CONVERSATIONS ABOUT DRUG CULTURE ARE STILL TOO RUDIMENTARY

Words: Jesse Bernard

When Lil Peep died, the response was deafening. I’ll admit, I had known little of him besides his name until the news broke but then came an outpouring of thoughts and opinions, with people wanting to share their takes on drug use within modern hip-hop. The genre, for so long, has had a silent enemy, which many consider to be drugs such as Xanax, Vicodin, Percocet and others of similar varieties. By now, many of us who exist online are aware that men’s issues pertaining to masculinity and how we perform it is in part down to our capacity to be vulnerable and honest with ourselves. And while we tweet about male suicide stats once a year in November, and push forward the conversation regarding the mental health of men, those offline, out of reach of a 280-character tweet, are still dying in bitter silence.

At present, the dialogue surrounding drug use in hip-hop is elementary at best, lacking nuance and understanding as to why twenty-somethings are using both prescription drugs with little regard for the effects. Non-drug users should be made aware that the long term, negative effects of drug use are rarely acknowledged by users. Once you become a habitual user, there’s little anyone can do or say to convince you otherwise, therefore the narrative needs to change.  The conversation surrounding drug use isn’t one our generation conjured either; one need only go back as far as the ‘50s to see what the war on drugs did to black artists, under the watchful guidance of J. Edgar Hoover. The war on drugs ravaged black communities not just in the States but globally also—it was a decades-long offensive that led to the disproportionate imprisonment of black people for non-violent drug offences. Where the irony currently lies is the now ever-increasingly profitable legalised marijuana industry that is booming in the States. While the aggressive war on drugs is fundamentally over, there are both old and new casualties still being affected by archaic drug laws and policy.

Following Lil Peep’s death, similar rhetoric was thrown around where, rather than sourcing the root, we were reminded that “drugs are bad” and we should “help our friends”. For those of us who have lived with drugs know that, while progress has been made in society’s tolerance of drug use, there is still a sense of judgement from those that don’t use or understand why people do to begin with. And to be frank and honest, drug users don’t care for non-drug users’ thoughts on their effects—those worries are often forfeited the minute the high hits. But decades on from the death of Marvin Gaye, who not only fought his own demons, father and the state, young black men in entertainment and outside of it are still fighting those very things. And judging by the state of international affairs, rising living costs, hyperawareness, and the toxic culture of silence among men is still very much taking the lives of men offline, away from the supposed safety of the virtual world.

The issues surrounding pervasive and excessive drug use among men, who ideally need traditional mental health care, is the collateral damage that is often caused by our own habits. How far can one’s compassion extend to a Kodak Black or XXXTencacion whom have both been violent towards women, despite their own documented mental health issues? And while it’s important to acknowledge the mental health of men and how it affects us, as many women before me have expressed, it’s those in close proximity to us that are most at risk of the violence we do unto others.

A pill that has been particularly hard to swallow, or even acknowledge, is that the dialogue surrounding drug use and addiction is still very much cis-heteronormative. Too often, the LGBTQ community is excluded from such discussions despite being seven times more likely to use drugs than the general population. The truth of the matter is that, for someone who is fairly privileged, it took almost two months to see a GP regarding my mental health. In previous circumstances, I’ve been less patient and certainly more at risk of spiralling. How do you then help someone who doesn’t have the means for private therapy, a safe environment, and the frivolity of time?

If the issue people have with prescriptions drugs in particular is accessibility, then we must look at the culture that allows hedonism to be so popular among young people. It’s easy to look at purp-sippin’ rappers like Lil Wayne, especially as he’s someone who has been hospitalised for his excessive drug use and many fear a premature death. But it was last year, on Solange’s song “Mad”, where Wayne—as concise and direct as ever—allowed us into his mind. “Yeah, but I got a lot to be mad about, got a lot to be a man about, got a lot to pop a Xan about,” he raps on verse two. The first line was particularly striking, almost like a bucket of water waking you up because if Lil Wayne, one of entertainment’s biggest stars, hasn’t the awareness or knowledge surrounding mental health to seek out adequate care, then it’s much more than access to money.

Of course the likes of Lil Wayne can afford private therapy and there are many other alternatives that are readily available for those with such resources. The reality is that the dialogue surrounding mental health and masculinity is fairly contemporary, at least at its current rate. Where do rappers go if they were never aware that therapy is something they could seek? Admittedly, if I knew I could get mental health care from the NHS—albeit incredibly slow—back in 2011 when I contemplated death, I think about how wildly different the subsequent years would have been. Instead, like many young people, weed was the short-term therapy that became a habit difficult to kick two years later. But every time a joke is made about the ‘local nitty’, it’s a stark reminder that the dialogue surrounding drug culture often excludes the most vulnerable in our society, further neglecting how pervasive drug issues can be.

I’ve lost a lot of my favourite musical icons to drugs—some before I was even born. But what I’m reminded of when another departs is that it gives us an opportunity to further the conversation so at least if we can’t save individuals, we can shift the culture of silence somewhat. The legalisation of cannabis in the UK remains a polarising issue, but until this country’s mental health resources and services are equipped to deal with marginalised drug users and addicts, then the conversation is pretty much moot.