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7.3 Social Patterning of Drug Use


  1. Outline the nature of gender differences in drug use.

  2. Understand whether racial and ethnic differences in drug use exist.

  3. Explain whether education and religiosity are related to drug use.

It is a sociological truism that our sociodemographic backgrounds—gender, race and ethnicity, social class, and so forth—influence many of our behaviors and attitudes. Drug use is no different. By examining the social patterning of drug use, we can see which kinds of people, in terms of their sociodemographic backgrounds, are more or less at risk for using drugs. And by understanding these sociodemographic differences, we begin to understand why some people are more likely than others to use drugs. Our examination of these differences will rely heavily on data from the SAMHSA survey discussed earlier and focus on past-month differences in alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drug use (all illegal drugs combined).


In the study of crime and deviance, gender is an important predictor: Males are more likely than females to commit the more serious forms of crime and deviance, such as homicide, robbery, and burglary. This pattern generally holds true for drug use of various types. Figure 7.2 "Gender and Prevalence of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Illegal Drug Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010 (Percentage Using in Past Month)" shows that men are more likely than women to use alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs. In related data, men are also more than twice as likely as women to engage in binge drinking (30.7 percent compared to 13.8 percent) and heavy drinking (9.7 percent compared to 2.8 percent) as defined earlier.

Figure 7.2 Gender and Prevalence of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Illegal Drug Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010 (Percentage Using in Past Month)

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011).Results from the 2010 national survey on drug use and health: Summary of national findings. Rockville, MD: Author.

Why do these gender differences exist? A common thread underlines gender differences in criminal behavior and in drug use of various kinds, and that ismasculinity (Lindsey, 2011). [1] Compared to girls, boys are raised to be more active, assertive, and daring, and to be less concerned about the effects of their behavior on others. As they grow older, these traits make them more likely to use drugs and also to commit various types of crimes. Ironically, the way that most parents raise their sons helps make their sons more likely than their daughters to drink, smoke, and use illegal drugs once they reach adolescence and in the many decades of their adulthood.

In an important exception to the general gender difference just discussed, females are more likely than males to use prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons (Ford, 2009). [2] The reasons for this counterintuitive finding are unclear, but scholars speculate that because girls and women obtain more prescription drugs than do boys and men, their greater nonmedical use of prescription drugs reflects the fact that they have more access to these drugs in the first place.

Race and Ethnicity

Racial and ethnic differences in drug use of various types exist to some extent but are less clear-cut than the gender differences we just examined (see Figure 7.3 "Race/Ethnicity and Prevalence of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Illegal Drug Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010 (Percentage Using in Past Month)"). For alcohol use, whites have the highest rate of drinking, and Native Americans, despite the popular image that they have alcohol problems, have the lowest rate. For tobacco use, Native Americans have the highest rate of use, and Asians have the lowest rate. For illegal drugs, Native Americans again have the highest rate of use, and Hispanics have the lowest rate. Note that African Americans have roughly the same illegal drug use rate as whites, and have lower rates of alcohol and tobacco use than whites do. Although many people believe that African Americans are more likely than whites to use drugs, research data show that this belief is a myth.

Figure 7.3 Race/Ethnicity and Prevalence of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Illegal Drug Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010 (Percentage Using in Past Month)

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011).Results from the 2010 national survey on drug use and health: Summary of national findings. Rockville, MD: Author.

The illegal drugs category includes many types of drugs. We do not have space to illustrate racial/ethnic differences in the use of each of these drugs, but we will examine differences in marijuana and cocaine (including crack) use. Figure 7.4 "Race/Ethnicity and Prevalence of Marijuana and Cocaine Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010 (Percentage Using in Lifetime)" shows these differences for lifetime use. Despite some minor differences, African Americans, Native Americans, and whites have the highest lifetime use of marijuana, while Asians and Hispanics have the lowest use. Turning to cocaine, Native Americans have the highest lifetime use, and Asians have the lowest use. Note again that African Americans have a lower rate of lifetime use than whites; this racial difference will be relevant for our discussion toward the end of the chapter of the racial impact of the legal war on drugs since the 1970s.

Figure 7.4 Race/Ethnicity and Prevalence of Marijuana and Cocaine Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010 (Percentage Using in Lifetime)

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011).Results from the 2010 national survey on drug use and health: Summary of national findings. Rockville, MD: Author.


Education differences in drug use depend on the type of drug (see Figure 7.5 "Education and Prevalence of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Illegal Drug Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010 (Percentage Using in Past Month)"). For alcohol, higher levels of education are associated with a higher likelihood of drinking. One possible reason for this association is that people with lower levels of education are more likely to be religious, and people who are religious are less likely to drink. For tobacco, higher levels of education are associated with lower levels of tobacco use. In particular, college graduates are much less likely to use tobacco than people without a college degree. For illegal drugs, there is no clear association between education and use of these drugs, although college graduates report the lowest past-month use.

Figure 7.5 Education and Prevalence of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Illegal Drug Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010 (Percentage Using in Past Month)

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011).Results from the 2010 national survey on drug use and health: Summary of national findings. Rockville, MD: Author.

Region of Country

The regions of the United States differ in many attitudes and behaviors, and one of these behaviors is drug use (see Figure 7.6 "Region of Country and Prevalence of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Illegal Drug Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010 (Percentage Using in Past Month)"). The regional differences are not large, but the South has lowest rate of alcohol use, in part reflecting the fact that it is the most religious region in the nation. The South and Midwest have the highest rates of tobacco use, while the West has the lowest rate, befitting its image as a “healthy” region. However, the West also has the highest rate of illegal drug use, although its use is only slightly higher than the other regions’ use.

Figure 7.6 Region of Country and Prevalence of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Illegal Drug Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010 (Percentage Using in Past Month)

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011).Results from the 2010 national survey on drug use and health: Summary of national findings. Rockville, MD: Author.


A growing number of studies finds that religiosity—how religious someone is—affects how often people use various drugs: The more religious people are, the lower their drug use; conversely, the less religious they are, the higher their drug use (Desmond, Soper, & Purpura, 2009). [3] We can see evidence of this relationship in Figure 7.7 "Religiosity and Drinking among Youths Ages 17–18 (Percentage Saying They Drank Alcohol on Only 0–2 Days in the Past Year)", which presents data for a nationwide sample of youths ages 17–18. Those who say religion is important in their lives report less drinking (i.e., on only 0–2 days in the past year) than those who say religion is unimportant in their lives.

Figure 7.7 Religiosity and Drinking among Youths Ages 17–18 (Percentage Saying They Drank Alcohol on Only 0–2 Days in the Past Year)

Source: National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Wave I. (2012). Retrieved from

  • Drug use is socially patterned: Aspects of our sociodemographic backgrounds affect our likelihood of using various drugs.

  • Perhaps the clearest social pattern involves gender, with males more likely than females to use and abuse alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs.

  • Despite common beliefs, the rate of illegal drug use is lower for African Americans than for whites.


  1. The text discusses five social patterns of drug use: gender, race/ethnicity, education, region of country, and religiosity. Taking into account these five sets of patterns, write a short essay in which you use this information to understand your own level of use (or nonuse) of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs.

  2. Did it surprise you to read that illegal drug use is lower among African Americans than among whites? Why or why not?

[1] Lindsey, L. L. (2011). Gender roles: A sociological perspective (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

[2] Ford, J. A. (2009). Nonmedical prescription drug use among adolescents: The influence of bonds to family and school. Youth & Society, 40(3), 336–352.

[3] Desmond, S. A., Soper, S. E., & Purpura, D. J. (2009). Religiosity, moral beliefs, and delinquency: Does the effect of religiosity on delinquency depend on moral beliefs?Sociological Spectrum, 29, 51–71.

7.4 Explaining Drug Use


  1. Understand the possible biological origins of drug addiction.

  2. Explain why longitudinal research on personality traits and drug use is important.

  3. Outline the aspects of the social environment that may influence drug use.

To know how to reduce drug use, we must first know what explains it. The major explanations for drug use come from the fields of biology, psychology, and sociology.

Biological Explanations

In looking at drug use, the field of biology focuses on two related major questions. First, how and why do drugs affect a person’s behavior, mood, perception, and other qualities? Second, what biological factors explain why some people are more likely than others to use drugs?

Regarding the first question, the field of biology has an excellent understanding of how drugs work. The details of this understanding are beyond the scope of this chapter, but they involve how drugs affect areas in the brain and the neurotransmitters that cause a particular drug’s effects. For example, cocaine produces euphoria and other positive emotions in part because it first produces an accumulation of dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to feelings of pleasure and enjoyment.

Regarding the second question, biological research is more speculative, but it assumes that some people are particularly vulnerable to the effects of drugs. These people are more likely to experience very intense effects and to become physiologically and/or psychologically addicted to a particular drug. To the extent this process occurs, the people in question are assumed to have a biological predisposition for drug addiction that is thought to be a genetic predisposition.

Most research on genetic predisposition has focused on alcohol and alcoholism (Hanson et al., 2012). [1] Studies of twins find that identical twins are more likely than fraternal twins (who are not genetically identical) to both have alcohol problems or not to have them. In addition, studies of children of alcoholic parents who are adopted by nonalcoholic parents find that these children are more likely than those born to nonalcoholic parents to develop alcohol problems themselves. Although a genetic predisposition for alcoholism might exist for reasons not yet well understood, there is not enough similar research on other types of drug addiction to assume that a genetic predisposition exists for these types. Many nonbiological factors also explain the use of, and addiction to, alcohol and other drugs. We now turn to these factors.

Psychological Explanations

Psychological explanations join biological explanations in focusing on why certain individuals are more likely than others to use drugs and to be addicted to drugs (Hanson et al., 2012). [2] Some popular psychological explanations center on personality differences between drug users and nonusers. These explanations assume that users have personality traits that predispose them to drug use. These traits include low self-esteem and low self-confidence, low trust in others, and a need for thrills and stimulation. In effect, drug users have inadequate personalities, or personality defects, that make them prone to drug use, and once they start using drugs, their personality problems multiply.

One problem with research on personality explanations is methodological: If we find personality differences between drug users and nonusers, should we conclude that personality problems cause drug use, or is it possible that drug use causes personality problems? Most of the research on personality and drug use cannot answer this question adequately, since it studies drug users and nonusers at one point in time (cross-sectional research). To answer this question adequately, longitudinal research, which examines the same people over time, is necessary. Among initial drug abstainers at Time 1, if those with the personality traits mentioned earlier turn out to be more likely than those without the traits to be using drugs at Time 2, then we can infer that personality problems affect drug use rather than the reverse. Longitudinal research on personality and drug use that studies adolescents and college students does indeed find this causal sequence (Sher, Bartholow, & Wood, 2000). [3] However, some scholars still question the importance of personality factors for drug use and addiction (Goode, 2012). [4] They say these factors have only a small effect, if that, and they cite research questioning whether personality differences between users and nonusers in fact exist (Feldman, Boyer, Kumar, & Prout, 2011). [5]

Other psychological explanations are based on the classic concept from behavioral psychology of operant conditioning—the idea that people and animals are more likely to engage in a behavior when they are rewarded, or reinforced, for it. These explanations assume that people use drugs because drugs are positive reinforcers in two respects. First, drugs provide pleasurable effects themselves and thus provide direct reinforcement. Second, drug use often is communal: People frequently use drugs (alcohol is certainly a prime example, but so are many other drugs) with other people, and they enjoy this type of social activity. In this manner, drug use provides indirect reinforcement.

Sociological Explanations

Sociological explanations emphasize the importance of certain aspects of the social environment—social structure, social bonds to family and school, social interaction, and culture—or drug use, depending on the type of drug. For drugs like heroin and crack that tend to be used mostly in large urban areas, the social structure, or, to be more precise, social inequality, certainly seems to matter. As sociologist Elliott Currie (1994, p. 3) [6] has observed, the use of these drugs by urban residents, most of them poor and of color, reflects the impact of poverty and racial inequality: “Serious drug use is not evenly distributed: it runs ‘along the fault lines of our society.’ It is concentrated among some groups and not others, and has been for at least half a century.” This fact helps explain why heroin use grew in the inner cities during the 1960s, as these areas remained poor even as the US economy was growing. Inner-city youths were attracted to heroin because its physiological effects helped them forget about their situation and also because the heroin subculture—using an illegal drug with friends, buying the drug from dealers, and so forth—was an exciting alternative to the bleakness of their daily lives. Crack became popular in inner cities during the 1980s for the same reasons.

Social bonds to families and schools also make a difference. Adolescents with weak bonds to their families and schools, as measured by such factors as the closeness they feel to their parents and teachers, are more likely to use drugs of various types than adolescents with stronger bonds to their families and schools. Their weaker bonds prompt them to be less likely to accept conventional norms and more likely to use drugs and engage in other delinquent behavior.

Regarding social interaction, sociologists emphasize that peer influences greatly influence one’s likelihood of using alcohol, tobacco, and a host of other drugs (Hanson et al., 2012). [7] Much and probably most drug use begins during adolescence, when peer influences are especially important. When our friends during this stage of life are drinking, smoking, or using other drugs, many of us want to fit in with the crowd and thus use one of these drugs ourselves. In a related explanation, sociologists also emphasize that society’s “drug culture” matters for drug use. For example, because we have a culture that so favors alcohol, many people drink alcohol. And because we have a drug culture in general, it is no surprise, sociologically speaking, that drug use of many types is so common.

To the extent that social inequality, social interaction, and a drug culture matter for drug use, sociologists say, it is a mistake to view most drug use as stemming from an individual’s biological or psychological problems. Although these problems do play a role for some individuals’ use of some drugs, drug use as a whole stems to a large degree from the social environment and must be understood as a social problem, and not just as an individual problem.

Beyond these general explanations of why people use drugs, sociological discussions of drug use reflect the three sociological perspectives introduced inChapter 1 "Understanding Social Problems"—functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism—as we shall now discuss. Table 7.6 "Theory Snapshot"summarizes this discussion.

Table 7.6 Theory Snapshot

Theoretical perspective

Contributions to understanding of drug use


Drug use is functional for several parties in society. It provides drug users the various positive physiological effects that drugs have; it provides the sellers of legal or illegal drugs a source of income; and it provides jobs for the criminal justice system and the various other parties that deal with drug use. At the same time, both legal drugs and illegal drugs contribute to dysfunctions in society.

Conflict theory

Much drug use in poor urban areas results from the poverty, racial inequality, and other conditions affecting people in these locations. Racial and ethnic prejudice and inequality help determine why some drugs are illegal as well as the legal penalties for these drugs. The large multinational corporations that market and sell alcohol, tobacco, and other legal drugs play a powerful role in the popularity of these drugs and lobby Congress to minimize regulation of these drugs.

Symbolic interactionism

Drug use arises from an individual’s interaction with people who engage in drug use. From this type of social interaction, an individual learns how to use a drug and also learns various attitudes that justify drug use and define the effects of a drug as effects that are enjoyable.


Recall that functionalist theory emphasizes the need for social stability, the functions that different aspects of society serve for society’s well-being, and the threats (or dysfunctions) to society’s well-being posed by certain aspects of society. In line with this theory, sociologists emphasize that drug use may actually be functional for several members of society. For the people who use legal or illegal drugs, drug use is functional because it provides them the various positive physiological effects that drugs have. For the people who sell legal or illegal drugs, drug use is functional because it provides them a major source of income. Illegal drug use is even functional for the criminal justice system, as it helps provide jobs for the police, court officials, and prison workers who deal with illegal drugs. Legal and illegal drugs also provide jobs for the social service agencies and other organizations and individuals whose work focuses on helping people addicted to a drug. At the same time, drugs, whether legal or illegal, have the many dysfunctions for society that this chapter discussed earlier, and this fact must not be forgotten as we acknowledge the functions of drugs.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory stresses the negative effects of social inequality and the efforts of the elites at the top of society’s hierarchy to maintain their position. This theory helps us understand drugs and drug use in at least three respects. First, and as noted just earlier, much drug use in poor urban areas results from the poverty, racial inequality, and other conditions affecting people in these locations. They turn to illegal drugs partly to feel better about their situation, and partly because the illegal drug market is a potentially great source of income that does not require even a high school degree.

Second, conflict theory emphasizes that racial and ethnic prejudice and inequality help determine why some drugs are illegal as well as the criminal penalties for these drugs. For example, the penalties for crack are much harsher, gram for gram, than those for powder cocaine, even though the two drugs are pharmacologically identical. Crack users are primarily poor African Americans in urban areas, while powder cocaine users are primarily whites, many of them at least fairly wealthy. These facts prompt many observers to say that the harsher penalties for crack are racially biased (Tonry, 2011). [8] Other evidence for this argument of conflict theory is seen in the history of the illegality of opium, cocaine, and marijuana. As we discussed earlier, racial and ethnic prejudice played an important role in why these common drugs in the nineteenth century became illegal: prejudice against Chinese immigrants for opium, prejudice against African Americans for cocaine, and prejudice against Mexican Americans for marijuana.

Third, conflict theory emphasizes the huge influence that multinational corporations have in the marketing and sale of the legal drugs—alcohol, tobacco, and many prescription drugs—that often have harmful individual and societal consequences. To maximize their profits, these companies do their best, as noted earlier, to convince Americans and people in other nations to use their products. They also spend billions of dollars to lobby Congress. As also mentioned earlier, the tobacco industry hid for years evidence of the deadly effects of its products. All these efforts illustrate conflict theory’s critical view of the role that corporations play in today’s society.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism focuses on the interaction of individuals and on how they interpret their interaction. Given this focus, symbolic interactionism views social problems as arising from the interaction of individuals. As such, it understands drug use as a behavior arising from an individual’s interaction with people who engage in drug use. From this type of social interaction, an individual learns how to use a drug and also learns various attitudes that justify drug use and define the effects of a drug as effects that are enjoyable.

