Society and Drug Use:

A Sociological Perspective

     In all societies, there are substances that are deemed as both not acceptable and acceptable for consumption. The laws today are a result of ever changing societal norms. Before a particular drug is discovered, it is not illegal; it simply exists in nature. When that substance is introduced into a society, it must be determined if its effects are in line with the societies morals which may be in large part regulated by the dominate religion. If it is proven to be beneficial to the society and abides by the social morals its use is largely unregulated. If an individual in that society that is not a part of the dominate religion uses an illegal substance, are they exhibiting deviant behavior or practicing their freedom of religion? Of course, religion is not the only factor when it comes to the complicated issue of drug laws, especially in today’s society. The legality of a drug differs from country to country and one society’s perception of a harmful drug may be seen as just another recreational drug such as alcohol. In the case of cannabis use in tourism, such motivations might include the loosening of social control as a reason for use (Belhassen, et al, 2007).

Different Societies, Different Acceptance levels

     The use of drugs varies widely from country to country. For example, in the United States, it is illegal to use opium from the opium poppy plant in it’s for any reason. By contrast, in Afghanistan, it is commonplace to use this drug for medicinal purposes. One might imagine if in a remote location of a desert with no medical services nearby, a broken limb would be very painful and the use of opium as a painkiller would be a welcomed thing. Of course, not everyone lives in the remote locations and their view of this use might be different. But a lot of these people unknowingly use Opium many times in their life. It is simply in the disguise of a pill or injection such as Codeine, Morphine, and Oxycodone to name a few. Is it immoral to use the plant to treat a condition instead of the refined pill or injection? Of course, opium is highly addictive and has the potential for abuse just as the pill form does. Although opium is commonly used in Afghanistan, alcohol is not permitted due to Muslim faith (Islam) does not allow it. The United States on the other hand has not only permitted the use of alcohol but in some cases has glamorized it.

Drug Use as a Moral, Political, and Economic Issue

     There are many reasons why some drugs are made illegal, some more complex than others. Some drugs such as alcohol was made illegal during the prohibition of the 1920’s due to the surrounding moral and political issues but was made legal in 1933 because of pressure from the public and demand for the substance. Even coffee was once under fire due to moral views on the drink. It tends to be a balance of moral, political, and economic aspects that determine whether a drug is made legal, illegal, or controlled. A drug such as caffeine has such an economic impact on the United States that making it illegal would result in a reduction in the gross national product (GDP). Coffee is a multi-billion dollar industry, providing jobs for millions of people an fueling the economy not only in term of dollars but increased work production as an estimated 54% of Americans drink coffee regularly (NCA, 2009). Although hemp is not a drug, it is part of the cannabis family that contains delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which is currently a schedule one drug. Hemp was a vital crop during the foundation of the Unites States and was used in many different applications such as rope, clothing, and paper. Due to today’s political climate, hemp cannot play a major role in the economy due to its state of legality but one day may again be a world leader in textiles and building material.

Perception of Drugs and Deviancy

     There is a perception of deviant behavior that is associated with drugs. When an individual uses a drug, they are only deviant if others perceive them as such depending on the cultural norms of that particular location. There is also a stereotype that is associated with each drug regardless of who uses it. For example, the hippie or stoner stereotype that is placed on marijuana. These stereotypes often make their way into common language such as referring to someone as a crack-head, whether or not they use crack cocaine. Deviant behavior can actually be beneficial to society as it provides jobs for law enforcement, affirms cultural values and norms, clarifies moral boundaries, and responding to deviance brings people together (Macionis, 2009, p. 222-223).

The Effect of Prohibition and Education on Drug Use

      Prohibition of substances has proven to be ineffective at lowering demand. For most of America’s history, both alcohol and cannabis (marijuana) were legal. During the prohibition of 1920, alcohol moved to the black market while leaving cannabis legal. This made drinking somewhat dangerous as there were now no controls on how it was produced and one may be stricken blind by gin that was prepared in a bathtub in an incorrect manner. The prohibition also allowed organized crime to capitalize on the demand of alcohol and in turn resulted in increased violence. As long as there is demand, someone will supply a product. The prohibition on alcohol was lifted in 1933 and on August 2, 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Marihuana Tax Act which enforced a new type of prohibition that is still in place (Fox, 2009, p. 49).

