Drugs and the State


If you have read the other files in this series  (click here for a list), you will know there are certain dilemmas which the State faces in its attempts to regulate semi-deviant leisure activities. We have discussed this by looking at sexuality and violence, and in this file we're going to look at drug-taking. All these areas display very contemporary features of tensions between private freedom and social regulation. They are all areas of some complexity and ambiguity: there are no clear definitions; no accepted evidence of harmful effects; and there is an open political process as a result, where competing pressure groups are trying to persuade the State to follow particular directions. Each topic is useful in presenting particular aspects of the general dilemmas as well -- in the case of drugs and their regulation, we might start off with the particular issue of definitions. 

What is a Drug?

The term  'drug' is often used, especially in Britain, to refer to harmful, recreational or illegal chemical substances. Perhaps American usage remind us that this is a rather partial definition -- there, you pop into the drugstore to buy useful, medical, approved chemical substances as well, such as aspirin, laxatives or prescription drugs. The labelling of some chemical substances as harmful drugs, is a political one again, I suggest -- we might start to think of this in terms of our basic framework of individual liberty versus social responsibility. Illegal drugs, we might think are those which have no recognisable benefits, and which cause clear social harm of various kinds. As with the other activities we have discussed, 'social harm' in this case might refer to considerable State expenditure on policing or on the medical treatment of those who have abused drugs. As well as the usual signs of social pathology, which cover things such as broken families, homelessness and vandalism, the distribution and consumption of illegal drugs is heavily intertwined with substantial international criminal organisations too. 

So it looks easy: all the State has to do is to regulate harmful drugs, perhaps using one of those utilitiarian calculations which attempts to balance social harm against individual pleasure in order to arrive at the greater happiness for the greater number. However, as experienced users of my materials will suspect, there are complications: 

(a) Some drugs, even where there is clear evidence of social harm, are not illegal, and indeed are interwoven with the State. Alcohol and tobacco are the obvious candidates here: they provide considerable revenue for the State via various taxes and duties. 

(b) There seems to be no consistency between different societies and nations, or no international agreements on social harm, if you prefer. Thus the consumption of alcohol is treated much more severely in Islamic countries, or even, in my experience, in some American states. The consumption of cannabis, on the other hand, is treated much more leniently in other countries, notoriously in parts of the Netherlands. Striking the balance between harm and pleasure is more complicated than it appears. 

(c) Even legal medical drugs, available on prescription, can have harmful side-effects. Following recent legislation in Britain, users of these drugs are often confronted with a frightening list of such side-effects, included in the package. Prescription drugs I have used, for example, contain warnings of side-effects which include convulsions, irritability, inability to sleep, severe headaches, and damage to internal organs. By anyone's standards, these are not trivial matters. Before this, however, the State did not see the need even to warn me of them, and I still find it easier to get reliable information about drugs and their effects from the Net. Of course, there is a framework of legislation and regulation -- these drugs are available only on prescription, and there is an network of constraints which insist that the major drug companies test such drugs, before marketing them. Nevertheless, this is the sort of civil legislation designed to protect consumers, which contrasts markedly with criminal legislation designed to forbid altogether the consumption or use of drugs like cannabis. 

Drugs and Their Social Settings

It is clear that there is no hard and fast chemical evidence, or evidence based on clinical trials, to help us decide objectively what should be an illegal drug. All drugs offer combinations of pleasure and harm. Why should not consumers decide for themselves how they want to manage these risks and benefits? The State has enacted policy in this area -- but how has it come to decide to ban some drugs, regulate others through consumer legislation, and permit much easier access and consumption for a third group, such as alcohol and tobacco? How does it decide what to do when new drugs appear?

