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Social Problems
Darryl Hall
Department of Sociology
University of Nevada, Reno

Drug Abuse

• A drug is any chemical substance – other than food or water – that affects the mind or body.

• How people view a particular drug varies from society to society. For example, Europeans have enjoyed drinking alcohol for thousands of years. When Native Americans were introduced to wine and liquor by European colonists, they had no customs to guide its use. As a result, many native peoples fell into drunken stupors, causing tribal leaders to declare alcohol a serious problem. Conversely, the Native American peoples used peyote—which alters human consciousness—as part of their religious rituals. When this drug was shared with European settlers, many became terrified of the hallucinations it produced and soon pronounced peyote a dangerous drug.

The Extent of Drug Use

• If we define drugs in a broad way – to include substances like aspirin and caffeine – then almost everyone is a “user.” Most people in the United States use drugs to go to sleep, to wake up, to relax, or to ease pain.

• With such a widespread reliance on chemicals, we might well describe our way of life as a “drug culture.” However, most people do not define this kind of drug use as a problem because it is so routine; instead, people define the drug problem as the use of illegal drugs.

• A government survey in 1998 revealed that nearly 14 million people (6% of the population aged twelve and older) had used some illegal drug at least once in the past thirty days. The trend in illegal drug use (as well as alcohol and cigarettes) is downward.

Why Do People Use Drugs?

There are a number of reasons that people use drugs:

1) Recreation - certain drugs (e.g., beer and wine) taste good and make the user feel better

2) Therapy - some drugs offer medical benefits such as controlling seizures or depression

3) Escape – many people whose lives are troubled turn to alcohol or other drugs (especially in large doses) in order to free themselves of undesirable situations

4) Spirituality – some people use drugs to alter their consciousness for the purpose of religious rituals (e.g. the use of peyote in Native American societies)

5) Social Conformity – people use drugs to “fit in” (e.g., peer pressure may lead young people to start smoking cigarettes or to try an illegal drug)


Addiction refers to a physical or psychological physical craving for a drug. When doctors first began using this term in the nineteenth century, they considered people addicted if they manifested physical symptoms (or withdrawal symptoms) when they stopped using the drug (e.g., the withdrawal symptoms of cocaine and opium include chills, fever, diarrhea, twitching, nausea, vomiting, cramps, aches, and pains).

• Today, addiction is seen as a complex state that depends on the drug, the dosage, the length of time the drug has been used, as well as the physical and mental health of the user. In general, addiction involves tolerance, a state in which a person’s body has adjusted to regular use of a drug.

Types of Drugs

1) Stimulants are drugs that elevate alertness, changing a person’s mood by increasing energy

a) Caffeine is the most popular drug in the United States and is available in many products (e.g., coffee, tea, soft drinks, chocolate, and “stay alert” pills)

b) Nicotine is both toxic and highly addictive. The most common way to ingest nicotine is to smoke cigarettes, which is the single greatest preventable cause of death. Each year, about 450,000 people die prematurely due to tobacco, which is a death toll that far exceeds that caused by alcohol and illegal drugs combined.

c) Cocaine and Crack are powerful stimulants that heighten alertness, raise blood pressure and pulse rate, keep users awake, reduce appetite, and cause agitation. Cocaine, the most popular of illegal stimulants, is either snorted up the nose (in a powder form) or is dissolved and injected into the body. Crack is a hardened form of cocaine that people generally smoke with a pipe. The typical cocaine user is well-to-do. African Americans are four times as likely as whites to use crack.

d) Amphetamines are easy to make, and many underground chemists operate highly profitable businesses selling drugs known on the street as “crank,” “speed,” “meth,” “crystal,” “go,” or “ice.” These drugs increase alertness, causing an excited sense of well-being while reducing the desire to sleep and eat. They were first developed for the medical treatment of personality disorders and obesity. Many people have become dependent on amphetamines, including patients who began taking them under a doctor’s supervision.

2) Depressantsare drugs that slow the operation of the central nervous system , reduces coordination, and decreases mental alertness (i.e., they have the opposite effect of stimulants).

a) Analgesics are drugs that dull pain. The most common analgesics include over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin), and acetaminophen (Tylenol). Less common, but more problematic, are naturally occurring narcotics, or opiates, such as opium and drugs derived from opium (e.g., morphine, codeine, and heroin). Opiates are highly addictive.

b) Sedative-hypnotics include barbiturates and tranquilizers. Medically, these drugs are used to produce two effects: relaxation (sedation) and sleep (hypnosis). The psychological effects of these drugs are similar to those of alcohol. Abrupt barbiturate withdrawal is fatal for 1 in every 20 persons.

c) Alcohol is an accepted part of our culture; the fact that alcohol is so widely accepted and so widely used means that it creates more problems than other drugs. Common health problems associated with alcohol include malnutrition, cirrhosis of the liver, and heart problems; also, children of alcoholic mothers have lower birth-weights, slower language development, lower IQs, and more birth defects than other children. Death can result from using alcohol in combination with other depressant drugs (e.g., sleeping pills), drunk driving, and extreme intoxication.

