Monday, 25 April 2011

Why would people take drugs?

This series of blog posts will be discussing the social aspects of drug use. It’s taken in the main from Jock Young’s 1971 seminal work The Drugtakers: The Social Meaning of Drug Use. Each post will cover questions commonly encountered whilst campaigning for drug law reform, hopefully it’ll be useful for when you yourself are out talking to people. This post’s question is: “I just don’t understand why people would take drugs.”

Now, this isn’t actually a question in the conventional sense, however it is a question in the form of a statement. I shall cover this aspect in a later post. But it is something that we do actually need to consider whilst discussing drug law reform. For some, drug use is too easily dismissed as people having reckless fun or a result of social problems, and both are used by prohibitionists to maintain their position.

Throughout history humans in every society have used drugs with different cultures using different drugs, the only exceptions are puritan religious movements. Every day we are presented with social problems. These are not the awful situations we automatically imagine, but rather simple even mundane scenarios. Clothing for seeing the grandparents, travelling miles to get to work, etc. Whereas with these we’d buy smart(ish) clothes or get a train, we use drugs in very much the same way.

For instance caffeine, a stimulant, is used in a morning to increase alertness and reduce the feelings of tiredness. Tobacco is used as a way of reducing stress and relaxing. Alcohol, a depressant, used to decrease stress built up during the day, reducing inhibitions so for conversation to be made more freely.

Caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol, are all social ascribed. They are considered useful, more accepted and encouraged, for an individual to navigate the pressures and requirements of society. Such to say, society has attributed values to the legal drugs.

But what of illegal drugs? As a society these drugs are considered to cause problems, not be useful tools. However, the reality is that some people do not find that the prescribed drugs of society are effective for their situations and may be in complete contradiction to their own personal values. We live as a society of many diverse cultures and values, thus it is unreasonable to presume that everyone’s social requirements will coincide with the solutions of socially acceptable drugs.

Further more to this point, we are actively participating in a consumer society. We create our identities by saying I am not one of “them”. To do this we buy products that have been enshrined with values. By purchasing it and using it, we consume those values. So as a society we place values upon drugs, and as an individual we consume those values. What these values mean vary from individual to individual, from drug to drug.

For the prohibitionist, the problems and values of illicit drug users are considered so outside that of social acceptance that the individual has to be victimized to the point of being criminalised. Whist we must understand that drugs are used to solve social problems, just as we eat food to solve hunger which can lead to obesity, drug use can create unintended problems. The problems created by illicit drug use however are so often made worse or even possible by the current policies of our governments.

For any further explanations, questions, or objections, please contact me at


  1. The irony is that the stigma complained of is rooted in the expressions utilised uncritically by the author. There are no legal, illegal or illicit drugs at all - these lies are the problem, so I have to score FAIL.

  2. @Darryl
    Due to the networks of knowledge that most people are subject to we attain most knowledge through the mass media. Which will lead to an altered understanding of terms and events. I shall cover this in a later point.

  3. I have to agree with Darryl, our language creates the world we inhabit. And in my world, and the world of the UK Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, illegal actions exist but not illegal drugs.

    As Foucalt was at pains to point out, subjects and objects are co-emergent in the order of discourse that pre-exists them both. A geneaology of 'illegal drugs' will demonstrate that the phrase is a recent and disempowering semiotic designed to deflect the subject from the site where power is exercised, on my body, to the object, the drug. If you are comfortable with this slight of hand or word, by all means persist. If you are not, please read:

    Illegal drugs do not exist - Casey Hardison at