A study of drug use that reflects this approach is Howard S. Becker’s (1953) [9]classic article, “Becoming a Marihuana User.” Becker wrote that someone usually begins smoking marijuana in the presence of friends who are experienced marijuana users. This social interaction, he argued, is critical for new users to wish to continue using marijuana. To want to do so, they must learn three behaviors or perceptions from the experienced users who are “turning them on” to marijuana use. First, new users must learn how to smoke a joint (marijuana cigarette) by deeply inhaling marijuana smoke and holding in the smoke before exhaling. Second, they must perceive that the effects they feel after smoking enough marijuana (spatial distortion, hunger pangs, short-term memory loss) signify that they are stoned (under the influence of marijuana); their friends typically tell them that if they are feeling these effects, they are indeed stoned. Third, they must learn to define these effects as pleasurable; if people suddenly experience spatial distortion, intense hunger, and memory loss, they might very well worry they are having huge problems! To prevent this from happening, their friends say things to them such as, “Doesn’t that feel great!” This and similar comments help reassure the new users that the potentially worrisome effects they are experiencing are not only bad ones but in fact very enjoyable ones.

  • Biological theories assume that some people are especially vulnerable to drug addiction for genetic reasons.

  • A popular set of psychological theories assumes that drug addiction results from certain personality traits and problems.

  • Sociological theories attribute drug use to various aspects of the social environment, including peer influences, weak social bonds, and the larger drug culture.


  1. When you think about the reasons for drug use and addiction, do you think biological factors, psychological factors, or the social environment play the most important role? Explain you answer.

  2. Write a brief essay in which you discuss a time when your friends influenced you, or someone else you know, to use a legal or illegal drug.

[1] Hanson, G. R., Venturelli, P. J., & Fleckenstein, A. E. (2012). Drugs and society (11th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett.

[2] Hanson, G. R., Venturelli, P. J., & Fleckenstein, A. E. (2012). Drugs and society (11th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett.

[3] Sher, K. J., Bartholow, B. D., & Wood, M. D. (2000). Personality and substance use disorders: A prospective study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68, 818–829.

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

[5] Feldman, M., Boyer, B., Kumar, V. K., & Prout, M. (2011). Personality, drug preference, drug use, and drug availability. Journal of Drug Education, 41(1), 45–63.

[6] Currie, E. (1994). Reckoning: Drugs, the cities, and the American future. New York, NY: Hill and Wang.

[7] Hanson, G. R., Venturelli, P. J., & Fleckenstein, A. E. (2012). Drugs and society (11th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett.

[8] Tonry, M. (2011). Punishing race: A continuing American dilemma. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[9] Becker, H. S. (1953). Becoming a Marihuana User. American Journal of Sociology, 59, 235–242.

7.5 Drug Policy and the War on Illegal Drugs


  1. Explain whether the DARE program is effective.

  2. Outline the goals and examples of a harm reduction approach to drug use.

  3. List the problems arising from the current legal war on illegal drugs.

For many decades, the United States has used several strategies to try to deal with drugs. These strategies generally fall into four categories: treatment, prevention, harm reduction, and, for certain drugs, criminalization and the use of the criminal justice system, or, as we will call it, the war on illegal drugs. We now turn to these strategies.


Treatment programs are intended for people who already are using drugs, perceive they have a drug problem, and want to reduce or eliminate their drug use. This strategy is probably familiar to most readers, even if they have not used drugs themselves or at least have not had the benefit of a treatment program. Treatment programs often involve a group setting, but many drug users also receive individual treatment from a psychiatrist, psychologist, or drug counselor. Perhaps the most famous treatment program is Alcoholics Anonymous, a program that involves alcoholics meeting in a group setting, acknowledging their drinking problem and its effects on family members and other loved ones, and listening to each other talk about their situations. Other group settings are residential settings, sometimes called detox units. In these settings, people check themselves into an institution and stay there for several weeks until they and the professionals who treat them are satisfied. Perhaps the most famous residential treatment program is the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California; this center was established by and named after an acknowledged alcoholic who was the wife of President Gerald Ford.

The Betty Ford Center is a residential detox unit for people with alcohol and other drug problems.

Image courtesy of Betty Ford Center,

In addition to or in conjunction with group treatment programs, individual treatment for drug addiction may involve the use of “good” drugs designed to help wean addicts off the drug to which they are addicted. For example, nicotine gum, patches, and other products are designed to help cigarette smokers stop smoking.

The various forms of treatment can be very effective for some addicts and less effective or not effective at all for other addicts; most treatment programs have a high failure rate (Goode, 2012). [1] A sociological perspective suggests that however effective treatment might be for some people, the origins of drug use ultimately lie in the larger society—its social structure, social interaction, and the drug culture—and that these roots must be addressed for serious reductions in drug use to occur.


Because it is always best to try to prevent a problem before it begins, an important strategy to deal with drug use involves prevention. The major prevention strategies involve drug education or drug testing (Faupel et al., 2010). [2] Many education-based prevention programs focus on children and adolescents. This focus reflects the fact that use of most drugs begins during adolescence, and that if adolescents do not begin using drugs during this period of their lives, they are much less likely to do so when they become adults. Some education strategies follow what is called an informational model: they involve public-service advertising, the distribution of drug pamphlets in medical offices, and other such efforts. Several studies question the effectiveness of strategies based on this model (Faupel et al., 2010). [3]

Other education programs take place in the secondary school system and on college campuses. The most famous such program is almost certainly DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), which involves police officers speaking to middle-school children. DARE programs have been carried out in more than 7,000 schools across the nation. However, several studies find that DARE programs do not generally reduce subsequent drug use among the children who attend them compared to children who do not attend them (Faupel et al., 2010).[4]

Drug testing is very common in today’s society, and you may well have been required to have a drug test as part of an application for a job, involvement in a school sport, or other activity. At least half of US workplaces now perform required drug tests. Drug testing is expensive, and many critics say it is not cost-effective in view of the low prevalence of illegal drug use in the United States (Faupel et al., 2010). [5]

Harm Reduction

A third strategy involves harm reduction. As this term implies, this strategy attempts to minimize the harm caused by drugs. It recognizes that many people will use drugs despite efforts to prevent or persuade them from doing so and despite any punishment they might receive for using illegal drugs. Our nation is currently using a harm reduction approach with regard to alcohol and tobacco. It recognizes that tens of millions of people use these products, and designated-driving programs and other efforts try to minimize the considerable harm these two drugs cause.

