MUSTS Colloquium with Gemma Blok on Drug-epidemics as social barometers: Heroin use in the Netherlands, 1970-2000

Wednesday, October 18 2017, 15:30-17:00, in the Attic (Grote Gracht 80-82, Maastricht)

In 2010, the Dutch Broadcasting Station Radio 1 spread the news that the ‘junkie’ had virtually disappeared from the streets. The “epidemic” of heroin use was over. Users of this highly addictive painkiller with euphoric effects were either in care, or in prison. Their average age was around fifty; younger users of heroin were hard to find. The Dutch heaved a sigh of relief. Around 1980, the issue had still been very serious. Back then, about 30,000 problematic users of heroin created unsafe situations in the centers of big cities and smaller towns. But why had this powerful drug been so popular at the time?

In this lecture, I will highlight my current research on the sudden wave of heroin use in the Netherlands in the 1970s and 1980s. User cultures are my key focus. Whereas so far, most historians have focused on analyzing shifts in drug policy and addiction care, we should now direct our attention towards the consumption of heroin itself, as a social practice. The heroin epidemic can be analyzed in conjunction with and as a  manifestation of social and cultural changes.

Drug use, however, is a largely secretive affair. Nevertheless, we can try to gain access to recreational drug use as a social practice through medical, legal and social science sources, as well as through interviews with (ex) users, ego documents, user organization archives, and various sources of cultural imaging around heroin. This shows that the rise of heroin use coincides with various aspects of globalization and modernization. The spread of youth and countercultures, for example, gave heroin a new social status, as the ultimate form of subcultural capital. The consumption of drugs became a form of self-expression and identity formation. Its use was also closely intertwined with postcolonial migration processes and the social tensions surrounding it.



Gemma Blok is professor of Modern History at the Open University Heerlen, and assistant professor of Dutch History at the University of Amsterdam. Her research focuses on the history of psychiatry and addiction care in the Netherlands. Her key question is how regimes of care reflect wider cultural views on human-society relations. She graduated in 2004 on Baas in eigen brein: ‘Antipsychiatrie’ in Nederland, 1965-1985 (Master of one’s own brain: ‘Antipsychiatry’ in the Netherlands, 1965-1985). In 2011, she published Ziek of zwak: Geschiedenis van de verslavingszorg in Nederland (Ill or weak: History of addiction care in the Netherlands). Gemma’s current research centers on the history of alcohol and drugs. She recently published the article Blok, G., (2017). ‘We the Avant-Garde’: A History from Below of Dutch Heroin Use in the 1970s. BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review, 132(1), 104–125. DOI: