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Chapter 7 Alcohol and Other Drugs

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Chapter 7

Alcohol and Other Drugs

Social Problems in the News

“Why Do College Students Love Getting Wasted?” the headline asked. Ohio University sociologist Thomas Vander Ven, author of a recent book on college drinking, was interviewed for this news story and had several answers to this question. First, drinking helps lessen college students’ anxieties about their courses, social relationships, and other matters. Second, it helps them have a good time and develop close friendships, including perhaps a romantic or sexual partner. Third, and perhaps most important, they drink because it’s fun. He also noted that when students get drunk, the other students who take care of them learn something about adult responsibility.

Vander Ven said that when students drink, “They’re more likely to say and do things that they normally wouldn’t do—show affection to their peers, get angry at them, get more emboldened to sing and dance and take risks and act crazy and there’s a ton of laughing that goes on. It creates this world of adventure. It creates war stories. It creates bonding rituals.” He added, “When things go wrong—the getting sick, the getting arrested, the getting upset—it gives them an opportunity to care for one another, to deliver social support. So you’ve got young adults who, for the first time, are taking care of a sick person, staying up all night with them, consoling them when they’re upset. It’s an opportunity for them to try on adult roles.”

Source: Rogers, 2011 [1]

This news story points to two central facts that are often forgotten in discussions about alcohol and other drugs. First, because of a combination of physiological, psychological, and social factors, drugs make us feel good. Second, because drugs make us feel good, many people want to use them, come hell or high water. To acknowledge these two basic facts is not meant to excuse the use of alcohol and other drugs, which cause serious individual and societal problems. But it is meant to indicate why the United States and other nations have found it so difficult to deal with drug use.

This difficulty in turn points to the need to understand why people use alcohol and other drugs, including the influence of our sociodemographic backgrounds on the likelihood of using them. This chapter examines these and other aspects of drug use before turning to the important issue of social and political policy regarding drug use.
[1] Rogers, T. (2011, August 28). Why do college students love getting wasted? Retrieved from

7.1 Drug Use in History


  1. Discuss the presence of drugs in ancient times.

  2. Summarize the use of drugs in the United States during the nineteenth century.

  3. Explain the racial basis for decisions to ban opium, cocaine, and marijuana in the United States.

Shakespeare once wrote that “what’s past is prologue.” This familiar phrase means that what happened in the past provides a context for, and can help to understand and predict, the future. To the extent that the past is prologue, the history of drug use provides a sobering lesson: Drug use has been common since ancient times and has been common in almost every society. As a recent book on drug policy states, “People have used chemicals to alter their state of mind since before there were written records” (Kleiman, Caulkins, & Hawken, 2011, p. xviii). [1] If past is indeed prologue, then it is no surprise that drug use remains common in contemporary nations despite considerable efforts to reduce it.

One manifestation of the long history of drug use is that humans have used mind-altering plants since prehistoric times. “Early humans discovered that eating some plants gave a feeling of relaxation, happiness, drowsiness, or peace,” one scholar writes. “Some gave a feeling of increased energy, alertness, and stamina. And some caused strange sensations, terrifying visions, or a profoundly different awareness” (Gahlinger, 2004, p. 5). [2]

Examples of drug use thousands of years ago abound (Escohotado, 2010; Faupel, Horowitz, & Weaver, 2010; Goodman, Sherratt, & Lovejoy, 2007). [3]Mead, an alcoholic drink made from fermented honey, was first used about 8000 BCE, and beer and berry wines were first used about 6000 BCE. The ancient Sumerians used opium starting about 5000 BCE. Ancient Egypt used alcohol in 3500 BCE, while ancient China used cannabis (the source of marijuana) around 3000 BCE. Ancient people in what is now Switzerland ate poppy seeds (the source of opium) in 2500 BCE. Coca leaves (the source of cocaine) have been chewed for thousands of years. Folk medicines made from plants and herbs have also been used since ancient times. People in ancient Palestine drank wine in 350 BCE. Ancient Greeks drank poppy juice in 300 BCE. In about the same period, South American tribes used a hallucinogen called cohoba, made from mimosa beans. The Chinese and other Asians were using opium regularly by 1000 CE. Native Americans used tobacco before being discovered by Columbus in 1492. The use of various drugs has also been common in the many societies that anthropologists have studied (Durant & Thakker, 2003; Page & Singer, 2010). [4]

Sociologist Erich Goode (2008, p. 176) [5] summarizes the history of drug use as follows: “Humans have been ingesting drugs for thousands of years. And throughout recorded time, significant numbers of nearly every society on earth have used one or more drugs to achieve certain desired physical or mental states. Drug use comes close to being a universal, both worldwide and throughout history.”

