“Drugs are bad,” he said, sipping his beer: Legality vs. social acceptability

I’ve found it highly interesting to hear drug users trash talk other drugs, even while they’re high on their own preferred substance. Gina* thinks that alcohol is the worst drug around, and only smokes pot. Albert drinks, and takes MDMA or coke whenever it’s offered, but he shakes his head when he sees his friends smoking cigarettes. They both think GHB is for idiots, and neither of them, of course, thinks that a drug’s legality has anything to do with its acceptability.

Judging other users doesn’t inherently make you a hypocrite, because not all drugs are created equal–I myself think crack is incredibly destructive and that weed is practically harmless, even though I don’t use either. But the opinions are just so strong on all sides that, just for fun (oh yes, this is indeed my idea of fun), I created a visual expression of the general spectrum of legal/illegal, acceptable/unacceptable drugs based on my interviews and fieldwork in the Toronto rave scene:

Perceptions of the social acceptability of party drugs versus their legality

Subjective perceptions of the social acceptability of party drugs versus their legality. (Click to embiggen.)

Having ecstasy, LSD, marijuana (for now), or cocaine on your person can get you thrown in jail. Alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco, you can consume to your little adult heart’s content. However, these drugs’ legal status doesn’t reflect how people view them in terms of their perceived morality.

There are ‘moral’, socially acceptable or legitimate, drugs, and there are immoral/unacceptable/illegitimate drugs. While many in the mainstream accept the status quo of conflating a drug’s legality with its acceptabilityI never get tired of hearing a drunk person say “I don’t use drugs!”, it kills me every timemost people and groups have their own personal categorizations of what substances are acceptable or unacceptable to consume. In particular, to those who choose to use both legal and illegal drugs, a drug’s morality by no means correlates with its legality. Just ask Gina and Albert.*

The reasons behind deeming a drug as socially or morally acceptable are complex, but they most often involve a combination of personal experience, family/peer group/media influence, perception of addictive potential, and cost/benefit analysis in terms of harms and pleasures. Right now I could still make a different graph for different age groups, levels of user experience, and what people say vs. what their behaviour actually indicates. I know that every single person has a different version of this in their own head, but I’m curious about what this graph would generally look like for where you live. Where would these drugs fall on the spectrum for your social group or city? Have you noticed differences based on music sub-genres?

Note: Check out the interesting discussion of this post on reddit, where I find out that I’m wrong about nitrous’ legal status, and also have to explain the concepts of subjectivity and perspective about fifty times.

Not my image. Google gave it to me. How duz I copyright law.Some notes:

  • This chart is a rough first version – it still needs some adjusting. (Well, it doesn’t need anything because it doesn’t even need to exist. But still.) But more importantly, my research is ethnographic, not scientific; this is all very unofficial, I just did it for fun and to help visualize a theme I’m working on.
  • Corrections: The “level of abuse potential” should say perceived level of abuse potential. Also, nitrous is not illegal in Canada.
  • The bottom left I have affectionately termed the “Boogeyman Corner” because those drugs are ironically still subject to the same stigma that, in the mainstream, equally affects these ravers’ preferred drugs.
  • Obviously, everything in existence has abuse potential, including all of these drugs. I took that fact as given when assigning levels of abuse potential as it would be pointless for every single one to have a lightning bolt.
  • The “legal” axis is less strictly defined. I sort of put things there based not only on whether or not they’re legal (which is a yes or no question) but on how restricted their use is, how close they are to potentially being legalized in the future, the degree of care I see people using to hide their use of each drug, the fear of potential law enforcement from users of each one, etc. Things like prescription drugs are hard to place because they’re technically legal but used recreationally (and thus illegally) by people at events. They should probably be on the illegal side but whatever.
  • So many different drugs fit into the Reseach Chemicals (RCs) category that it’s just a can of worms I didn’t feel like opening. Hence the generalized categorizations.
  • Most ravers have little or no experience with opiates, since they’re the least compatible with the main point of electronic music events, which is dancing.
  • The social acceptability of many of these (note the ones with a *) is context-dependent and very ambiguous (which makes them extra interesting!):
    • Alcohol, for example, tends to be the one that people both criticize and consume most frequently. It’s especially criticized in comparison to other recreational drugs, but still used more frequently than any other, mainly due to a) its wide availability and legal status, and b) the ability to easily and progressively manage dosage.
    • Cocaine is similarly badmouthed by some and loved by others (sometimes both at once from the same person). I could maybe even switch its place with ketamine.
    • GHB is very context-dependent in that it’s the drug that causes the most frequent overdoses, so people use the derogatory term “G’ed out” a lot, but using it responsibly is acceptable.
    • Mushrooms are considered perfectly acceptable in general, but most people say they wouldn’t feel comfortable using them at crowded music events.

*Gina and Albert are aggregate people I just invented to make a point. But they definitely represent the opinions of real people I’ve met.


3 thoughts on ““Drugs are bad,” he said, sipping his beer: Legality vs. social acceptability

  1. Awesome to see this put into such perspective (thanks Reddit)! As you’ve noted, the perception can vary greatly based on your demographics, and even time–things like rave scenes have changed dramatically in the last ~20+ years on this fine continent.

    But on the everyday scale, you hit the point home: it’s really important to remind the average person that alcohol is indeed a drug! I mean even with caffeine… That stuff can really tweak you out if you abuse it, and you’re often not even aware of it when it’s happen. Hell, it even consumes your whole life and you’re completely unaware of how it’s affecting the decisions you make it.

    Thanks for putting this out there! Keep it up 🙂


  2. I may get a bit of hate but i believe Marijuana should have at least 2 lightning bolts. It may not be physically addictive but it sure as hell can mentally addictive which will lead to abuse. Also before you scream bullsh*t propaganda i love to smoke almost daily 🙂


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