distancing are a clear parallel. Partying has been banned, though this time with a twist—it’s not the substances that are illegal, it’s the crowds. In fact, unlike the Roaring Twenties, this is a period of relaxing social mores around drug use. Marijuana, psychedelics, and ketamine are being legalized, medicalized and normalized at an astonishing rate. We are living in the Druggie Twenties.
With the economy in an historic recession and our moods in the doldrums if anything is roaring today—it’s our appetite for substances. Alcohol purchases are at historic highs: sales are up 24 percent. The marijuana industry is booming: sales are up 67 percent. In more good news for legal weed: this November, the House passed the MORE Act, paving the way for federal decriminalization if Mitch McConnell ever loses his Senate majority. As it stands, recreational cannabis laws have been passed in fifteen states, as well as DC. Meaning weed is legal for 93 million people or about one in three Americans—and decriminalization hasn’t stopped there…
On a darker note, overdoses are also at historic highs. The opiate epidemic begun by the monstrous Sackler family rages on. And despite the passage of the MORE Act, the Drug War remains official policy at the federal level. Public opinion on the nature of drugs has changed though. Two thirds of Americans now support marijuana legalization and a majority of Americans now see addiction as a medical issue. It’s hard not to presume this shift tracks with more than a third of Americans knowing someone addicted to heroine or prescription opiates. One in ten have had a relative or close friend die from an opiate overdose.
The through line of the opiate epidemic and drug legalization is America’s ongoing mental health crisis. We’re miserable and over the last decade—the last year we’ve gotten more miserable. During normal times, 11 percent of Americans report symptoms of anxiety and depression. During COVID times, we’re more than triple that at 34 percent.
Adderall didn’t help us focus, Xanax didn’t make us calm, Prozac didn’t make us happy, and Oxycontin sure as hell didn’t numb the pain.
Facing uncertainty, we’re looking to alternative substances for mental health solutions.
When COVID first hit, I avoided making too many big predictions. Last spring, there was too little information on the virus itself and government response was to be determined. In May, I published a report on how people were coping with lockdown and ended with my thoughts that the only way to manage the outbreak would be an accessible testing regimen. Maybe if COVID testing was as easy as HIV testing, some semblance of normalcy could return…
I was far too optimistic presuming the U.S. government would get its act together. Friends in the film industry tell me tales of daily rapid testing, where stray asymptomatic carriers are caught early, and production can continue despite the pandemic. I watch the colleges in my Upstate New York hometown offer in person classes and contain outbreaks with similarly aggressive test and trace models. But for the rest of us outside academia, entertainment, and any other industry with adequate connections and budget, its now clear we are stuck living a pseudo-lockdown half-life until full vaccine roll-out.
Fauci says we’ll return to ‘normal’ sometime in the fall of 2021. This presumes the U.S. government won’t bungle the vaccine distribution the same way it bungled PPE, testing, contact tracing, and relief for the many people who lost jobs, businesses, and livelihoods. With vaccines being thrown away due to both incompetence and malice, I am firmly in the skeptical column regarding the United States’ capacity to achieve herd immunity with speed and efficiency.
As with all stages of the pandemic, the public will be divided on what life should look like as vaccinations haltingly proceed. To mask or not to mask? To distance or not to distance? I’m not questioning CDC guidelines. Those are clear. They’ve asked everyone to continue following protocols until herd immunity is reached. I’m questioning what level of actual compliance there will be. The ‘nature is healing’ days are clearly behind us. Los Angeles highways are no longer empty. The skies are smoggy once again, not clear. Lockdown burnout is real. Anti-maskers exist in Los Angeles, just as much as they exist in Louisiana. (If you need proof, check out this anti-masker stampede at Erewhon in Beverly Grove.)
There’s a split in America—and no I’m not talking exclusively about Democrats vs. Republicans. As lockdown half-life drags on it will become increasingly clear: we are sorting into a nation of hedonists and puritans, dividing into tribes with high risk tolerance and low risk tolerance. This sometimes maps to political preferences, but not always.
Donald Trump made not wearing a mask his cause célèbre, while Gavin Newsom demonstrated his preference for indoor dining with his infamous French Laundry outing. I suspect as the vaccines roll out California’s infamous anti-vaxxer contingent—many of whom are dyed-in-the-wool hippies—will join forces with QAnon conspiracists in opposing any attempt to make the jab mandatory.
Other left-leaning hedonists include the New York nightlife denizens who never stopped raving, even at the height of the city’s outbreak. Gen Z may have voted for Biden, but they’re the least likely age cohort to abide by social distancing rules. Recently, the new app Vybe was removed from the Apple’s iOS platform after New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz pointed out that the app’s entire purpose was to help young people organize illegal parties and circumvent COVID guidelines. As vaccination becomes more commonplace, I suspect nightlife will come roaring back—as it did in Wuhan. Though for the next six months at least, the speakeasy slash underground vibe will remain in effect.
Pod life has its perks. The decoupling of jobs from geographies has unlocked entirely new landscapes for well-heeled white collar workers whose careers had previously tethered them to all but America’s largest and most expensive metro areas. Small cities and resort towns have been of particular interest. The scenic pleasures of work-from-home and lingering agoraphobia will mean not everyone is inclined to return to the lives they once lead.
But don’t underestimate the effects of the Druggie Twenties on this cohort as well. It’s highly unlikely young professional parents that recently decamped to Burlington will be matching the intensity of k’ed out club kids in Brooklyn. Instead expect a more medicalized relationship to drug use. These puritans will focus on the therapeutic possibilities. Their self-optimizing tendencies (i.e. upper middle class careerism) and the self-care obsessions (i.e. wellness as leisure activity) will converge on the new psychoactive possibilities legalization brings. Think ayahuasca therapy for lingering COVID-related trauma or MDMA-enhanced video dating. The blueprint for this is the booming CBD industry: slinging solutions to everything from anxiety management to thinning hair.
We need to update our drug use stereotypes accordingly. Already a few new ones come to mind: the stressed-out stoner mom and the micro-dosing developer. If the tech industry threat to decamp to Miami comes to pass, we may see another stereotype shift: Silicon Valley psychedelia replaced by Venture Capitalist cokeheads. These movements were already latent in American culture. In particular, I remember a work-related dinner party this last November. Just before the world ended. Our bon-vivant hostess casually passed around a raku-glazed ceramic dish of mushrooms. This, I thought, was the future.
Drug regulations are merely catching up to social reality.