Page images

symbolic objects (specific drugs or instruments for administration). The heroin injection subculture (defined below) places high value upon heroin as the preferred drug and upon hypodermic instruments for injection, emphasizes drug-taking rituals, and exhibits a highly developed and specialized argot (Agar 1973; Haertzen 1979). Other drug subcultures may be less developed, but nevertheless exhibit argot, rituals, and symbolic objects that are seldom known outside the subculture, but which are widely known to those participating in the subculture.

Drug subcultures are seldom static, but change over time. While the central value (to get "high") and central roles (seller, buyer, user) remain relatively unaltered over time, the conduct norms may shift considerably in response to social pressure from the middle-class culture and pressure from the legal system, fads in drug preferences, and availability of drugs in the illicit market. Moreover, innovation and change are highly valued in most drug subcultures. New drugs are sought out and tried, argot terms are easily adopted and old terms dropped, and the times and places for drug consumption may change. Of course, individual participants, groups, and demographic segments of the population involved in a given set of subcultural activities may change greatly during a period of years. Arnold (1970, p. 114) indicates "while subcultures grow out of the interaction of groups of people, they are not themselves those groups" or persons. Moreover, subcultures are maintained by the continuing interactions of persons. Because these interactions tend to be dynamic, subcultures are also dynamic and continuously self-modifying.

Subcultural differentiation is common and changes over time. Since a subculture refers to role relationships, values, conduct norms, rituals, and argot, subcultural boundaries are always fluid and imprecise. An attempt to delineate the central conduct norms and values may simplify the number of subcultures to be described and analyzed. For instance, the multiple-drug subculture (described below) may include subsubcultures focused around psychedelic drugs (LSD, peyote), pills, or cocaine, which may be useful for other analytical purposes to other sociologists. Any boundaries selected for defining a subculture are somewhat arbitrary and may not be more correct than other definitions or boundaries. Most boundaries should be considered to have heuristic value when and if they assist theoretical and empirical research to understand how drug use and abuse is structured and functions within the subculture, and how it relates to nondrug subcultures and to the broader culture.

Subcultural participants may observe an elaborate and differentiated role structure, set of conduct norms, and argot. For example, one respondent objected strenuously to a questionnaire that included his favorite drug (mescaline) among the psychedelics; he had an elaborate set of reasons why mescaline's effects and patterns of use were very different from those of LSD. Subcultural participants tend to ignore great similarities in behavior and response to the same conduct norms by other users and to emphasize the importance of what seem (to outsiders) to be small differences in argot, ritual, appearance, and some behaviors. Hence, subculture definitions and boundaries can seldom be agreed upon, either by sociological analysts or by participants, although the central values, conduct norms, roles, and behaviors may provide a useful analytic framework.

The sociohistorical origins of a particular drug subculture appear to be a product of drug use beginning among peer groups having certain sociodemographic characteristics and the spread of information via youth mobility, and informal communication channels among youths (Fine and Kleinman 1979). Mass media coverage of a particular drug has frequently created strong public reaction (Brecher 1972) leading to attempts at control or elimination of nonmedical use that has later been associated with negative consequences (Lindesmith 1965). The social history and rise of any one particular drug subculture in America are beyond the scope of this overview, but excellent reviews exist (Musto 1973; Lindesmith 1965; Brecher 1972; King 1972; Helmer and Vietoriez 1974; National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse 1973). Two particularly critical historical events affect subculture formation: (1) the adoption of a drug by many peer groups within a small segment of the population—as with heroin and morphine among working-class whites in the 1920s (Street 1953; Musto 1973) and urban blacks in the 1950s and 1960s (Helmer and Vietoriez 1974; Preble and Casey 1969) and (2) the expansion of use of a drug(s) into peer groups more representative of the general youth population as occurred with marijuana, LSD, cocaine, and other substances in the late 1960s and 1970s (Carey 1968; Johnston et al. 1978). When patterns of drug use are limited to low-income and low-status groups, societal reaction tends to be punitive, and government pursues a prohibitionist policy. When drug use becomes common in many segments of the youth population, public reaction is one of temporary alarm with later adjustment (Becker 1967, 1974) and easing of enforcement effects and legal punishments (Johnson and Uppal, in press).

