Drugs are… good? No, that can’t be right. Can it?

Like most academics, I’m obsessive. I spend a lot of my free time doing searches for new research on recreational drug use. I do this partly because there’s a big gap in drug use and policy research that I’m waiting for someone to fill, and I can’t just let it go. I keep checking to see if someone’s addressed it yet, unable to seriously consider that I might have to be the one to fill it. Surely I’m just not looking hard enough. It must be hiding under some ethnographic couch cushion that I just haven’t lifted up yet.

You see, the perspectives and opinions that I have found in the field of social science drug research vary. There are different people coming from different backgrounds believing and arguing for different things. But almost all of the existing literature, both popular and academic, on illegal drug use is in agreement about one key assumption. It’s an unquestioned assumption which drives almost all research on drug users, yet drug users themselves laugh at it for its simplicity and ignorance:

The assumption that illegal drugs are inherently bad. All of them.

Can't it be both true and not true?

Can’t it be both true and not true?

Bad for individuals, bad for society. They are a scourge on humanity, they destroy lives and, boiled down to the essentials, are just a (complicated) problem to be solved. Some say we desperately need to find a way to get rid of all drugs. Some advocate for harm reduction, saying, well, drugs suck but we’re not going to get rid of them, so let’s at least reduce the harm they cause (while we figure out how to get rid of them). Some tout their potential medical benefits—man, have you been reading the news? Marijuana cures EVERYTHING!—but in doing so they maintain subservience to a strictly controlled biomedical framework as the only acceptable place for drugs that aren’t alcohol.

Probably thanks to where funding comes from, there just aren’t many researchers raising their hands from the back of the class to timidly propose that maybe, just maybe, we should question that assumption before we run around trying to solve problems. Because if our assumption is wrong, well, shit. Then the problem might be entirely different from what we think it is. There may not even be a problem.

Now, if you’ve ever actually worked with drug addicts, or been one, you may be about to angrily call me a naive idiot for implying that there’s no problem. Yes, some illegal drugs definitely cause problems. Huge ones.1 We’re all pretty aware of that. On the other hand, if you’ve ever been around responsible drug users, or been one yourself2, you may feel relieved to see this issue even acknowledged. Because the difference between problematic use or addiction and truly unproblematic recreational drug use, as muddled and complicated as the Venn diagram between the two may be, is what’s missing from most conversations about illegal drug users. The fact that its very existence is in question is what is wrong with the conversation on drug policy. The consistent denial of shades of grey is unforgivably ignorant after so many years.

Where are the social scientists critiquing the ‘all drugs are bad’ assumption?
They took drugs, they hugged, they laughed, they went home to their jobs and nothing bad happened. Why do researchers pretend these people don't exist?

They took drugs, they hugged, they laughed, they went home to their jobs and nothing bad happened. Why do researchers pretend these people don’t exist?

I have struggled to find existing research that really reflects the kind of work I’m currently doing. Everything comes from a problem-based orientation. That was my focus at the start, having drank the social-epidemiology Kool-Aid, but in keeping with the tradition of ethnographic research, I maintained no particular attachment to my original orientation and spent much of my time in the field questioning my own assumptions. Thus the conclusions I’m starting to reach from my fieldwork are somewhat unexpected, which is fairly common in anthropology. But because of it I’m at a loss to find many other researchers who think about drug use in the same way. Laymen, oh sure, plenty. But published research, not so much. (One can assume that this is heavily due to preexisting and self-perpetuating biases in funding sources. Paradigms don’t go down without a fight, especially those that are so usefully attached to marginalizing certain handy scapegoat populations.)

Some researchers have come close. Geoffrey Hunt, David Moore and others remind us to not leave out the concept of pleasure from analyses of drug use, but this is still a recommendation in service of the goal of use-reduction. I’ve also, of course, found research that challenges the mainstream status quo in other ways; Philippe Bourgois and Michael Agar are two obvious big names who’ve had incredibly profound effects on the study of addicted populations: “You can’t understand and explain an intoxicated corner of a society without a critique of the larger society that produced the historical conditions that make that corner the place that it is,” said Agar in his unbelievably entertaining memoir of a lifetime of drug policy research.

The goal I set out with in my research on ‘party drugs’ in the rave scene was based on that important idea, to figure out solutions through a holistic understanding of a drug-abusing population. But Bourgois and Agar study populations of drug users that generally, when it comes down to it, really hate the drugs that they use. They have good reason to. The difference in my research is that the underlying assumption that drug use is always a social problem is flawed when it comes to groups that may actually be using, and even benefiting from, recreational drugs in ways that don’t negatively affect them or the people around them.

What if non-addicted drug users really, just… kinda want their drug use to be left alone?

What if the problems stemming directly from their drug use are fairly minimal, and the benefits significant? What if most of the dangers are actually caused by the laws put in place to supposedly protect them?

If my guiding question is “Gee, why are all these people doing such a bad thing as consuming party drugs” (which, without the explicit value judgment, was indeed one of my research questions3), I’m asking the wrong question—if I’m asking it because I want to get them to stop, not because I really want to know the answer and am open to whatever it is. Taking for granted the same assumptions underlying most of the preexisting research, and asking “Why are these particular people using drugs?” only as a means of understanding enough to further the specific goal of a particular agenda—such as harm reduction or use prevention—my ears might not be open to hearing the actual answer, rather than an answer that confirms those same original assumptions. The actual answer might challenge those assumptions. The actual answer could be, for some people: Because there are few downsides and tons of upsides, and they know it.

I probably just haven’t looked hard enough for someone else who’s talked about this though. So does anyone know of published social science research on drug use that isn’t grounded in problem-based assumptions? Arriving at an answer that challenges the status quo is both exhilarating and terrifying, but since I’m only a grad student, and it’s a topic absolutely riddled with stigma, it leans more towards terrifying. So someone please point out the couch cushion that I’m overlooking so I can flip it over and see if there are any crumbs I can sweep up and cling onto to help prove I’m not crazy.

EDIT: I found one! It was published this year.

Notes

1Note that they are actually, in turn, only symptoms of deeper structural problems, usually socioeconomic in origin.

2And chances are you are one, because—surprise!—if you drink alcohol, you are a drug user. But fine, we’ll stick to illegal drugs.

3Even while I disagreed with the value judgement—I’ve always been a proponent of the positive aspects of illegal drug use—I got the sense that a subtext of detached Mr. Mackey-ness was necessary to appeal to those in charge of funding decisions and am only now realising that I’m going to have to openly challenge it, as career-destroying as it might be.


If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro

“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.


If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro