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Smoke ’em Up, Cowboy! A User’s Guide to Drugs in the Wild, Wild West

While a bottle of rye whiskey is the ubiquitous tonic in the Wild West, some cowpokes need their pick-me-ups a bit stronger. Traces of hard drug use were pretty scarce in Westerns before the late ’60s, when filmmakers were still under the censorship controls of the Hayes Code. Of course, that’s not to say that offenders don’t pop up in Westerns from time to time, as they do in…

Don’t Come Knocking (2005)
Playwright Sam Shepard wrote this neo-Western, and stars in it as a has-been Western actor with a collection of addictions and regrets. After fleeing a shoot in Monument Valley, he does what any on-the-outs cowpoke might do: Heads to the local saloon (casino) and hits the hard stuff (cocaine). Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “Line ’em up, barkeep” — now doesn’t it?

Tombstone (1993)
Mattie (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) is a former prostitute — before she
married feared lawman Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell). Despite turning over a
new leaf, she, too, is caught in the tide of addiction. Her drug of
choice: Laudanum (opium powder mixed with alcohol, a hardcore cocktail
indeed). The history books say she died from the stuff, and so onscreen it provides a convenient excuse for Earp to pair up with
actress Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany). 

Young Guns (1988)
In the Brat Pack update of the Billy the Kid story, Lou Diamond
Phillips’s prepares his regulators a peyote brew while they’re on the
lam. Good idea? Eh, not really. But it does prompt one of the more
amusing scenes in the movie as Kiefer Sutherland mumbles something
about butterflies while repeatedly touching his hands, and Dermot
Mulroney vomits his lunch over a cliff.

The Shootist (1976)
Fear not, the title doesn’t refer to the Duke jabbing a syringe into
his arm inside an abandoned-barn-turned-heroin-den. As cancer-stricken
gunslinger John Bernard Books, John Wayne dips into a vial of laudanum
to quell the pain. Of course he could put himself out of his misery
through an overdose, but he chooses to go out in a blaze of glory.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Opium clouds seem to fog up the lens in Robert Altman’s murky,
revisionist Western. It surely gets the better of brothel owner Mrs.
Miller (Julie Christie), who in her off-hours escapes the brothel she’s
established with McCabe (Warren Beatty) to hit the opium den. In a
movie rich with counterculture influences and anti-establishment
rancour, Christie opium’s habit seems a clear reflection of the habits
of the times.

Compañeros (1970)
As far as sex, drugs, and violence go, Spaghetti Westerns are always pushing the envelope. In Sergio Corbucci’s Compañeros,
we’re treated to not only a Marxist plotline, but a loopy appearance by
certified Western lunatic Jack Palance. And guess what? He does drugs.
Here he plays a psychotic, one-handed killer who has a love affair for
Mary Jane, and a pet falcon named Marsha… a bird that ate his missing
hand. As the trailer warns, “Compañeros blow everything… including
your mind.”

Coogan’s Bluff (1968)
In this modern Western, Clint Eastwood plays Sheriff Walt Coogan, an
Arizona lawman who’s traveled all the way to New York City to collect a
killer named Ringerman. Made several years before Dirty Harry,
you can see Eastwood already seething with anti-hippie resentment as he
encounters the criminal tripping on acid at Bellevue Hospital. The
culture clash only continues as Eastwood chases Ringerman across the
Big Apple’s drug culture, hitting haunts with names like The
Pigeon-Toed Orange Peel.

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

There’s a drug that turns ordinary men into hardened killers. Maybe
you’ve heard of it? It’s called marijuana. And Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti
Western offers a cautionary tale in its evils that every parent should
see with his or her child. As Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood track
down a murdering, raping, and spliff-puffing sociopath named Indio,
we’re reminded of all true horrors that accompany the dreaded demon

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