Drug Use in US History

This history of drug use includes the United States, where past is again prologue. During the colonial era, tobacco was a major crop in Virginia and other colonies thanks to slave labor. After being processed, it was commonly used by colonists and also exported to Europe in great quantities (Gately, 2001). [6] From the earliest colonial days, alcohol was another drug used in great quantities, as “Americans were drinkers right from the start” (Genzlinger, 2011, p. C1). [7] The Mayflower, the celebrated ship that brought the first Puritans to what eventually became the United States, was filled with barrels of beer. In colonial New England, rum manufacturing was a major industry, and rum drinking was common. During the early 1770s, New England had more than 140 rum distilleries, and rum consumption in the colonies averaged 7.5 million gallons annually. This massive drinking has led one author to call rum “the real spirit of 1776” (Williams, 2006). [8] Rum was also a major export to Europe and elsewhere. In addition to rum, colonists routinely drank beer and hard cider.

During the nineteenth century, Americans began to use drugs other than alcohol in great quantities. One popular drug was coffee. Before the Civil War, Americans who drank coffee had to buy green (unroasted) coffee beans in bulk and roast their own coffee. Then in 1865, John Arbuckle, a Pittsburgh grocer, began selling roasted coffee inside a new invention—the paper bag. His bagged coffee was an instant hit across the nation, other coffee manufacturers followed suit, and coffee use by Americans greatly increased.

Alcohol also remained a very popular drug, and use of this drug during the 1800s was probably greater than during colonial America. Two reasons help account for this trend (Faupel et al., 2010). [9] One reason was the western frontier. As the nation moved west, many of the explorers and settlers who led the way were men who were unmarried or, if married, men who had left their families behind. To put it mildly, they drank a lot, fought a lot, and gambled a lot. A second reason was that many Irish immigrants came to the United States during a great wave of immigration that began in the mid-nineteenth century. Although it might sound like a stereotype, the Irish drank a lot of alcohol back in their homeland, and they continued to do so once they reached the United States. Regardless of who was drinking, heavy alcohol use contributed greatly to poverty, to physical assaults and homicides, and to domestic violence and other family problems.

Three other popular drugs in this era were opium, cocaine, and marijuana. Use of these drugs was so common that nineteenth-century America has been called a “dope fiend’s paradise” (Brecher, 1973). [10] A brief discussion of these drugs’ histories will underscore the widespread use of drugs in the American past and also racial issues that arose when laws were passed to ban these drugs (Musto, 1999). [11]


During the decades before and after the Civil War, the use of opium was extremely common (Goode, 2012). [12] Beyond making people feel good, opium is an effective painkiller and cough suppressant. Accordingly, it was a staple in many patent medicines, elixirs and tonics, sold back then in apothecaries, general stores, and other venues. Large numbers of people from all social backgrounds used these opium-laced medicines for problems such as depression, headaches, menstrual cramps, and toothaches. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the United States was a nation of opium users during this period; an estimated 500,000 Americans were addicted to opium by the end of the century. As anthropologist Robert B. Edgerton (1976, pp. 57–58) [13]summarizes the situation, “The use of opium was widespread in all segments of American society. Children were calmed with opium derivatives, women used many popular patent medicines which were liberally larded with opiates, and ‘opium dens’ were probably present in all cities and most towns as well.”

Attendance at opium dens (the equivalent of today’s bar or tavern, with opium the drug of choice rather than alcohol) was a popular activity for the Chinese immigrants who began coming to the United States during the 1850s to help build the nation’s railroads and perform other jobs. White workers feared their growing numbers as a threat to their jobs, and racial prejudice against the Chinese increased. Politicians, labor unions, and other parties began to focus on the Chinese habit of smoking opium at opium dens and warned that the Chinese were kidnapping little white children, taking them to the opium dens, and turning them into “opium fiends.” This campaign had two effects: it increased prejudice against the Chinese, and it increased public concern about opium. This rising concern led San Francisco in 1875 to become the first locality to ban opium dens. Other California cities did the same, and the state itself banned opium dens in 1881. Three decades later, the federal government banned the manufacture, sale, and use of opium (except for use with a physician’s prescription) when it passed the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914.


Cocaine was another drug that was very popular in the nineteenth century, beginning in the 1880s, thanks in part to enthusiastic claims by Sigmund Freud and American physicians that cocaine could help relieve asthma, depression, hay fever, sexual impotence, toothache pain, and a host of other problems. Like opium, cocaine was a popular ingredient in the many patent medicines that people bought at various stores, and the US Army Surgeon-General advocated its medical use. It was a major ingredient in a new beverage introduced in 1886, Coca-Cola, which became an instant hit because people naturally felt so good when they drank Coke! During the next two decades, however, concern grew about cocaine’s effects. Some of this concern was fueled by the absurd belief that African Americans who used cocaine became extra strong, dangerous, and even invulnerable to bullets. Cocaine was heavily taxed by the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Act and later banned.


