Substance abuse in America has become an overwhelming problem considering the numbers of people who use today compared to fifty years ago. Today, drugs are used commonly by the rich and successful, the disadvantaged,
middle class and a majority of the student body. America has become a drug culture, the marketplace of an international flow of drugs on an unprecedented scale. (Long, 1986) One of the main foundations of this social problem is the intense availability of drugs in neighborhoods where crime is prevalent. This whole issue can be regarded and defined through the conflict perspective and the basic conflict approach can be utilized as a tool to dissect the problem even further.
There are many reasons why drug/substance abuse can be defined as a social problem. Kornblum and Julian developed three criterions for a condition to be considered “a social problem”. The first criterion is that the condition must be defined as a problem. If any American on the side of the street is asked if he or she thinks that substance abuse is a problem, the majority of them will answer, yes. Therefore, because majority believes it is a problem, then it fits the first criterion. The second criterion for defining it as a social problem is that it must affect everyone. “Agree that although this condition affects a segment of the population directly and/or disproportionately, it also affects the society as a whole or is ‘caused’ by something beyond the individual’s control.” (Sayegh, 2001) This rule can be applied to substance abuse because it affects all areas of class and society. The final criterion is to propose a solution. Society has done this through developing “say no to drugs” programs, rehab services, psycho/addiction therapy, offered many lectures, etc. to help keep people young and old off drugs.
Now that substance abuse has been recognized as a social problem it can further be explained and categorized though the conflict perspective. The conflict perspective was developed by Karl Marx as a reaction to industrialization and capitalism. Although it is perceived as a radical perspective it is still efficient when dealing with substance abuse. In many ways, drug abuse can be attributed to the access of wealth and power, depending on the type of drug. Many statues of inequality, such as class, race ethnicity, gender, age, physical/mental capabilities, and sexual orientation, cause clashes in values and interests between different groups in society. Some of these groups are religious groups, political groups, men/women, and homosexual/heterosexual. Drug abuse affects all of these groups, both dominant and subordinate. (Sayegh 2001) This approach can also best be expressed through statistics.
An estimated 14.8 million Americans were current users of illicit drugs in 1999, meaning they used an illicit drug at least once during the 30 days prior to the interview. 10.9% of youths age 12-17 reported current use of illicit drugs in 1999. The difference in gender is of those youths was 11.3%-male and 10.5%-female. For ethnic groups, the rates for illicit drug use were 3.2% for Asians, 6.6% for whites, 6.8% for Hispanics, 7.7% for African Americans, 10.6% for American Indian/Alaska Natives, and persons who claimed mixed race was 11.2%. The total percentages for large metropolitan, small metropolitan, non-metropolitan and rural were 7.1, 7.0, 5.2, and 4.2 respectively. Almost a 3% increase in users is found when going from rural to urban areas. (www.samhsa.gov/oas/NHSDA/1999/Highlights.htm)
Although these statistics were for illicit drug users, it still expresses a lot in the way of drug abuse being a social problem. In some instances it even presents a conflict within itself. Some of the social inequalities are portrayed through these statistics. One is a clash between male and female. It is often true that men are more likely to be drug users than women. As time progresses this becomes less and less true. However, currently there are more males using than there are females statistically. (McDonald, 1994) In the instance of age, there are more youths becoming users at even earlier ages. This can be attributed to the pressures put on young children at an early age to do well and succeed, as well as pressures from peers. This can be found mainly in large metropolitan areas where classes are mixed in schools. It is obvious that the Bourgeoisie-the ‘Haves’ and the Proletariat-the ‘Have Nots’ are affected for several reasons. Considering the racial statistics, it is apparent that the most discriminated groups have the highest abuse rates as well as lower incomes. One exception to this is the Asian statistics. This, however, can be attributed to deeply rooted traditions from the societies they come from.
Many cultures believe that drug addiction is a fault found in a person’s psyche and thus they are considered unclean. This is mostly due to the belief that addiction is a choice. “Absolutely crucial to disease-model thinking is the theory that when addicts are taking their drug, they have ‘lost control’. They supposedly cannot help themselves; they have no option but to go on taking the drug. It’s easy to see that this theory is indispensable to the disease model. Without this loss of control, how could anyone claim that the decision to take or not to take some drug was not a genuine choice? ‘Loss of control’ has been repeatedly sought by researchers and has never been found. All the evidence we have supports the view that drug addicts are conscious-yes, even calculating –responsible persons, in full command of their behavior.” (Shaler pg. 21) Alcoholics control their drinking, marijuana smokers control their smoking, cocaine users control their cocaine consumption, heroin addicts control their use of heroin, etc. (Schaler, 2000) Although what Schaler says is all found to be true to a degree, he isn’t writing from a social science perspective. Users do control the intake of their drug of choice, however who is chosen and who is not is more up to society with some psychological influence. The psychological influence, however, has been directly affected by society as mentioned before with inequalities of status.
On a meso-level there is a system that has developed an ideology that drug addiction is a choice and that it is wrong which is the judicial system. They have developed a set of norms and values for society to follow with laws. Because they carry out the law and have their hands full of substance abusers, they are reliable sources for statistics on drug abuse related crimes.
Every year they publish a Uniform Crime Report, otherwise known as the crime index. It is an “official” statistic report for crimes including murder, manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson. In this particular report the statistics for Drug Abuse violation arrests is recorded. Drug abuse violations are defined as State or local offenses relating to the unlawful possession, sale, use, growing, manufacturing, and making of narcotic drugs including opium or cocaine and their derivatives, marijuana, synthetic narcotics, and dangerous nonnarcotic drugs such as barbiturates.” (http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/briefing/basedrug.htm). There have been many different attempts at ending drug abuse related crimes by having a “war on drugs” and “locking all of them up”. Some problems with these solutions are that people find them intrusive into their personal lives and the cost of funding the war on drugs is about fifteen billion dollars a year. Some other arguments that go against the war on drugs are: “Because criminalization makes drugs expensive, addicts are forced to commit crimes to continue their habits” and “Because drug trade is illegal, highly profitable [it causes] turf wars and or disputes between drug dealers [which causes] increased violence.” (Sayegh, 2001) The trend in drug arrests among adults and juveniles has increased dramatically over the last 30 years as well. In 1970, 100,000 juveniles and 350,000 adults were arrested on drug related charges. In 1999, 1,350,000 adults and 250,000 juveniles were arrested on drug related charges. (http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/glance/drug.htm) Perhaps these numbers have increased due to population growth, and perhaps they could be reduced with better drug education programs.
To widely educate the risks and facts about drug abuse, the community must make an effort to come together and help those in need. These people must be students- in grades K-12; educators- teachers, school administrators, other members of school staff; and adult members- of the community, parents and friends of school children. After all of these groups make an effort to come together, and then the environment they create is a solution-oriented and safe one. (Bedworth, 1973) This helps all of the groups come to better understandings of the needs young people have when faced with uncomfortable situations. It also opens up communication pathways and allows the groups to trust one another. There are programs in every community that do this, such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters, United Way, and even some psychological hospitals offer one-on-one free counseling. Another way the community has tried to help young people is by putting up the “safe place” signs on their windows. If a community comes together to help itself, then there eventually could be a drop in substance abusers.
Throughout history, drugs have been used to medicate physical and emotional ailments. However, when the user becomes dependent, more serious problems develop. This is not just an individual problem, but also a social problem. (Brandeis University, 1993) It is an issue everyone faces because it is seen everywhere and affects every class, race, creed, sexual orientation and gender. Not only does it affect these groups, but creates larger problems in society, such as violence, illegal drug trafficking, and smuggling. All of these examples, society pays for, whether with tax dollars or with personal sacrifice. Perhaps through better drug education and a better understanding of the relationships individuals hold in society could it one day become utopian. “Clearly the concept of pure justice produces an infinite regress…We are all the descendants of thieves, and the world’s resources are inequitably distributed, but we must begin the journey to tomorrow from the point where we are today.” (Garrett Hardin)
However, while there are many authors supporting the view that substance abuse is more sociological, there are others who may see it as nothing more than a criminal act. “The use of illegal drugs in America is viewed as a criminal behavior rather than a social problem” (Staton 148). The declaration of the war on drugs in the early eighties further emphasized the idea of users being criminals when in fact, users are no more criminals than the authority over them. A common definition of a criminal act is one that harms society, an action done deliberately for whatever motive that causes another person harm. Albeit, the statistical increase of drug related violent crime cannot be refuted, it can be directly correlated to the mishandling of drug users. We see a drug offender as a person who is a societal burden and even an outcast but the problem is much more complex than that. Our methods of handling a drug user have long been focused on incarceration followed by release with or without parole. Clearly an outcast and possibly a burden on society, but where did he choose this fate? To incarcerate a person who clearly needs rehabilitation creates a criminalized social deviant. The chance we have given the convicted drug offender to lead a successful life is non-existent.
“Drug users must be looked at in a continuum, a progressive behavior that quickly escalates into a lifestyle that is not socially acceptable in our society. The road to disaster is paved with the first high, that’s not in dispute. The teenager who smokes marijuana cigarette has done no more harm to society than a person J-walking across an empty highway” (Staton 149). Problems arise when the occasional joint turns into cocaine addiction and eventually, violence or crime. The good thing about our society is that that can be prevented quite simply. We have the most advanced law enforcement system in the world and also one of the best communication networks as well. It is very unlikely that our teenager who “experimented” with pot will see the sunrise before he is bombarded with media information and advertising. And, if he does not heed the advice of the wise, it is even more unlikely that in his predicted continued use of marijuana he will have a run in with the law before he becomes that cocaine addict that mugged an elderly woman. This is where we fail. Let’s assume that our teenage boy is a white, middle class freshman in college. He is picked up for possession of marijuana and given a court date. Our justice system will spend several hundred dollars prosecuting this delinquent child. He will acquire a criminal record and possibly be placed on a restricted lifestyle of some sort. Here we can see that he has not been treated, he has not been helped and in fact, our justice system has taken the first step in creating a social burden. With this standard method of adjudication, considering that a minimal after care program was completed (random drug testing), there is a sixty-two percent chance he will be in front of a judge in less than three years.
Let’s follow this particular teenager throughout his life. He may choose to use marijuana, drink alcohol and become the stereotypical college student. Depending on his personality, he may go on to try harder drugs, drugs that carry a much heavier penalty.
Suppose his grades are slipping and he loses his girlfriend, he decides to use heroin and likes it. He is soon addicted, worsening his depression, and deals a little for some cash to buy more and an undercover officer arrests him. Again, our justice system comes so close to helping this guy out. The state spends a good deal of money on operations to seize drug dealers and they are surprisingly successful. Our boy will now go to jail. The federal government spends approximately six million dollars every year on federal inmates. The state spends about eleven million on it’s inmates, of whom forty percent are drug offenders. The boy is now kicked out of his college and will spend an average of nineteen months in a state prison. Here he will receive the benefits of a mere two million dollars allocated to rehabilitation and education resources available to him. He has a forty percent chance of not using marijuana while incarcerated and only a ten percent chance of being tested for it. The main source of education becomes the inmates and a heavily used law library. The state prison has successfully educated a young, impressionable inmate how to fight, cheat, and swindle his way through our legal system and further, society itself. After nineteen months of jail the number of inmates charged with possession, has increased by almost eight percent over. In less than a decade the prison population of inmates charged with a drug offense has increased from seven hundred thousand to over one million. Despite the increases in the budget of over the last decade and a half from a little over one million dollars to 15 million per year, we have accomplished nothing.
The man is released and goes out into our great land of opportunity. His parole officer advises him to stay clean and there is nothing more in the world that man wants to do than to stay off drugs. After being in a jail for a year and a half he is ready to start his life over. He suddenly realizes that he has no money, no job and no credit. We, as a society, have been influenced into thinking that a convicted drug offender with psychological problems is as bad as a violent offender. In a way, once released from a prison he is no better off. A man who may have beat his depression in jail on his own has now hit rock bottom. He now realizes that steady job is out of the question, friends are hard to come by and he has no place better to sleep than in a half-way house. His chances of receiving counseling in jail were only twelve percent and now it’s virtually impossible. He now has a seventy percent chance of staying clean for more than a year.
For the twenty-five thousand dollars per year that we spent on his prison term, he was given nothing, spoke to no professionals in addiction and ironically becomes a new statistic. According to Kaminer, The poverty line in America is an income around sixteen thousand dollars a year. Our tax dollars pay twenty five thousand per year per inmate and he now has an income, if any, of about twelve. What has our prison system done for him? What has it done for society? With our increased spending and decreased rehabilitation efforts it seems as though we are moving backward. A drug user is not a criminal in the sense that our society deems him to be. We need to further explore our options for dealing with this social behavior to curb it before it escalates beyond our grasp. It is the politicians of this era that are hurting our society the worst, with their fears of not being re-elected outweighing their fears of a growing criminalized drug offender population.
Bedworth, Albert E and D’Elia, Joseph A. 1973. Basics of Drug Education, Farminghale, NY: Baywood Publishing Company.
Bureau of Justice Statistics Drug Arrests by Age. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/glance/drug.htm
Drug Abuse Violation Arrests Data Sources. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/briefing/basedrug.htm
Garrett Hardin. http://www.lrainc.com/swtaboo/stalkers/hardin.html
Institute For Health Policy, Brandeis University. 1993. Substance Abuse: The Nation’s Number One Health Problem, Key Indicators For Policy, Princeton, NJ: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Kaminer, Y. (1994). Adolescent substance abuse: A comprehensive guide to theory and practice. New York: Plenum.
Long, Robert Emmet. 1986. Drugs and American Society, New York, NY: The H.W. Wilson Company.
McDonald, Maryon. 1994. Gender, Drink and Drugs, Oxford, UK: Short Run Press.
Sayegh, Aaron. 2001. “Measurements of Crime”.
Sayegh, Aaron. 2001. “Sociological Buzzwords, Social Problems”.
Schaler, Jeffrey A. Ph.D. 2000. Addiction Is a Choice, Peru, IL: Carus Publishing Company.
Staton, M., Leukefeld, C., Logan, T. K., Zimmerman, R., Lynam, D., Milich, R., Martin, C., McClanahan, K., & Clayton, R. (1999). Risky sex behavior and substance use among young adults. Health and Social Work, 24(2), 147-154.