Tag Archives: health/medicine: drugs

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

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.

Nathan Palmer, MA is a visiting lecturer at Georgia Southern University. He is a passionate educator, the founder of Sociology Source, and the editor of Sociology in Focus, where this post originally appeared.

Saturday Stat: Smoking Keeps Its Hold on the Poor

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.”

Smoking rates, 1996:1a

Smoking rates, 2013:1

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Should Drug Treatment Aim to End Use or Reduce Harm?

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 significantly less 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.

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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.

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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.

Chris Uggen is a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and the author of Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, with Jeff Manza. You can follow him at his blog and on twitter. This post originally appeared at Public Criminology.

Marijuana Policing as a Civil Rights Issue

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).

Screenshot (11) Screenshot (12)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.
Screenshot (14)

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:

Screenshot (17)

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):
Screenshot (15) Screenshot (16)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.

More than half of Americans would like to see marijuana legalized.  Legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana would relieve this egregious attack on black communities and save states billions of dollars.  There is little downside.  Relative to other substances, it’s a minor problem.

Screenshot (19)Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

 

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Racial Empathy Gap

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:

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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.

Cross-posted at Racialicious and Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The War on Blacks: Arrests for Marijuana Possession

Black Americans are 3.7 times more likely than Whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite having equivalent use rates.  It’s a war on what again?

Screenshot_2New York Times, via Gin and Tacos, one of my favorite blogs.

Cross-posted at Racialicious.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Failure of Racial Profiling

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.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

On Horse Racing, “Break Downs,” and Our Humanity

Originally posted in 2012; re-posted because tomorrow is the 145th Belmont Stakes, the 3rd and final leg of the Triple Crown in thoroughbred horse racing. This is the dark side of the sport.

In humans you never see someone snap their leg off running in the Olympics. But you see it in horse racing.

These words, spoken by the equine medical director for the California Racing Board, summarize the truly terrifying absurdity that is horse racing today.  A team of investigative reporters at the New York Times has found that over 1,200 horses die at race tracks every year in the U.S.  Many of them die immediately after a race, euthanized after their bodies literally crumble underneath them.  Their legs break, unable to withstand the forces that the horses exert upon their bodies.  People in the industry call it, euphemistically, a “break down.” It occurs 1 out of every 200 times a horse starts a race.

All of these horses are being ridden by a jockey who is pitched off when the horse falls.  Moving at upwards of 50 miles an hour, and in the midst of many other horses running at top speed, jockeys are often seriously injured and sometimes killed.  Currently there are over 50 permanently disabled jockeys receiving financial assistance from their professional trade association.  Jacky Johnson, for example, was paralyzed from the neck down after his horse, Phire Power, broke its leg during a race.  He will need a respirator for the rest of his life; Phire Power was euthanized on the track.

Why is this happening?

Because we are making it so.

First, race horses are bred in order to run as fast as possible.  Short legs and thick bones slow a horse down, while longer, more delicate legs give them longer strides.  Breeders, then, have an incentive to build horses who are both faster and more fragile.

Second, owners may be putting these horses on the track too young.  Horses typically start getting raced at 2 to 3 years old, very young for an animal with a lifespan of 30 years.  Some argue that the bodies of young horses are not ready to handle the physical demands of racing.  This 2-year-old horse, Teller All Gone, broke its leg during a race; it is about to be euthanized:

The owners dumped his body at a junkyard:

Third, there is the drug problem.  Many trainers illegally give their horses performance-enhancing drugs.  Many of them are experimental and are not yet or cannot be tested for.  These include “chemicals that bulk up pigs and cattle before slaughter, cobra venom, Viagra, blood doping agents, stimulants and cancer drugs.”

Built for speed and not safety, on the track too young, and amped up on steroids and other performance-enhancers, these horses are pushed to their limits.  Just this week Doug O’Neill, the trainer of I’ll Have Another, the horse set to win this year’s Triple Crown, was fined after his horse tested positive for performance enhancing drugs.

Even more problematic than the doping is the legal practice of giving horses pain-relieving drugs, including cocaine.  These mask the pain signals that would otherwise tell a horse to slow down or be careful on the track and also increase that chances that the track veterinarian will miss an injury when clearing the horse to race. The NYT reports that “[a]s many as 90 percent of horses that break down had pre-existing injuries” and they argue pain-masking drugs “pose the greatest risk to horse and rider.” The Louisiana Racing Commission call it “a recipe for disaster.”

The drugs detailed below are what were given to Coronado Heights in the week before he collapsed and was euthanized on the track:

Horse racing is subject to regulation, but these vary by state and are typically very poorly enforced, bringing us to the fourth reason why we see so much tragedy on race tracks. The punishment for violations is insignificant, sometimes only a warning:

Trainers in New Mexico who overmedicate horses with Flunixin get a free pass on their first violation, a $200 fine on the second and a $400 fine on the third, records show… [the state also] wipes away Flunixin violations every 12 months… To varying degrees, the picture is similar nationwide. Trainers often face little punishment for drug violations, and on the rare occasions when they are suspended, they are allowed to turn their stables over to an assistant.

When it comes down to it, many owners and trainers are willing to risk a horse’s life for the chance at the prize money and the less likely a horse is to win, the less they’re worth to the owner, so the harder they’re willing to push it.

The economic incentive to run horses till they die may seem to apply to the highest stakes racing but, in fact, it’s at the lowest end that we see the most disregard for the safety of horses and their jockeys. In the backyards of those casinos where racetracks are now part of the attraction (often referred to as “racinos”), horses and jockeys are a dime a dozen, and the money gives people a reason to break the rules. Meanwhile, the casino tracks are low profile, so they receive even less regulatory attention.

The use of the phrase “break down” to describe a horse who has snapped its own bones in the process of entertaining and enriching human beings is an indication of how nonchalantly industry figures approach this problem.  It suggests that these animals, and perhaps their jockeys as well, have been thoroughly objectified: cars break down, air conditioners break down, we break down boxes.  The language entirely fails to capture what is happening to these horses.  It may very well, however, describe what has happened to the industry and to the basic humanity of its most culpable beneficiaries.

Death at the Track:

Visit the New York Times to watch “The Rise of the Racinos” and “A Jockey’s Story.”

Lisa Wade and Gwen Sharp are professors of sociology. You can follow Gwen on Twitter and Lisa on Twitter and Facebook.  They have also written about the abuse of Tennessee Walking Horses.