You may be familiar with the fact that the coca in Coca-Cola was originally cocaine. But did you know that the reason we infused such a beverage with the drug in the first place was because of prohibition? Cocaine cola replaced cocaine wine. In fact, when it was debuted in 1886, it was described as “Coca-Cola: The Temperance Drink.”
The first mass marketed cocaine product was Vin Mariani, a cocaine-infused Bordeaux introduced in the 1860s. Legal and requiring no prescription, it was believed to “restore health and vitality” and I’m sure it felt like it did. Wikipedia reports that it included 7.2 mg of cocaine per ounce; comparatively, a line snorted is about 25 mg.
Yes, Vin Mariani was good for men, women, and children. The “tonic of kings!” Even the Pope! He loved it so much he called it a “benefactor of humanity” and gave it a Vatican Gold Medal:
But he was just the most eminent of its fans. Mariani’s media blitz included endorsements from Sarah Bernhardt, H.G. Wells, Ulysses S. Grant, Queen Victoria, the Empress of Russia, Thomas Edison, and the then-President of the United States, William McKinley. Jules Verne reportedly joked: “Since a single bottle of Mariani’s extraordinary coca wine guarantees a lifetime of 100 years, I shall be obliged to live until the year 2700!”
Vin Mariani dominated the market, but there was an American chemist, John Smith Pemberton, who made a competing product: Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. He described it as an “intellectual beverage.” Pemberton was located in — you guessed it, Atlanta — and the state enacted temperance legislation in 1885. Hence, Coca-Cola was born.
If you stop and think about it, alcohol is just the worst. Almost every one who drinks has experienced the pain of a mean morning hangover (at least once). Also, the experience of being drunk… why is that enjoyable? When drunk you slur your words, it’s hard to think straight, you’re liable to say or do something that will offend the people around you, and you can’t legally drive a car. Why does any of that sound like a good way to spend a Friday night?
To a sociologist, the reason people drink alcohol is that they have been socially taught to. That is, we like alcohol because we’ve been taught to overlook the negative side effects or we have redefined them as positive. If that’s confusing, don’t worry. Let’s talk about another drug people abuse (marijuana) and how the sociologist Howard Becker argues we socially construct getting high and being a stoner.
Becoming a Marijuana User
In 1953 Becker set out to answer what appears to be a simple question: how does a person become a marijuana user. After interviewing fifty marijuana users Becker (1953: 235) concluded that:
An individual will be able to use marihuana for pleasure only when he (1) learns to smoke it in a way that will produce real effects; (2) learns to recognize the effects and connect them with drug use; and (3) learns to enjoy the sensations he perceives. This proposition based on an analysis of fifty interviews with marihuana users, calls into question theories which ascribe behavior to antecedent predispositions and suggests the utility of explaining behavior in terms of the emergence of motives and dispositions in the course of experience.
The first point should be pretty obvious. You can’t get high if you don’t inhale when you smoke marijuana (like President Bill Clinton). So the first step to becoming a pot smoker is learning to properly smoke pot. Most often this takes place when an experienced smoker socializes (i.e. trains) a novice smoker in the mechanics of the task.
Becker’s second point might be harder to understand. Drugs inherently alter your physiology… that’s what makes them drugs. Being in a chemcially alterted state can be disorienting. But don’t believe me, watch this:
David, the little boy in the movie, had not been socialized to how anesthesia works. Similarly, when you ingest any drug you have to be taught to recognize the effects. So for marijuana maybe that would include heightened senses, food cravings, and possibly a sense of anxiety or paranoia. When you haven’t been socialized it’s easy to go into a panic or ignore the effects altogether.
For instance, around 2007 a police officer in Dearborn Heights Michigan stole marijuana from a drug arrest, baked it into brownies, and then consumed the brownies to get high for what he said was his very first time. He then called 911 because he thought he was dying. Becker would likely say that if he had been socialized and knew what effects he should expect, the police officer wouldn’t have likely freaked out and incriminated himself.
