Jock Young's The Drugtakers preceded the 1971 Misuse
of Drugs Act by a few months and suggested
that the further criminalisation of drug-use might exacerbate rather than
solve the problem.
The Drugtakers will be discussed by the Socrimology Book Club at Middlesex University on Thursday 10.4.2014 from 12.30am to 1.30pm. The venue is the open space outside of WG31, WG30, WG29 (i.e. next to Joshua and Kevin's offices). Everyone is welcome.
... the nature of dependency and the life of the drugtaker cannot be understood merely in terms of the drug. Heroin addicts in Britain, in the United States, in Hongkong, in Japan all take the same drug but the pattern of their addiction is remarkably different.
The social reaction against the drugtaker, the policies which are designed to control the drug, have remarkable effects on the role within which the drugtaker finds himself. For example, in the United States he is cast as a criminal, he is legally harassed, he is forced into crime (thus substantiating the stereotype) in order to find money for the high black market prices. As a consequence of this illegality organized crime grows up as an unintended consequence of the narcotics legislation. An exploitative culture is set up which dominates the life of the addict. The very strength of the drug is low, variable and adulterated, this having very tangible effects on the type of addiction found in the States. Death itself is not an inevitable consequence of the drug heroin but is related to these exigencies of the market. The addict is periodically and coercively institutionalized, he is subject to therapeutic onslaughts from a body of experts who have themselves particular conceptions of the 'essential' nature of the addict. Criminal exploitation, police harassment, therapeutic correction, social stigmatization all give rise to a culture partly defensive against these agencies, partly introjecting and accepting their notions of him, altogether an adaption to his situation.
It is not then the study of drugs in a vacuum, as isolated pharmacological effects, which will help us understand drug addiction; rather it is the social meanings ascribed to a particular drug in a specific society or culture that we must analyse. But further than this: it is not only the life style of the addict which is shaped by social forces; the very effects of the drugs themselves are intimately related to the social values, expectations and milieu in which they are taken.
Comparison of the effect of marihuana on naive and chronic smokers
As can be seen, the only common effects between users and naive subjects were conjunctival reddening, increase in pulse rate and distortion of time sense. Blood sugar level and pupil size did not alter, disproving much of the literature. But the most important finding was the divergent effects found between the naive subjects and chronic users. Both motor and cognitive performance improved in the regular users but deteriorated in the naive subjects. The latter did not feel any euphoria whereas the users experienced a characteristic high. Moreover, the naive subjects had only a slight increase in pulse rate and no increase in respiratory rate whereas the chronic users had an increase on both counts.
Examining this data, Zinberg and Weil note how:
"there are suggestions in this study - like greater increase in the heart rate and respiratory rate of chronic users - that users and non-users react differently to the drug not only subjectively but also physiologically" (p. 86).
To explain this, the authors suggest two hypotheses:
1. That marihuana has a cumulative effect in the body. This they reject as unlikely because once a user is able to get high, the amount of drug necessary remains the same.
2. That some sort of pharmacological sensitization occurs giving rise to a unique example of 'reverse tolerance', i.e., unlike other drugs - such as alcohol - one does not become more but less tolerant of its effects. This I feel is not substantiated by the evidence: a user, for example, can quit smoking marihuana for several years but can come back to it and experience a high readily. Rather I wish to suggest a third hypothesis:
3. That chronic users learn to experience a high and that this learning process has physiological consequences. In other words, that the subjective and physiological levels are tightly interrelated and users in the process of achieving a high effect changes on their own metabolism. This notion is akin to the classic trauma reaction in the individual, where he subjectively experiences fear and this fear translates itself on the physiological level in the release of adrenaline into his bloodstream. Fear is a socially defined process where the subjective state of the individual effects his metabolism and, moreover, fear like a high is experienced by the individual as a subjective mood which is automatically substantiated on the bodily level. But this is, of course, only half of the process. Drugs by their very nature affect the metabolism of the individual, but the ways the individual interprets these changes in his body are related to his own subjective notions of what is happening to him. What I am arguing is that a two-way process occurs in drugtaking: the drug alters the metabolism of the individual, he interprets these bodily changes into subjective experiences according to his expectations, social situation and prevailing mood, and these subjective experiences react back on to and change the already altered metabolism. In short, the drug experience can only be understood in terms of an ongoing dialectic between the subjective mood of the individual and the objective psychotropic effects of the drug. I wish now to turn to the various authors who have studied precisely this type of relationship.