     Education of the dangers of using tobacco products resulted in a lowering of their use while other programs such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) has actually shown to be ineffective in preventing drug use among children and teens, the target audience of the program. A long term study that was reviewed by the General Accounting Office reveled that there were “no significant differences in illicit drug use between students who received DARE...and students who did not.” In fact, drug use among teens was in a steady decline from the early 1980s to 1992 before those students could be exposed to the DARE program and by the early 1990s, when students who were exposed to the DARE program reached their teen years, drug use began to climb (Moilanen, 2004, p. 2-3). It would seem that education and control is more effective in preventing children and teens from using harmful and controlled substances. It is easier for teens today to obtain marijuana than it is to get alcohol. This is similar to alcohol during its prohibition, since there were no controls of how it was made or whom it was sold to. When an individual cannot have something, they want it more. When it becomes legal to use a substance, it loses its appeal to most.

Society has Allowed or Encouraged Certain Harmful Drug Use

     Not only have harmful substances become legal in the United States, but some are actually encouraged. The agents of socialization play a large role in what substances are used such as the mass media encouraging or glamorizing the use of tobacco in the 1950s and the use of alcohol today. Family also plays a large role in educating and influencing children and teens on substance use and abuse. Certain drugs escape the watchful eye of family however, such as drugs like caffeine or over the counter medicines like aspirin which accounts for thousands of deaths every year. The peer group and school also play a large role in shaping the views of youth on drugs as a considerable amount of time is spent in these environments (Macionis, 2009, p. 125-128).

All Drugs have the Potential for Abuse

     Every drug, whether legal or illegal, natural or synthetic, has the potential for abuse. These substances interfere with the body’s natural dopamine production and can result in dependency on the substance as well as produce withdrawal symptoms if it is not consumed regularly after a dependency is formed. Great care must be taken if when using them as to not develop such addiction. Although most view dependency as a negative thing, it is actually critical to the survival of the human race. When something is done to ensure survival of the body such as eating or reproducing, dopamine is released. Dopamine is the body’s reward system to increase the chances of survival and the continuation of the species. When one does not eat, withdrawal symptoms like hunger pangs appear to encourage the consumption of food.

Evolution of Drugs

     Society’s use and perceptions of drugs has caused the original substance to change or evolve over time. For example, cocaine being illegal and expensive has brought about the existence of crack cocaine and is now more dangerous than pure cocaine was in the beginning. Also, the war on drugs has caused growers of marijuana to stop operations outdoors and move to an indoor location were the plants would be less detectable to law enforcement. This allowed better controls over lighting and water conditions, resulting in a more potent end product. A drugs popularity, whether legal or not, causes society to change that substance depending on trends, such as the many forms and potency of alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine.

Commonly Abused Drugs in America

     Some of the more commonly abused drugs in the United States are nicotine, in the form of tobacco, and alcohol. Tobacco has never been illegal in the United States; however, it is restricted and can only be purchased by individuals 18 years of age or older. Education in the recent decades has decreased its use among teens. There is surely no one in the United States that does not know that the use of tobacco is harmful to their health. In fact, tobacco products account for more deaths per year than almost any other drugs combined. Alcohol has been legal for most of history of the United States, although it was prohibited from 1920 to 1933. It is controlled much like tobacco; however the restriction is set to 21 years of age.


     Although not commonly thought of as deviant drugs, opiates are commonly abused, sometimes without realizing it. An abuser of opiates may not be smoking opium; however, they can certainly take pills for pain, whether it is true pain or dependency can only be diagnosed by a doctor. Other forms of commonly abused opiates are opium and heroin and their use is viewed as deviant.


