When I was a college professor, I used to tell my students the normal world is a crazy place. It’s still true. Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. According to Howard Becker (1963) “an unknown, but probably quite large, number of people in the United States use marihuana. They do this in spite of the fact that it is both illegal and disapproved” (p. 41). You may notice that research was conducted over 50 years ago. Becker performed his famous research at the end of the 1950s and it was published in book form in 1963. Yet, in all the time since then, virtually nothing has destroyed our baseline understanding of marijuana as a socially learned behavior with positive and even downright medicinal benefits. This post will be based on two bodies of research: one body of physiological research dating back to 1968, and the other, a body of sociological research dating back to the late fifties and early sixties. I will argue that in all this time, we have only been assimilating and accommodating the knowledge revealed decades ago in this landmark research, which is thoroughly documented and well understood. In other words, as wild as this post may seem, there is absolutely no pie-in-the-sky conspiracy theory stuff, no wacko claims about the human mind, and nothing referenced but solid, reputable, and indeed, famous research. In fact, the research referenced here is at the heart of western society’s contemporary policy on marijuana, as well as our policy on mental health and illness.
The Green Cross is a dispensary and delivery service for medical marijuana in San Francisco
The Marijuana Research Project has been administered under the funding of the US federal government, and is currently housed within the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy. The government has been conducting research there for a long, long time. The thing is – it has been there since 1968. Since marijuana is still listed as a schedule 1 narcotic, and since it is impossible to patent a plant, and since the government repeatedly denies funding and permission to investigate the social benefits of schedule 1 narcotics, there is not much future in marijuana suddenly becoming socially acceptable, or widely promoted and used in the mainstream medical community, or removed from the same category of listing as meth and heroin.
The thing is – it has been there since 1968.
If they were going to find anything horrible about it, they would have by now, and they would have been only too happy to let us know about it. But, they haven’t because they can’t. In Canada, they are well on the way to legalizing and commercializing their marijuana industry. The ACMPR is in its third legalistic generation already, and whatever great reason people keep coming up with for hating marijuana in the USA – none of them seem to apply in Canada, which is well down the path of licensing growing, and licensing selling, including the import and export of marijuana industry products.
Therefore, succinctly put, it’s not for the little kiddies, but there is really nothing wrong with it. There is no doubt a range of reactions to marijuana among humans, and some people will derive nothing beneficial from it. Yet, marijuana might be one of the only nontoxic substances we encounter in the entire modern medical pharmacopeia. If you overdose on aspirin, you die. Overdose on anything toxic, and you die. Overdose on marijuana, and you sleep like a baby. In Canada, they bumped it down to a schedule 2 drug, and if our snow bunny cousins up north love it, then it can’t be all bad. They hardly consider themselves a nation of derelicts, they think of themselves as very sophisticated people.
The moral of the story on the physiological effects of marijuana is that if the US government pot farm has been researching it for 50 years, and if the Canadians snuggle up to it, then marijuana can’t possibly present any kind of significant physiological threat to humans or society at large. In fact, I remember very well, back in the 1970s, when Dear Abby had to apologize for telling her readers that if they smoked pot they would have frog-babies – I could not even make that up, I swear it is true!
Yet, that is how people used to talk to teenagers about marijuana back in the dark ages of the first half of the 20th century. There is a colorful history behind the criminalization of marijuana in the US that includes a lot of power elite intrigue, and everybody should familiarize themselves with the history of marijuana prohibition in the US, because it is fascinating and enlightening. In short, until not too long ago right here in the US, you could be labelled as mentally ill by a psychiatrist simply for admitting that you enjoyed smoking pot on a regular basis.
Sociological Research: What is Mental Illness?
Now, imagine it is the late 1950s, people routinely hear that smoking marijuana is evil and it is probably the gateway to hell. Next, imagine a young boy genius who will receive his PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago at the age of twenty-one for doing a sociological research project on marijuana smoking as a socially learned behavior. The University of Chicago gave rise, after WWII, to what was probably the greatest tradition of sociological research – the Chicago School of Symbolic Interactionism, and Becker’s opus was one of its greatest products.
Symbolic interactionism was called the sociological social psychology. Howard Becker is our boy genius, and he worked his way through college and grad school as a pianist in Chicago. He would play piano in jazz bands … which were populated largely with black people, who smoked pot – so he actually studied them for his dissertation.
Therefore, when his dissertation research was finally published in the form of a book titled The Outsiders, it was a singular phenomenon intellectually, scientifically, and morally. It had tremendous ripple effects. Let me back up and explain what I mean. In this day and age when people were led to believe medieval things about marijuana, for a young man to hang out with black musicians, learn to smoke pot, and then turn around and analyze the experience to reveal a series of stages a person goes through in order to learn how to get high, and then to reveal a series of stages a person goes through in choosing a possible career as a marijuana smoker, was all quite counter-intuitive, and it flaunted morality as well as conventional thinking about mental illness.