As usual, I am suggesting that we look at social and political processes to explain these patterns. To get you in the mood, we might pursue an argument that we saw Plummer advancing in the case of sexuality  (here). Just as Plummer argued that sexuality was an entirely cultural social phenomenon, Becker comes close to suggesting something similar with the so-called intoxicating effects of drugs, especially in his famous study of marijuana users (Becker 1963). The feelings of excitement, enhanced perception, pleasurable loss of control and the rest are really provided by the subculture, Becker argues, or, in a softer version, are interpreted by members of that sub culture as pleasurable and not just disorienting. This argument has been disputed, by Pearson and Twohig, for example, in Hall and Jefferson  (1976), but I think most people have experienced some effects of peer pressure in this area:  I have seen people get high on a nice atmosphere, while drinking lemonade; and in certain circumstances, tobacco can be an hallucinatory drug, if smoked during a suitable group religious ritual, anthropologists have argued. 

On more familiar ground, perhaps we permit relatively easy access to alcohol in Britain, because there is a cultural tradition of drinking, or perhaps because there are powerful vested interests in brewing and distilling who are able to mount effective campaigns to persuade politicians to adopt a light touch. By contrast, relatively new drugs for Britain, such as cannabis, or the newly synthesised drugs such as LSD or MDMA, which have been available only for about 40 or 50 years, have received a much rougher ride: they are not consumed by traditional elites, and there is no powerful commercial interest to promote them. Indeed, this kind of argument has been used by libertarian liberals in favour of legalisation -- why should majority tastes be imposed on cultural minorities? You might even be familiar with arguments that suggest that ethnic minorities in Britain should be permitted to use their traditional drugs, such as cannabis. 

Finally in this section, there is the usual plea for more sociological research on this matter. Official stances towards those who consume illegal drugs often see them as mindless deviants, not worth researching, fit only to be punished. But there have been many studies of drug-users which have provided some doubts about this view. Plant's study (1975) , for example, showed the increasing consumption of illegal drugs among otherwise  'normal' people. Such normalization helps us break away from the view of drug users as helpless addicts or social inadequates who have to be protected from themselves: on a more anecdotal level, there has been a rush of celebrities lately, willing to confess to their sustained use of the banned drug cocaine, while some recent journalistic articles have put the number of regular users of Ecstasy in the millions.

Research on Drug-Taking

One of the more recent studies is provided in Parker et al  (1998). The findings are partly based on some quite large surveys investigating drug use, especially what might be thought of as the recreational use of drugs such as cannabis, acid, and Ecstasy. To be very schematic, the study makes the following points: 

