New York Magazine

AN UPDATED GUIDE to the Culture of Intoxicants

Pop culture and drugs have long been intertwined. So when drugs change, so does pop culture.
fig. 1 Taipei (2013), by Tao Lin, who wrote it while taking Adderall.

MANY CRITICS CONSIDER Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, published in 1821, to be the first explicit exploration of the creative process and drugs. Since then—well, there have been a few more. Whether it’s booze (writers), heroin (rock stars), or cocaine (anyone with money), we’ve long associated, and romanticized the link between, intoxicants and artists’ careers, songs, novels, and films. The definitive heroin movie, for example—Trainspotting? Pulp Fiction? The Basketball Diaries?—is the familiar stuff of barstool debates.

What we haven’t done is reckon with an ascendant crop of pharmaceuticals—some legal, some semi-legal, some illegal—that are now routinely referenced in works of art. From Xanax to Adderall to Percocet to the codeine-cough-syrup concoction “lean,” there’s a medicine cabinet’s worth of drugs that are influencing, inspiring, beguiling, and, in some cases, destroying artists. We may have a good sense of the artistic reputation of, say, booze—from its effects (getting drunk) to its notable laureates (Cheever), but what is the artistic connotation of lean? It’s worth asking, given that 33 percent of the rap songs that reached the top ten of Billboard’s “Hot 100” chart in 2017 mentioned this drug. Here, we attempt to decipher the cultural meaning of a new generation of intoxicants, alongside a few familiar mainstays.


May induce: Mental endurance, enhanced concentration, increased focus.

Also known as: Beans, study buddies.

Status: Prescription.

Backstory: A combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, Adderall is a rebranded version of Obetrol, which had its FDA approval as a weight-loss drug withdrawn back in 1973. Although Adderall is marketed as a treatment for children’s ADHD, by the mid-aughts, adults had become the fastest-growing group using the drug.

Cultural connotations: While Adderall, which spikes dopamine levels, can induce euphoria, it’s primarily prized for its reputed capacity to increase mental focus.

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