Drugtakers in an English Town by Martin A. Plant

Originally published in 1975 ‘Drugtakers in an English Town’ by Martin A. Plant is the result of the author’s PhD thesis, prepared for what was the Department of Social Administration and Social Work, at the University of Bristol. Martin Plant (1946-2010), 29 at the time of publication, went on to become a leading expert in ‘addiction’, based at the University of Edinburgh. His final work – Drug Nation – was sent to the publisher the day before he passed away.

Between August 1970 and August 1972 Martin Plant undertook a research project on social problems in young adults. Undertaken for the now defunct Cheltenham Youth Trust, it was in Cheltenham that the author first came across drugtakers. From the end of this period, for three months, he carried out his own sociological research, which became his PhD thesis. The empirical, participatory, observation study involved interviews with 200 local drugtakers and posited a number of objectives: (1) Examining the difference in drugtakers from different social positions; (2) social characteristics, lifestyles, biographies, and well-being; (3) evidence of change in value, belief, and social positions; (4) a comparison between a drugtaker’s self-image and the convention of them being a ‘social’ problem’.  What though, for Plant, is a drugtaker?

The stereotype of the opiate dependent or junkie has widely been applied to all drugtakers. The law supports the view that drugtaking should be discouraged or controlled and this has created, as well as reflected, public opinion. The mass media have given considerable publicity to the sensational, as well as factual, aspects of drugtaking (Plant 69)

The author goes on to write that the attributes of heroin dependence is often applied to all other drugtakers and is justified because of individuals graduating from ‘softer’ to ‘harder’ drugs i.e. gateway theory. Along with the medical view that all drugtakers are suffering from a form of illness, Plant aims at a new consideration of the drugtaker as being part of a cultural set, rather than a medical-pathological one: “The drug scene is a consequence of social forces and the ideological results of those forces – middle-class boredom, and working-class status-frustration” (Plant 99). With this position in mind he investigates ideological beliefs, friendship patterns, self-image, and their form as a sub-culture. Interestingly, this approach results in a fascinating portrayal of the Cheltenham drug scene that is not dependent on medical theories, which have a tendency to categorise individuals based on presumed pathological models, and thus gives a cultural voice to the drugtaker within a scholarly context.

The drugs in question primarily concern cannabis, d-Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), amphetamines and barbiturates, partly in reaction to the over-emphasis put on the opiates and partly due to the patterns of drugtaking identified within the study group. In one respect, the book is simply a cultural artefact. Take, for example, Plant’s introduction to some of the drugs in question, not only do they indicate a level of knowledge in the writer and his subjects but simultaneously, I suggest, within the whole research field at the time (it is, if nothing else, a well-referenced and contextualised thesis.) This is no more evident than in two comments on the hallucinogens psilocybin and Dimethyltryptamine (DMT): “Psilocybin is derived from the mushroom Teonanactl. Also rare in Britain” and “D.M.T. (dimethylamine) is a milder hallucinogen, which provides what has been called the ‘business man’s trip’ due to its short-lasting effects.” While the chemical psilocybin maybe rare, Psilocybe mushrooms grow all over the U.K., therefore this knowledge was clearly not widely known in the early 1970s. And the description of DMT as a “milder hallucinogen” shows a complete lack of understanding about the drug’s effects, not only in the researcher himself, but by extension the subjects of his research also.

However, psychedelic knowledge does bang on the periphery of this book and, by extension, from the information garnered by Plant from his study group. Specifically the books The Doors of Perception (1954) by Aldous Huxley and The Psychedelic Experience (1964) by Timothy Leary et al. are often cited as influences on the large proportion of hallucinogen users who understand the effects within an oriental and mystical context. However, the over-riding influence was more determined by the political stance of the psychedelic movement that had arisen with its subsuming into counterculture during the late 1960s. Rather than the effects themselves being a priority among adherents, it was being involved in a subculture that they most identified with.

Many drugtakers regarded their drugtaking as a statement of defiance or disapproval against officialdom and conventional opinions. There was little doubt that to many the drugtaking lifestyle was a response to generalized discontent with society as it stood. Drugtakers created a milieu that expressed their own latent values and goals (Plant 127)

In conclusion, Drugtakers in an English Town remains a relevant text for a number of reasons. Firstly, the legal segregation of drugtaking is still in place today and the understanding of how this creates a subcultural group, as is posited by Plant, remains an interesting research area. Secondly, and in conjunction with the first, the book is useful to social and drug historians; not only does it give a snapshot into the behaviour of a group of people, at a certain time, but also in the historicism of methodological approaches to drugs. The book itself is clearly presented and precisely executed but, as with any study of this type, not particularly engaging as a general read.

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