A specific harm reduction strategy with regard to illegal drugs is the provision of clean, sterile needles for people who inject themselves with heroin, cocaine/crack, or other drugs. Many of these users share needles, and this sharing spreads HIV, hepatitis, and other diseases. If they have a supply to sterile needles, the reasoning goes, the transmission of these diseases will be reduced even if use of the drugs with the aid of the needles does not reduce. Critics say the provision of sterile needles in effect says that drug use is OK and may even encourage drug use. Proponents reply that needle-based drug use will occur whether or not sterile needles are provided, and that the provision of sterile needles does more good than harm. Other nations have adopted this type of harm reduction much more extensively than the United States.

Another harm reduction strategy involves the use of drug courts, which began in the 1990s and now number more than 2,500 across the United States. In these courts, drug offenders who have been arrested and found guilty are sentenced to drug treatment and counseling rather than to jail or prison. Evaluation studies show that the courts save much money compared to imprisoning drug offenders and that they are more effective than imprisonment in reducing the offenders’ drug habit (Stinchcomb, 2010). [6]

People Making a Difference

Law Enforcement against Prohibition

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) is an organization of current and former police and other criminal justice professionals, including prosecutors, judges, and FBI agents, who advocate for the legalization of illegal drugs. Because many of these professionals were on the front lines in the war against drugs and often put their lives in danger, their views about drug policy cannot be dismissed lightly.

One of their members is MacKenzie Allen, a 65-year-old deputy sheriff who worked in Los Angeles and Seattle, including time as an undercover agent who bought illegal drugs and made countless arrests for drug offenses. Although Allen strongly disapproves of drug use, his many years in law enforcement led him to realize that the drug problem is best understood as a public health problem, not a legal problem. He notes that the United States has lowered cigarette use through public education and without outlawing cigarettes. “Can you imagine the mayhem had we outlawed cigarettes?” he writes. “Can you envision the ‘cigarette cartels’ and the bloodbath that would follow? Yet, thanks to a public awareness campaign we’ve made a huge dent in tobacco use without arresting a single cigarette smoker.”

Allen adds that most of the problems associated with illegal drug use are actually the result of the laws against drugs. These laws create a huge illegal market, much of it involving violent cartels, he says, that promises strong profits for the manufacturers and sellers of illegal drugs. He is also critical of other aspects of the war on drugs:

If the colloquial definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, what does that say about our “War on Drugs”? We’ve been pursuing this strategy for forty years. It has cost a trillion taxpayer dollars, thousands of lives (both law enforcement and civilians) and destroyed hundreds of thousands more by incarceration. Moreover, it undermines the safety of our communities by overcrowding our jails and prisons, forcing them to give early release to truly violent offenders.

Another LEAP member is Joseph D. McNamara, the former police chief of San Jose, California. McNamara also criticizes the violence resulting from the laws against drugs. “Like an increasing number of law enforcers,” he writes specifically about marijuana, “I have learned that most bad things about marijuana—especially the violence made inevitable by an obscenely profitable black market—are caused by the prohibition, not by the plant.” He continues, “Al Capone and his rivals made machine-gun battles a staple of 1920s city street life when they fought to control the illegal alcohol market. No one today shoots up the local neighborhood to compete in the beer market…How much did the [Mexican] cartels make last year dealing in Budweiser, Corona or Dos Equis? Legalization would seriously cripple their operations.”

As these statements indicate, the legal war on drugs has had many costs. It is difficult to know what to do about illegal drugs, but in bringing these costs to the attention of elected officials and the American public, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is making a difference. For further information about LEAP, visit

Sources: Allen, 2001; Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, 2011; McNamara, 2010 [7]

The War on Illegal Drugs

The most controversial drug strategy involves the criminalization of many drugs and the use of the police and the rest of the criminal justice system to apprehend and punish the users, manufacturers, and sellers of illegal drugs. As the brief history of drug use at the beginning of this chapter indicated, the United States has banned certain drugs since the late nineteenth century, and it accelerated this effort during the 1970s and 1980s as concern grew about heroin, crack, and other drugs.

In judging the war on illegal drugs, two considerations should be kept in mind (Meier & Geis, 2007). [8] One consideration is the philosophical question of the extent to which the government in a free society should outlaw behaviors that may be harmful even if people (let’s assume we are talking about legal adults) want to engage in them. Americans do all kinds of things that may harm themselves and that may directly or indirectly harm other people. For example, many Americans eat high amounts of candy, ice cream, potato chips, hamburgers, and other “fat food” that causes obesity, great harm to individual health, premature death and bereavement, and tens of billions of dollars in health costs and lost productivity annually. Although obesity almost certainly causes more harm overall than illegal drugs, no one is about to say that the use of “fat food” should be banned or restricted, although some schools and workplaces have removed candy and soda machines. Americans also engage in many other activities that can be very harmful, including downhill skiing, contact sports, skydiving, and any number of other activities, but no one is about to say that we should be prohibited from engaging in these efforts. Where is the logic, then, in allowing all these behaviors and in not allowing the use of certain drugs? A philosophical argument can be made that all drug use should, in fact, be allowed in a free society (Husak, 2002), [9] and perhaps this is an issue that you and your classmates will want to discuss.

The second consideration is the social science question of whether laws against drugs do more good than harm, or more harm than good. In a rational society, if a law or policy does more good than harm, then we should have the law or policy. However, if it does more harm than good, however much good it might do, then we should not have it, because the harm outweighs the good.

In considering this issue, critics of drug laws say they do much more harm than good, and they often cite Prohibition as an example of this dynamic. Prohibition was repealed because our society decided it was doing much more harm than good and was thus a “triumphant failure,” as one author has called this period of our history (Okrent, 2011, p. 67). [10] Prohibition caused several harms: (1) the rise of organized crime to earn illegal profits from the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcohol; (2) the violence and murder among organized crime gangs that fought each other over drug “turf”; (3) the wounding and death of innocent bystanders from gunfights between organized crime gangs; (4) the wounding and murder of police officers who enforced Prohibition; (5) rampant corruption among police officers and political officials who took money from organized crime to ignore violations of Prohibition; and (6) the expenditure of much time, money, and energy by the criminal justice system to enforce Prohibition.

Prohibition did reduce drinking and the violence associated with drinking. But some scholars say that the organized crime violence caused by Prohibition was so common and deadly that the homicide rate grew during Prohibition rather than lessening (Jensen, 2000), [11] though other scholars dispute this finding (Owens, 2011). [12] In yet another problem, many people during Prohibition became sick and/or died from drinking tainted liquor. Because alcohol was no longer regulated, illegal alcohol often contained, by accident or design, dangerous substances. As an example, 15,000 people in the Midwest became sick with a severe neurological problem after drinking an illegal alcohol laced with a paint thinner chemical (Genzlinger, 2011). [13]

Critics of today’s war on illegal drugs say that it has reproduced the same problems that Prohibition produced. Among these problems are the following:

  • Drug gangs and individual drug sellers engage in deadly fights with each other and also kill or wound police officers and other law enforcement personnel who fight the war on drugs.

  • Many innocent bystanders, including children, are wounded or killed by stray bullets.

  • Many police officers take bribes to ignore drug law violations and/or sell drugs confiscated from dealers.

  • The criminal justice system and other agencies spend much time, money, and energy in the war against illegal drugs, just as they did during Prohibition. Enforcing drug laws costs about $50 billion annually (McVay, n.d.). [14] Police and other law enforcement personnel make more than 1.6 million arrests for drug offenses annually, including about 850,000 arrests for marijuana possession (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2011). [15] Some 500,000 people are in prison or jail for drug offenses.

  • The drug war has focused disproportionately on African Americans and Latinos and greatly increased their numbers who have gone to jail or prison. Even though illegal drug use is more common among whites than among blacks, the arrest rate for drug offenses is ten times higher for African Americans than the rate for whites (Blow, 2011). [16] Partly because of the drug war, about one-third of young African American men have prison records.

  • Most of the 17,000 annual deaths from illegal drug use stem from the fact that the drugs are illegal. Because they are illegal, they may contain dangerous substances that can be fatal, just as in Prohibition. In addition, some illegal drug users overdose because they underestimate the purity of a drug.

Because of all these problems, drug law critics say, the United States should legalize marijuana, the most benign illegal drug, and seriously consider legalizing some or all other illegal drugs.

Proponents of the drug war reply that if drugs were legalized or decriminalized (still against the law, but violations would be treated like traffic offenses), many more people would use the newly legal drugs, and the problems these drugs cause would increase. Responding to this argument, drug law critics say it is not at all certain that drug use would increase if drugs were legalized. To support their view, they cite two pieces of evidence.

First, illegal drugs are relatively easy to obtain and use without fear of arrest. If people have decided not to use illegal drugs now, it is unlikely they will use them if the drugs were legalized. Support for this argument comes from national data on high school seniors (Johnston, O’Malley, Bachman, & Schulenberg, 2011). [17] In 2010, 82 percent of seniors said they could easily obtain marijuana, and 35.5 percent said they could easily obtain cocaine. Despite these numbers, only 35 percent had used marijuana in the past year, and only 3 percent had used cocaine in the past year.

Second, marijuana use in the United States decreased in the 1970s and 1980s after several states decriminalized it. As we noted earlier, marijuana use also declined in the Netherlands after they decriminalized the drug in the 1970s. Moreover, even though use of marijuana is legal in the Netherlands, its rate of marijuana use is no higher than the rate of marijuana use in the United States (Drug Policy Alliance, 2012). [18] In another international comparison, Portugal decriminalized possession of all drugs in 2001; after it did so, teenage drug use declined (see Note 7.28 "Lessons from Other Societies").

At this point, it is impossible to know how much, if at all, the use of illegal drugs would rise if they were legalized. Critics of the drug war say that even if the use of drugs did rise, the benefits of legalizing or decriminalizing them would still outweigh the disadvantages (Feiling, 2010).
Lessons from Other Societies

What Happened after the Netherlands and Portugal Decriminalized Drugs?

As the United States ponders its drug policy, the experience of the Netherlands and Portugal provides some provocative lessons.

The Netherlands decriminalized drugs in 1976. Under the Netherlands’ policy, although criminal penalties remain for possessing hard drugs (cocaine, heroin, etc.) and large quantities of marijuana, drug users are not normally arrested for possessing drugs, but they must receive drug treatment if they are arrested for another reason. Drug sellers are not normally arrested for selling small amounts of drugs, but they may be arrested for selling them in large. Marijuana use in the Netherlands dropped in the immediate years after it was decriminalized. Although it increased somewhat since then, as in some other nations, it remains much lower than the US rate. According to the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 23 percent of Dutch residents ages 15–64 have used cannabis at least once in their lives, compared to 40 percent of Americans ages 12 and older (2005 figures). Dutch use of cocaine and heroin also remains much lower than American use. Reflecting the Netherlands’ experience, most of the nations in Western Europe have also decriminalized marijuana possession and use, and their rates of marijuana use also remain lower than the US rate.

In 2001, Portugal became the first European nation to remove all criminal penalties for drug possession. Portugal took this step because it reasoned that fear of arrest keeps drug addicts from seeking help and because it recognized that drug treatment costs far less than imprisonment. Anyone convicted of drug possession is sent for drug treatment, but the person may refuse treatment without any penalty.

In the first five years after Portugal decriminalized all drug possession, teenaged illegal drug use declined, new HIV infections from sharing needles declined, and the prison population also declined. Meanwhile, the number of drug addicts receiving treatment increased by 41 percent. A researcher who reported these trends commented, “Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success. It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.” A Portuguese drug official agreed, “The impact [of drugs] in the life of families and our society is much lower than it was before decriminalization,” and noted that police are now freer to spend more time and energy on high-level dealers. Adult drug use in Portugal has risen slightly since 2001, but so has adult drug use in other European nations that did not decriminalize drugs. Portugal’s increase has not been higher than these other nations’ increase.

Although the Netherlands, Portugal, and other Western European nations certainly differ from the United States in many ways, their experience strongly suggests that decriminalization of drugs may cause much more good than harm. If so, the United States has important lessons to learn from their experiences.

Sources: Hughes & Stevens, 2010; Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2008; Reinarman & Hendrien, 2004; Szaalavitz, 2009; Tracey & Jahromi, 2010 [19]

  • To deal with drugs, the United States has used several strategies, including treatment, prevention, harm reduction, and the legal war on illegal drugs.

  • According to its critics, the war on illegal drugs has done much more harm than good and in this respect is repeating the example of Prohibition.


  1. Do you think the United States should make sterile needles and syringes freely available to people who are addicted to drugs that are injected? Why or why not?

  2. Do you agree or disagree that the war on illegal drugs is doing more harm than good? Explain your answer.

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Stinchcomb, J. B. (2010). Drug courts: Conceptual foundation, empirical findings, and policy implications. Drugs: Education, Prevention & Policy, 17(2), 148–167.

[7] Allen, M. (2011, February 23). Why this cop asked the President about legalizing drugs.Huffington Post. Retrieved from; Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. (2011). Ending the Drug War: A Dream Deferred. Medford, MA: Author; McNamara, J. D. (2010, July 25). Legalize pot, former San Jose police chief says. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved from

[8] Meier, R. F., & Geis, G. (2007). Criminal justice and moral issues. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[9] Husak, D. (2002). Legalize this! The case for decriminalizing drugs. New York, NY: Verso Books.

[10] Okrent, D. (2011). Last call: The rise and fall of prohibition. New York, NY: Scribner.

[11] Jensen, G. F. (2000). Prohibition, alcohol, and murder: Untangling counterveiling mechanisms. Homicide Studies, 4, 18–36.

[12] Owens, E. G. (2011, October 2). The (not so) roaring ‘20s. New York Times, p. SR12.

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

[14] McVay, D. A. (n.d.). Drug War Facts (6th ed.). Retrieved from

[15] Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2011). Crime in the United States, 2010. Washington, DC: Author.

[16] Blow, C. M. (2011, June 11). Drug bust. New York Times, p. A21.

[17] Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2011). Monitoring the future. National results on adolescent drug use: Overview of key findings, 2010 Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research.

[18] Drug Policy Alliance. (2012). Drug policy around the world: The Netherlands. Retrieved from

[19] Hughes, C. E., & Stevens, A. (2010). What can we learn from the Portuguese decriminalization of illicit drugs? British Journal of Criminology, 50(6), 999–1022; Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2008). FAQ drugs: A guide to drug policy. Retrieved from; Reinarman, C., Cohen, P. D. A., & Hendrien, K. L. (2004). The limited relevance of drug policy: Cannabis in Amsterdam and in San Francisco.American Journal of Public Health, 94, 836–842; Szaalavitz, M. (2009, April 20). Drugs in Portugal: Did decriminalization work? Time. Retrieved from,8599,1893946,1893900.html; Tracey, M., & Jahromi, N. (2010, December 15). Importing the Portuguese model of drug reform. The Nation. Retrieved from

7.6 Addressing the Drug Problem and Reducing Drug Use


  1. Explain the problems associated with arresting hundreds of thousands of people for drug possession.

  2. List any three specific measures that may help deal with the drug problem.

As you may have already noticed and will notice again, the other chapters in this book usually present a fairly optimistic assessment when they discuss prospects for addressing the social problem discussed in each chapter. They point to the experience of other nations that do a good job of addressing the social problem, they cite social science evidence that points to solutions for addressing the problem, and they generally say that the United States could address the problem if it had the wisdom to approach it appropriately and to spend sufficient sums of money.

This chapter will not end with an optimistic assessment for addressing the drug problem. The reason for this lack of optimism is that what’s past is prologue: People have enthusiastically used drugs since prehistoric times and show no signs of reducing their drug use. Many and perhaps most scholars think the legal war on drugs has had little, if any, impact on drug use (Walker, 2011), [1] and many scholars recognize that this war brought with it the many disadvantages cited in the previous section. As Kleiman et al. (2011, p. xvi) [2] observe, “Our current drug policies allow avoidable harm by their ineffectiveness and create needless suffering by their excesses.”

A growing number of people in the political world agree. In 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy issued a major report on the world’s antidrug efforts. The commission comprised nineteen members, including a former United Nations secretary general, a former US secretary of state, a former chair of the US Federal Reserve, and former presidents or prime ministers of Brazil, Colombia, Greece, Mexico, and Switzerland. The commission’s report called for a drastic rethinking of current drug policy: “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world…Fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed” (Global Commission on Drug Policy, 2011, p. 3). [3] Decriminalization and even legalization of illegal drugs should be seriously considered, the report concluded.

Given this backdrop, many drug experts question whether our current drug policies make sense. They add that the best approach our society could take would be to expand the prevention, treatment, and harm reduction approaches discussed earlier; because drugs will always be with us, our society should do what it can to minimize the many harms that drugs cause. Thus drug education prevention and drug treatment programs should be expanded, sterile needles should be made available for drug addicts who inject their drugs, and drug courts should be used for a greater number of drug offenders.

Beyond these approaches, some experts say marijuana use should be decriminalized and that decriminalization of other drugs should be seriously considered. If marijuana were not only decriminalized but also legalized and taxed, it is estimated that this new tax revenue would amount to $8.7 billion annually and that about $8.7 billion annually would also be saved in reduced law enforcement costs, for a total of more than $17 billion in new funds that could be used for drug prevention, drug treatment, and other needs (Kristof, 2010). [4] Many Americans agree with these experts: In a 2011 Gallup poll, 50 percent of the public favored legalizing marijuana, while 46 percent opposed legalizing it (Graves, 2011). [5]

More generally, these experts say, it makes little sense to arrest more than 1.3 million people each year for drug possession and to put many of them in jail or prison. We do not arrest and imprison alcoholics and cigarette smokers; instead we try to offer them various kinds of help, and we should do the same for people who are addicted to other kinds of drugs. If arrest and imprisonment must continue, these measures should be reserved for sellers of large quantities of illegal drugs, not for the people who use the drugs or for those who sell only small quantities. When low-level drug dealers are imprisoned, they are simply replaced on the street by new dealers. Providing low-level dealers with alternative sentencing would reduce the number of imprisoned dealers over time by several hundred thousand annually without making illegal drugs more available.

In addition to all these measures, several other steps might well reduce certain kinds of drug use or at least reduce the harm that both drugs and our current drug policies cause (Kleiman et al., 2011). [6] These steps include the following:

  1. Providing legally prescribed heroin and/or substitute opiates, including methadone, for heroin addicts. This provision has proven effective in several other nations.

  2. Encouraging primary care physicians and other health-care providers to screen more carefully for substance abuse.

  3. Basing drug sentencing less on the quantity of illegal drugs sold and more on the level of violence in which some drug sellers engage.

  4. Abandoning DARE. According to Kleiman et al. (2011, p. 201), [7] “the continued dominance in school-based drug education of DARE—a program that has never been shown to actually reduce drug use—is a scandal.” They instead recommend school-based programs that help children develop self-control and prosocial behavior, as these programs have also been shown to reduce children’s subsequent drug use.

  5. Following the psychological principle of operant conditioning by providing drug addicts small cash payments for clean drug tests, as these rewards have been shown to be effective.

  6. Fully reintegrating former drug dealers and recovering drug addicts into society. They should have full access to public housing, educational loans, and other benefits, and they should be allowed to vote in states that now do not let them vote.

  7. Raising alcohol taxes. According to Kleiman et al. (2011), [8] tripling the alcohol tax would especially reduce drinking by heavy drinkers and by minors, and it would reduce the number of homicides by 1,000 annually and the number of motor vehicle accidents by 2,000 annually. The new tax money could also help fund alcohol treatment and prevention programs. “In the entire field of drug-abuse control,” Kleiman et al. (2011, p. 204) [9] write, “there is no bargain as attractive as a higher alcohol tax.”

  8. Prohibiting alcohol sales to anyone who has engaged in drunk driving or who has committed violence under the influence of alcohol. For this ban to work, everyone who wants to buy alcohol would have to show an ID, and those prohibited from buying alcohol would have that indicated on their ID. This ban would certainly be unpopular among the many drinkers who drink responsibly, but it would reduce the great harm that alcohol causes.

  9. Allowing marijuana users to grow their own cannabis or to buy it from small growers. This would reduce the sales of cannabis, and thus its profits, from the organized crime groups and the Mexican cartels that now provide much of the marijuana used in the United States.

  10. Raising the cigarette tax. Some states already have high cigarette taxes, but several states have low cigarette taxes. Raising the taxes in the low-tax states would reduce cigarette smoking in these states. The new tax revenue could be used to fund treatment programs that help reduce smoking.


  • Critics of the war on drugs say that people who use illegal drugs should be treated, not arrested, just as people who use alcohol and tobacco are treated, if they seek treatment, rather than arrested.

  • Specific measures that could help address the drug problem include providing legally prescribed heroin or substitute opiates for heroin addicts and raising the alcohol tax.


  1. Do you think that alcohol taxes should be raised? Why or why not?

  2. Do you favor decriminalization of marijuana? Explain your answer.

[1] Walker, S. (2011). Sense and nonsense about crime, drugs, and communities: A Policy guide (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

[2] 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.

[3] Global Commission on Drug Policy. (2011). War on drugs: Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Author.

[4] Kristof, N. D. (2010, October 28). End the war on pot. New York Times, p. A33.

[5] Graves, L. (2011, October 18). Marijuana legalization receives 50 percent support in new poll. Huffington Post. Retrieved from =DailyBrief&utm_campaign=1101811&utm_medium=email&utm_content=NewsEntry &utm_term=Daily%1016420Brief.

[6] 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.

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

[8] 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.

[9] 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.

7.7 End-of-Chapter Material


  1. Humans have used drugs of various types since prehistoric times. Alcohol has been a common drug in the United States since the colonial period, and opium, marijuana, and heroin were common legal drugs in the late nineteenth century.

  2. The distinction between legal and illegal drugs lacks a logical basis. Alcohol and tobacco kill many more people than all illegal drugs combined.

  3. The use of several drugs is socially patterned. Males are more likely than females to use drugs, and religious people are less likely to use them than those who are less religious. The differences that race/ethnicity, education, and region of country make for drug use depends on the type of drug.

  4. Biological theories assume that drug addiction results from a genetic predisposition, while psychological theories attribute drug use to certain personality traits and to positive reinforcement.

  5. Sociological theories attribute drug use to peer and cultural influences. A sociological perspective suggests that the ultimate roots of drug use lie in the social environment rather than inside the individual.

  6. Major approaches to dealing with drugs include treatment, prevention, harm reduction, and the use of the criminal justice system for illegal drugs. Critics of the war on drugs say that it does more harm than good, and they urge that serious consideration be given to decriminalizing marijuana and perhaps other drugs.


A college friend of yours seems to drink a lot most nights and even goes to class some mornings hung over. You’ve become so concerned that you’ve suggested to your friend when you’ve been out for the evening to just have a couple drinks. Yourfriend has just laughed you off. What, if anything, do you do?


To help deal with the societal and individual problems caused by alcohol and other drugs, you may wish to do any of the following:

  1. Volunteer for a local agency that helps teenagers or adults who have a problem with alcohol or other drugs.

  2. Start or join in efforts on your campus to encourage responsible drinking.

  3. Start a group to encourage your state to raise taxes on alcohol and cigarettes.

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