Towards a Sociology of Marijuana Use-Edited BUT MISSING TEXT




 Andrew Jakubowicz


The use of marijuana has been a topic of debate and concern in western societies for over Fifty years. Yet in Australia its movement to the forefront of the debate over the nature of society and the life style of youth has only occurred in the past six or seven years.

Erich Goode* 1 has argued that the question of marijuana use in western societies and especially in the United States is a political question. He saw the process of the marijuana debate as one of opposing 'realities', realities derived from the experience of different groups within society, attempting to assert themselves as the reality. It is this perspective, that of the 'politics of reality' that I am using to analyse the marijuana debate, and the phenomenon of marijuana use, in this country.

This perspective requires a certain amount of demystification, both of the scientific 'facts' such as they are, regarding the pharmacology and psychology of the drug-human interaction, and the wider social debate itself. The behavioral and biological sciences can attempt to answer certain questions, but as many of those engaged in such research know all too well, media, and therefore public perception of this research, can differ markedly from the original project.

When we talk about the debate on marijuana, we must look at the various arenas in which this debate is occurring. There is, of course, the comparatively esoteric atmosphere of laboratories and university-controlled experiments, where one particular reality, couched in terms acceptable to scientists, the new 'contemporary pawnbrokers of reality', 2 is being created and reinforced. There is the level of governmental politics, where the marijuana debate is framed by many in wider ideological terms and concern beliefs, not only about the effects of the drug, but also about that the drug use 'symbolises', its meaning. There is also the wider public understanding of the drug and the stereotypical images used to deal with the phenomenon. There are the sub-cultural and small-group experiences of the various users, and the various meanings the use has for them, the way it fits into their 'realities'. And there is, finally, the 'reality' of the streets, where the agents of social control, external as in the police and the courts, and internal, doctors, psychiatrists’ and so on, come into contact with the user. Between each of these realities, there are membranes of definition and experience, which structures for the players what the game is all about.

To return once more to Goode; he defines reality as “a set of concepts, conceptual frames, assumptions, suppositions, rationalisations, justifications, defenses, all generally collectively agreed upon, which guide and channel each individual's perceptions in a specific and distinct direction”.  Goode then goes on to develop this idea, pointing out the arbitrary nature of social meaning systems, and the necessity to give decisions made within such a framework, the semi-sacred status of reality'. He points out that sub-cultures within a society may differ on their definitions of reality, yet the most powerful groups within a society enforce their view of reality as the reality. Thus the scientific status of a reality, in a society that is based on an ideology of scientific knowledge, becomes 'a political and tactical issue'. As the beliefs that shape perception are basically non-rational. Goode argues that “marijuana can be thought of as a kind of symbol for a complex of other positions, beliefs and activities which are correlated with and compatible with its use”.

Other writers in pharmacology and psychology have started a process of demystifying the 'scientific' nature of the drug. They have evaluated the known evidence relating to the action of the drug. As Becker notes in a remarkable paper, most of the 'scare' stories about the 'bad' effects of marijuana used date back to the years between 1920 and 1940, after which time he could find no new cases of marijuana 'psychosis' reported in the literature. Be this as it may, it is vital to understand the meaning of the drug use to the individual concerned, and the reality he uses in interpreting the action of the drug in his own body.

But let us turn to the dominant reality that of the legislatures, media and 'public opinion' in this country and note some of the claims it has about marijuana use.

In law, marijuana is classed with the narcotic opiates as a prohibited substance. Its possession, use or distribution is a criminal offence liable to severe sanctions. Its sale and importation are even more highly sanctioned. It is seen as a dangerous drug, whose use has been said to lead variously to:


  •  Increased sexual promiscuity
  •  Various criminal and violent, anti-social behavior
  •  The use of narcotics
  •  Rebelliousness, immorality, and radicalism 

And the pattern of its use has been variously seen as:

  •   Indicative of severe personality disorder
  •   The result of social disorganization
  •   The break-up of the family
  •  Dependent-personality traits among users
  •  The result of a communist conspiracy going back to 1919, and part of a plan for world domination
  •    The work of pushers trying to get young people 'hooked' on drugs
  •  The creation of a fantasy world by pre-schizoid adolescents.

These views have various potency among members of the professions, political decision makers and the public (via the media) alike. As Jock Young notes in his work on the British marijuana culture, all these claims are attempts to impose a reality by the complex devaluing of the user's experience. These categories, which are more or less all of those used, are indicative of the two major approaches to deviant behaviour that our society has developed.