After you’ve learned to inhale properly, learned to recognize how the substance will alter you, then the last step to becoming a marijuana user is to redefine potentially negative experiences as positive. As we talked about above, smoking marijuana can lead to anxiety, paranoia, insatiable food cravings, hyper sensitivity, confusion, etc.
To see an example of this, we need look no further than the comment section under the video I just showed you. What WeBeChillin420’s comment does is reframe a panic attack into a desirable thing. S/he seems to be nostalgic for his or her first time consuming freak out quantities of marijuana.
Becker and the scholars he inspired to research marijuana communities further point out that it’s common among smokers to say that “coughing gets you higher.” Actually, coughing after smoking is your body’s way of telling you that you inhaled something it didn’t like. It’s your body literally gasping for air. It seems just as likely that marijuana users could think of coughing as a bad thing or as a sign they inhaled too much. Instead smokers socially construct coughing as a positive and desirable thing.
All Drugs Are Socially Constructed
While Becker focused on marijuana, we can extend his ideas to every type of drug. For instance let’s look at caffeine. Coffee and Red Bull are said to be “acquired tastes.” Doesn’t this mean that you have to learn to like them? You have to learn to like to feel a slight jitteriness? What you can take from Becker’s research is that how we think about drugs, how we react to any drug or medicine we ingest, and how we feel about others who’ve used drugs are all social constructs.
At the New York Times, Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff discuss the tenaciousness of tobacco in low-income areas. Smoking rates are declining, but much more slowly in some counties than others. Local residents suggest that smoking is the least of their worries:
“Just sit and watch the parking lot for a day,” Mrs. Bowling said. “If smoking is the worst thing that’s happening, praise the Lord.”
In the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sad death, many are calling for various “harm reduction” approaches to substance use. Proponents of harm reduction have identified lots of ways to reduce the social and personal costs of drugs, but they often require us to shift our focus from the prevention of drug use itself to the prevention of harm. Resistance to such approaches often hinges on the notion that they somehow tolerate, facilitate, or even subsidize risky behavior.
This tension emerged clearly in my new article with Sarah Shannon in Social Problems. We re-analyzed an experimental jobs program that randomly assigned a basic low-wage work opportunity to long-term unemployed people as they left drug treatment. In some ways, the program worked beautifully. The job treatment group had significantlyless crime and recidivism, especially for predatory economic crimes like robberies and burglaries. After 18 months, about 13 percent of the control group had been arrested for a new robbery or burglary, relative to only 7 percent of the treatment group. Put differently, 87 percent of those not offered the jobs survived a year and a half without such an arrest, relative to 93 percent of the treatment group who were offered jobs.
A randomized experiment that shows a 46 percent reduction in serious crime is a pretty big deal to criminologists, but the program has still been considered a failure. In part, this is because the “treatment” group who got the jobs relapsed to cocaine and heroin use at about the same rate as the control group. After 18 months, about 66 percent of the control group had not yet relapsed, relative to about 63 percent in the treatment group. So, there’s no evidence the program helped people avoid cocaine and heroin.
From an abstinence-only perspective, such programs look like failures. Nevertheless, even a crummy job and a few dollars clearly helped people avoid recidivism and improved the public safety of their communities. So, did the program work? From a harm reduction perspective, a jobs program for drug users surely “works” if it reduces crime and other harms, even if it doesn’t dent rates of cocaine or heroin use.
Young black adults are less likely than whites to use marijuana, but extraordinarily more likely to be arrested for its use, according to a new report by the ACLU. This is old news, but the data never fails to stun.
First, notice that arrests for marijuana possession have grown over the past 15 years, even relative to arrests for other types of drugs. The first chart is total marijuana possession arrests, the second is the percent of all drug arrests that were for marijuana (note that in neither chart does the vertical axis start at zero and truncated axes tend to make data look more dramatic, as if that were necessary here).
