The rise and fall of festival drugs



Since the 1960s Festivals have been synonymous with a purple haze of drugs. Timothy Leary, the high priest of acid consciousness encouraged the cool kids of San Francisco to tune in, turn on and drop out in as Ken Kesey flew the Merry Pranksters round in their magic bus. Back then it was the first time the Western World was really exposed to the world of drugs and boy did it add colour to their culture. The festivals around the time, such as Woodstock, became centres for all manner of psychedelic wanderers as Lucy flew up to the Sky with Diamonds and hundreds of thousands young minds became lost only to resurface on a lake of candy coloured electric kool aid.

The effect these hallucinogenic drugs had on the people of the then developed world can not be underestimated. You only need to look at the art and culture of the time to see how the people of the 1960s began to open up to all manner of different esoteric philosophies such as Vedism and Zen, spicing up their music, art and culture with a distinctly Eastern spice . Those lucky enough to be involved in the scene in the UK, remember those first, sepia-tinted halcyon days of partying at festivals. Without question at these first events the vibe was the most important thing going, as it embodied a near religious awakening. People respected and worshipped this feeling as when one is on the roller-coaster ride of a hallucinogenic drug experience, having good people, friends and feelings close by is a prerequisite for admission to nirvana.

A new alternative society

Many saw LSD as the rock on which we could build the cathedrals of a new alternative society. People followed the words of Leary and dropped out of modern society to live in geodesic communes in the states, only to sadly fail with in their quest for a miniature leaderless utopia. In the UK many joined up with the bus convoys of music loving festival people who sought a vision of a new age Britain hewn from the old ways. The SF Haight-Ashbury hippy thing gave way for a more nihilistic music scene as heavy metal and punk took over. As the music changed drug use turned from LSD to speed and heroin, various drug dealing groups, such as the Hell’s Angels, caused big problems for the scene with fatal stabbings. The last throw of this cultural dice was at the Battle of the Beanfield, when protesters lost the right to party in a big ruck with the police, against the backdrop of Roland and the rest of the Grange Hill gang telling us to just say no.

Thatcherite Britain

This good vibes of the 1960s were socially reiterated again in a cultural fractal as the rave scene hit the UK in the 1990s. In many ways this formed the basis of our modern festival scene. We were stuck in a post Thatcherite Britain where we were told that society was dead, so people partied, hugged and chatted to strangers in an attempt to bridge the empty social gaps we felt. It was drug love of course, with the whole thing  fuelled by MDMA, a type of hallucinogenic amphetamine that allows you to feel an amazing amount of empathy. Back in those days if you went to any of the two days raves in a field (which were pretty much indistinguishable from the festivals of today) you’d feel an affinity with stranger that you’d never felt before. This culture changed the social landscape of the UK, healing a society broken by race riots and football violence.

The emperor’s new clothes

We can’t remember where we saw it, but many experts say that the trouble with drug cultures is the speed with which they turn from an ‘us’ culture to a ‘me’ culture. Big bad business moved in on the distribution side of the 1990s drug culture and became keen to sell the Acid Ted flowered up ravers a new products; cocaine. This drug is the emperor’s new clothes and  the ultimate high of the selfish. It destroys your ability to empathise and shuts down your heart chakra leaving you no room to care. As these cocaine users took over, the Dance scene lost some of its charm, with many ravers harking back to the early, better times and the going on ad tedium about the proverbial ‘back in the day’. Fortunately as an art form, Dance has survived, but as a social movement it does seem to have lost some of its punch.

The comatose clubber

As we moved into the 2000s the drug situation became worse as cocaine was replaced with ketamine, or techno-smack as many of the first users called it, referring to the fact that the drug sends people into a near catatonic state similar to that experienced by the heavy opiate user. As this substance became the cool trip for kids to be on the ‘togetherness’ that had once characterised the Dance scene began to fall apart and the social and tactile elements of the rave seen finally disappeared. Gone were the days of bright club nights and cool,  ecstasy sharing after-parties and here to stay was the comatose clubber, lost in their own personal k-hole.

Drugs no longer cool

Now fortunately many drugs are no longer considered cool by the cool kids. More and more young people are seeing these substances for what they are and adults are being more honest about the addictive consequences of these substances. Fortunately we haven’t lost all of the insights that we gained on substances like LSD and ecstasy and if there’s one thing we’ve learned through these chemicals that the festival vibe is one of the most important things in modern society, providing people with a break to their modern lives of humdrum and routine. Now we just have to learn how to allow ourselves to have this feeling in our everyday society without the drugs and beyond the confines of the festival fence.