Editor’s Note: This week, we welcome Amanda Reiman to the roundtable on Howard Becker’s Becoming a Marihuana User. Reiman is the Manager of Marijuana Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance, where she works to develop DPA’s marijuana reform work as it relates to litigation, legislative and initiative drafting, campaign strategy, policy advocacy, media relations, fundraising, and public education in the local, state, federal, and international jurisdictions in which DPA is active. You can follow her work on twitter.
Howard Becker’s seminal work, Becoming a Marihuana User, lays out the pathway to marijuana use based on the experiences of those who have used the substance. The gist of the piece is that there are three steps to becoming a marijuana user: 1) learning how to correctly ingest it; 2) recognizing the effects; and 3) interpreting the effects as enjoyable. According to Becker, if a person completes the three steps they will continue to use marijuana until they can no longer feel the effects and/or it is no longer enjoyable, at which time they will stop their use.
This theory is supported by the fact that most people who stop using marijuana do so without formal treatment. The term “aging out” is often used to refer to folks who discontinue their marijuana use once they take on the responsibilities of job and family. This makes sense in the context of Becker’s work, because he purports that changes in how marijuana use is viewed in one’s peer group and community can change the ability to derive pleasure from smoking. Indeed, today we see many people age out of marijuana use, and then return to the practice once they no longer have as many daily responsibilities and/or are beginning to feel the aches and pains of aging.
Becker is a sociologist and his work on social learning focuses on interviews with marijuana users, but there is a vital policy implication that can be derived from this work as well. According to Becker, the single driving force behind continued marijuana use is the ability to derive pleasure from it. If this is indeed the case, how could prohibiting marijuana ever be successful at reducing use? Prohibition relies on the theory that punishment influences drug using behavior. When it comes to drugs with a more serious level of dependence potential, we know this is not the case. Those experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms are not necessarily dissuaded from use because of the threat of criminal justice intervention. The data support this, as harder drug use in the United States has remained fairly stable even in light of rising financial support for the war on drugs. But what about marijuana?
Marijuana use among adults has been increasing. As Becker points out, no severe withdrawal syndrome drives use, but rather the presence of pleasure. It seems, then, that prohibitionist policies for marijuana are futile because continued use is about pleasure and shared experience, something that prohibition has been unable to influence. As laws change and marijuana use is no longer dampened by the threat of incarceration, and the market provides a wide variety of products and potencies, the experiences of pleasure will become even more common.
What are the impacts of changing views of marijuana on expectation effects? It is commonly said that in order for drug use to occur, two things must be present: predisposition and availability. Becker is critical of predisposition and likens it to an underlying desire or need to use a substance before initiation even occurs. However, if we have gotten to a place in society where the use of marijuana is perceived as a positive, healthful practice, even prior to initiation, then predisposition might be replaced with expectation. Interestingly, recent research shows that this new expectation of a positive marijuana experience seems to be limited to adults. Approval of marijuana use and use itself among young people is down. This could be attributed to the rejection by young people of what is considered desirable among adults. If this is in fact the case, and youth expectations for pleasure from marijuana are inversely related to those of adults, increased acceptance and positive expectations around marijuana use in the adult population might be the best deterrent for youth use that we have come across.
As Becker rightfully points out, in some ways marijuana itself has changed since this study was first conducted. Advanced cultivation techniques and the threat of arrest have resulted in higher potency strains (think Moonshine during alcohol prohibition). However, in states that now have legal marijuana systems, we are starting to see lower potency strains and products come back into fashion, especially among those who are re-initiating use after aging out. It would be fascinating to replicate Becker’s study today to assess the evolution of becoming a marijuana user.