The first of these can be summed up in terms of a 'criminal definition' of the behaviour. It is argued that society exists by nature of the common values and norms that all of its members share. Thus, behaviour which falls outside the norm is seen as deviant, the actor no longer 'one of us' but rather one of them', and therefore not part of society ('an outsider'). Society has the right and duty to sanction unacceptable behaviour, thereby defining the boundaries of acceptability and to penalize those who breach the boundaries. Implicit in this is the acceptance of a 'monolithic' view of social organisation, wherein society is seen as a monolithic whole, an organism, a system of behavior closed and discrete. Conflict is seen as being an unacceptable form of behaviour, as society is said to depend on consensus to function. The role of the legal system is then seen to be that of defining the boundaries, penalising deviants, and forcing them to accept the dominant value system as their value system.

The 'dominant reality' defines behaviour in drug use as in other areas—in terms of its own value system: viz: 'our use of recreational sub- stances in moderation is all right and part of society their use of drugs is bad and not part of society'.

Midway between this viewpoint and that of the other model the medical model we find a more sophisticated 'social science' model. Drug use, it is said, is a symptom of social pathology, dis- organisation and individual anomie. The individuals indulging in this behaviour are 'badly socialised—they live in an 'unreal' or 'fantasy' world , 'do not work, and are dirty', and so on. They are seen to be amoral, and normless, unreal paper cutouts living in a twilight world of drugs. What 'they' need, it is said, is a meaningful job, so that they can 'contribute' to society. Badly socialised, they have to be resocialised so they can 'function' in a socially 'useful' way.

From social pathology, we move to a definition that rests on a concept of individual pathology, or the 'medical model'. If the individual is not 'normal' (i.e. not like us) he must be either sick or in some way else 'not normal'. Often, he (the drug user, and I am using this term for any user of illegal drugs mainly because societal reaction often tends that way) is said to be weak, a 'dependent personality type' in Freudian terms, someone who is sexually inadequate, with an immature if not infantile personality. Lack of superego, derived often from a weak father figure, is said to lead to dependence on the substance. Or the use of the marijuana may be seen as an escape into fantasy, a crutch for pre-schizoid adolescents who, rather than entering a fully schizophrenic state, use the drug to embrace the 'unreality' they are seeking. Or else the user was a member of an at risk group who 'caught' his use from a 'carrier'.

You may have noted a confusing of users and addicts in my discussion—this has been purposeful— for it demonstrates that many of the statements about marijuana use are derived, in part, from studies of narcotic dependence in Black and Spanish American ghettoes. Their applicability, even if one accepts the initial framework, to the Australian situation, is suspect. Yet the point that is relevant, is the acceptance of an essentially middle class organic view of society, as the reality, the only proper arena of discourse.

The actual world of the marijuana debate is of course far more grotesque, complex and confused than the simple view I have given of the models used. However, sifting through the various statements, in press and journal articles, one can find underlying them all, a perception of marijuana use as a threat to the dominant reality.

Postulating an alternate 'reality' is a difficult task however an alternative framework is necessary to demystify the social nature of marijuana use. Briefly, I would argue that in opposition to the organic theory of society, one can erect a model that sees individuals as members of groups, socialised into and learning about the world from their involvement in these groups. The individual will learn to understand the world from within the reality of the groups that are most important to him over time the family, then his peer and friendship groups. He will learn to identify experience and give it particular meanings the meanings that are current among his group. And as experiences and interests are different, there will inevitably be conflict between groups. Some definitions will be more universal in a society than others—attitudes to heroin may be more widely shared than those that deal with sexuality, or marijuana use, or music. This viewpoint argues that conflict is endemic in a society, and it is meaningless (except in ideological terms) to deny conflict. Thus an individual will give meaning to phenomena around him; they will not have intrinsic meanings--and he may well find conflicts of meaning amongst groups within which he operates. But more importantly, he will define himself in part by the value he places on others' definitions of him.

This viewpoint, and it is important to be explicit on this, sees drug use (all drug use) as a social phenomenon, which is valued and defined in various ways by different groups in society. Thus alcohol use by many is seen as part of the adult ritual of our society: its use by adolescent males and their ability to consume large amounts of it is arguably part of our masculinity rites. A sixteen year-old who can drink in a pub, and can hold more beer than his friends, is often accorded higher status within the group. Similarly, the smoke of a Marlboro behind the toilets at break is a symbolic .....missing text pages 42 and 43


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…..therapeutic function in overcoming traditionally conditioned patterns of perception, belief and under- standing. Tied to their use of the drug (which may change its importance over time to them) is a set of attitudes, beliefs, suppositions, etc. which are, in part, a denial of core values in the dominant culture, and partly a restatement of values which the dominant culture espouses but rarely operates on.

