The Problem of Drug Prohibition for Drug Users: A Mertonian Analysis of Everyday Experience

Melissa Smith
School of Social Science. University of Queensland

Philip Smith
Department of Sociology. Yale University.


Taking a cue from Robert Merton’s concept of “dysfunctions”, this study takes prohibition policies to be a problem for users of “hard drugs”. The paper theorizes why this problem has been neglected and draws upon a qualitative research project to provide an initial experiential audit. Twenty semi-structured interviews were conducted in Australia probing the ramifications of a context of illegality for those who routinely engage in illicit drug use. Prohibition was found to have negative consequences for users in financial, legal, social and personal spheres. Drug research has mostly explored the pharmacological risks of drug use and the collective impacts of drug prohibition policy. An additional research focus is required investigating how drug regulation may contribute to outcomes and experiences within the everyday lives of drug users.


Use of illicit drugs is at the center of many complex and controversial issues. Tied up in moralistic assumptions, and submersed in a network of social problems, the activity is the focus of much research and the source of vehement debate. With the obvious exceptions of common drugs such as alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, the use of mood-altering substances is currently prohibited in Australia. Beginning with the ban on opium smoking in 1895, and the subsequent moves to prohibit cannabis in 1926 and heroin in 1953, these drugs as well as others such as cocaine and amphetamines, can not be legally cultivated, produced, transported, sold, bought, possessed or consumed (Wodak & Owens, 1996).

The prohibition of drugs is premised upon the vast number of negative consequences that are thought to arise from their use. Once focusing on the moral corruption of the individual, today there is an emphasis on the pharmacological effects of the drugs themselves, including the possibility of addiction, adverse psychological conditions and physical illness. Aside from damage to the individual, advocates of prohibition also indicate the extensive social costs that are borne by the community at large – such as health service provision for addicts and the crime that is often generated by the need to finance a habit (Burr, 1987; Wardlaw, 1981; Yu & Williford, 1994). As the criminological community has pointed out for many years, efforts to control these risks through prohibitionist policies have generated their own sets of problems and paradoxes. Most prominent in the literature are discussions of the emergence of black markets, criminal subcultures and organized crime, the financial and community costs of law enforcement and dilemmas in the administration of effective public health strategies (e.g. Maher et al., 1998; Marks, 1990; Skolnick, 1992; Wodak & Owens, 1996). Figure 1. provides a matrix that summarizes this extensive and diverse literature on social problems and drug use.

Whilst Figure 1 provides a technology for summarizing the literature, we note that there is often controversy over the origin of drug related social and individual pathologies, meaning that the location of some of the problems in or within the matrix is disputed. For example, there is debate surrounding the extent to which problems such as crime and urban decay result from prohibition, rather than from the properties of the drugs themselves as they impact upon human behavior and life-chances (Moore, 1976; Wodak & Owens, 1996). In other words, do these problems belong in Cell A or Cell B – or indeed in neither? Nevertheless, Figure 1 operates as a convenient device for classifying a diverse field of research and mapping the distribution of the contemporary research effort. Not surprisingly, in social science discourse those cells of the matrix (A & B) looking at society-level problems are the most visible in publications. The medical and psychological literature, by contrast, has made Cell C the core of its research agenda. Almost forgotten in this snowstorm of paper is Cell D and the individual-level problems arising not from drug use, but from policies of prohibition. The scant amount of available discussion suggests that these include reduced access to health and other helping professions, being forced into contact with a criminal subcultures, and being denied knowledge of the purity of the drugs (Marks, 1990; Parliamentary Joint Committee, 1989). Many very basic questions about Cell D remain to be answered. For example, as Winick (1991, p.12) states: “Most important, we do not know the relative impact of prohibitionist policies on the patterns of dysfunctional drug use”. The limited pool of academic commentary on Cell D seems to be the product of an informed guesswork, drawing upon an existing literature framed around other problem agendas. We are not aware of any project that has set out to specifically collect empirical evidence in this arena.

Given this absence, the research to be presented in this paper provides a rare dedicated empirical study of the individual level implications of drug prohibition. Our specific aims, however, are somewhat more precise that this, and take into account what we have overlooked so far in discussing Figure 1, the questions of problem “recognition” and “ownership” (Gusfield, 1975; 1981). Problems – and their solutions- do not exist in some Kantian isolation, but must always be located and defined in terms of the position and interests of grounded social actors. These provide a third dimension that is orthogonal to the two making up the matrix. Consider, for example, the representative social concerns we listed under Cell C. Upon reflection these can be seen to express the legitimate concerns of health professionals. Users, however, might prioritize or “own” another set of “problems” that arise from drug pharmacology. They could point to the possibility of a negative experience (“bad trip”) or difficulties in regulating dosage so as to optimize a “high”. Any discussion of “problems”, then, must be tethered to specific constituencies, value patterns and agendas. With this context in mind, here we approach Cell D in a very precise way. This is to investigate the subset of issues within that cell which are recognized and owned only by users. These have no public sponsors or institutional brokers – they can be thought of as forgotten and private troubles (Gusfield, 1975) that are for the most part to be managed by individuals in their daily lives.

