The war on drugs

old lady drinking tea

A LOL And Her Drugs

This is a personal recollection of my time trying to help drug addicts.

When I first started as a pharmacist in the 1950s and ’60s,  every pharmacy supplied many addicts, but not with illicit street drugs. Our addicts were usually little old ladies –  oppressed, poor and mired in dull suburban conformity. To escape the monotony and the pain, they became hooked on such things as Chloral Hydrate sleeping mixture, Senega and Ammonia cough mixture (which at that time contained Camphorated Tincture of Opium), Chlorodyne for diarrhoea (containing Morphine Tincture and chloroform), “Four Three-penn’ths” ( a brilliant combination of laudanum, paregoric, aniseed and peppermint spirits). I loved the idea of “Four Three-penn’ths”, which was developed in the UK and derived its name from charging threepence each for the four ingredients.

Of course, in Australia (and after decimal currency arrived) the price would be nothing like four threepences (one shilling). It was still cheap and was used by the desperate housewives of the time –  for just about every known complaint – but its main value was its soothing and reassuring addictive properties. Barbiturate sleeping drugs were widely prescribed at the time. There were many varieties and they were very effective, very addictive and very damaging to livers and kidneys. However, supply and demand meant that the desperate housewives demanded and the compliant medicos supplied.

As pharmacists, we knew all our local addicts  but, to me, it was all part of a broken social system.

We and the doctors were the first ‘drug pushers’, bending under the assault of terrifying, wild-eyed and threatening suburban housewives in order to supply their habit.

Of course, men had their addictions too, but generally confined them to grog, smokes, gambling, meat pies, the footy and Holden cars. However, when the amphetamines arrived, men were the biggest users, becoming hooked on dexamphetamine and methamphetamine, supplied in copious amounts by their friendly local doctors and pharmacists. My theory is that women blocked out their dull and oppressed lives with sedatives and legal opiates, while men were desperate to stay young, revved-up and dominating with stimulants.

Here follows a brief confession (of sorts). I have smoked ‘pot’ – not much, but quite relaxing and enjoyable (as were cigarettes) –  and have used amphetamines. A few fellow students and I tried them a few times to help us cram for exams. I found them to be all right for increasing short-term confidence, but useless for any long-term value. In fact, they were detrimental as the false confidence faded quickly to be replaced by our usual air of befuddlement.

Despite anything I write here, I am not an advocate for any drug, legal or illegal. I have seen the damage done by both forms.

Back to the ’50s and ’60s (my favourite era – heavy sigh), the LOLS (little old ladies, not laugh out louds) were still pouring in seeking their nirvana in Relaxa Tabs and other sedatives.

They were also hooked on Bex powders. Instead of supplying good old aspirin in tablet form (boring), the cunning manufacturers wrapped the prescribed dose in dinky little, origami-like, paper packages. This gave the aspirin an air of mystery and effectiveness, and was probably the initiator of the housewives’ mantra:  A nice cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down.

This was fine as it made their lives a little more bearable, but our esteemed guardians of correctness in everything (while everything was about to become as incorrect as possible), virtually banned aspirin in this form due to occasional kidney problems.

I still believe aspirin is one of the best drugs ever produced, when used sensibly, but the bad press from the “Bex Powder” scandals, allied to later reports of sporadic and minor bleeding from the stomach linings, virtually killed it off. It has now been replaced by Paracetamol (less effective and the major cause of overdose, poisoning and hospital admissions) and Ibuprofen (even less effective and implicated in serious side-effects).

Australia’s futile “war on drugs” started at this time, following America’s lead who had banned alcohol (prohibition in the 1930s) and marijuana in the 1940’s (everyone should see the film “Reefer Madness” for a good laugh as wild-eyed, slavering youths smoking joints, descend into depravity by not saluting the American flag). These bans refuse to recognise the inherent addictive nature of many people, who need all sorts of weird things to get them through the day. One of our classic LOL addicts was actually hooked on “Mentos”, the peppermint sweet. She would order them by the carton, often appearing with white, menthol dribble down her chin. Under our repressive and idiotic laws, she would be jailed as a “user” and me as a “menthol trafficker”.

My next article will cover the late 1960s when we lurched into the aftermath of the Vietnam war, with street drugs ( mainly heroin) reaching Australia.  This is where the “Reefer Madness” mentality afflicted our politicians, church leaders, law makers and police with disastrous and continuing results.

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About the author

Robert Gosstray is a retired pharmacist and the resident health writer for Midlifexpress. He is the author of The Pharmacist’s Secrets: Drugs, lies and money.


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