Keep in mind, this was the heyday of social psychology research, and more of it took place in those days, both covertly through the military-industrial complex, and overtly through the world of science, than before or since. It was coming out of this post-WWII climate, for studying the mind and individual behavior, that so much of our prevailing policy about mental health and illness was formulated. America was leading the way in being modern, and progressive, liberal, and scientific. There was a push on to find new ways to evaluate the mind and the way people become mentally ill versus mentally healthy, and deviant versus morally upright. These were huge topics of study.
In this climate, Becker’s work was received as confirmation for a creeping, looming notion that people are actually shaped and judged by their social peers in social realms of behavior, and even the judgments of mentally healthy versus mentally ill had been traditionally and historically more likely executed in the realm of religion as opposed to science. The whole idea of psychology as a science addressing the mind was still a new kind of excitement at the time.
Because of Becker’s work, there was increasing permission given to psychologists and social psychologists, to consider the actions of the mentally ill in a new light. Previously, the mainstream belief was that marijuana was evil, it would make you have frog babies, and become mentally ill. Of course, that is what was touted as the inevitable result of becoming a slave to the drug. Congruently, it was proposed that one might succumb to marijuana because one had defective genes in the first place.
Because of Becker’s work, social scientists were increasingly likely to criticize society as the definer of arbitrary, medieval standards of mental illness and the punisher of witch-hunt types of morality. Other people introduced similar work. For example, his contemporary Erving Goffman, would write Asylums (1961), in which he documented having spent a year as a recreational assistant in a mental asylum. He proceeded to chronicle how the mental patients acted like any group of social people act. They learned the rules, and then they got together to help each other break the rules. They did this in order to help each other get what they wanted.
They knew which white coats were the most sympathetic and which were the easiest to fool. They played cards and gambled at night. One of them tunneled under the fence and went into town at night after hours, to get beer for their late-night gambling soirees.
… just like any social group of people – that is how they acted.
Sociological Research: How to Get High
In a sense, in The Outsiders, Becker was saying that jazz musicians are considered outsiders by the normal people they play for. But, within their circles, they are the insiders, and the normal people they play for are the outsiders – what they called the squares. Furthermore, among the jazz musicians, it was simply considered normal to smoke pot. So, it was only normal for them to teach our young genius how to smoke pot. It was just a socially learned behavior that might take place as almost any other socially learned behavior takes place in any social group. You can see where Becker’s study coming out of the 1950s was poised as a point of articulation for (a) the study of mental illness from a new, liberal perspective, (b) the study of moral relativity, crime, and deviance, as the product of the social construction of normalcy in every society, (c) the study of social psychology as the interface between the brain, the mind, and society, and (d) how all of this relates to the social control of the individual.
Becker described the stages of social learning required to become a marijuana smoker. The first stage is learning how to smoke the marijuana in order to get high.
Learning How to Smoke Pot: It’s not Like Smoking a Cigarette
The novice does not ordinarily get high the first time he smokes marihuana, and several attempts are usually necessary to induce this state. One explanation of this may be that the drug is not smoked "properly," that is, in a way that insures sufficient dosage to produce real symptoms of intoxication. Most users agree that it cannot be smoked like tobacco if one is to get high: 46 Becoming a Marihuana User Take in a lot of air, you know, and . . . I don't know how to describe it, you don't smoke it like a cigarette, you draw in a lot of air and get it deep down in your system and then keep it there. Keep it there as long as you can. (Becker 1963, pp. 46-47)
In other words, Bercker explicates how the novice is coached by others in just how to inhale, and then the novice is coached in what symptoms to look for once they learn how to smoke it. The novice has to learn how to know that they got high. One has to learn how to confirm and verify the experience for oneself. It often takes people many attempts before they finally get high. This is one of the great mysteries of marijuana, in addition to the lack of classic symptomatology of physical addiction. Becker showed there is a stage of social initiation and support required to learn how to get high smoking marijuana. So, it is not exactly a hard, chemical, knock-out drug, yet neither is it an innocent acquired taste. It’s just a socially learned behavior that happens to be a socially learned form of deviance, according to Becker.
Learning to Perceive the Effects: What Signs to Look for
One symptom of being high is an intense hunger. In the next case the novice becomes aware of this and gets high for the first time: They were just laughing the hell out of me because like I was eating so much. I just scoffed [ate] so much food, and they were just laughing at me, you know. Sometimes I'd be looking at them, you know, wondering why they're laughing, you know, not knowing what I was doing. [Well, did they tell you why they were laughing eventually?] Yeah, yeah, I come back, "Hey, man, what’s happening?" Like, you know, like I'd ask, "What's happening?11 and all of a sudden I feel weird, you know. "Man, you're on, you know. You're on pot [high on marihuana]." I said, "No, am I?" Like I don't know what's happening. The learning may occur in more indirect ways: I heard little remarks that were made by other people. Somebody said, "My legs are rubbery," and I can't remember all the remarks that were made because I was very attentively listening for all these cues for what I was supposed to feel like. The novice, then, eager to have this feeling, picks up from other users some concrete referents of the term "high" and applies these notions to his own experience. The new concepts make it possible for him to locate these symptoms among his own sensations and to point out to himself a "something different" in his experience that he connects with drug use. It is only when he can do this that he is high. In the next case, the contrast between two successive experiences of a user makes clear the crucial importance of the awareness of the symptoms in being high and re-emphasizes the important role of interaction with other users in acquiring the concepts that make this awareness possible. (Becker 1963, pp. 50-51)
Of course, Becker's stages read like a cookbook recipe for how to learn to get high - yet it is also similar to the dynamics of many socially learned behaviors. Once you learn how to smoke it, and once you learn how to know you are high, then you have to learn how to enjoy it. This is another part of the social fun of teaching people how to get high because one is necessarily confronted with a difference between normalcy and being high. This realization is usually summed up saying everything is the same, only its different and it is often accompanied by uproarious laughter and a keen desire to eat, all of which is hailed and enjoyed by the social group. Thus, marijuana is legitimized by the novice as an herb that actually helps one to eat, drink, and be merry, which is almost universally perceived as a good thing.
Learning to Enjoy the Effects
One more step is necessary if the user who has now learned to get high is to continue use. He must learn to enjoy the effects he has just learned to experience. Marihuana-produced sensations are not automatically or necessarily pleasurable. The taste for such experience is a socially acquired one, not different in kind from acquired tastes for oysters or dry martinis. The user feels dizzy, thirsty; his scalp tingles; he misjudges time and distances. Are these things pleasurable? He isn't sure. If he is to continue marihuana use, he must decide that they are. Otherwise, getting high, while a real enough experience, will be an unpleasant one he would rather avoid. The effects of the drug, when first perceived, may be physically unpleasant or at least ambiguous. (Becker 1963, p. 53)
The Pot-Smoker’s Career
Becker goes on to explain the possible career phases implied in becoming a pot smoker. Once a person has successfully learned how to smoke pot and get high, then one has entered the phase of the beginner. There are two other stages of marijuana smoking that may then be accessed. The next phase is the occasional smoker. This person only smokes pot from time to time when it is in front of them socially. The third phase is the regular smoker. What is fascinating in all of this is the progression of learned behavior, how it creates the framework for new identities, and then how it sets one on the path of a deviant career.
To become a beginning marijuana smoker, one needs to be hanging out with a group of people who will take you through the stages of learning. It may take more than one try, it takes some people many, many tries, and some people claim they never ever did get high then thy tried to smoke it.
Therefore, even the becoming of a beginning marijuana smoker is an achievement of social learning in which one’s group of significant others has coached one into becoming a beginner. Simultaneously, one has been initiated into a covert activity because it is not a mainstreamed activity, but rather an ‘adult’ activity done behind the scenes – it is a back stage behavior by older people, not a front stage performance by children.
Once a beginner, then it is fairly easy to continue hanging out with similar people and drift along as an occasional smoker. However, another set of moral decisions is to be made, and another set of learned behaviors has to be enacted, in order for a person to become a regular smoker. This requires a conscious decision to go out of one’s way to acquire it, instead of drifting and smoking when it appears in front of one’s face. The decision to commit to finding ways of acquiring it, leads to association with purveyors, whether legal dispensaries in some states, or illegal dealers. It also requires the regular smoker to commit to covering up the identity of ‘regular smoker’ since it is not a mainstreamed activity. The regular smoker is bringing it into one’s life, mainstreaming it into their life, in a way, but they will have to do so covertly and they are therefore committing to managing a secret identity, with all the risks entailed.
It is continually noteworthy that this research was performed at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s – over fifty years ago. There will always be a certain amount of reefer madness and hair-on-fire hysteria surrounding marijuana because we do not want to see 6-year-olds puffing away on big joints out on the playground, so we create a taboo in society against things that are best reserved for adults. But, when one reads Becker, it is patently evident that there is truly nothing new under the sun.
Regular use, on the other hand, implies a systematic and routine use of the drug which does not take into account such possibilities and plan periods of getting high around them. It is a mode of use which depends on another kind of attitude toward the possibility of nonusers finding out, the attitude that marihuana use can be carried on under the noses of nonusers or, alternatively, on the living of a pattern of social participation which reduces contacts with nonusers almost to the zero point. Without this adjustment in attitude, participation, or both, the user is forced to remain at the level of occasional use. These adjustments take place in terms of two categories of risks involved: first, that nonusers will discover marihuana in one's possession and, second, that one will be unable to hide the effects of the drug when he is high while with nonusers. (Becker 1963, p. 68)
From Becker, Goffman, Laing … to Today
Because of Becker and Goffman, we were then capable of receiving even more humanistic views of mental health and illness. Goffman’s Asylums inspired One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Add R. D. Laing (1964) to the mix, the anti-psychiatrist from the 60s who announced that psychiatry had created mental illness, and that what was thought of as mental illness was the mind’s way of dealing with crazy situations, and the world would never be the same. Laing said it was alright to go crazy. It became the anthem of psychedelic rock and roll and heavy metal music as a whole generation of college kids tuned into their minds and turned on to marijuana … and everything else … In other words, Laing said that normalcy and psychosis were understood through, or by using, social constructions of reality. When Laing saw through it, he announced that people drive each other crazy. Laing believed that most of what is labeled as crazy behavior or mental illness, was understandable in terms of coping processes for dealing with stress.
It became increasingly easy for western society to open its collective mind to new possibilities. After all, the normal world is a crazy place. By the end of the 60s, we already had a decade of solid, brilliant, social science research indicating that most mentally ill people aren’t nearly as mentally ill as people think they are. The 60s counter-culture movement embraced not only college kids but all of social science and psychiatry, and everybody became used to the idea of knowing the world for oneself. Self-discovery was a good thing. As odd as it may sound, now having one’s friends show you where your head was at, became at least as legitimate as believing what your grandmother said about mental health and illness.
Furthermore, the basis for establishing purely medicinal treatments for creature comfort became the theme of psychiatric treatment. By the 80s, we were fully ready to acknowledge that people who evidence crazy behavior are more than likely experiencing some kind of chemical imbalance, and we can treat that with anti-depressants and antipsychotics. That is why Reagan deregulated the federally-funded mental illness industry as it had been known, which emptied federal mental institutions, and led to the phenomenon of homeless people as we know it today in the US. Most homeless people today would have been institutionalized 50 years ago. The mandate to institutionalize all mentally ill people was lifted and re-visited as people found out that, for the most part, if these people take their meds they will be able to manage their symptoms.
Most crazy people aren't really all that crazy most of the time.
Mental illness was becoming more of a physiological issue of creature comfort than a tie-in to immoral behavior. By the end of the 20th century, we were fully acknowledging, as a society, that humanity evidences a huge diversity of perceptions and behaviors, what is right in one social situation is immoral in another, but we have to respect our differences as much as pass judgment on them, and we have to take responsibility for having the right state of chemical and biological health, in order to sustain the optimal state of mind.
And in this way, we have come a long way from the society that preached smoking marijuana will make you have frog babies. It is to people like Howard Becker that we may give a certain amount of praise for helping to open our eyes as a society and understand that people do not smoke pot because they are mentally ill. Instead, people smoke pot because they learned how to smoke pot from other people – it is a socially learned behavior, not a product or an indicator of bad genes.
People like Becker, Goffman and Laing alerted the world to the simple notion that reality is socially constructed and whatever most people define as real, will be real in its consequences – and that goes double for the fascinating world of mental health and illness. Even our perceptions of the world, our interpretations of the world, all of these are shaped by socially constructed realities. Becker, Goffman, and Laing implied that people do things that other people label as crazy, as a reaction at least in part, to the demands of social life that are driving them crazy.
Translation: whether in the US or Canada, today people understand that pot is not toxic, and that it is alright to smoke pot in order to help them cope with the stress of society, which is entirely toxic, and replete with stress and anxiety. However, we still look crazy to many other societies. I once met a man from Jamaica who was intrigued by the movement for the decriminalization of marijuana that was taking place in the US.
He asked me Alex, have you ever smoked marijuana for medicinal purposes?
To which I responded, every single time …
It’s pretty easy to understand it all now, in retrospect. After all, the normal world is a crazy place.
Becker, Howard. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. New York: The Free Press.
Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates.
Laing, R. D. (1964). Is schizophrenia a disease? International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 10(3), 184-193.
Laing, R. D. (1972). Metanoia: some experiences at Kingsley Hall. In Ruitenbeek, H. M. (Ed.). (1972). Going crazy: The radical therapy of RD Laing and others. Bantam Books.
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