     Marijuana or cannabis today is a very popular drug that is used in the United States. It is so popular that a subculture has formed around the plant and it has been a political hot topic since the late 1960s. During the 1930s, the government’s campaign against marijuana known today as Refer Madness has changed society’s view of cannabis from a common useful drug to an evil or morally wrong substance. The advancement of injectable medicines also made cannabis less popular because most medicines made from it were topical salves or pills that took longer to relieve pain. Making cannabis illegal had a negative economical impact because it was no longer legal to produce hemp. Although hemp is not a drug, it is part of the cannabis family that contains Δ (delta) 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which is currently a schedule one drug. Hemp has less than 1% of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana but looks almost identical. Hemp was a vital crop during the foundation of the Unites States and was used in many different applications such as rope, clothing, and paper. Due to today’s political climate, hemp cannot play a major role in the economy due to its state of legality but one day may again be a world leader in textiles and building material. It was actually illegal not to grow hemp for war efforts at times and was advocated by the government in films such as Hemp for Victory; however, once the war was over, hemp was illegal to produce again. Today, small experimental hemp growers are allowed to produce it in a controlled manner which may one day become large-scale production operations. There is much controversy over the moral, political, and economic usefulness of cannabis (hemp or marijuana). To date, there are 15 states that have medical marijuana programs and more seem to be looking into adopting these laws as they gain social support (Fox, 2009, p. 47-49).


     Caffeine (1,3,7-trimethylxanthine) is a purine alkaloid and is a very popular stimulant that is in use in the United States (Higdon, et. al, 2006, p. 101). It is so common place it is not given much thought until it is abused. Like most other drugs, caffeine in the right dosage can result in death which varies depending on an individuals’ weight. However, it would take about 396 eight ounce cans of Coca-Cola Classic to be lethal to a person that weighs 200 pounds which would not be possible to drink in one sitting. The most common way people today ingest this drug is though coffee. In 1600, there was controversy over whether it was acceptable for Catholics to drink coffee. As its popularity gained so did its reputation of being a “troublemaker’s social brew” and various leaders thought people were having too much fun in the now popular coffeehouses. Despite appeals to ban it, Pope Clement VIII ruled in its favor. After that, coffee was widely accepted and consumed (Pendergrast, 1999, p. 6-8). This is an example of social morals adapting to the will of the majority; however, when it came down to it, the decision really depended on one person in power to either condone or condemn its use. One might wonder what the environment might be like if caffeine were made illegal – if Pope Clement VIII ruled against the drink which would make caffeine illegal as well, similar to the hemp and marijuana relationship. The demand of the substance would not have disappeared simply because of a church ruling. There would be a black market and underground coffee shops all across the world. Since coffee has a strong aroma, dealers and users would be forced to find more inventive ways of producing and consuming the substance. Coffee and caffeine would evolve into pills and powders that would be much more powerful and most likely result in higher use, dependency, and death. One can only speculate as to why Pope Clement VIII ruled in favor of coffee, it may be due to the high social cost of condemning it or simply because he liked to drink it. Although there are risks with excessive drinking of coffee or intake of caffeine, there are health benefits if used in moderation which seems to be the case for most everything, even food can be lethal in the wrong dosage.


     Weather a drug is beneficial or harmful; it is not the effect or social cost of it that determines its legality, rather society’s perception of it. Substances that do not have a negative stereotype associated with it and that can be mass produced are more likely to be legal. Pressure from the majority of a society can also change a drugs legal status as in the case of alcohol during its prohibition. All drugs have the potential for abuse, even in their legal form. Even the body’s own feel good drug, dopamine, which illegal drugs mimic, has the potential for addiction and abuse. The intervention of law enforcement increases the potential social harm of certain drugs by increasing its rarity and value, causing those who use that substance to commit crime to afford it or find a cheaper way of producing it, which may result in a more dangerous and addictive substance such as crack cocaine. Conversely, encouraging the use of a dangerous drug as our society does today in the case of alcohol is not a solution either. The use and abuse of alcohol costs the United States close to $200 billion every year (Fox, et al, 2009, p. 100). As the climate in society changes, so do the drug laws and from the laws changing, so will the drugs. It is up to the society to decide in which direction to go in order to minimize harm from the use of these substances. Should it continue to be a law enforcement problem or a health care problem?














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Fox, S., Armentano, P., & Tvert, M. (2009). Marijuana is safer: so why are we driving people to drink?. White River Junction, VT : Chelsea Green Pub. Co.

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Macionis, J. (2009). Sociology. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Moilanen, R. (2004). Just Say No Again. Reason, 35(8), 34-41. Retrieved from EBSCOhost

NCA, (2009). National coffee drinking trends report: coffee proves resilient in recession. Retrieved from$24077

Pendergrast, M. (1999). Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. New York, NY: Basic Books