A third legal drug during the late nineteenth century was marijuana. It joined opium and cocaine in being a common ingredient in patent medicines, and it was a popular drug for problems like migraine headaches, menstrual cramps, and toothache pain. After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Mexicans moved to the United States in increased numbers and brought with them their habit of marijuana use. Whites feared that Mexicans would take their jobs, and, similar to what happened with opium and Chinese immigrants during the 1870s, began to charge that Mexicans who used marijuana would become violent and more likely to rape and murder innocent white victims. This racially prejudiced claim increased concern about marijuana and helped lead to the federal Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 that banned its use.

This brief history shows that drug use has been part of the American culture ever since the nation began. If past is prologue, it should come as no surprise that drugs remain part of the American culture today, and it should also come as no surprise that efforts to reduce or eliminate drug use often meet with much resistance and little success. As the United States continues to try to deal with drug use, these basic facts must not be forgotten.


  • Drug use has been common since ancient times.

  • Alcohol was widely drunk in colonial America. During the latter nineteenth century, opium, marijuana, and cocaine were legal drugs that were also widely used.

  • Racial prejudice played an important role in decisions during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century to ban opium, marijuana, and cocaine.


  1. Were you surprised to read that mind-altering drug use has been common since ancient times? Why or why not?

  2. Were you surprised to read that racial prejudice helped lead to bans on opium, marijuana, and cocaine? Why or why not?

[1] Kleiman, M. A. R., Caulkins, J. P., & Hawken, A. (2011). Drugs and drug policy: What everyone needs to know. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[2] Gahlinger, P. (2004). Illegal drugs: A complete guide to their history, chemistry, use, and abuse. New York, NY: Penguin.

[3] Escohotado, A. (2010). The general history of drugs (G. W. Robinette, Trans.). Valparasio, Chile: Graffiti Milante Press; Faupel, C. E., Horowitz, A. M., & Weaver., G. S. (2010). The sociology of American drug use. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; Goodman, J., Sherratt, A., & Lovejoy, P. E. (Eds.). (2007). Consuming habits: Drugs in history and anthropology (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

[4] Durant, R., & Thakker, J. (2003). Substance use and abuse: Cultural and historical perspectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications; Page, B., & Singer, M. (2010).Comprehending drug use: Ethnographic Research at the social margins. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

[5] Goode, E. (2008). Deviant behavior (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

[6] Gately, I. (2001). Tobacco: The story of how tobacco seduced the world. New York, NY: Grove Press.

[7] Genzlinger, N. (2011, October 1). Bellying up to the time when America went dry. New York Times, p. C1.

[8] Williams, I. (2006). Rum: a social and sociable history of the real spirit of 1776. New York, NY: Nation Books.

[9] Faupel, C. E., Horowitz, A. M., & Weaver., G. S. (2010). The sociology of American drug use. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[10] Brecher, E. M. (1973). Licit and illicit drugs. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

[11] Musto, D. F. (1999). The American disease: Origins of narcotic control (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[12] Goode, E. (2012). Drugs in American society (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

[13] Edgerton, R. (1976). Deviance: A cross-cultural perspective. Menlo Park, CA: Cummings.

7.2 Drugs and Drug Use Today


  1. Summarize the different types of drugs.

  2. Explain the various harms caused by alcohol and tobacco.

  3. Understand the effects of marijuana, cocaine, and other illegal drugs.

drug may be defined as any substance other than food that, when taken into the body, affects the structure and/or functioning of the body. Defined this way, many common substances contain drugs or are drugs: coffee, No-Doz, and other products to keep us alert; aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and other pain relievers; Tums, Rolaids, and other products that reduce heartburn; Metamucil and other products that reduce constipation; Robitussin, Sudafed, and other cold medicines; and so forth. If you have ever used one of these products, you are technically a drug user, however silly that might sound.

Many prescription drugs also certainly exist: Prozac and other antidepressants; Valium and other tranquilizers; Lipitor and other cholesterol drugs; Yasmin, Yaz and other birth control pills; Viagra and other products that relieve erectile dysfunction; and so forth. Sales of these prescription drugs amount to tens of billions of dollars annually.

The following substances are also drugs: alcohol, ecstasy, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, LSD, methamphetamine, PCP, and tobacco. Much has been written about these drugs, and we will discuss them further later in this section. But note that two of these drugs, alcohol and tobacco, are legal after a certain age, while the remaining drugs are illegal.

One of the problems in deciding how to think about and deal with drugs is that this distinction between legal drugs and illegal drugs has no logical basis. It makes sense to assume that the illegal drugs should be the ones that are the most dangerous and cause the most physical and social harm, but that is not true. Rather, alcohol and tobacco cause the most harm even though they are legal. As Kleiman et al. (2011, p. xviii) [1] note about alcohol, “When we read that one in twelve adults suffers from a substance abuse disorder or that 8 million children are living with an addicted parent, it is important to remember that alcohol abuse drives those numbers to a much greater extent than does dependence on illegal drugs.” Tobacco kills about 435,000 Americans annually by causing premature death, and alcohol kills about 85,000 annually through its effects on the liver and other body organs (Mokdad, Marks, Stroup, & Gerberding, 2004).[2]

Putting these numbers together, some 520,000 Americans die annually from alcohol and tobacco use. Meanwhile, the physiological effects of all illegal drugs combined kill an estimated 17,000 Americans annually (Mokdad et al., 2004)[3], a number that is only just above the number of annual deaths (16,500) from nonsteroidal inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen (Frech & Go, 2009). [4] Figure 7.1 "Annual Deaths from Legal and Illegal Drugs" depicts the huge difference between deaths from alcohol and tobacco as legal drugs and from illegal drugs.

Figure 7.1 Annual Deaths from Legal and Illegal Drugs

Source: Mokdad, A. H., Marks, J. S., Stroup, D. F., & Gerberding, J. L. (2004). Actual causes of death in the United States, 2000. Journal of the American Medical Association, 291(10), 1238–1245.

We return to the issue of the relative harm of legal and illegal drugs toward the end of the chapter when we discuss drug policy. In the meantime, keep in mind two related facts: (1) all drugs can be dangerous, and (2) some drugs are much more dangerous than others. Two aspirins are safe to take, but a bottle of aspirin can kill someone. Two cups of coffee a day are fine, but drinking many cups a day can cause anxiety, insomnia, and headaches. One drink of alcohol is safe to take, but several drinks in a short time amount to binge drinking, and long-term use of alcohol can kill someone. One snort of cocaine is usually safe, but even one snort can result in a sudden fatal heart attack, and long-term use often has serious health consequences.

Types of Drugs

Drugs are commonly classified into certain categories according to their physiological effects. All drugs may make us feel good, but they do so in different ways. Because some drugs are much more potent than other drugs, there is much variation within each category. Partly because many drugs have multiple effects, many different classifications of drugs exist. A common classification includes the following categories: depressants, hallucinogens, marijuana, narcotics, and stimulants.


Depressants slow down the activity of the central nervous system. Depending on the specific drug, they help induce drowsiness and relaxation, and they can reduce anxiety and pain. Several types of depressants exist. Analgesics reduce pain and include over-the-counter products such as aspirin, acetaminophen (the major ingredient in Tylenol), and ibuprofen (the major ingredient in Advil and Motrin), and many prescription medicines that contain acetaminophen.Sedatives help people relax and include alcohol, barbiturates, and sleep medicines such as Sominex and Tylenol PM (both over-the-counter) and Ambien and Valium (both prescription). Large doses of depressants may lead to physical dependence and sometimes death.


Hallucinogens are mind-altering drugs that cause delusions or hallucinations. Their ranks include ecstasy, LSD, mescaline, and PCP. Many people who use a hallucinogen report that the mind-altering effects of the drug provide them a truly wonderful experience, but many also find the effects to be troubling at best and horrible and terrifying at worst. Long-term effects include hallucinations that occur without any drug use preceding them.


Because marijuana’s effects do not fit neatly into any other category of drug, marijuana (along with its close cousin, hashish) is often considered to be its own category. As we will see later, it is by far the most popular illegal drug in the United States. Its effects include distortion of time and space, euphoria, hunger, increased sensory perception, and relaxation.


Narcotics are sometimes classified under depressants because they slow down the central nervous system, but they are often still considered as their own category. They are highly effective at relieving pain and are a common substance in prescription medicines for severe pain. By definition, all narcotics are derived from opium, either in its natural form or in a synthesized form. Examples of narcotics include codeine, heroin, methadone, and morphine. In addition to relieving pain, narcotics may induce drowsiness, euphoria, and relaxation. Although narcotics do not damage bodily organs, they are very physically addictive, and high doses can be fatal.


Stimulants have the opposite effect of depressants by speeding up the central nervous system. They increase alertness and energy and can produce euphoria or anxiety. Some are legal and some are illegal, and many very different drugs are all considered stimulants: caffeine, cocaine, methamphetamine and other amphetamines, nicotine (tobacco), and Ritalin. Stimulants can be very physically addictive, and nicotine is thought to be more addictive than heroin. While caffeine is very safe as long as someone does not have too many cups of coffee daily, many other stimulants may have dangerous short-term or long-term side effects on the cardiovascular system.

Not all drugs can be discussed in one chapter. In choosing which drugs to discuss in a book on social problems, it makes sense to discuss the drugs that probably concern Americans the most. We thus focus in the remainder of this section mostly on alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.

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