And in keeping with this counter culture (though there are conceptual problems involved with this label) are a host of cultural symbols—music, language, clothes, hair, sexual morality and behaviour patterns, political attitudes (often involving a rejection of any form of traditional or ideological politics). The language, music and clothes are important identification symbols thus a user in a novel situation will attempt often to identify another user by these symbols of external identity, and then in a short verbal interchange attempt to identify by use of language, the other's acceptability. For example:

Self: Hey Man, this place is a real drag. Those straights are really hard to handle. 

Other : Yeah, plastic hippies and stockbrokers' clerks. You'd need to be zapped to get through this hassle.

Self: Do you smoke?

Other : Yeah, you feel like blowing a j. outside?'

As society defines a type of behaviour as deviant, labels its actors as deviant, and thus makes them non-real, so too a parallel process often occurs amongst users. Instead of the division being between 'normal' people and drug-addicts (or whatever) the value system is reversed and the division is between 'heads' and 'straights'. This is no less rigid, though a newcomer has to gain entry in to the group, rather than be excluded from it, by his drug use.

This at any rate was the pattern on the user scene up until about 1970. Since that time a number of factors have changed the pattern of user —other relationships. One of these factors was the introduction of the Drug Squad 'Mod Squad', a self-styled group of young police, long -haired, bearded, with the right language, dress and patterns of behaviour. In the period between the first wide spread use of the drug in the mid -sixties and the seventies, with more and more young people using marijuana, the Mod Squad members were able to move freely on the scene. They are, for instance, credited with the arrest in about 1968 of Bill Dwyer, an Irish anarchist who sold LSD from an iron cage in Paddington. Members of the Squad became accepted over about three months as members of Dwyer's entourage, and finally arrested him in possession. However, their continuing presence soon became known and among more experienced users, strangers were no longer as welcome as before. They are still quite successful among less sophisticated user groups in the city and beach suburbs.

A second factor has been the involvement of petty criminals in the middle levels of distribution— the increasing incidence of 'rip-offs'. With their ready access to pistols, they may set up a deal for the sale of, say, four pounds of marijuana (worth around 81500), and when the buyer appears, hold him up, take the money and disappear. Most dealers are now running middle men and a cut-out system of some sort when dealing with larger quantities to make this more difficult.

If nothing much else is clear about the patterns of marijuana use in our society, it is evident that the criminal law is not working, either as a deterrent, or as a method of reinforcing boundaries. By being based on premises that the user regards as invalid, the law and the system that propagates it is also devalued. If we see in the phenomenon of marijuana use an attempt by some users to create an alternative culture and reality, an alternative framework in which to hang a more personally satisfying identity, it must become evident that legal sanctions, though possibly marginally effective in restricting entry to use among more conservative elements in society, are counterproductive in controlling drug-abuse. Besides the financial cost of enforcement (at around $500,000 per year in New South Wales alone), let alone incarceration as treatment, there are the social costs of criminalising large numbers of people who are using the drug, and the corresponding devaluation of the legal system in other areas. The role of the mass media as amplifiers, with the police, of this 'socially unacceptable' behaviour should also be noted, if only in passing.

As both Becker 11 and Young 12 have noted, the marijuana user has to learn to use the drug. He must first identify the effects of the drug, and then see the effects as positive—for instance, the distortion of senses, perception and so on that many users note, can be terrifying for the individual who does not expect or welcome such experience. Similar comments have been made about LSD use. If we see drug use in most societies as a ritual practice of some sort, with members of a society conditioned into particular patterns of use, there…….. MISSING TEXT




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  1. Erich Goode, 'Marijuana and the Politics of Reality' in Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, vol. X. j)c). 83-94.
  2. Erich Goode, 'Marijuana and the Politics of Reality' in Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, vol. X, p. 85.
  3.  Ibid. p. 83.
  4. Ibid. p. 92.
  5. Howard Becker, History, Culture and Subjective Experience : An Exploration of the Social Bases of Drug-induced Experiences in Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, v01.11111, pp. 163-176.
  6. Jock Young, The Drugtakers (London, 1971).
  7. PG 42
  8. PG 42
  9. PG 43
  10. PG 43
  11. Howard Becker, History, Culture and Subjective Experience: An Exploration of the Social Bases of Drug-induced Experiences in Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, vol. VIII, pp. 163-176.
  12. Jock Young, The Drugtakers (London, 1971).
  13. PG45


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