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Fear and Loathing in Amsterdam

“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” – Hunter S. Thompson

The Amsterdam experience has become synonymous with drug use. Lined throughout its canals are over 160 coffee shops that fuel the dazed flocks of red-eyed tourists hobbling from bar to bar. At the festivals and raves held in the capital, it’s hard not to notice the sea of jaws chattering away at pieces of battered gum. A study of drug concentrations in wastewater saw Amsterdam crowned as one of the drug capitals of MDMA and crack-Cocaine in Europe. Further findings have calculated that over 150,000 people consume ecstasy monthly in the Netherlands. In fits of such trance-like ecstasy, it’s difficult to take a moment and ask, why? Why has drug use become so prevalent and accepted, and what effect is it having on us?

Firstly there’s the obvious answer: drugs make us feel good. Whether it’s a glass of wine or a line, our brains register this and reward us with a dopamine hit, making an already fun experience like partying even more exhilarating. However, to get to the real answer of why we use and abuse, we must look deeper. To many, drugs are a medium for rebellion. Like Eve plucking the forbidden fruit, we feel a sense of exciting danger in crossing from the veil of the acceptable and indulging in the illegal. As nations have used harsh legal means and social engineering to persuade the public against the use of drugs, a form of reverse psychology has applied to those with rebellion in their heart. The French philosopher George Bataille highlights, “The transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends it and completes it”

The fact that drugs are taboo means that their transgressions become sweeter. Many feel a flurry of excited butterflies as they grab their mates and huddle into a bathroom stall with a credit card and a ziplock bag in hand. Without the fear of judgemental looks or the wrath of a menacing bouncer, the appeal of such actions dwindles. If there was no taboo, there would be no need to transgress; they complete each other. A bouncer can’t get his dose of satisfaction without watching out for 20-somethings with baggies of questionable powders. Somewhere deep in the human spirit, we find a curious insurrection regarding the word “don’t”. The more we are prohibited from doing, the more insatiable our lust becomes for the forbidden. This is why societal renegades such as Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson drink and snort their way into the hearts of readers everywhere, cementing themselves as countercultural icons.

As new generations have grown up under overworked parents who are exploited by the rules, the rules themselves come into question. If the prescriptions for life lead to such underwhelming outcomes, why should they be followed in the first place? At first, it starts as a slow hunger in your soul. A friend steals a cigarette from his brother’s pack and both of you smoke it in the quiet alley behind school, making sure to drown yourself in deodorant before coming home for supper. Then curiosity graduates to raiding the liqueur cabinet of a friend’s parents whilst they’re out of town and ever so slowly, that hunger for the inadmissible grows. It grows until your nose is buried in mounds of crushed euphoria, your pupils erupting into voids of endless darkness. Yet the pangs of hunger don’t stop. As your sight wrestles the beams of the morning sun and the whites of your eyes creep in, you find yourself trapped in a world of half-functioning vice-dependant adults. A world corrupted by collective childhood curiosities. You now belong to this world. Bataille outlines this process of transgression perfectly, “A kiss is the beginning of cannibalism.”.

Drugs like any tool can create or destroy. Instead of an exercise of self-exploration, drugs can become a thoughtless escape from the mundanity of the week. As the pressures of conformity and performance rip and tear at the tattered present, we are only left with the regret of the past and the dread of the future. As much as drugs have created an outlet of connection for the present moment, they have also created dependence. A dependence that inhibits emotion in sobriety. Many find that they need to be drunk or high to tell those they love how much they mean to them, only to wake up the next day with a headache and an awkward regret. Instead of overcoming this mental prison through the perspective handed down by drugs, we continue to abuse them to mitigate the symptoms of the imprisonment of our subjective authenticity. There is sadness in the feeling that the intoxicated version of oneself is more confident or funny than the sober version. Instead of overcoming this inadequacy, many submit, suffocating in their inebriated comfort. There is also a deep selfishness for the endless pursuit of chemical hedonism. Each pill bought is a vote in favour of millions contracting life-threatening addictions. Each gram bought is a vote in favour of millions dying due to overdoses and drug-related violence.

In the age of designer drugs and quick dealers, any person can pay to feel how they want. As we navigate adulthood and this brave new world, we must keep ourselves in check. We must ensure that drugs are a tool for liberation from the dullness of productive reality, wielded by individuals who know their perilous properties. The alternative is a world of anguished adults wallowing ever deeper into uncontrolled inebriation. A reality without agency, only of dependence. As we steer our way through the canals of our minds, we must tread water vigilantly or risk rusting gradually in the depths of polluted waters.


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