In looking at a set of problems facing individual users as they themselves understand them, this paper takes a position that is largely shunned in positivistic academic research as well as popular and political discourses. Drug use as a social issue is overwhelmingly framed as something facing the non-illicit-drug-using majority that arises from the actions of a deviant, illicit-drug-using minority. For example, in the report by the Parliamentary Joint Committee we cited earlier, references to dysfunctional outcomes for users are scattered amidst seemingly more pressing discussions of issues such as police corruption and the costs of law enforcement (Parliamentary Joint Committee, 1989). Even much qualitative research such as ethnography (which often goes out of its way to provide detail on the social and political contexts of drug use) is usually conducted to document concerns held by the general community, and investigate issues for other people with which/whom drug users are associated. For example, the admirable and broadly sympathetic study of Maher, Dixon, Lynskey and Hall (1998) attempted to document the extent to which drugs contributed to wider social concerns like crime and HIV/AIDS. The views of drug users were canvassed because they could illuminate phenomena that were major worries not only for users, but also for the wider community. The users’ own definitions of a “problem” were neglected. Likewise the perspectives informing U.S. drugs policy during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s mention possible implications and problems for individual drug consumers, but couch these in a moralistic language that speaks of personal failure and declining dignity and autonomy (Skolnick, 1992). The stereotyped image here is of a pathetic figure struggling against depravity and poverty. This person is on a “road to hell”, becoming progressively inhuman and losing “…capacities to judge, choose and act” (Wilson, Moore & Wheat, 1972, p. 5). While philanthropic visions of this nature may have the drug user’s interests in mind, they are rarely subject to rigorous empirical validation or relativized through contrast with the perspective of users themselves. For example, drug use is inevitably taken as a problematic factor in investigating its relationship to social problems of varying magnitude, including issues ranging from deviant individual lifestyles to the massive social costs of drug law enforcement and prevention strategies. It is seen as the contingency around which such unpleasant consequences are hung – a contingency whose elimination would be desirable. Rarely is drug consumption taken as the given or desirable activity that it is within the life narratives of many users. Once this gestalt switch on themes of ownership and definition is made, then other factors come into play as “problems” that need solutions.

The Mertonian Framework in the Analysis of Social Problems

Having deployed Gusfield’s (1975) ideas about problem recognition and ownership to bring our research orientation into an initial focus, we need to further elaborate on why Cell D problems as experienced by users have been largely neglected to date. Robert Merton (1971) sheds light on the tendency we have identified for the “drug problem” to be framed in terms of the interests, concerns and definitions of institutions in society at large. He draws an important distinction between manifest and latent problems. A manifest social problem is one where certain objective conditions (e.g. drug use) are identified and recognized as being at odds with social values shared by society. On the other hand, a latent social problem also constitutes an objective condition which is at odds with the values held by society (or, he importantly notes, a sub-set of that society), but is not recognized as being so (e.g. social stigma caused by drug illegality). In terms of Figure 1, the social problems identified in Cells A, B, and C tend to have had much more extensive visibility in sociological literature and political discourse than those arising in Cell D. They are manifest problems, whilst those of Cell D are primarily latent – especially the private subset that is owned by users.

Merton suggests that a range of factors contribute to the selective identification of particular problems as “manifest” or their remaining “latent” and hidden. Firstly, Merton (1971) argues that undesirable conditions that are not intended, but are the by-products of actions directed by the goal to improve some other more pressing concern, rank low on the scale of social concerns as these are recognized and defined. Hence, the unforeseen outcomes of drug prohibition for drug users may be perceived as just the unfortunate fallout of upholding the moral standards of the community. In this case, the manifest problem at hand is deviance from moral norms for behavior. Merton notes: “These unintended and undesired consequences of purposive action may become a focus of attention, but they are less apt to mobilize pressure for preventative or remedial measures than those problems that violate the prevailing morality” (1971, p. 816). Furthermore these unwanted results of “purposive action” are often perceived as intractable or as part of a Devil’s bargain. Merton notes that people hold a “tacit conviction that whatever is, is inevitable, and so might as well be ignored” (1971, p. 813). The outcome, Merton (1936) noted early in his career, could be a complacent and fatalistic orientation towards the unanticipated effects of directed social action.

The fact that certain social problems rise to “manifest” status and others remain “latent” may be also be accounted for in terms of the existence of categorical differences. Merton (1971) suggests that social problems can be usefully divided into two broad classes – “social disorganization” and “deviant behavior”. Social disorganization refers to a situation in which a given social system is failing or inadequate. In such cases, the interrelated statuses and roles are functioning in such a way that the collective purposes of that particular social location, as well as the individual objectives of its members, are less fully realized than they might be in an alternative workable system (Merton, 1971). Alternatively, deviant behavior refers to actions which depart significantly from the conduct proscribed by the norms set out for people, which vary according to their social status. Thus, social problems that fall into the category of social disorganization refer to technical, instrumental or coordination errors in the social system, such as inability to provide members with the skills and opportunities needed to fulfill their social roles. By contrast those relating to deviance grow from moral and cultural roots as people fail to live up to the normative requirements of their social positions (Merton, 1971).

Merton argues that social disorganization is less likely to be understood as a social problem than is deviance, to the extent that the latter is visible and accountable as an action that is at odds with the norms shared (to a greater or lesser extent) in society. As with the unintended consequences of purposive behavior (discussed above), parties who are vying for the recognition of problems generated by social disorganization may be unable to draw attention to their causes by pointing to norms that have been violated (Merton, 1971). In terms of illicit drug use this theme is well illustrated. The issues that are amplified (in both popular discourse and academic research) are those arising from the deviant, norm-breaking behavior of users. By contrast, issues that constitute states of social disorganization resulting from the unintended consequences of prohibition (e.g. reduced access to health services) may rank as low profile matters in the order of public concerns.

Furthermore, we should not forget the important role played by people and institutions in positions of power in determining what does and does not constitute a social problem. In the absence of consensus on an objective criteria with which to compare the seriousness of various social concerns, the values held by powerful interests within society will play a key role in determining which troubles are deemed significant – what is functional and what is dysfunctional, who owns the “real” problem (Becker, 1963; Merton, 1971). However, as Merton (1971, p. 811) notes, “the sociologist need not order the importance of social problems in the same way as the man in the street”, nor are we obliged to order the importance of social issues in accordance with the values of those groups currently enjoying positions of authority.

Yet if the sociologist is to go beyond common-sense analyses of deviance, how is this to be done? Again Merton provided a clue with his concept of the social dysfunction. We can define social dysfunctions in terms of their relation to social disorganization. Where social disorganization refers to generic failures or inadequacies in the functioning of a given social system, social dysfunction refers to the specific failures of a particular part of that system in meeting particular requirements, for particular people in a given social location. To analyze a social problem in terms of its dysfunctions is to examine “a designated set of consequences of a designated pattern of behavior, belief, or organization that interfere with a designated functional requirement of a designated social system” [italics added] (Merton 1971, p. 839.). In other words, functionality and dysfunctionality need to be specified in very concrete ways as they apply to specific groups, interests and action patterns. Because the social system is highly stratified, social patterns or states of affairs may be functional for some elements of the social system and dysfunctional for others. Hence we need to abandon the idea that “…every culturally standardized activity or belief is functional for the society as a whole and uniformly functional for the people living in it” (Merton 1968, p. 81). While benefits may exist for particular groups as a result of drug prohibition, differential and contradictory effects will necessarily be experienced in other components of the social system and in diverse social locations. Consequently there is a strong requirement to specify the perspective from which dysfunctions will be considered, and the social groups who will be affected by them. This observation, of course, helps us to understand both Table 1 and Gusfield’s (1975) thoughts on the need to consider the recognition and ownership of social problems, the recognition and ownership of their solutions; and (we would add) the recognition and ownership of those problems arising as consequences of these solutions.

By studying social dysfunctions we may shed light on conditions within our society that are at odds with the values that are commonly shared, and may serve to make “latent” social problems visible. Where social dysfunctions relate to conditions maintained by social policy, such knowledge may serve as a basis for future decisions and allow for the parties who will bear the consequences of policy decisions to stake a claim for participation in relevant debates. Merton (1971, p. 807) observes that by conducting relevant analyses, “sociological knowledge eventually presses policy-makers to justify their social policies to their constituencies and the larger community”. Informed by such a mandate, this paper goes beyond common-sense categories and attempts to define the “drug problem” in a new way. That is to say, to try to understand the problems or dysfunctions generated by drug prohibition as these are experienced by drug users. This perspective does not aim to condone drugs or their use, but rather takes a position of value neutrality. It exercises a sociological imagination by re-framing a “problem” in a novel way and thus retrieving a dysfunction that has been neglected within dominant paradigms of drug research.

Methodology and Data Collection

The sample of participants in the study consisted of 11 men and 9 women in the wider community who voluntarily took part during late 1999. The respondents were of Anglo-Celtic background, mostly aged in their 20s and all lived in South East Queensland, a metropolitan region of Australia centered around the capital city of Brisbane. They were recruited through a snowball technique whose details must remain undisclosed in order to protect the identity of informants. All of the participants were willing to take part and seemed glad of the opportunity to recount their experiences and views. As the histories and backgrounds of the participants were varied, we have included a table summarizing the relevant characteristics of the sample (see Appendix Table 1.). All of the respondents were over the age of twenty-one, and all had had substantial involvement with illicit drugs. The pattern of use most commonly reported was a few years of intense exposure after initiation. This was followed by a period of regular but more controlled use. Indeed some people reported substantial periods of total abstinence. At the time of the interviews, the majority of the interviewees could be considered recreational drug users in that consumption was largely reserved for weekend or more infrequent use. Another important point to note about the sample is that all of the interviewees were employed or studying at the time of the interview. Many would be considered professional people, and overall constitute an upper-working/middle class sample.

We note here that our sample is unusual in that drug research has typically made use of samples of chronic users taken from correctional or medical facilities or from marginalized social groups, rather than “functional” or “advantaged” sections of the community. This should be seen as an important constraint on the generalizability of our study, even if it does have the merit of tapping into the lifeworld of a neglected “silent majority” of “socially competent” users (see also Rosenbaum, 1996; Wilson, Moore & Wheat, 1972; Winick, 1991). Although the exact extent of drug use among more privileged populations is not known, available evidence suggests that it is substantial. One study in New York State found that high-income households were larger consumers of all classes of illicit drugs compared to any other income group (Frank et al., 1984). However such populations of users remain relatively invisible, with academic research and state-sponsored surveillance continuing to scrutinize and generalize from those towards the bottom of the social hierarchy where a problem has been defined (Wilson, Moore & Wheat, 1972). A sample comprised of “competent” citizens adds methodological validity by diverging from the tendency in drug research to use findings obtained from research with people in disadvantaged circumstances, to infer behavioral choices in the wider population. It can allow us to explore whether the negative sequelae of drug use might reflect social system dynamics rather than simply the unmediated effects of the drugs themselves (Winick, 1991). In the more specific case of this paper, it allows a clearer distinction to be made between the negative consequences of prohibition and the negative consequences of the drugs themselves, as these impact on individual life circumstances.

Initially four pilot interviews were conducted in which informants were asked about ways in which prohibition had impacted upon their lives as drug users. These enabled the general themes to be developed for a following sequence of semi-structured interviews (Fontana & Frey, 1994). Interviews took place in familiar, domestic settings and were conducted by the senior author. Most were administered one-on-one, however, one pair and one group of three participants were interviewed. On these two occasions, the participants had arranged to meet together to facilitate recall of past experiences. Such collective encounters seemed to aid, rather than hinder, the open provision of information collection, with the participants sparking off memories and narratives in each other. A checklist of topics was used by the interviewer to ensure each interview covered a range of themes relating to prohibition, yet these were introduced in varying orders depending on the flow of conversation. In interviewing the pair and the group of three participants, each aspect of the checklist was addressed to each participant in turn, although all were free to make additional comments. The interview process was loosely informed by Norman Denzin’s (1989) interpretive interactionism. Denzin argues that personal experiences relating to a given issue are best investigated by probing for “epiphanies” – key moments in which some truth about the social structure or the self was revealed to informants during their life histories. Such a method, we suggest, can lead to an overemphasis on transformative and dramatic incidents. In conducting the interviews, therefore, we probed for “stories” rather than “epiphanies”. The idea here was to collect episodes that were in some ways typical of lifeworldly experience, but nevertheless sufficiently vivid and illustrative to have stuck in the informant’s mind. The interviews were recorded and transcribed, with respondents being given pseudonyms. After the accuracy of the transcriptions had been checked, the tapes were destroyed. The transcripts were analyzed using a system of categorical indexing (Mason, 1996). Here specific experiences that had been recalled were coded in terms of which of the main themes they pertained to – the financial, criminal, personal or social consequences of illicit drug use in the context of prohibition. It was during this process of categorizing the responses that a fifth theme emerged – the negative consequences of having to obtain drugs on the black market. In the following sections we present the major problems of drug use in a context of prohibition as these were recognized and expressed by the sample of users.

Problem One: Obtaining Drugs

The ironic twist provided by a Mertonian perspective is nicely illustrated in the matter of drug supply. The public perspective expressed most commonly by law enforcement agencies and politicians is that drugs are too easy to obtain. Prohibition follows as a logical consequence of this view. For users, by contrast, drugs are too difficult to obtain. Hence prohibition becomes a problem, not a solution – it is a dysfunction.

A frequently reported problem with scoring on the black market was the possibility of ‘rip-offs’, with drug consumers forced to purchase in markets with no legal protection. As “Cameron” and “Kate” reported, novices were eligible victims and thus especially vulnerable prey for experienced con artists.

I mean we lost $5000 one day, we met this guy…a person that we knew…went to a house…he walked in with the money and scales-in the front door. 20 minutes, half an hour later we went in…the house was vacant. Cameron, 27.

I gave her $1400 bucks…and after 20 minutes they hadn’t come back so I went into the house and they told me she hadn’t even been there. She’d just taken off with my money. Kate, 24.

At the other end of the scale from such major financial loss was the inconvenience that users often encountered in trying to obtain drugs. “Bruce”, for example, undertook a 200 kilometer drive only to have his time and expense wasted.

One time we drove to the coast and rang this place and the phone was off, so we were sort of just stuck outside this unit. We had no idea what the guy looked like, whether he was coming, we’d spoken to him only five minutes before. So then we had to ring the girl who knew the guy who had to ring his girlfriend’s mobile, it was a fiasco. Bruce, 26.

Somewhat more serious than such inconveniences were situations of risk. Immense threats to personal safety could be encountered in the pursuit of drugs. Particularly for women, situations can eventuate which would normally be avoided through fear of assault. “Claudia” relates one such episode:

…we were supposed to be meeting this big time dude, we were sitting in the front of the car, me and my boyfriend. He rocks into the back with his drugged up girlfriend, and he was massive, and we’ve just gone – Oh God! Then he pulls out this massive knife, and then out of the massive big base of this huge knife he just drops it out, and out of the bottom comes all these bags. Then he starts scooping stuff (speed) out with the knife, in the bag, got the scales out, all under the car light, then he packs it all away…It was scary. Claudia, 21.

Sometimes rip-offs, inconvenience and risk could be combined in various ways in the experience of shopping on a black market. On one occasion, for example, “Bernard” found not only that his time was being wasted, but also that he had placed his buddies in a dangerous situation.

This time we went to this guy’s unit and two of us went up and two of us waited in the car…our friends had gone, we waited for over 45 minutes getting all stressed out, so then our other friend went up. Bernard, 21

The overall picture reported by the interviewees was that obtaining drugs on a black market was a stressful, risky and often unsuccessful process. Novices were particularly vulnerable as “when they first start, experimenting and stuff, they’re not really knowledgeable about the market” (Damien, 31). To establish consistency and quality of supply and to reduce risks, initiates needed to become well connected within the drug subculture. It is clear that prohibition, then, provides perverse incentives for both neophytes and established users to immerse themselves more deeply in criminal networks.

Problem Two: Expense

The monetary cost of illicit drugs was consistently reported as being a dysfunction arising from prohibition. Prohibition was understood by informants to have resulted in the vastly inflated prices and profit margins that have historically characterized all black markets. While people reported various strategies to make sure they didn’t spend beyond their means, everyone who was interviewed held the view that drugs were too expensive, and could potentially be a financial burden. Consequently in our sample of recreational users, a measure of responsible fiscal planning had to come into place. In some cases this could mean undertaking a strategy as simple as not using the drug of first choice:

Financially I always really loved acid (LSD), I hardly ever took E’s (Ecstasy) because they were too expensive…I was able to save a lot of money. Crispen, 24.

However, the implications of prohibition-inflated drug prices could be more serious than just having to take the second best ‘high’. Many informants reported that drugs had indeed been a considerable financial problem for them at some point, usually during a period of intense use when supplies took up a large proportion of income. The result was that other consumption needs and wants were often restricted. “Diana” and “Jackie”, for example, pointed out that opportunities for expressive and discretionary spending were precluded by the cost of drugs.

You don’t buy personal things for yourself, like clothes or anything like that, everything goes onto drugs. Diana, 23.

…even for recreational use you have to budget to use drugs and know that you’ll be missing out on something else, like something for the house or something new to wear. Jackie, 23.

Personal concerns such as these may seem trivial when compared to publicly acknowledged social problems – especially those afflicting severely disadvantaged populations. Nevertheless the financial burden of merely recreational drug use constituted a notable obstacle in the realization of personal and societal goals for the individuals interviewed. Existing literature has attempted to document a link between the cost of drugs and criminal activity among marginal communities. If this is indeed the case then a personal problem is converted into the different order of public problems (see Gusfield, 1975). By contrast our sample of more affluent users seemed to undertake routine, “honest” strategies and choices in balancing drug taking with limitations in personal finance. Interestingly even in times of extreme hardship, the majority of the people interviewed did not develop criminal behaviors other than the drug use itself. This challenges prevailing assumption that drug use and other criminalities inevitably go hand-in-hand. The financial strategy options employed by the majority of the sample in order to finance their drug use legally appeared to be made possible by a combination of middle class backgrounds (and associated social/financial support), and a moral stake in conformity such that crime (other than drug use) was still considered deviant behavior. Thus for our informants, the expense of drugs was primarily a problem to be addressed by budgeting – a personal problem found a personal solution.

Problem Three: Encounters With the Criminal Justice System

A potential criminal status would seem to follow as a dysfunctional outcome of prohibition (Parliamentary Joint Committee, 1989). How is this manifested as a problem within the experiences of users? In the interviews respondents pointed overwhelmingly to the constant possibility of unpleasant encounters with the criminal justice system. They risked not only being arrested and charged with possession of drugs or other activities relating to the drug market, but also imprisonment and dangerous and violent interactions with the police. Of the present sample, ten of the eleven men had experienced having their houses raided for drugs, and nine had incurred some sort of related criminal charge and consequence. Notwithstanding our finding that most informants used “honest” financial strategies to pay for drug use two of the sample had become involved in serious property crime. The most significant consequence reported was almost 20 years of imprisonment for drug-related armed robbery offenses. Another interviewee had spent 3 and a half years in prison for drug related property offenses. Prison experiences, as “Alex” and “Raymond” report, were a damaging outcome of involvement in illegal activity.

…it was a very bad, horrible time to be in prison, and it had a very lasting effect on me… Alex, 24.

Outside of institutions when I was left to my own devices I couldn’t cope…even with people now I’m a bit reclusive, a bit of a loner, I find it hard to adjust to people out here, and to hold conversations….I get angry at what I missed out on, what I could have been and what I could have done, all the time I’ve wasted. Raymond, 43.

More common than imprisonment, however was having one’s house searched for drugs. Respondents were emphatic that this was a stressful and humiliating experience, whether or not drugs were found at the time. “Damien” reported having being raided five times, of which drugs were found on only one occasion resulting in $1500 of fines for possession and intent to supply. He described how he felt about these episodes:

Well I feel that if they’ve raided the house and they have found something then they can taunt you as much as they like, but if you’ve been raided indiscriminately and they haven’t found anything, well its pretty humiliating when they put shit on you and there’s nothing to be found. Damien, 31.

His traumatic experiences of police raids were echoed by other informants.

Well it’s pretty horrific because they treat you like complete scum. Bob, 29.

One time they raided my parent’s house when my parents and my whole family were there…the next second the old bill are knocking on the door…Mum and Dad were very worried. It was a pretty horrible experience, especially as I was pretending nothing was going wrong and that I was totally innocent – when I knew I wasn’t. And if something had gone wrong I would have publicly, in Mum and Dad’s face, embarrassed them. I felt terrible about the whole scenario. Adam, 29.

That was actually the second most scariest experience of my life, the first being the court case after that…one afternoon, sitting around having a ‘sess’ (smoking marijuana), heard a noise outside, went to get up and check the door, before I could answer it it got kicked in, two gun wielding narcotics officers followed by six uniformed police who then ripped the place apart and wanted me to sign documentation that there had been no damage and all this sort of stuff…Cameron, 27.

One interviewee even reported how the police abused him after realizing that they had falsely accused him of breaking into his own house:

They were going real hard on us calling us “druggos”, checked our arms for injection marks saying – you “druggo bastards” are “off your head” ! – But they didn’t have any proof and we were sitting in our own house! They rocked in! We broke in because we lost our key while we were out. Nathan, 24.

Overall, contact with the law was spoken about as an extremely negative consequence of prohibition. The problem was not so much the abstraction of the law and feelings of guilt at its violation, but rather its immediate manifestation in face-to-face encounters. Feelings of humiliation and anger arising from hostile treatment by police officers were cited as an extremely negative aspect of the whole experience. These may have been amplified by the fact that the majority of participants in our study (notwithstanding using illicit drugs) saw themselves as law-abiding citizens. Aside from concrete encounters, an all-pervading fear of being caught with drugs was also something that people mentioned, including some of the women who were interviewed. Indeed this was often a major source of paranoia for people while they were in the act of possessing or taking drugs. Illegality is a factor that appeared to be ever present in the minds of the drug users interviewed. They were constantly minded that theirs was an unlawful pleasure.

Problem Four: Negative Judgments and Social Exclusion

Although the criminal implications of drug use in a context of prohibition are perhaps self-evident, less often recognised are issues of social disapproval. The respondents were well aware that criminality compounds normative deviance. Thus prohibition had the dysfunctional outcome of making them extremely vulnerable to labeling as addicts, losers, misfits and criminals. “Crystal” expressed a common view when she suggested that ignorance and the media were responsible for the negative image of the drug user.

So many people just don’t know enough about it, they’re so quick to criticize other people…I think a lot of people only know what they hear from the media, they only see the bad side of it all. Crystal, 26.

“Bob” and “Nathan” also saw themselves as potential abject stereotypes. They spoke in remarkably similar ways about public arrogance and of their unfair disadvantage compared to users of a well-known legal drug – alcohol.

They think the majority of people who take drugs are the typical heroin addict stereotype, that’s the perception of the whole thing, even with pot (marijuana). When you look at people on alcohol, they act heaps more destructively and no one frowns down on them. Bob, 29.

…like people who don’t have associations with any kinds of drugs definitely hold a stigma against you. They think they’re one better because they don’t take a drug, but they probably go out and get blind (drunk), and they’re doing just as much damage to themselves. Nathan, 24.

Anticipation of such negative judgments raised a problem of potential stigma. This in turn led individuals into patterns of lying and dissimulation that could only be maintained with great effort. The work required to sustain a façade was only one problem facing users. Equally important was the fact that this very activity was interpreted as a barrier to authentic relationships, honesty and trust. Probably the most shared sentiment among all of the interviewees was concern for what their families and friends would think of them if they knew they took illicit drugs. This was compounded with worries about the ethical implications of constant dissimulation.

[It was] Probably the thing that I was most aware of when I would go out, I would worry about running into people I knew who didn’t take drugs and what they would think of me…I lived at home at the time, and I would purposely stay away so I wouldn’t have to see any of my family. Polly, 23.

I’ve had to lie to my parents, and I feel really bad about it, I’ve never been brought up in a way where I’ve had to hide things from my parents, but now…Diana, 23.

I’ve always been careful in the jobs I’ve had and the people I’ve made friends with not to let them into certain parts of my life…You have to be conscious of it. Farrah, 29.

This strategy of hiding drug use may well have made sense. When drug use was known – a situation we might think of as “open awareness” (Glaser & Strauss, 1965) – stigma and surveillance could result. “Jackie”, for example, became acutely conscious that others were inspecting her body and self through a “drug user” lens.

… like friends or people who knew me well would notice things like weight loss and changes in personality, and they definitely looked down on me because of that. Jackie, 23.

Not surprisingly, then, people reported being highly motivated to keep their drug use hidden from those who hadn’t had personal experience with drugs. They believed that such knowledge would result in negative appraisal of not only just their drug usage, but of their worth as a people overall. Illicit drug use was perceived to lead to character assassinating judgments such as being out of control, deviant, sick, and generally dysfunctional. Here the folk reasoning of our informants matched perfectly with academic theories of deviance as a “master status” (Becker, 1963) that can trump other more worthy identities. Social stigma is indeed a lived reality for users of illicit drugs, experienced in its extreme among groups already stigmatized for living outside dominant normative boundaries (e.g. single mothers; see Murphy & Rosenbaum, 1999).

Problem Five: Health

As is already well known (Parliamentary Joint Committee, 1989), the illegal status of drugs generates dysfunctional collective outcomes for public and personal health, with issues such as HIV control and overdose response rising to political visibility. However, respondents in the study frequently pointed out that an awareness that they were participating in criminal activity made them individually less likely to seek out medical help. Theirs was not a “public health problem” but an issue of personal health dilemmas. This view was succinctly stated by “Polly”,

If someone’s ‘loosing the plot’ (loosing their mind), and if they weren’t on drugs then you would automatically take them to seek professional help, but if you know they’re on drugs then you wouldn’t. Polly, 24.

There seemed to be two reasons why users would be reluctant to seek help. The first was fear of arrest.

I can remember an instance when I had to ring an ambulance for someone who had OD’d in my house, and you know, it’s shocking, you think – that’s it we’re all busted! You shouldn’t have to think about things like that when you’ve got someone who’s dying on the floor. Cameron, 27.

The second problem was more diffuse and revolved around concerns about negative social judgments by health professionals. The issues here seem to parallel those reviewed in the previous section, where the drug users were worried about what family and friends would think.

I am an insulin dependent diabetic, and I wanted to know – if I take this what is it going to do to me? It might have sugar in it. And I tried to get information on it but it was all just really general, it didn’t tell me any of the long term side effects. Claudia, 21.

I’ve had friends that have needed to see a doctor about something that was drug related, and the time it took them to actually get there was much more because it was drug related and they were worried what the doctor would think of them. Farrah, 29.

Reduced access to health and emergency services may be compounded by paranoia among drug users. This may be a particularly relevant issue in Queensland at present where there is a high level of amphetamine use, and where the purity of amphetamine is increasing and is higher than in any other state in Australia (McKetin, Darke & Godycka-Cwirko, 1999). There seems to be an accompanying trend of growing drug-induced psychosis among amphetamine users (Kinner & Roche, 1999). Even mild psychosis or paranoia among recreational users of amphetamines, may logically lead to the secondary problem of steering drug users away from health professions through excessive concern on how they will be judged. The fact that drug users have also been engaging in illegal behavior would no doubt compound these worries. Paranoia may arise from a complex interaction of drug pharmacology and awareness of the ever-present possibility arrest and judgment. This problem has recently been acknowledged by the Queensland Health Services (2000) who include the following “important messages” on the back of their pocket size card of ‘what to do’ in the case of a drug overdose:

  • Remember, priority should be to call an ambulance
  • Police don’t chase ambulances
  • Police don’t listen to ambulance radios for overdoses
  • Police do not attend overdoses unless called

For our respondents, then, prohibition generated problems of access to health services. Whilst, fear of arrest – even in a context of paranoia – can be thought of as a rational response to the possibility of objective social sanction, it is clear that there are parallel concerns about negative judgment that are driven by a more complex symbolic logic. Such a pattern of avoidance is consistent with the way in which stigmatized individuals commonly respond to their social world, as described by Goffman (1986 [1963]). He cites the perception of addiction as a stigmatizing trait, and defines stigma as “an attribute that is deeply discrediting”, and as a “special kind of relationship between attribute and stereotype” (1986, p. 3- 4). Our data suggested that the decision to present to a doctor or to call for emergency help for a drug related problem may be profoundly influenced by this context. In Goffman’s terms, such an action requires the interactional acknowledgement of a “shameful gap between virtual and actual social identity” (1986, p. 127) and the resolution of a wrenching contradiction between the needs of the biological organism and the integrity of the public self (1986).


There is a danger inherent in presenting the point of view of drug users. A study such as this can appear to the casual reader to condone, sympathize or endorse the behaviors and opinions that are provided by the informants. This is emphatically not our intention. We have not aimed to justify and validate drug use and drug subcultures, but rather to use Merton’s work to theorize an alternative conceptual approach to the “drug problem”. We have also reported the results of an empirical study that uses this framework to explore the issue of prohibition from the perspectives and experiences of users. Overall, the findings from this research have pointed to certain Mertonian dysfunctions resulting from prohibition policies for illicit drug users as they live their day-to-day lives. Among the dysfunctions highlighted were negative consequences of having to obtain drugs on the black market, which often resulted in people being ‘ripped-off’ financially, inconvenienced and being placed in risky situations. The black market industry for narcotics was also reported to place a considerable financial burden on drug users, with even occasional use reported to be an expensive pursuit. People spoke of missing out on other things, spending savings, dealing drugs and in a couple of cases stealing to manage the expense of drug use. Contact with the criminal justice system (and even the ever-present threat of contact) was another problem that confronted users. Furthermore, all but one of the eleven males interviewed had experienced having their houses raided for drugs, which had resulted in criminal charges for most. Two of the interviewees had experienced the harsher consequence of being jailed for crimes relating to drug use, which had had a significant, long-term impact on their lives. In addition, negative social and personal consequences (both potential and realized) were cited as resulting from engaging in a prohibited activity. The most important of these dysfunctions was being judged negatively by friends, family and even strangers. Further, people reported being unwilling to seek emergency help and access health services through fear of negative appraisal or arrest.

