Drug use is the contentious issue that lurks in any discussion of contemporary counterculture. What surprises here, perhaps, is the extent to which drug use prior to the twentieth century is not central to this exploration. Still, mind-affecting plants and chemicals do pop up across countercultural history.
In counterculture since the beats, so-called hard drugs—stimulants and narcotics like speed, heroin, and cocaine—have occasionally fostered fruitful creative frenzy or provided a context for narratives of hilarious morbidity and artful gloom. These drugs have been used with enjoyment and apparent impunity by some. But because of the syndromes of dissolution so often connected with their long-term use, such substances have generally undermined the project of embodying the countercultural impulse in effective action and sustainable modes of living. Counterculture by definition strives toward freedom, while drug addiction is a kind of slavery. In this sense, addictive drug use can ultimately be assessed as anathema to counterculture despite its widespread presence in recent countercultural episodes.
There is a vast history regarding the use of psychedelic (mind-manifesting) plants like psilocybin, peyote, and marijuana to obtain spiritual and religious visions and shamanic healing powers, allowing individuals and groups access to the numinous realm without the intercession of any religious authority.
Altered states of consciousness can sometimes help people conceive alternative truths or open them up to multiple perspectives. In High Frontiers magazine, Bruce Eisner and Peter Stafford described the use of various mind-altering drugs as being “like changing the perceptual filters on your camera to give you a variety of pictures of reality.” Psychedelics like LSD, mescaline, and later Ecstasy, while certainly presenting some hazards, have fueled the countercultural drive by illuminating utopian visions, inspiring artistic departures, and exposing consensus reality. Even the dark side of the psychedelic experience has made its contribution, infusing the desire for radical change with electric urgency by rendering the horrors of modern life in the vivid, pulsing close-up images of a trip focused on harsh negative realities.
Within these contexts, the use of certain psychedelics, is presumed to be understood as an indicator of a particularly unrestrained example of counterculturalness. At the same time, this is not always the case for all individuals and cultures, historically or currently. Even the relatively drug-saturated countercultures of recent decades have given place to counterculturalists who had nothing to do with drugs.
At its best—again mostly, but not exclusively, with the psychedelics— counterculture drug exploration goes beyond the usual chemical quest for recreation, relief, or oblivion. Instead, it becomes a manifestation of counterculture’s great perennial embrace of new ideas, technologies, experiences, and modes of being. It is from this context that works like Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, Daniel Pinchbeck’s Breaking Open the Head.
Sources: Counterculture Through the Ages