- Most current studies indicate that: (1) a little more than half of all Americans say they have had at least one drink in the last month; (2) more men than women drink (although this difference is narrowing); (3) whites drink more frequently than African Americans, and; (4) the prevalence of drinking is greatest among the college educated and those with higher incomes.

3) Hallucinogens are stimulants than cause hallucinations. The most commonly used hallucinogens in the U.S. include LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), peyote, mescaline, psilocybin, PCP (phenylcyclidine, or “angel dust”), and MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or “ecstasy”). While about 10% of the U.S. population has tried a hallucinogenic drug at some point, only about 0.5% reports using one recently.

- Hallucinogens are nonaddictive, but these drugs are powerful and can sharply raise pulse rates and blood pressure as well as affect perceptions of time and distance. In some cases, people find taking these drugs very pleasurable, and describe the experience as “consciousness expanding.” However, these drugs can also trigger panic attacks and many people find the experience terrifying. Also, people may experience flashbacks (i.e., unexpected hallucinations without taking the drug again).

4) Cannabis includes marijuana and hashish, which are smoked or consumed after these drugs have been used to prepare foods such as brownies or cookies. Both drugs produce a sense of euphoria, help people relax, and increase appetite. As doses increase, they can produce fatigue, disorientation, paranoia, and even serious personality disorders. Today, 80% of people using illegal substances use one of these two drugs. While 5% of U.S. adults currently use cannabis, about 1/3 (almost 75 million people) report using marijuana or hashish at some time in the past.

- Presently, a handful of communities (mostly in Maine and California) permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes, under the supervision of a doctor. For decades, a social movement has tried to legalize marijuana, making the claim that this drug is not addictive and poses little danger to users. Opponents of legalizing marijuana counters that this drug does pose dangers to users and to others.

Drugs and Other Social Problems

1) Family Life – Although drugs play a part in many cases of child neglect and family violence, they are not the single cause of such problems; instead, they tend to make the problems worse by reducing a person’s inhibitions and affecting judgment.

- A drug problem rarely affects only one individual. Rather, it affects coworkers, parents, brothers and sisters, partners, and children. Those addicted to alcohol or other drugs spend their entire paycheck on substances that they crave, while others can not keep a job at all. Such cases create a pattern of codependency, behavior on the part of people who interact with a substance abuser that serves to help the drug abuse continue.

2) Homelessness – Because U.S. culture tends to define individuals as responsible for their social position, many people readily conclude that people become homeless because they use drugs. However, the opposite is often true: When people so not have work; when they lost the support of neighbors, family, and friends; and when they live on the streets they may turn to alcohol or other drugs as a means to cope.

3) Health – Each year, as many people die from the use of legal and illegal drugs as from gun violence, accidents, and infectious disease combined. Estimates suggest that half of all pregnant women drink alcohol at some time during pregnancy, putting their babies at risk. Also, between 5 and 10% of pregnant women use marijuana, cocaine, or some other drug. Drug users may also share needles, a dangerous practice that spreads HIV—the virus that causes AIDS.

4) Crime – Half the people in jail across the United States are locked up for drug offenses.

- Government officials report that about 30% of prison inmates convicted of violent offenses were under the influence of some drug when they committed their crimes. Such statistics lead some people to conclude that drugs are a major cause of crime.

- Others, however, argue that enforcement policies in the U.S. contribute to crime. For one thing, drug laws drive up drug prices. High prices, in turn, lead uses of cocaine, crack, or heroine to commit all sorts of crimes, from prostitution to burglary to murder. Almost one in five prison inmates reports committing violent crime for money to buy drugs.

- From another angle, the high price of drugs creates huge profits for drug dealers. Especially among people with few opportunities to get ahead, the chance to earn drug profits may outweigh the risk of being sent to jail.

Strategies to Control Drugs

1) Prosecution focuses on placing drug dealers in jail. However, catching them is difficult, and people’s basic freedoms may be threatened in the process. Additionally, the policy of prosecuting drug dealers often unfairly punishes the poor and minorities. Mandatory sentencing laws passed in the 1980s are biased against minorities. For example, possession of 500 grams of cocaine—but only 5 grams crack—leads to the same five-year jail term. Because whites are more likely to use cocaine and blacks are more likely to use crack, critics claim that the difference in sentencing reflects not the drug but the drug user.

2) Education – Educational programs try to discourage people from trying drugs in the first place. They typically operate in schools and target young people. The most widespread program is DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), which operates in 75% of elementary schools across the U.S. Although police, school officials, and parents agree on the need to instruct young people about drugs, research suggests that these educational programs seem to make little difference in drug use over the long term.

3) Interdiction refers to stopping drugs from moving across this country’s borders, via the Drug Enforcement Agency, the U.S. Customs Service, the Border Patrol, and the U.S. military. These groups face a daunting task: The United States has 12,000 miles of coastline and 7,500 miles of land borders, and each year 200,000 ships and boats, 600,000 aircraft, 200 million cars, and 500 million people cross U.S. borders. As a result, agents only manage to seize a tiny share of the drugs that enter the U.S.

4) Treatment – Drug treatment programs focus on helping people who are struggling with addiction to kick their habits. In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration expanded drug treatment programs that offered methadone to treat heroine addicts. These programs simply replaced one form of addiction with another. Treatment has two significant limitations: 1) there are not enough public treatment programs to help all those who need them, and 2) these programs do nothing to change the environment that pushed people into drugs in the first place.


• Not everyone agrees with the idea that government should actively try to stamp out illegal drugs. Proponents of legalization argue that making certain drugs legal would take the profits out of drug distribution and take drugs off the street. Even if this approach failed to reduce drug use, advocates assert that it would still reduce the drug problem by reducing organized crime, destigmatizing drug users, undermining drug subcultures, and eliminating the need for addicts to commit crimes to pay for high-priced illegal drugs.

• Most supporters of legalization do not advocate over-the-counter sales of all drugs; marijuana is the only drug for which full legalization has widespread support. Those who do advocate the legalization of all drugs often base their arguments on philosophical opposition to government interference in individuals’ lives (these individuals take a libertarian political stand, which emphasizes the greatest individual freedom possible).

Theoretical Approaches to Drugs

1) The structural-functionalist perspective examines the role drugs play in the maintenance of order and stability in a society. They assert, for example, that drugs perform the following functions:

1) Some drugs (e.g., alcohol) ease social interaction
2) Some drugs (e.g., caffeine, Valium, Ritalin) help people cope with the demands of modern life
3) Drugs are an important source of economic activity, providing jobs for hundred of thousands of people

2) The conflict perspective focuses on how social power shapes the lives of everyone in a society. Throughout the history of the U.S., officials have acted to outlaw the drugs favored by powerless people, especially racial minorities and immigrants. For example, in the mid-nineteenth century, whites on the West Coast outlawed the opium used mainly by Chinese immigrants; about 1900, southern whites who feared black violence pressed to outlaw cocaine; by 1920, the tide of European immigration led to Prohibition, which banned alcohol; and a decade later, rising immigration from Mexico prompted a legal ban on marijuana. Moreover, the social standing of the user has much to do with how severely our society punishes illegal drug use.

• Conflict theorists also note that it is powerful corporate interests who sell highly profitable drugs—including alcohol and tobacco—with the full protection of the law, even though these two drugs are linked to more deaths annually than all the illegal drugs combined.

3) The symbolic interactionist perspective examines the varying meanings that people attach to individual behavior, including drug use. From this perspective, a drug that is defined by one group as part of a religious ceremony may be considered dangerous by another group. Also, a drug may be legal at one point in time, and outlawed later on (e.g., cocaine in the United States). Alternatively, a drug once outlawed may become legal (e.g., cannabis in the Netherlands).

Political Orientations to Drugs

The Conservative View

• Conservatives emphasize the importance of moral values in their analysis of social problems. Drug use is seen as a symptom of poor moral instruction to young people. Conservatives look to schools, churches, and families to raise children with the moral values that will give them the strength to resist the temptation to use drugs.

• Conservatives define drugs use as a serious social problem that encourages crime and weakens both individual character and family. In response, conservatives favor tough laws, aggressive enforcement, and severe penalties. They also focus on the importance for parents to raise their children to make good moral choices.

The Liberal View

• Liberals place a high value on personal freedoms. They see drug use as a symptom of the suffering of many people from various problems, such as poverty and powerlessness.

• Liberals take a tolerant view of “soft” drugs (e.g., marijuana) and some favor experimenting with legalization. They argue that current policies criminalize hundreds of thousands of people who pose little harm to anyone. They call for less emphasis on police, courts, and prisons—and more emphasis on drug education programs and treatment programs for those struggling with addiction. By expanding economic opportunity and increasing social equality, drug use should decrease.

The Radical View

• Radicals see drug laws (and all other laws) as reflecting the interests of the powerful and criminalize poor people and minorities.

• Radicals believe that society needs to be completely restructured to spread wealth, power, and opportunities to all; by doing so, the conditions that lead people to deal and use drugs in the first place will be reduced.