The Sociological Approach, Part 1

In an article recently published in the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, Joseph Spillane has given me some clues on how to proceed in my own work. “Inside the Fantastic Lodge” is Spillane’s consideration of the networks, identity-making and social limitations revealed in Marilyn Bishop’s narration of her days as a young white heroin user in 1950s Chicago. The Fantastic Lodge (1961) is a book-length transcript of interviews with Bishop conducted by sociologist Howard Becker. As Spillane explains, The Fantastic Lodge was a product of the mid-century rise of a sociological approach “that took the individual as the unit of analysis.”

Spillane’s reading of Bishop’s life story construes her as the center of her own universe of social networks. By describing her social world, including the actors in it and outside intrusions upon it, he creates a piece of empirical evidence that is at once specific and universal. Historians, he writes, should continue to do this type of work in spite of a historiographic current that seems to be flowing in a different direction.

Although I have always thought of my research style as inductive—proceeding from my searching and reading rather than from my big idea—I have not really attempted to closely think and write about a single drug user. But now I have a subject whose story seems to require such an approach.

He is Keeny Terán, an adolescent Mexican-American boxer and heroin user from the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. After his meteoric rise on the amateur boxing circuit in the early 1950s (Bishop’s era of heroin use), he became a target of the news media and the police over a drug habit that he described as essential to enduring the pain of boxing, but that had originally sprung from social networks in his neighborhood and possibly at the gym where he trained.  

Teran
Keeny Terán, seated leftmost in this April 1951 Los Angeles Times photograph. What insights could boxing’s social networks hold about his heroin use?

Once targeted, Terán endured a string of public humiliations. They began when he was at the height of his notoriety: recently married, a new father, and seeking to earn a greater share of boxing’s receipts. He was arrested in the locker room after winning a fight, then outed as a supposed narcotics informant (which he denied), prompting death threats against him. Soon afterward he suddenly called off a big match and disappeared, ostensibly to a rehab center. Upon his return, a reporter double-crossed him by revealing his addiction treatment in a splashy story about his “big comeback.” Soon he was again arrested and charged with selling heroin, receiving a five-year prison sentence; about a year into serving it, the media furtively covered his divorce. The moment he hit the streets on parole, the cops marked and hounded him. He did more time, wrote a memoir that might have been lost, and ended up on methadone, which he hated.  

Many pieces of Terán’s story are missing and might never be recovered. In pursuit of facts and events, I have failed so far to ask questions about his relationship networks and his internal life, about struggles related to his family and his neighborhood and to the overlapping social worlds of boxing and heroin. More importantly, I have not yet even described these things.

The process of “describing to know” (as I’m calling it) seems to spring rather naturally from a sociological perspective. I noticed this fact last year when Ceci Burtis, a senior sociology major who conducted some research under my hapless guidance, submitted to me a write-up describing similarities and differences between two celebrity drug users. Her skilled process of simply describing aspects of the lives of these two women—Billie Holiday and Judy Garland—was simple and effective. For example, she gave me this comparison chart as a note:

Judy GarlandBillie Holiday
1922-19691915-1959
singer/actressjazz singer
whiteblack
pills: amphetamines & barbituatesheroin and marijuana
alcohol and cigarettesalcohol and barbituates
middle class familypoverty
never arrestedarrested at least three times
cirrhosis of the liver, depression, hepatitiscirrhosis of the liver, heart and liver problems
died age 47died age 44
self-administered overdosegeneral organ failure due to chronic drug use
actress at 12 years oldprostitute at 13 years old
rehab/“rest cure” four times, numerous hospitalizationsrehab three times

Marilyn, Keeny, Judy, Billie. One aspect shared by three of these lives is something Spillane describes as the “most salient” of the outside forces that can disrupt social networks and impose costs unevenly on members of those networks: the criminal justice system. Garland perhaps escaped entanglement with the law, but another disruptive force in all these cases (except personally for Marilyn, though it touched her indirectly) was the attention of the news media.

In pursuit of better history, I hope that I can begin to practice a sociological approach to writing about drug users. I also hope you will enjoy reading Ceci’s write-up about Holiday and Garland in the post that follows this one.

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Points Roundtable, “Becoming a Marihuana User”: Amanda Reiman

Editor’s Note: This week, we welcome Amanda Reiman to the roundtable on Howard Becker’s Becoming a Marihuana User. Reiman is the Manager of Marijuana Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance, where she works to develop DPA’s marijuana reform work as it relates to litigation, legislative and initiative drafting, campaign strategy, policy advocacy, media relations, fundraising, and public education in the local, state, federal, and international jurisdictions in which DPA is active. You can follow her work on twitter.

ReimanMarijuana prohibition is fruitless, because we have already learned to enjoy it.

Howard Becker’s seminal work, Becoming a Marihuana User, lays out the pathway to marijuana use based on the experiences of those who have used the substance. The gist of the piece is that there are three steps to becoming a marijuana user: 1) learning how to correctly ingest it; 2) recognizing the effects; and 3) interpreting the effects as enjoyable. According to Becker, if a person completes the three steps they will continue to use marijuana until they can no longer feel the effects and/or it is no longer enjoyable, at which time they will stop their use.

This theory is supported by the fact that most people who stop using marijuana do so without formal treatment. The term “aging out” is often used to refer to folks who discontinue their marijuana use once they take on the responsibilities of job and family. This makes sense in the context of Becker’s work, because he purports that changes in how marijuana use is viewed in one’s peer group and community can change the ability to derive pleasure from smoking. Indeed, today we see many people age out of marijuana use, and then return to the practice once they no longer have as many daily responsibilities and/or are beginning to feel the aches and pains of aging.

Becker is a sociologist and his work on social learning focuses on interviews with marijuana users, but there is a vital policy implication that can be derived from this work as well. According to Becker, the single driving force behind continued marijuana use is the ability to derive pleasure from it. If this is indeed the case, how could prohibiting marijuana ever be successful at reducing use? Prohibition relies on the theory that punishment influences drug using behavior. When it comes to drugs with a more serious level of dependence potential, we know this is not the case. Those experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms are not necessarily dissuaded from use because of the threat of criminal justice intervention. The data support this, as harder drug use in the United States has remained fairly stable even in light of rising financial support for the war on drugs. But what about marijuana?

Marijuana use among adults has been increasing. As Becker points out, no severe withdrawal syndrome drives use, but rather the presence of pleasure. It seems, then, that prohibitionist policies for marijuana are futile because continued use is about pleasure and shared experience, something that prohibition has been unable to influence. As laws change and marijuana use is no longer dampened by the threat of incarceration, and the market provides a wide variety of products and potencies, the experiences of pleasure will become even more common.

What are the impacts of changing views of marijuana on expectation effects? It is commonly said that in order for drug use to occur, two things must be present: predisposition and availability. Becker is critical of predisposition and likens it to an underlying desire or need to use a substance before initiation even occurs. However, if we have gotten to a place in society where the use of marijuana is perceived as a positive, healthful practice, even prior to initiation, then predisposition might be replaced with expectation. Interestingly, recent research shows that this new expectation of a positive marijuana experience seems to be limited to adults. Approval of marijuana use and use itself among young people is down. This could be attributed to the rejection by young people of what is considered desirable among adults. If this is in fact the case, and youth expectations for pleasure from marijuana are inversely related to those of adults, increased acceptance and positive expectations around marijuana use in the adult population might be the best deterrent for youth use that we have come across.

As Becker rightfully points out, in some ways marijuana itself has changed since this study was first conducted. Advanced cultivation techniques and the threat of arrest have resulted in higher potency strains (think Moonshine during alcohol prohibition). However, in states that now have legal marijuana systems, we are starting to see lower potency strains and products come back into fashion, especially among those who are re-initiating use after aging out. It would be fascinating to replicate Becker’s study today to assess the evolution of becoming a marijuana user.

 

Points Roundtable, “Becoming a Marihuana User”: Mary Jane Gibson

Editor’s Note: Today’s addition to our ongoing roundtable on Howard Becker’s 1953 book “Becoming a Marihuana User” comes from Mary Jane Gibson, the entertainment editor at High Times magazine. Welcome, Mary Jane!

MJG HTThose who follow our publication may be noticing a growing trend in the evolution of HIGH TIMES. It has gone from a countercultural, back-alley, both literally and figuratively “seedy” magazine to a fully budded and blossoming mainstream lifestyle magazine for the mercifully medicalized, sometime decriminalized—and in some places totally legalized—partakers of the holy smoke, deep dab, and altering edible. I cannot, and will not, endeavor to compete with the other illustrious and accomplished panelists commenting here. Instead, I’d like to offer a few words on cannabis culture and HIGH TIMES.

As Howard S. Becker writes in Becoming a Marihuana User, smoking weed in the 1950s was not a Social Evil. Nobody cared much about people who smoked it, nobody studied it, and nobody apart from Becker was writing about it. The hippie culture’s embrace of weed in the 1960s came to symbolize anti-establishment rebellion, freeing the mind from a mainstream way of life that developed into the now all-too-familiar dominant corporate culture. Smoking weed was paired with psychedelics, and the counterculture tuned in, turned on and dropped out. Along came the 1970s—and at that time of civil rights and anti-war movements, when many Americans believed that marijuana should (and would) be legalized, taxed and regulated like alcohol and tobacco, President Lyndon B. Johnson created the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in an effort to quash social unrest (i.e., drug use) across the country. The federal government’s War on Drugs began in earnest.

In 1974, 21 years after Howard S. Becker wrote Becoming a Marihuana User, Thomas King Forçade founded HIGH TIMES magazine. Forçade was a leader in the underground press, and a dedicated marijuana smuggler. His vision for HIGH TIMES was simple: to give voice to the freedom to pursue alternative consciousness. Forçade believed that marijuana prohibition had within it the seeds of its own destruction. He brought together a community of marijuana smokers and growers by providing the counterculture with a national forum in the form of a print magazine. HIGH TIMES was an immediate hit—the first issue was reprinted four times to meet the high demand. That community of marijuana smokers and growers, without whom, Becker argues, marijuana use and knowledge would not be disseminated, has stayed strong for 41 years. And HIGH TIMES has, for 41 years, been providing authentic, reliable marijuana-related information, activism, entertainment, and news.

Setting aside marijuana use as religious sacrament, or as medication for war veterans, epilepsy sufferers, cancer patients and thousands—nay, hundreds of thousands—of others, the widespread use of marijuana for pleasure, whether learned or discovered on one’s own, is undeniable. As of this writing, recreational marijuana has been made legal in four states: Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon. High-potency strains of weed (“flowers”), cannabis concentrates (“dabs”) and marijuana edibles are widely available and highly effective. On page xiv of the preface to Becoming a Marihuana User, one man addresses Becker’s assertion that one needs to “learn to be high” from smoking weed: “The effects were just… WHAM!!!… like a hammer at the back of the head… that guy Becker should change his dealer.” First-time users needn’t worry nowadays—if you want to get high, you’ll have no trouble finding strong weed to do the trick.

It can be true, as observed by Becker, that for a first-time user who smokes, dabs or ingests a powerful edible, identifying the resulting high as pleasurable can be… difficult. Columnist Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wrote of her experience after ingesting a medicated candy bar, “I became convinced that I had died and no one was telling me.” HIGH TIMES staffers now refer to overindulging in edibles to the point of discomfort as “doing a Dowd.” To be clear: Edibles, dabs, and high-potency strains of weed will seriously affect even the first-time user. Just as an inexperienced drinker pounding several shots of whiskey will undoubtedly get uncomfortably smashed and a seasoned imbiber might enjoy knocking back a few martinis without batting an eye, so it is with marijuana. Know your limits. If you’ve never smoked pot, don’t start with a dab or a chocolate bar infused with 1000 milligrams of THC.

Becker writes that smoking weed is a socially acquired taste akin to the acquired taste for “oysters or dry martinis.” That is true for some consumers; however, there are also people who immediately have an affinity for the herb. And when evaluating the effects of smoking pot as opposed to using harder drugs or drinking alcohol, studies show that marijuana is a safer alternative to recreate with. Instead of getting hammered on a bottle of Jack Daniels, take a toke and go to bed. You’ll sleep like a baby, and you’ll wake up without a hangover.

HIGH TIMES provides the ever-growing cannabis industry with a forum for a continuing conversation about marijuana, and offers a vision for all aspects of the cannabis lifestyle. HIGH TIMES is dedicated to continuing the fight for marijuana legalization and campaigning for the release of all those serving prison sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

Sincerely,

Mary Jane Gibson

NB: Mary Jane is my real name. I was named for my great aunt. It’s worked out well for me.

Points Roundtable, “Becoming a Marihuana User”: Nancy Campbell

howie_bwEditor’s Note: On April 25, 1953, Howard S. Becker, a graduate of the University of Chicago’s famed School of Sociology, presented a paper at the meeting of the Midwest Sociological Association to a room of about a dozen people. It was based on fifty interviews with marijuana smokers and his “irregular and unplanned observation” of their habits, all of this taking place in his “social laboratory” of Chicago. If the confused questions he received afterward were any indication, what Becker sought to explain was stunningly avant-garde: at the core of his paper was a new conception of how and why marijuana smokers got high. As he explains in the new preface to his 1953 book Becoming a Marihuana User“I liked the idea of understanding the characteristic ‘getting high’ experience not as an unmediated pharmacologically induced event, but rather as the result of users’ interpretations of those effects.” This emphasis on ideas that few, if any, sociologists were discussing at the time – personal experience with drug use and individual users’ interpretations of its effects – meant that Becker was talking about things like peer influence and “set and setting” over a decade before Timothy Leary discussed the concept in reference to LSD.

Marijuana was a quiet drug in 1953. It was smoked, and by “many people,” as Becker wrote, but it wasn’t “a Social Evil which deserved a place in the ‘Social Problems’ course every sociology department taught.” Instead, “relatively few people used marijuana and they didn’t make a lot of trouble, so despite the efforts of some authorities, no public was crying out to get rid of the practice.”

So how did the young graduate, who landed a research position on the staff of the Chicago Narcotics Survey, come to write an essay that shaped much of the drug scholarship to come? Mostly by hanging out in jazz clubs as a teen.

Becker BecomingAs Nancy Campbell, the first scholar to participate in our new, six-part roundtable discussing the rerelease of Becker’s 1953 text, will show, it was Becker’s early experiences playing piano in jazz and strip clubs in World War II-era Chicago that exposed him to the world of “deviants” and outsiders who became the primary research subjects of his long and influential career. Better known for his 1963 study Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, Becker’s first book is finding renewed relevance and acclaim today, as the University of Chicago rereleases it with a smart new cover and streamlined design. Praising the prescience of his “wise words,” Andrew Weil said that Becker’s work long ago “pointed the way toward a more enlightened, rational view of cannabis.”

Becker argued that most marijuana smokers were students of the drug long before they became “social deviants” or consistent smokers. They had to be brought into the community by other, seasoned drug users, who showed them how consumption was done. The first session was invariably a disappointment: smokers didn’t feel any effect because, as Becker put it, “you had to learn to be high.” That meant piecing together a narrative to understand the experience, and then wanting to experience that sensation time and again. After talking with fifty regular smokers, Becker identified the three steps that needed to be taken in order to become a marijuana user:

1.) Learn how to smoke in a way that produces real effects

2.) Recognize the effects and connect them back to the drug’s use

3.) Learn to enjoy these effects, and actively seek out recreating them

From teacher to student, marijuana spread across the country in the 1960s, and Becker saw this kind of shared knowledge creating a legitimate “drug culture,” with experienced smokers bringing new users into the fold. With more people learning how to “properly” use the drug, Becker watched the incidence of unpleasant drug experiences diminish, as remedies were proposed for experiences that remained unsound, and as fears of police intervention were minimized. (Well, for some; several of our panelists will discuss this idea later on).

In a celebration of his work, Points has gathered together five of the most prominent voices in the field of drug studies to comment on this rerelease and the lasting importance of Becker’s work. Ranging from examinations of the book through the lenses of race relations to modern policy recommendations, our five contributors – Nancy Campbell, Mary Jane Gibson, Amanda Reiman, Cookie Woolner and Carl Hart – have each written a short essay on what Becker’s six-decade-old paper means to them, and where they see its applications today. Their contributions will be run every Tuesday from now through October, with the final contribution coming from Howard Becker himself. We are thrilled and grateful to host such a conversation.

In our first contribution, Nancy Campbell, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, remembers an interview she conducted with Becker in 2005, along with her current thoughts on the lasting importance of his work.

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