H. S. Becker, in his classic article 'Becoming a Marihuana User', [1953, Referenced to Outsiders 1963] outlines the learning process involved in marihuana use. The novice - the naive user - does not experience a high at first; he may feel, it is true, slightly strange but that is all; he is unable to interpret the meaning of the physiological sensations that he is experiencing. Indeed, as Becker notes, the novice may feel nothing at all has happened to him - he may feel totally cheated by the drug - and it is not until a sophisticated user has indicated to him the likely effects that he realizes that he is in fact being affected by the drug. Moreover, it is not until the naive user learns firstly how to smoke marihuana and then - more importantly - how to interpret his feelings as pleasurable that he experiences a high. Before this the effects of the drug are physically unpleasant or at least ambiguous.
Alfred R. Lindesmith, 1965 "Problems in the Social Psychology of Addiction" in Narcotics edited by D. Wilner and G. Kassebaum 1965, p.163
Alfred R. Lindesmith, 1968 Addiction and Opiates Aldine, Chicago. in Narcotics pp 24-25
The effect of subjective beliefs on the metabolism of the individual is clearly indicated when 'fake' withdrawal symptoms are evidenced by individuals who are in fact not at all addicted. Lemert notes in a similar vein how pharmacological generalizations about alcohol are often manifestly applicable to particular cultures only:
It is impossible then to make generalizations about the effects of drugs in a vacuum. For the effects of drugs are shaped by the culture of the user and are learned by the novice from the more sophisticated drugtaker. To this extent, the effects of a particular drug form a role Such roles are the heavy drinker, the comic drunk, the cool marihuana smoker, the righteous dope fiend.
Now and then deviations occur from these roles especially when an overdose of a particular drug puts the individual in a position where he cannot control the effects he is experiencing. But drug groups contain lore of administration, dosage and use which tend to keep this lack of control in check, plus, of course, informal sanctions against the person who goes beyond these bounds. Witness the shame experienced by the man the morning after who hasn't been able to hold his liquor or the LSD user who has freaked out and has to be talked down (i.e., back to normative limits) by his fellows.
Not all drugs, of course, have finely spun norms surrounding their use, and even where such norms do exist, not all people have a working knowledge of them. Becker has suggested that in these instances there is a high incidence of psychosis associated with drug use. Psychotropic drugs have, by definition, effects on the subjective experience of individuals. If there is a body of culture available to interpret these experiences, to say that such and such a mental state is pleasant - or at least normal in the circumstances - then the individual will feel in control of the situation. But if he has perceptual distortions, hallucinations, physical sensations which he does not know how to interpret, he may well think that his sanity has become impaired, that his mind is out of control. Such unstructured drug experiences may trigger off bouts of extreme alarm and anxiety. Unfortunate mental or physical harm to the individual may ensue from such a panic. Moreover, Becker notes that in the absence of a drug subculture the isolated individual's only knowledge of the effects of the drug which he has taken may derive from the mass media. Such reports are invariably 'newsworthy', that is they emphasize bizarre, psychotic effects of drugs. The individual's interpretation of his experiences may thus be both shaped and understood in alarming terms. Furthermore, even if he seeks help from a physician his fears may remain undiminished; for the psychiatrist will often regard dabbling in drugs as indicative of personality problems and his diagnosis will merely confirm the patient's suspicions about himself. Becker substantiates his thesis by referring to the history of marihuana use in America, noting how, as a subculture concerned with its use built up, the reports of cannabis psychosis gradually disappeared. This is corroborated by events in this country where in the fifties it was quite common to hear of individuals who experienced the horrors after smoking marihuana but such incidents - despite the increase in marihuana smokers - are rarer today.
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