In regard to the generalizability of these dysfunctions to wider populations we must consider that only twenty people were interviewed, all of whom were of European descent. At the time of interview these people were all “functional” users, who were able to combine drug use with holding down a job and maintaining a “normal” lifestyle. Thus the findings are hardly representative of wider drug using populations, even those of similar demographic composition. In addition, the sample was not random as a snowball technique was used. However, samples from correctional institutions and similar settings are also far from representative of the wider drug using population. Rather than seeing our sample composition as a weakness of this study, we argue that it is a strength. As Merton (1971) predicts, we might expect prohibition impacts to be differentially experienced the diverse groups of users of illicit drugs as they vary in their position in the social structure. Here we find that our sample serves the useful purpose of highlighting the variability of experiences within the wider population of drug users. This implication can be illustrated by comparing the findings here with some of those that were relevant to the Cabramatta (low SES) sample looked at by Maher et al. (1998).

The negative consequences of obtaining drugs on the black market identified by the present sample, can be broadly characterized as disruptions in the everyday functioning of these individuals. As such these consequences may have influenced other things going on in the lives of these people, resulting in interference in daily and perhaps more long term personal goals (saving for a house for example). However in the Cabramatta sample, comparable activities undertaken to obtain drugs largely consumed the day-to-day lives of these individuals. Prohibition, in other words, probably exerted a larger influence on the daily lives of the low-SES Cabramatta sample. A comparison of the studies suggests that the consequences of prohibition are probably filtered through the structure of drug markets of markedly different natures. Obtaining drugs for the sample in the present study was more a process of sifting though networks of friends and acquaintances and going to people’s houses to meet them, a process fraught with its own difficulties. Members of street-level markets such as that in Cabramatta on the other hand, conduct a large proportion of drug-related transactions in public places, which is obviously subject to its particular risks. However to some extent, it is likely that the experiences reported here in relation to being frequently ‘ripped-off’, especially when new to the scene, as well as being inconvenienced and sent on wild goose chases, are likely to have been experienced by all users of illicit drugs at some point. Again, in comparing these two different samples of users of illicit drugs, we can see that the amount and type of crime that was reported was of a different nature. With two exceptions in the present sample, the only involvement in crime that was reported was a violation of drug laws. By contrast, within the Cabramatta sample it was unusual not to be involved in property crime. What this suggests is that both dysfunctions arising from prohibition and responses to these are likely to vary according to the geography, class location, social networks and culture of diverse drug using populations. Knowledge of such localized dysfunctions may potentially serve as a guide in the application of education and harm reduction strategies. For example, research into patterns of alcohol use among young women has revealed that particular drinking patterns appeared to be actively chosen, contextually-based and changeable. Hence patterns of social binge-drinking require distinctive interventions that contrast with those targeted at chronic alcoholics (De Crespigny, Vincent & Ask, 1999).

We conclude by pointing out that the issues raised by this research are obviously relevant to the current debate surrounding the possibility of decriminalization of various drugs in Australia and other developed nations. The major arguments in favor of decriminalization are that it would remove illegitimate power from organized crime and help to minimize the spread of HIV/AIDS. Weighted against this stance is the possibility that decriminalization may result in an increased number of people becoming addicted to narcotics such as heroin and engaging in yet more crime to finance this habit (Sargent, 1992). However it is not known to what extent this may be the case or how a different climate of use (one without prohibition) may result in a less harmful impact by drugs overall. Knowledge of the effect that the context of prohibition has on the life choices of various groups of illicit drug consumers within society may provide information on latent problems and states of social disorganization that can be used to inform this debate. Consider, for example, the fact that property crime was common in Cabramatta but rare among our more mainstream sample. This suggests that it is a combination of drugs and poverty (in a context of prohibition) that generates wider criminality – not the pharmacology of the drugs themselves. Methodologically, then, we argue that drug research should become broader and comparative in orientation, supplementing its orthodox focus on marginal populations and chronic users. Infrequent cases of research based on random samples of drug users point to the existence of groups of people who have chosen to cease use of illicit drugs altogether, and who present a wider variety of reasons for doing so (Cunningham, Koski-Jannes & Toneatto, 1999). By studying up hierarchies as well as down them and by exploring diverse styles of drug use, we can move away from sweeping generalizations. Scholars may then begin to systematically address the kinds of problems we discussed in the context of Table One at the very start of this paper. Comparative research involving both privileged and disadvantaged users allows stronger inferences to be made about the origins of particular “drug problems” – as these may differentially arise from the context of prohibition itself or have causes located in wider social, economic and cultural environments. All participants in drug debates would agree that a move away from narrow hypotheses and stereotypical assumptions is to the advantage of rational decision making. We suggest that a Mertonian twist can be pivotal to this task of thinking beyond the square.


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