When the drug-subculture theory was presented by Johnson (1973), two different drug subcultures were identified. Both subcultures began with marijuana use, but participants in the white drug subculture used hallucinogens and pills, while black subcultural participants disproportionately used cocaine and heroin. The use of all drugs has expanded greatly since 1971, however, and four varieties or subsubcultures within the broader drug subculture may be distinguished: (1) the alcohol-abuse subculture, (2) the cannabis subculture, (3) the multiple-drug-use subculture, and (4) the heroin-injection subculture. These four subcultures are strongly related to each other (Kandel 1975, 1978b), generally in a unidimensional and cumulative fashion (Single et al. 1974). Among American youths in the early 1970s, experimentation with and increasingly regular use of alcohol preceded marijuana use, which in turn preceded the consumption of other substances (hallucinogens, sedatives, stimulants, and cocaine), all of which preceded heroin consumption (except, perhaps, in a few inner city ghetto communities where some youths may have begun heroin directly [O'Donnell and Clayton 1979]). Drug-subculture theory provides a conceptual framework for analyzing why and how youths become differentially involved in substance use.

Each of these drug subculture varieties or sub-subcultures has numerous and different conduct norms associated with it. Each subculture emphasizes particular conduct norms (see examples below) that govern the central activities of the group and of individual adherents or participants. Moreover, norms shift over time for an individual and a peer group. General types of conduct norms will be identified and then related to each of the four subcultures mentioned above: (1) experimentation conduct norms—the subcultural participant is expected to consume the focal drug or drugs; (2) maintenance conduct norms— the participant is expected to enjoy the behavior, to repeat the requisite behavior, and to increase the frequency and amount used to the level common in the group; (3) reciprocity conduct norms—when in peer groups, participants are expected to provide others with a portion of their drugs either for free or at low cost, but the obligation is reciprocal for future occasions; (4) distribution conduct norms—the participant is expected to buy the relevant substance, to understand the informal and illegal distribution system, and to engage in drug selling on a systematic basis.

These general classes of conduct norms are somewhat different in the four identified drug subcultures that are briefly described here.


Alcohol is a powerful psychoactive substance that is widely and legally available in America. (The same can be said for tobacco, coffee, and tea.) Moreover, alcohol is widely used in the conventional middle-class culture as a beverage and as an agent for promoting social interaction and relaxation. Experimentation with alcohol is the rule rather than the exception. The alcohol-abuse subculture, however, has maintenance norms that stress the use of alcohol to "get high," "smashed," "ripped," and to promote inebriating consumption. Reciprocity conduct norms include the pooling of money to buy alcohol, the obligation to buy drinks for others at some time in the immediate future, and bottle passing in drinking groups. Distribution norms include purchasing liquor when younger than the legal drinking age, or selling it to the under-age drinker. For the most part, however, this subculture's conduct norms governing distribution are not well developed because alcohol can be easily and legally obtained; during prohibition, however, illicit distribution conduct norms quickly developed.


Marijuana has become increasingly institutionalized in America in the past decade (Akers 1977; Jessor 1979; Johnson and Uppal, in press). Experimental or maintenance conduct norms require the use of marijuana, generally by smoking. lnformal pressure from one's peer group or best friends has consistently emerged as a major factor in marijuana experimentation (Kandel 1978b) and in the routine and heavy use of marijuana or hashish. After initiating use, the participants are expected to use it on a routine basis, frequently on a weekly or daily basis; as the regularity of use increases, the amount consumed per occasion may also increase. The cannabis subculture promotes the sharing of marijuana and hashish. A joint is frequently shared by many at a party, or where a peer group congregates. Usually, no money is involved in such sharing but different group members are expected to provide the drug at various times. Distribution norms expect weekly or more frequent users to buy their own supply and/or to share with others. Often the buyer of a relatively large amount (an ounce or more) is expected to give away or sell smaller amounts to friends at cost (Carey 1968). Persons who become regular dealers of cannabis are expected to give free samples, socialize, and smoke with potential buyers. Of course, marijuana may also be sold as a strictly commercial product, albeit illegal, among unacquainted persons.


This subculture grows out of the cannabis subculture and is distinguished by the use of many substances in addition to cannabis (Single et al. 1974). The experimental conduct norms expect the participant to try almost any substance to achieve euphoria. Substances such as hallucinogens, barbiturates, other sedatives, stimulants, tranquilizers, inhalants, PCP, cocaine, and, possibly, heroin may also be tried. Even unknown substances may be tried. Maintenance norms expect the participant to use small amounts of different substances by sniffing, smoking, or oral consumption; injection by hypodermic needle is usually avoided. While the regularity of use of a particular drug may be irregular (less than weekly), several different substances may be consumed within a particular week or on a single day. Sharing conduct norms are important; a person having a supply of pills or cocaine is expected to share this supply with friends, who may reciprocate on another day with the same or different drugs. The distribution conduct norms expect participants to combine funds, work jointly to obtain drugs, locate supplies, and use whatever drugs are available within their price range. From the selling side, substances such as heroin and cocaine have relatively high economic value and are seldom distributed freely; dealers are not expected to provide free samples or socialize as much as with cannabis selling. Persons selling other substances frequently sell marijuana as well.


