Heavy Metal Madness: White Punks on Dope

Part of the reason, or should I say the only reason, I am behind in my garage print shop is because soon after the presses arrived, so did my 15-year-old nephew. Marc is probably like any 15-year-old, only more so. He arrived on our doorstep after a life that would make most kids sullen and withdrawn, or at least very bitter. And while I can’t call Marc a happy kid, he has a sense of adventure and enthusiasm for things that give me hope he may end up with a happy life. If he survives, that is.

Figure 1: Teen-Age Dope Slaves was a ’50-era comic book with your host Rex Morgan M.D.. It’s hard to tell if these kinds of efforts discouraged teens from drug abuse, or encouraged it.

Most recently Marc’s enthusiasm has been directed toward predictable teenage experimentation with controlled substances. As far as giving fatherly advice goes, my efforts on this subject are only marginally better than those on the subject of sex, so I decided to do a little research. As I suspected, Marc’s experimentation had already graduated beyond the simple things like pot and alcohol, which are easy to wax eloquent on while still sounding hip and open-minded.

Figure 2: Early anti-drug pamphlets were often meant to be informative for adults. Here, in a June 1969 booklet from the San Francisco Unified School District, the trappings of Marijuana are highlighted.

After extensive research, my wife Patty and I decided on a strategy of sheer panic and permanent grounding. What I’ve discovered about teenagers is that sometimes education, discussion, and trust simply don’t work as well as taking away every last morsel of freedom.

But my research was not in vain, of course. I learned a few things about drugs, but more importantly, I unearthed some great vintage anti-drug ephemera to share with you. Marc certainly can’t appreciate it, and I doubt if kids of any era ever did, but I now sympathize with the various government bodies, civic organizations, and school systems that produced it. You can’t simply stand still while immature minds play roulette with highly addictive and dangerous chemicals.

Figure 3: These pamphlets, from the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1969, are pretty factual and straightforward. The graphics are dated, but the messages are still relevant.

Why Do You Think They Call it Dope?
My own anti-drug education began at an early age. Since my mother was the school nurse at a very large metropolitan high school throughout the ’60s and ’70s, drug-use prevention was on the front burner, and it often crossed over into our family life. So when she wasn’t taking amphetamine diet pills (legally prescribed by a doctor, of course), my mother could be found reviewing the current literature on drug use, trying to spot those tell-tale clues that a student may be “high” or “strung out” on some sort of dope.

I remember once when staying home sick from school, I accompanied my mother to the screening of a new anti-LSD educational film the school district was rolling out. I’m sure if I saw that same film today it would be campy and laughable, but it made an impact on my young mind, especially the part where someone decides they can fly and jumps out of a high window to a premature, tragic young death.

Figure 4: Educational, or exploitative? There were many pulp paperbacks with drug addiction themes throughout the years. If I showed these to my nephew today, he’d probably go out immediately and increase his consumption of illicit substances!

Of course to any teen worth their salt, these attempts at drug education were deemed propaganda and discounted as full of exaggeration and misinformation. Now that I’m seeing teen drug use first hand, I’m not sure that was entirely true.

I’ve Seen the Needle and the Damage Done
Linking teens, drugs and moral corruption is nothing new. As early as 1624, attacks were being leveled at the use of chocolate which was deemed as a “violent inflamer of passions.” Then cigarettes, opium, cocaine, and other drugs came into vogue, and though many of them were said to cause impotency, they were also associated with teen sex and unwanted pregnancies.

And of course, the main message in most anti-drug literature is that an innocent beginning with a cigarette, a puff on a reefer, or a quick snort at a party soon turns ugly and deadly. The dealer man starts out friendly, then turns on the young prey and withholds their fixes in exchange for money, crimes or sexual favors.

Figure 5: Just one little puff… Good teens go bad very quickly in this 1951 issue of Trapped! from Harvey Publications.

Lucy in the Sky, With Diamonds
One of the more interesting graphic challenges of anti-drug art is how to represent the high, the mind bending, the hallucinations, and the isolation that drug use brings on. It’s not unusual to see spirals, bodies floating in bright colors, and very abstract images.

Figure 6: Graphic artists used a number of reliable techniques to show the confusion, isolation, and paranoia that LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs produced. These are from a Kiwanis International brochure of 1969.

Having never had an acid trip myself, I can’t really say if any of these visual representations come close to the real thing. I’d probably be disappointed if all that happened on acid was that the colors appeared as if the saturation was cranked all the way up in Photoshop. But unless you hire a drug user to produce the art, it’s all a matter of speculation, I guess.

Just Say No, Dude!
I decided to show only a few of these samples to Marc because I suspect some would backfire and minimize the important messages about drug use I’m trying to get through to him. It’s even harder these days than it was back in my Mother’s time. Kids seem to be getting into things earlier and earlier, and the easy availability of drugs like Ecstasy and Crack Cocaine are scary for any parent.

Perhaps it’s time for a new generation of graphic artists and writers to take a stab at fresh anti-drug messaging. Peer-to-peer communication is about the only way that teens will listen, I’m finding. Clearly the government’s efforts still come across as being from an adult, establishment perspective.

Figure 7: Pretty soon the reefer just doesn’t do the trick, so heroin is the logical next step. And we all know where that leads.

I’m sure there are some great programs out there in local high schools where students create graphic anti-drug messages for other students. If you know of any, please send them along and perhaps I can use them to help Marc, or at least present them in a future column. Teen drug use and anti-drug messaging has been with us a long time and will probably stay around as long as kids are depressed, detached, and lonely.

Figure 8: When teens go driving after having a “bang,” you know that the next few frames are going to show carnage, regret and loss. In this case, the good kid finally admits his problem and gets help. The others end up either dead or in jail.

Read more by Gene Gable.

Posted on: July 15, 2004

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on CreativePro.com.

1 Comment on Heavy Metal Madness: White Punks on Dope

  1. This is a complex issue and I think humour is a good answer for now… just been for my daily check of what’s new at the joy of tech – could be a coincidence – but who knows. The illustrations featured in this article are fabulous… inspirational perhaps.

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