  1. Taking recreational drugs is best understood as a matter of the complex calculation of risks and benefits [as with many other consumer activities, including driving or pursuing a dangerous sport]. Users estimate the main hazards as damage to their health, or getting caught, and the main benefits as gaining  'time-out' from stress or distress, as leading to leisure and relaxation or to 'escape'. Although this varies by age and generation, most users get started as a result of factors such as the availability of drugs, and their own curiosity about the effects. The presence of peers or friends who can encourage, reassure, and supply know-how is also important, although not as significant as Becker would argue. 
  2. There is a division between recreational drug users and what might be thought of as hard drug-users: the users themselves identify matters such as whether injection is required as significant. On the whole, recreational users refrain from using hard drugs as a result of their personal calculations of risks and pleasures: they have a sophisticated awareness to offer, not a blanket hostility towards  'drugs' [presumably this is something they could teach politicians?] Using cannabis seems to be the easiest thing to admit to parents. Those who abstain altogether report some social exclusion  [as an additional cost]. 
  3. Parker et al are aware that adolescents may not be the most effective judges of risks and are not the most reliable of calculators, however. They do not perceive the health risks as being particularly large, but then they suffer from a sense of  'adolescent invulnerability'. And, of course, they are not experts. However, immediate health risks are recognised, and usually described in terms such as  'bad experiences', or  'scary moments', especially when drugs are combined. 
  4. In the same spirit, there is a methodological problem with studies that use self-reporting, as this one does  [and as many studies of deviant activities do -- direct observation may be more valid, but it is much harder to arrange, of course]. Parker and his team did find some signs of dependency, for example, despite denials and disguise. They also recognise that there is a minority of 'quite damaged and vulnerable' young people who  'misuse' drugs.
  5. The main findings suggest, however, that many young people have normalised the use of soft drugs. The team estimate that up to 25 per cent of young people may be regular recreational users. There is a great deal of quite determined use of these drugs. Drug use has risen in frequency from one or two in 10 people in the 1970s to five or six people in 10 during the 1990s. The phenomenon seems to cross gender and class barriers, although middle-class groups are slightly more likely to be users.
  6. The move of recreational drug-taking from the margins of social life to the centre of it is not just a phenomenon related to teenage life -- of the majority of users will continue to try illicit drugs beyond their teens. Further, drug use is not associated with social failure or being a loser. There is a hint that  'excessive individualism' might be associated with drug-use, though. Drug use is associated with clubbing, although the use of Ecstasy now extends beyond the club scene. There is slightly more social pressure on abstainers these days -- and even they except drug-use as normal. Finally, drug use is not as tightly linked with subcultural formation as once it was, although hard drug-users are more likely to belong to subcultures. Overall, then, there is a new type of recreational drug use, taking its place alongside other widespread leisure activities.
  7. Parker et al want to trace the emergence of this large group of recreational users to features of  'late modernity' [a reference to Giddens here]: the traditional social constraints have become  'disembedded', and people have to find new ways, largely personal ones, of managing the 'risk society'. 
  8. There is an immediate policy implication: attempts to restore traditional controls using traditional remedies, as in the  'war on drugs' are misguided, and the State should be seeking to assist the regulation and management of normalization instead. Recreational drug use is so widespread that it cannot now be regulated using the legal and policing framework. Traditional policies of policing make too many assumptions about drug use anyway -- that it is invariably associated with crime, for example, that users are addicted, or that young people largely pressurised into taking drugs. All campaigns based on these assumptions have failed, the team argues. 
  9. There are unhelpful consequences of such campaigns as well. For one thing, there are so many inconsistencies in the regulation of drug use in Britain, for example in different police force areas, that enforcement becomes  'a lottery'. The unintended effects of labelling drug-users as criminals are still likely to be serious [this has been argued for a long time in the sociology of deviance, for example, although there are many critics of labelling theory too - nicely outlined on my very wonderful CD]. Overall, policies of  'informed choice' seemed to offer the best prospects  [these are already adopted by some youth agencies and voluntary organisations dealing with drug use]: drug users should be informed about the effects of drugs, including health and safety aspects, especially those connected with effects on driving performance, for example. [In many ways, this policy does seem to address the  'social harm' argument for legitimate State concern -- there are certainly State costs and expenses in meeting the consequences of unsafe and unhealthy practices]. What we need in Britain, then, is a truce, and certainly not an intensification of the  'war'. 
Concluding Thoughts 

Parker et al have a clear policy agenda, which they claim is based on solid research, but there is still much to discuss, of course. Should the regulation of  'harmful' drugs be refocused on attempting to protect the vulnerable? Should the State pursue legal remedies, or more cultural ones, as suggested for the consumption of pornography -- informed choice, effective consumer information and protection, an emphasis on health and safety, or even 'value for money' ?

Finally, you might wish to investigate in more detail those arguments for the straightforward legalisation of drugs such as cannabis, for example -- type the word  'cannabis' into any Web search engine and you will find many organisations and pressure groups delighted to put their case. Of course, you will probably experience more difficulty in tracing those who would wish to legalise cocaine or heroin -- we return to the problem with which we began, one of definitions and of the dangers of generalisation. 


Becker H (1963)  'Becoming a Marihuana User' in Outsiders: studies in the sociology of deviance, New York: the Free Press 
Hall S and Jefferson T (eds) (1976) Resistance Through Rituals, London: Hutchinson  (Reading Guide available on my CD) 
Parker H, Aldridge J and Measham F  (1998) Illegal Leisure: the normalization of adolescent recreational drug use, London: Routledge
Plant M (1975) Drugtakers in an English Town, London: Tavistock

British Government's policy
Police federation

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