Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Roots of the Trainspotting Generation

January 15th, 2010 · 3 Comments

“There is nothing sadder than an aging hipster,” Lenny Bruce once opined. While there’s certainly a kernel of truth to that statement, we believe the late comedian missed the mark by just a few degrees. Far sadder, in our estimation, is an aging drug addict, whose aims to recapture lost glory not by feigning interest in the musical trend du jour, but rather by plunging a heroin needle into their arm ad infinitum.

Such gloomy souls haunt the streets and “estates” of Edinburgh, Scotland, the city whose taste for debauchery was made famous by one of our favorite writers. But keep in mind that Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting was set in the mid-to-late 1980s, and even then the main characters realized that their heydays had long past. Rent Boy and his mates would now be in their early 50s, as are many of the folks who fell in love with heroin as youths. But getting older doesn’t mean that love wears off, as Scottish health authorities are now discovering:

Research also shows there are 15,000 older drug users – around 26% of Scotland’s serious drug-using population – but this relatively small group makes up nearly half of all drug-related deaths.

The General Register Office for Scotland revealed drug-related fatalities increased by 26% in 2007/08 to 574 – the highest number to date. The biggest increase in deaths came among older users.

Much more on the matter here, from a researcher who specializes in older drug users.

The pathetic withering of the so-called Trainspotting Generation got us thinking about why, exactly, so many young Scots got caught up in junk. As it turns out, the roots of the epidemic stretch back to the 19th century, when Edinburgh was the capital of Britain’s opium production industry. With so ready a supply of the drug at corner pharmacies, the city’s culture quickly became accustomed to its charms:

It was no surprise the use of the wonderful new drugs continued to spread, especially among respectable middle-class families with money to spend. In 1877 the Edinburgh Medical Journal published an article on the implications for health of changing social habits, saying opium “is regularly put on the table on the removal of the cloth after dinner”…

Like the drug barons of today, the city’s pharmacists made huge profits out of the drugs they sold. With their top hats, black frock-coats and membership of the Free Church of Scotland, they saw it as a sign of divine favour when they were able to expand from mere retailing into manufacturing of their own. Duncan Flockhart set up a factory in Holyrood Road, Macfarlan’s at Canonmills and T&H Smith at Gorgie..

By the end of the 19th century Edinburgh produced most of the world’s opiate drugs, heroin included. This was big business in the capital, one answer to the coal, steel and shipbuilding of the rival conurbation on the Clyde.

Between the ongoing drug scourge and the consumption of these, it’s little wonder that Scotland’s life expectancy stats lag behind those of other Western European nations—though they’re basically on par with those of the United States.


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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    I think that hits at a really big point one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers just made: people will get high on whatever they can get their hands on. Meth use is high in rural areas because it gets made locally. Cocaine use has been on the rise because it’s become cheaper due to greater supply.

    I’d be really curious to know how usage statistics have changed in places like the Netherlands. While they’ve become more restrictive over the years (mushrooms and synthetics used to be pretty freely available), the fact that it’s conceivably possible to get marijuana in a nominally legal fashion would create a fairly strong case for sticking to pot. But as always, people are weird and don’t always respond to incentives in an obviously rational fashion.

    But then by next year we may get to start seeing data from my home state. It’s looking more and more like marijuana will be legalized in Washington, either through the legislature or the initiative process. Here’s to experiments!

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Hooray for federalism–seriously. That’s such a strength of our nation, and one we don’t take advantage of nearly enough. We basically have 50 credible laboratories in which to conduct policy experiments.

    Haven’t been following the Washington debate closely at all. Is the proposal to create state-controlled retailers, or just to decriminalize possession?

  • Jordan

    More reason over at Andrew Sullivan’s blog:


    From what I understand, it’s currently up in the air what legal revisions will be made in Washington. There are competing bills for decriminalization and legalization working their way through the legislature and the initiative that was recently certified would be for legalization. We’ll just have to wait and see what comes out on top.


    Also, recent polls suggest that a majority of people in Washington are behind some kind of change in the law: