Points Roundtable, “Becoming a Marihuana User”: Howard Becker

Editor’s Note: In this, our last installment of the Points roundtable on Howard Becker’s Becoming a Marihuana User, we are thrilled to welcome the author himself. Here, Becker responds to our previous contributors and offers some insights of his own. 

We’d also like to take this opportunity to once again thank Nancy Campbell, Mary Jane Gibson, Amanda Reiman, Cookie Woolner and Carl Hart for their intriguing, thought-provoking and entertaining contributions. We are honored to count you as members of the Points family. 

AE-PROFILE-howie-pianoI have never been a “marijuana expert,” certainly never claimed to be such a thing. But I was, for quite a while, the only sociologist who had ever actually published anything about it. So, when it did become a legitimate topic of study and big shots and politicians convoked meetings to decide on scientific matters related to the subject, the attendees mostly consisted of physiologists and pharmacologists and psychologists. But, just to avoid troubles, the organizers of these events always thought they should have a social scientist and for quite a while I was the only one who had the slightest claim to be there. Eventually, of course, plenty of others joined me, including people like the anthropologist Mike Agar. Nancy Campbell talked with me about that phase of the thing and she did an excellent of getting me to tell about the politics of that period, which was pretty funny.

As a result of that phase of my “being an expert,” I became more expert than I had been by learning a lot from hanging around between meeting sessions with people like Mike and Andy Weil, who were doing research on the drug. A whole apparatus had been built up out of people who had met at such events and thus come to understand the politics involved at the level of science and research (also covered in my interview with Nancy Campbell). In addition, I was part of the informal information exchange created by Allen Ginsberg, who traveled constantly and kept his eye on who was doing research about what. He would call me when he came through Chicago to ask if I knew about so-and-so who had some interesting findings on this or that and wanting to know if I had anything new to tell him.

Well, I didn’t, not really, because my interests had moved on to other areas of activity, like art. But the basic ideas that I got out of making sense of the marijuana experience stayed with me because they traveled well and turned out to be useful in quite different areas. Most recently I devoted a chapter in What About Mozart? What About Murder?, to a sort of updating and generalizing of what I learned from the work I did fifty years ago, pointing out how it helps make sense out of a lot of other things, not just more recently invented substances but even what happens to people climbing Mt. Everest (where there isn’t a whole lot of oxygen in the air) and other situations where the ordinary inputs to our physical experiences take new values and produce novel feelings.

Cookie Woolner is more of a scholar than I have ever been of the literary contributions. I have to say that I wish I’d thought to take advantage of Mezz Mezzrow‘s contributions as she has. And I could have used Carl Hart’s pithy account of his own initiation if I’d had it. Way to go!

Some of the other folks who have contributed to this roundtable think about the policy issues connected with marijuana use. I long ago gave up doing that, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a policy issue that was more than a tiny bit influenced by any social science. It was clear to me fifty years ago that physiologists and medical people had no influence at all on what the legislators and the rest of the people who make policy did. At best, they were polite enough not to yawn while the experts tried to enlighten them, but they surely didn’t listen and say, “Well, I just had never thought of that, we’ll change that silly law tomorrow.” And when they do it next week or whenever they get around to it, it will more likely be because they see a new source of revenue than because science has opened their eyes to The Truth.

One thing I will take credit for is the slight terminological change involved in speaking of marijuana use instead of marijuana abuse. People noticed that at the time but weren’t sure what to make of it. Now it seems more like a note of what was coming than just a personal eccentricity.

But yes, really, I am cynical about all of the hopes that our work will produce a new order. The new order is surely coming but I don’t think we (certainly not me) can take any credit for that.

But there is a new research opportunity coming, because there will be many people who will be able to get their hands on marijuana without necessarily having much to do with the accumulated knowledge of the basics that have been the basis of the culture surrounding marijuana use. So there will be some new sorts of understandings to learn about, rather like the kinds of new things that have grown up around the binge-drinking of college students.

Fortunately for people in my line of work, the world is always inventing new ways for human beings to mess with their own heads.

Howie Becker