Table of Contents


Webster’s dictionary defines the term “drug” as “a substance used as a medication or in the preparation of medication” or “something and often an illegal substance that causes addiction, habituation, or a marked change in consciousness.” However, in analyzing the history of drug use, historical trends, and public reactions, the term “drug” is socially constructed by different individuals and institutions as a form of social control and power.

Colorful painting of an Egyptian using smoke and herbs during a traditional ceremony with blue flowers and a ritualistic boat like figure.
Ancient Egyptian man using ceremonial smoke

Substances created, redefined, and labeled as drugs have been around since 5000 BCE. People around the globe traditionally used these substances religiously, medicinally, and socially for centuries. For example, as a result of too much tobacco used by the Russians in the 17th century, Czar Michael Mikhailovitch executed anyone in possession of tobacco. In contrast, in 1717 the King of England sold liquor licenses to anyone in Middlesex who pledged allegiance to him over the church. Recent examples of subcultures known for and defined by their drug use include, but are not limited to, hippies, psychonauts, and the hip-hop/rap culture. In examining the history of drug use, moral panics, and legislative acts, the term “drug” has transformed and been constructed for different audiences, purposes, and uses throughout history.




A colorful painting of a Native American man smoking from a ceremonial pipe.
Native American man smoking a pipe

In Craig Reinarman’s “The Social Construction of Drug Scares” (1994), he provides steps and trends that contribute to the construction of drug scares. Using this model, five important trends include the following:









Black and white drawing depicting an Englishman dressed in older attire smoking a pipe with no background.
Englishman smoking tobacco

In the above cycle, a substance is first used and has an effect on the human body. Once this reaction takes place, usage of the substance spreads, then media labels the substance as either negative or positive depending on use and purpose of drug, as well as who is partaking. A series of moral panics break out and an authoritative figure in power (either religious, governmental, scientific, etc.) defines this object as deviant due to its effects on the physical body. However, an authority figure may support a substance as well because of the substance’s ability to help with other detrimental bodily issues, such as prescribed medications. After this item is labeled deviant or positive (spiritually, medically, etc.), a higher judicial power or government will either restrain or admit the use of this substance. Prohibition is a great example of higher social institutions using their status as moral entrepreneurs to frame drugs in a certain tone for wider society, either prohibiting use of a drug, or encouraging use of a drug. However, not all moral panics result in a negative legislative acts or laws. Some moral panics create opposite effects, such as medicinal marijuana laws and the movement of legislation that has passed laws advocating for the medical and recreational use of marijuana. This is key within the topic of drugs because it leads to capitalistic and economic motivated reasons why governing bodies allow certain substances and not others.


The moral panics and criminalization accompanying drug use in America are evidence of the association between drugs and deviance. Throughout the history of America, we see trends of drug use and drug subcultures. While certain drugs experience popularity trends, regardless of the distinction between “use” and “abuse,” consumption of drugs (excluding alcohol) has been and continues to be seen as deviant. However, outside of the United States’ laws and regulations regarding drugs, we see drugs playing integral parts in religion and spirituality, as well as broader cultures.

Peyote ceremony.
Native American drumming during a peyote ceremony.

Drugs exist in many religious and spiritual traditions. Many researchers suggest that this link between drugs and spirituality can be traced back more than 15,000 years to the Patheolithic Era and that “the use of consciousness-altering plants provided the inspiration for initial human religious experiences” (Clarke 2013:212). This link appears today in the form of religious and spiritual traditions that have been carried out and passed down for centuries upon centuries. For instance, peyote is a small cactus with psychoactive alkaloids used by Native American shamans during religious rituals and is said to bring about “profound insight, physical healing, and a deep sense of harmony with the community, with the natural environment, and with the divine” (Urban 2015: 26). Another example is ayahuasca, which contains the psychoactive compound DMT (dimethyltryptamine) and is primarily used by the indigenous people of northern South America. In these communities, ayahuasca serves “to enable healers to see the inner constitution of their patients, and thus establish a diagnosis and perform treatment” (Shanon 2003:127). Similarly, cannabis is used in Central Asia as a “heavenly guide” (Clarke 2013:214). Further examples abound,


If we discount the wine used in Christian communion services, the instances closest to us in time and space are the peyote of The Native American [Indian] Church and Mexico’s 2000-year-old “sacred mushrooms,” the latter rendered in Aztec as “God’s Flesh”- striking parallel to “the body of our Lord” in the Christian eucharist. Beyond these neighboring instances lie the soma of the Hindus, the haoma and hemp of the Zoroastrians, the Dionysus of the Greeks who “everywhere . . . taught men the culture of the vine and the mysteries of his worship and everywhere [was] accepted as a god,” 2 the benzoin of Southeast Asia, Zen’s tea whose fifth cup purifies and whose sixth “calls to the realm of the immortals,” the pituri of the Australian aborigines, and probably the mystic kykeon that was eaten and drunk at the climactic close of the sixth day of the Eleusinian mysteries. (Smith 1964:518)

People sitting in a circle during an ayahuasca ceremony in Peru.
A group sits in a candle lit circle to partake in a modern day ayahuasca ceremony

As evidenced by the extensive list above, drugs have followed religious tradition for centuries. Within the practices of these traditions, the use of drugs for spiritual development is not seen as deviant – in fact, it is encouraged and an indication of greater spiritual enlightenment. Comparing the interpretation of drugs and their effects in these traditions with the associated stigma of drugs in modern America, we reveal the social construction of drugs.

While, for example, peyote has been used in ritual centuries before the founding of the Native American Church in 1918 and “has never been found to have serious negative effects in either the short term or the long term” (Hugh 2015:28), its role in religious ceremonies has been criticized by the American government and many followers of Christianity. America’s temperance culture, shaped early on by Protestantism and industrial capitalism, begot drug laws and drug scares that scapegoated minorities and further strengthened white power (Reinarman 1994). