DRCNet Library | The Drugtext Libraries

The Psychedelic Library | Table of Contents

The Marijuana Smokers

  Erich Goode

    Chapter 12 - Epilogue: Models of Marijuana Use

    Every scientific discipline employs conceptual and theoretical constructs that help its practitioners to organize and make sense out of the often confusing facts before them. An event does not simply occur; it is noticed and classified. These constructs generally cohere into models: detailed generalizations, each element of which contributes to the central theme, or thesis. Models structure our attitudes and responses toward a given phenomenon; they tell us what to see and what to ignore. Models represent archetypical patterns built into our minds as a way of understanding events around us. Some models are more useful than others, organizing facts more faithfully. By equipping ourselves with one model, we may distort the essential reality of a phenomenon—although, at the same time, clarify a small segment of the same phenomenon—while using a different one will immediately introduce clarity where a swirling fog-bank of obfuscation and confusion previously prevailed.
    Of all arenas of human behavior, illicit nonmedical drug use provides one of the best examples of the tyranny of models of man. In few spheres are facts perceived more selectively—by experts and the public alike—and with less correspondence to the real world. At least two factors account for the mythical character of contemporary drug models. The subterranean nature of illegal drug use renders direct confrontation with a wide range of users, as well as a broad spectrum of the many aspects and manifestations of use, unlikely even for the dedicated researcher. What takes place in the laboratory may not take place in the street; what takes place in the slum may not happen on the college campus. We are all at the mercy of culturally (and historically) generated models to explain the few, highly selective facts which filter through to us. In addition, the emotional involvement of every member of society in the drug issue reduces his objectivity and detachment.
    What, then, is to be done? It depends on whether we are deductive or inductive in our method. A common cry today is that we need less prejudice and more fact. This statement ignores man's powerful ability to perceive facts selectively. Presenting the same set of facts to two different observers, each with his own set of ideological and theoretical perspectives or models, will produce reports whose conclusions differ fundamentally on every conceivable important question. Facts are not perceived in the abstract; they are linked to a general scheme. They are manifestations of larger processes. By themselves, facts are chaotic assortments of trivia. At the same time, an iron-clad adherence to a meaningless model, an ignorance of the facts in preference to an outworn but elegant scheme, is equally as sterile and misleading. It is at the general level that we must begin.
    What are these obsolete drug models? They range from the ludicrous to the nearly plausible. The least useful and most erroneous of these models—and the one most densely woven into historical and cultural folklore—is what might be called the "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" model of marijuana use. The essential elements of this notion are that: (1) there is a germ of evil in even the best of men; (2) some potion, or external chemical agent, may release this evil; and (3) once the agent is ingested, the evil will express itself in aggressive and destructive acts under any and all circumstances. However, this belief that a normal person, upon ingestion of marijuana, will instantly become a dangerous and violent maniac is not entertained very seriously in many quarters today. A perusal of the antimarijuana propaganda of the 1930s would yield full-blown expressions of this tribal mythology; even today, the police commonly propagate the notion that there is a direct causal association between the use of marijuana and the commission of violent crimes. Not only is this belief held by a minority among all groups in American society, it is slowly a dying belief, even among the police. The "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" model of marijuana use is interesting mainly for antiquarian purposes.
    A newer and somewhat more realistic model of marijuana use, taken seriously by medical and lay figures alike, in part reflects the shift from a punitive to a rehabilitative approach to the drug question (a shift not yet institutionalized among law enforcement agencies). This model could be called the "pathology" or "medical" model. According to this model, marijuana use, particularly at its more extreme levels of frequent use and high dosages, has features resembling a medical disease; therefore, physicians have special competence in dealing with it. In both its cause and consequence, marijuana use is viewed as a kind of pathology. Marijuana appeals predominantly to the neurotic and the troubled young. Although some essentially normal youths will wander in and out of a marijuana-smoking crowd, the frequent and fairly long-term, or chronic user, is far more likely to manifest psychiatric disturbances.
    In addition, the marijuana experience is itself seen as pathological. Being high, under the influence of the drug, is thought to be by definition abnormal. This view holds that marijuana intoxication is such that reality is distorted: the subject feels euphoric (in clinical terms, "where there is no objective basis for euphoria"); he often emits unmotivated laughter; his sense of time is elongated (that is, he judges time "incorrectly," or his sense of time is "distorted"); he thinks he hears music more acutely; he thinks food tastes better; he has illusions of a superior aesthetic sense; and so on. In other words, according to the pathology model, what is felt and perceived under the influence of a drug which differs from the normal or nondrug state is in and of itself abnormal and pathological. In addition, it is an essential tenet of the pathology model that marijuana tends to induce temporary insanity, "psychotic episodes," in some users.
    Moral positions are often justified on rational grounds. To admit that one or another point of view is merely a matter of taste is rarely sufficient, particularly to someone who struggles for moral and ideological dominance. A common strategy to discredit other points of view is to adopt a health-pathology model of justification. One's own ideology represents mental or physical health, while that of one's opponents is pathological. Some of the best examples of this variety of rationalization may be found in the area of sexual behavior. To the sexually permissive, indulgence is normal, and abstinence is sick. To the supporters of abstinence, it is precisely the reverse:
What is the right thing for the young unmarried woman? The physician is not a religious teacher and he does not speak on grounds of morality. He speaks from the standpoint of health, which includes emotional health. From this standpoint I submit that the desirable ideal is premarital chastity.[1]

    The physician stands in excellent relation to society to make such judgments. He has sufficient scientific credentials in the public eye as well as great prestige, to command credibility. Moreover, his views are not markedly out of line with those of the majority, so that he may be useful as a means to justify and rationalize many traditional values, employing a rhetorical or scientific rationality.
    The sociology of medicine is one of the more fascinating the field has to offer. The illness and health of the human body are social definitions, not simply natural categories. Even death has a social dimension; it is not only a physiological fact. What is conceived of as a matter for appropriate medical attention is decided by doctors, not by the human body. What the body is thought to do, and what is thought to be the cause of what it does, varies from society to society, from epoch to epoch. What attracts a physician's attention at one time may be of no concern at another—either because of a change in moral climate or because of new discoveries in medical science. For example, masturbation was once thought to be "medically" harmful. Nineteenth-century physicians, from Krafft-Ebing[2] to the local general practitioner, attempted to dissuade adolescents from practicing masturbation for medical reasons; a moral evaluation was framed in health terms. What was disapproved of inevitably had to be thought of as physically harmful as well. The sinner had to bear the bodily signs—stigmata—of his transgressions. William Acton, the famous Victorian physician, describes the ravages of masturbation:
The frame is stunted and weak, the muscles undeveloped, the eye is sunken and heavy, the complexion is sallow, pasty, or covered with spots of acne, the hands are damp and cold, and the skin moist. The boy shuns the society of others, creeps about alone, joins with repugnance in the amusements of his schoolfellows. He cannot look any one in the face, and becomes careless in dress and uncleanly in person. His intellect has become sluggish and enfeebled, and if his evil habits are persisted in, he may end in becoming a drivelling idiot.... Such boys are to be seen in all stages of degeneration, but what we have described is but the result towards which they all are tending.[3]

    The parallels between society's condemnation of masturbation in the Victorian period, and its condemnation of marijuana use today, extend beyond the claim that both activities ruin the health of the participant. More specifically, insanity was often viewed as a likely outcome of both. Both were seen as an indulgence, a form of moral flabbiness, selfish and unrestrained pleasure-seeking. And both have earned the label "abuse;" in fact, even today "to abuse oneself" specifically means to masturbate, a relic of an earlier moral stance. In both cases, society's moral attitude toward the activity has elicited from the medical profession a condemnatory justification cast in the form of medical objectivity. Social control and the preservation of the status quo become functions of physicians. When society no longer holds a morally castigating point of view toward marijuana use, the physician's services will be withdrawn and called for in a new area.
    Popular sociology, as practiced by physicians as well as journalists, policemen as well as educators, has traditionally conceived of human activity in zero-sum terms. That is, it was thought that participation in one kind of human endeavor naturally and inevitably canceled out another; the more time, emotion, and effort invested in one activity, the less left over for another. Recent research in many areas of human life has more often given support to precisely the opposite perspective: generally, the hypothesis of "the more, the more" holds up. As John Gagnon put it, the imagery describing human activities has shifted from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes. Wisely withholding one's time and energy from one activity often results not in more time and energy for other activities, but no activity at all. And participation in certain kinds of activities often means involvement in many others as well. "Spending" one's time and energy in one sphere often implies spending more, not less, in other spheres as well.
    In fact, extending our Victorian sexual analogy a step further, it was not uncommon in the nineteenth century to employ economic imagery to describe sexual activity; having an orgasm, for instance, was labeled "spending." And it is in the realm of economics that the Victorian zero-sum model seems to operate best. One has a fixed amount of money, and "spending" it leads to its depletion. Analogously, engaging in sexual activity depleted one's energy; by conserving it, one had more left over for nonsexual spheres. Sex, in short, was seen as diminishing one's everyday, socially approved life.
    Few areas of social life reflect this thinking more than the question of marijuana use. The traditional view holds that smoking marijuana automatically means the deterioration of one's "normal" socially approved life, that deterioration is a cause of marijuana use in the first place, and that further use contributes to deterioration. Antidrug campaigns often base their appeals on this assumption. During 1969 and 1970, the National Institute of Mental Health has engaged in a propaganda effort to dissuade young people from using drugs. In one of its commercials, a short film, sequences of potsmoking youths (who, the commentator informs us, have copped out) are alternated and contrasted with shots of several clean-cut, energetic college-age young adults who are engaged in community and social work efforts. In fact, the basic assumption underlying nearly all antidrug propaganda campaigns is that marijuana use and all of the things normally valued by our society are mutually exclusive and incompatible. One chooses drugs or political activism.
    Closely related to the zero sum model is the "escape from reality" conception of marijuana use. The central axiom of this thesis is that the user is a troubled individual, who finds life threatening and frightening, and seeks to alleviate his difficulties by drifting off into a never-never land of euphoria. The state of intoxication associated with the marijuana high is viewed as intrinsically outside the orbit of the normal and the real and, therefore, by definition, the user seeks an unreal and abnormal state. It necessarily follows that anyone who smokes marijuana seeks to escape from reality, since reality is defined as what is socially acceptable. Thus, marijuana smokers are seen as truants from life, drop-outs, dwellers in a fantasy world, spinners of illusions—all living in hallucinations.
    Another model currently applied to marijuana use is the "stoned" view of marijuana use. Many arguments which attempt to discredit its use and individuals who use it are based on the assumption that the typical smoker is high a substantial portion of his waking hours, if not the entire day. There is the feeling that if someone finds marijuana pleasurable, he will want to become high all the time. If anyone can justify the use of the drug occasionally, then why not frequently? The use of marijuana conjures in the mind of the uninformed an image of the frequent or "chronic" user. Partly, this attitude is based on the fear of the unknown, fear that anything which is threatening will become dominant, overwhelming and destroying that which one values. Part of the image of the stoned model stems from the world of narcotics addiction where, it is true, a huge proportion of users eventually become chronic users.
    An essential element in all of the traditional and conventional models of marijuana use is the view that it is radically discontinuous with everyday life. Drug use is seen as existing in a moral and empirical realm wherein all of the taken-for-granted rules of life are suspended. What governs the law-abiding citizen is not thought to apply to the drug user, since he is, the thinking goes, removed from the pale of the law.
    I propose to substitute for these models that depend on the disjunction of the marijuana user from everyday life two more useful models which, instead, rely on a linear continuum between the user and the rest of society. In each of these classic models—the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the pathology, the zero-sum, the escape from reality, and the stoned models of marijuana use—there is an either/ or assumption. One is a user, or he is not; marijuana leads to heroin addiction, or it does not; marijuana causes psychotic episodes, or it does not; marijuana use is a neurotic acting out, or it is not. I suggest that the assumptions on which these models rest are empirically and conceptually inadequate; they are simply erroneous.
    If we look at the facts, we see not a discontinuity separating the marijuana smoker from the rest of society, but a spectrum ranging from the nonuser, through the potential convert, the experimenter, the occasional user, on up to the daily committed smoker who consumes ten or twelve joints a day, and who is high most of the time. In a sense, it is improper to speak of the marijuana user, since there are so many styles of use and degrees of involvement. Generalizations which apply to the daily user may be completely erroneous when applied to the experimenter, and so on. We can only say that one or another statement is more or less likely to hold up for one or another group.
    The idea that marijuana use could not only not detract from, but actually be associated with, an improvement in the volume and quality of those very things that are generally considered desirable, is heresy to the committed antimarijuana lobby, as well as to an entire tradition in marijuana commentary. Yet such a conclusion is difficult to avoid. The marijuana user appears to be more active socially than the nonuser. He has more friends and socializes more. He is engaged in a larger number and a greater variety of activities than the nonuser—aesthetic appreciation and creation, political activism, and social welfare, for instance. (Of course, some other human endeavors, such as traditional and formal religious participation, are less often the object of marijuana users' interests.)
    The zero-sum notion assumes that the two realms, the straight and the stoned, are antagonistic and incompatible, enjoyed by a wholly different and distinct personnel. In reality, most potsmokers do not rob their straight life to pay their stoned existence. More commonly, the two enrich each other. Thus, any model based on the assumption that by using marijuana those activities which society values will typically or necessarily deteriorate in the lives of users has to be faulty. In the average user, no such process takes place. (It will, of course, be a relatively simple matter to uncover exceptions.) The average marijuana smoker utilizes his drug of choice as an adjunct and an enhancer of many of the activities that the ordinary law-abiding citizen participates in.
    The dire predictions of what happens when someone takes to the weed do not seem to happen. It is said that although marijuana is not technically addicting, it does generate a kind of psychological addiction (thus, the stoned model), and that once legal restrictions are relaxed, huge numbers of persons will be stupefied most of their waking hours. When we look at the facts, this argument evaporates. Most marijuana users smoke the weed occasionally. The truly committed "head," the smoker who is high the whole day, day in and day out, is a relative rarity, perhaps comprising 1 or 2 percent of everyone who has ever smoked marijuana. And yet it is from this rarefied upper reaches of the world of potsmoking that society's model of marijuana use is borrowed.
    We will, of course, be able to locate specific individuals who are, in fact, high a great proportion of their waking hours. But the difference between marijuana and any of the physiologically addicting drugs—including alcohol—in this respect is so great as to be a difference of kind, and not simply a matter of degree. It is only because the medical profession views marijuana use by definition pathological and abnormal ("abuse" is defined as taking a drug outside a medical context) that any use of marijuana has to be viewed, medically, as a kind of habituation, or psychological addiction. Something anomalous, puzzling, and disturbing must be labeled pathological. But in less moralistic terms—and it is only on moral grounds that the medical label makes any sense at all—it is necessary to face the fact that the study of a cross-section of all individuals who have tried marijuana, or even who smoke it regularly, however regularly might be defined, will yield very few who are high all of the time, or even more than a few hours each evening. The facts do not support the stoned model. When the user smokes marijuana he does, indeed, become high, or stoned. And if one observed his behavior during this period, he is often measurably less active than normally. But to say that it is the ultimate goal of a large proportion of users to seek this state most of the time is to distort the facts. It is only because researchers cannot understand why anyone would want to become high in the first place that they find it necessary to attach the label "psychological addiction" or "habituation" to his behavior and motives. If they found use of the substance acceptable, they would not emit this labeling behavior.