This subculture, frequently referred to as the addict subculture, expects participants to consume heroin via hypodermic injections. Maintenance conduct norms expect injections on a weekly, daily, or more frequent basis. While heroin is occasionally shared with peers, obligations to reciprocate at a later time or provide some other service ("cop" drugs) are strong. Many participants are expected to sell drugs or heroin or supply "connections" to other subcultural participants (Lindesmith 1947, 1965; Preble and Casey 1969; Agar 1973; Stephens and Levine 1971; Stephens and McBride 1976; Stephens and Smith 1976; Smith and Stephens 1976; Johnson and Preble 1978).

The drug subculture perspective holds that participation in the alcoholabuse subculture predisposes one toward participation in the cannabis subculture (Kandel 1976, 1978b), which is almost a precondition—among American youths—for participation in the multiple-drug-use subculture; many heroin-injection subculture participants have been previously, and continue to be, involved in the multiple-drug-use subculture.

Drug-subculture theory is designed to explain group behavior. lndividual behavior is defined as a function of following the subculture's values, conduct norms, roles, rituals, and argot. The greater a person's commitment to a drug-using group and to subcultural values, conduct norms, roles, rituals, and argot, the greater the predictability of behavior of that individual. While the following sections occasionally refer to an individual, such a person is considered to be an abstract actor who typifies the pattern of initiation to drugs and increasing participation according to the conduct norms, roles, rituals, and argot of the specific drug subculture. Because there are many different levels of participation in any subculture, and because a given individual holds a variety of roles in many spheres of society and may be exposed to conflicting norms that may limit subcultural commitment, the

vast majority of specific individuals using drugs may not become increasingly and successively involved in each of the drug subcultures.


Drug-subculture theory does not employ the concepts of abuse, dependency, and addiction. These concepts are primarily seen as labels (Becker 1963; Rubington and Weinberg 1973) applied to subcultural roles or participants by social-control agents and persons not involved with drug use, although terms such as "junkie," "freak," "pothead," and "dope fiend" are frequently used as self-identities by subcultural participants. Subculture theory maintains that terms and concepts used to describe patterns of drug use will shift over time both within the various subcultures and outside them. Subculture theory holds that participants tend to define their behavior as "normal" and to project such patterns upon others regardless of how statistically rare their behavior may be. Thus, drug consumption episodes that socialcontrol authorities consider abusive are considered normal and are expected of subcultural participants, especially those in dealer roles. Moreover, as time passes and levels of use increase in many segments of the population, the parent culture and legal institutions begin— reluctantly—to accept subcultural definitions. For example, marijuana use on a weekly basis was frequently labeled as heavy use in surveys conducted during the early 1970s, while near-daily use is now being considered as heavy use (Johnston et al. 1978; Jessor 1979; Johnson and Uppal, in press). Even with regard to self-labeled "addicts," research shows patterns of irregular use, lengthy periods of cessation, followed by relapse to daily use. Thus, various commentators (Robins 1976; Zinberg 1979; Johnson 1978; Johnson et al. 1979) have indicated doubt about what constitutes opiate addiction or dependency.



The strengths of the drug-subculture perspective include the following: (a) lt is formulated in terms of norms, values, roles, role behavior, rituals, and argot affecting interaction between peers regarding the intentional nonmedical use of drugs. Building from fundamental sociological concepts, the researcher's effort can be directed toward describing, linking, and analyzing the relationships of these concepts, (b) lt provides a broad conceptualization which can incorporate findings and empirical regularities from other studies, (c) lt emphasizes the importance and centrality of the pattern of illegal drug distribution to patterns of drug use, to initiation of other substances, and to other social problem behaviors (alcoholism, criminality, etc.). (d) lt addresses the phenomena of drug abuse at a group level and focuses upon those aspects (values, conduct norms, rituals, and argot) that cannot be explained as the sum of individual behavior, psychological states, or physiological reactions to drug consumption, (e) lt provides a means of explaining or understanding change in drug use by individuals, groups, and within the subculture itself. Few other perspectives (to the author's knowledge) present a conceptual model for explaining behaviors associated with the illegal drug market and linking them to drug use. (See Langer 1977; Goode 1970.)

« PreviousContinue »