This rise in arrests has disproportionately affected African Americans. The arrest rate for blacks has consistently been substantially higher than that of whites, but it increased, even so, over the 2000s.
According to the report:
…in every state the Black arrest rate is disproportionate to Blacks’ percentage of the population. In fact, in 42 states the Black percentage of marijuana possession arrests is more than double the Black percentage of the population, while in 18 states Blacks account for more than three times the percentage of marijuana possession arrests than they do of the population. In four states, the difference is a factor of at least four.
Most of these arrests are of young people. Almost half (46%) involve 18 to 24 year olds:
The black arrest rate cannot be attributed to different rates of use. Overall, blacks and whites have very similar rates of marijuana use (the first figure below), but among 18 to 25 year olds — the population being arrested the most — whites have slightly higher rates than blacks (second figure): This is a long-standing, well-documented Civil Rights issue. The war on drugs is a war on black people. These practices are harmful to individuals, their families, and their communities. It functions to further the disadvantage faced by black Americans in a society rife with institutions already stacked against them.
In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I proctored law school exams to earn extra money. At the end of one exam, while I was collecting the final papers, I overheard two students discussing their answers on an essay question about sentencing. One said to the other: “I gave the rich guy a lesser sentence because I figured, since he had such a cushy life, it would take less punishment to get through to him.” There’s your next crop of lawyers, I thought, doling out the prison sentences to the poor and letting the rich off with a slap on the wrist.
Well, it turns out that there is a well-documented psychological phenomenon behind what I’d overheard. Morten B. sent along an essay by Jason Silverstein in which he reviews the literature on the racial empathy gap. All things being equal, if you show a person an imagine of a dark- and a light-skinned person being harmed, they will most likely react more strongly to the latter. Studies have found evidence of this using both self-report and measures of brain activity. Notably, both Black and White people respond similarly.
Here are the results of six studies using self-report; in the first four, the relationship between race and how much pain subjects attributed to the target was statistically significant:
What’s going on?
Silverstein explains that this isn’t necessarily about racial animosity or even identification with one’s own group (remember that both Black and White people show this response). Instead, it appears to be related to the perception that Black people have already had to cope with a great deal of pain — from racism, poverty, poor health, etc — and, as a result, have a greater pain threshold. In other words, they are less sensitive to pain because they’ve been hardened.
Efforts to parse out whether this effect is due to race specifically or perceptions of whether a person has lived a hard life suggest that it might be primarily the latter. But, as Silverstein points out, we tend to homogenize the Black population and assume that all Black people face adversity. So, whether the phenomenon is caused by race or status gets pretty muddy pretty fast.
In any case, this is perfectly in line with the soon-to-be-lawyer I overheard at Wisconsin. He gave the “hardened criminal” a harsher sentence than the person convicted of a white-collar crime because he believed that a greater degree of suffering was required to make an impact. That was just a hypothetical case, but Silverstein reviews research that shows that the racial empathy gap has real world consequences: undertreatment of pain (even in children) and, yes, harsher sentences for African Americans convicted of crimes.
Jay Livingston at Montclair SocioBlog discussed the two figures below (full report here). The first shows that Black and Hispanic drivers are more likely to be stopped by Los Angeles Police than White drivers. The second shows that, when stopped, if searched, police are more likely to find weapons and drugs on Whites than on either Blacks or Hispanics. Conclusion: Blacks and Hispanics are being racially profiled by the L.A.P.D. and racial profiling does not work. Data from New York City in 2008 tells a similar story.
The New York Civil Liberties Union reports that the NYPD stopped 161,000 people in the first quarter of 2011. A record number. Eighty-four percent of those stopped were Black or Latino. The Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit, claiming that the practice is unconstitutional.
Originally posted in 2011. Re-posted in solidarity with the African American community; regardless of the truth of the Martin/Zimmerman confrontation, it’s hard not to interpret the finding of not-guilty as anything but a continuance of the criminal justice system’s failure to ensure justice for young Black men.