    It is clear that another model is necessary. And this model, I propose, is the recreational model. It fits the facts more faithfully than any of the previously mentioned models. And it contains none of the moral judgments that the others are clearly guilty of. The recreational model takes issue with these perspectives. Essential to the recreational conception of marijuana use are the following elements: (1) it is used freely, noncompulsively; (2) it is smoked episodically—once or several times a week or so on the average; (3) it is experienced as pleasurable by the participants; (4) it is used in conjunction with (and not a replacement for) other enjoyable activities; (5) its impact on one's life is relatively superficial; (6) its use results in relatively little harm to the individual; and (7) its use is highly social. By adopting the recreational perspective toward marijuana use, I do not wish to imply that everyone who has ever smoked marijuana may be described in terms of this model, nor even that a majority of all users are typified by all of these principles. It is, however, to say that this model presents a relatively accurate summarization of the experiences of the characteristic user, that these traits are typically found in marijuana use. In any case, the issue is an empirical one; if the model is ineffective, then it must be discarded. In my own research, however, the recreational model yielded far more insights and more accurately described the reality I investigated than did any of the traditional models. I found that most users smoke marijuana recreationally, and I believe that any study investigating a fairly representative group of smokers will support the same generalization. It is possible, of course, to uncover some individuals who are motivated by compulsive forces and experience overwhelmingly unpleasant reactions. A study based on users who visit psychiatrists will, naturally be far more likely to be composed of users whose experiences differ from the normal everyday user's, and therefore cannot be taken as typical. In the open air of the user's habitat, the recreational model will be found to be more fruitful.
    A second model which, in my opinion, yields more mileage than the traditional and conventional images of use is the subcultural or life-style conception of the user. Marijuana use is the product of the same essentially normal values and beliefs of large groups of people that guide other kinds of everyday activities and choices. Voting for a political candidate, making a purchase, reading a magazine or newspaper, listening to music, playing and watching sports—all of these are influenced by the social groups to which we belong. No one questions the fact that Jews are more likely to vote Democratic than Protestants, that a heavier proportion of working-class men read the New York Daily News than read The New York Times while among professional workers, it is the reverse, that residents of large cities spend proportionally more of their time and money on "serious" art and music than do residents of more rural areas. These sorts of subcultural appeals are well-known and entreat our common sense.
    But if our attention turns to less common and more condemned activities, we find it necessary to ignore these broad and essentially normal appeals and to search out pathological motives. If it is the young to whom marijuana appeals, we must assume that they are rebelling against authority, or trying to kill their fathers, or escaping from boredom or reality, or whatever. If it is the urban dweller who is more likely to use marijuana, we point to an anomic, disintegrating urban society. If it is the affluent, then we complain about how the affluent are overindulging their young, and intone darkly about the hazards of affluence.
    Different social groups in society have somewhat different marijuana potentials. Greater or lesser proportions of their ranks are likely to try and use the weed because of characteristics relating to that group. Patterns of use are not accidental, and they are not pathological. They emerge out of the social fabric of the values and the circumstances of a segment of society. They do not typically occur as a result of some dark, unconscious motive. The subcultural attitudes and values of some groups support such an action as marijuana use, while those of other groups oppose it. In addition, opportunities for use are differentially dispersed throughout society. Simply by being around the stuff ecologically, groups differ in their likelihood of taking it.
    Thus, when we say that men are more likely to smoke marijuana than women, it is not permissible to say that men are more likely to be psychiatrically disturbed than women. Rather, it makes more sense to say that there is something about the role of men in this society that is related to marijuana use—a greater emphasis on experimentation, adventure, masculine daring, a greater influence of youth peer groups, and so on. And when we say that marijuana use is more likely to take place on the left of the American political spectrum than on the right, we cannot say that the left is in need of medical and psychiatric attention. Although it would serve a useful ideological function to any existing regime to pin a pathology label on its radical critics, it would not serve a scientific function. Such a position represents an attempt to discredit an opposing point of view by crystallizing one's own ideology into a pseudoscientific reality. Marijuana experimentation is woven into the life style of the political left (except, as we pointed out earlier, at the very extreme left), and not of the political right; is it then possible to say that the left is wrong, or bad, and the right good, or right? When two-thirds of the students of Columbia Law school say that they have tried marijuana, and nearly 100 percent say that marijuana use and possession should be legalized, do we then attempt to uncover pathologies in the members of Columbia Law School? Do we really wish to pathologize the activities and beliefs which separate one generation from another? Do we wish to stigmatize our future?



    1. Max Levin, "The Meaning of Sex and Marriage," Bride and Home, Autumn 1968, p. 103. (back)
    2. Recall that the subtitle of Richard von Krafft-Ebing's study, Psychopathia Sexualis first published in 1886, was "A Medico-Forensic Study," which means that he was presenting cases in a court in an effort to demonstrate that they should be treated medically, not punitively; he had, therefore, to present moral outrage at the practices he described to gain the confidence of the court. This merely emphasizes my point, however. (back)
    3. Quoted in Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians (New York: Basic Books, 1966), p. 19


Send e-mail to The Psychedelic Library:    psd_lib@drugtext.nl

DRCNet Library | The Drugtext Libraries

The Psychedelic Library | Table of Contents