Culture refers to the commonly held beliefs, shared language, history, and systems of meanings that link large groups of people together. The concept of a subculture refers to a definable, recognizable group within a larger culture that can be distinguished by its own beliefs, customs, and values. Members of a subculture recognize that they are within the larger culture and often define or describe the values or customs of their subculture in opposition to the larger social world. Insider knowledge of the subcultural argot provides members with a kind of cultural capital that helps them to recognize one another, reinforces group solidarity, and confers degrees of status as a member of the group.
Do drug users, or users of some drugs, constitute a unique drug subculture? There is evidence to suggest both yes and no.
Drug use is often a social activity in which groups of users are known to one another but not publicly identified. At each stage of the process, from finding dealers, to purchasing drugs and equipment, to finding a safe space to use, to the consumption itself, drug use is characterized by elaborate and mostly secret symbols and slang. Furthermore, both police and researchers have observed unique etiquette, some say rituals, surrounding the distribution of drugs and the sharing of equipment (“works”) among groups of users. Finally, groups of drug users accord each other status for drug-related achievements—such as eluding the police, serving time, or surviving harrowing drug use experiences—that would not be bragged about by nonusers. All of these features imply that unique subcultures exist around the use of particular drugs.
Despite the superficial similarities, there are many reasons to reject the subculture label as applied to drug use. First, drug use is illegal and aggressively prosecuted. Shared signals and slang exist to avoid detection and arrest, regardless of any presumed histories or shared meanings. Slang, in particular, allows dealers to arrange sales over phone lines or in public spaces without actually providing evidence of a crime when the conversations are recorded. The behaviors are hidden out of necessity. Hiding them does not clearly indicate a desire to separate oneself or to form a unique group.
The hypothesis that drug use is ritualistic, particularly that injecting drug users share syringes as a statement of community, with status conveyed through the order of use, was explored closely in the wake of HIV/AIDS. If users preferred to share equipment, researchers worried, then it would be much more difficult to reduce the spread of HIV among them. Research has indicated, however, that the opposite is true. Users are aware of the medical risks that come with reusing syringes. That is why those who invest the most money or take the greatest risk in procuring the drugs will often insist on shooting up first. A cost-benefit analysis explains more than the “etiquette” argument. As most U.S. states have decriminalized syringe possession or allowed the introduction of syringe exchange programs, users have taken advantage of the opportunities to use clean needles whenever possible.
Do drug users actively reject the value systems of their social worlds? Probably not, because most users are employed and lead stable lives. Others, occasionally referred to as junkies or “chaotic” users, appear to have fallen out of the mainstream social world due to their chaotic dependencies rather than having chosen to leave it. Drug use is often an aspect of the lives of many people who otherwise have little in common.
Patterns of drug use have social and cultural aspects to them. Although it is not uncommon for drug users to have experience with multiple drugs, medical and ethnographic research has found that most users have a “drug of choice.” Club drug users prefer particular types of drugs in particular social settings. Crack cocaine use follows very different patterns, as does youth pot smoking and other drug use settings from high school bleachers to shooting galleries. These social worlds do not routinely come into contact. Drug dealing, of course, is a separate social sphere altogether from drug use. Much of the drug subculture research has had a hard time separating drug use from other social, economic, or cultural contexts. The “hang loose” ethic that researchers of the 1960s associated with pot smoking among college students turned out to be very difficult to distinguish from the “youth culture” of the time or the self-described youth “counterculture.” Sociologists of the period also attempted to distinguish the cultural worlds of the self-described “heads” (pot and LSD) versus “freaks” (speed), which demonstrated differences between them but did not show complex cultures defined around the drugs.
Critics point out that it is often unclear who is in a subculture and who is not, that by defining deviant behavior as a choice people are obscuring the social, political, and economic factors that constrain those choices, and that, by extension, one of the main accomplishments of the subculture explanation is that it absolves mainstream society of responsibility. That is, this is not a society with drug users, thieves, gangs, and tax cheaters; this is a society of good people who have subcultures of drug users, tax cheats, and so forth, living among them. Thus, the subculture label stigmatizes groups rather than explaining them.
Anti-drug campaigns and literature still use the concept of a drug subculture. This literature represents drug use as the “lifestyle choice” of a subculture whose members seek to recruit other users. The drug subculture is here defined to include research organizations and drug policy reform groups that criticize the zero-tolerance policies that the United States has adopted since the mid-1980s, presumably as part of a secret campaign for complete drug legalization. There are little data to support this approach.
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- Covington, Jeanette. 1995. “Racial Classification in Criminology: The Reproduction of Racialized Crime.” Sociological Forum 10(4):547-68.
- Currie, Eliot. 1993. Reckoning: Drugs, Cities and the American Future. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Ferrell, Jeff. 1999. “Cultural Criminology.” Annual Review of Sociology 25:395-418.
- Gelder, Ken and Sarah Thornton, eds. 1997. The Subcultures Reader. London: Routledge.
- Johnson, Bruce D., Flutura Bardhi, Stephen J. Sifaneck, and Eloise Dunlap. 2006. “Marijuana Argot as Subculture Threads: Social Constructions by Users in New York City.” British Journal of Criminology 46(1):46-77.
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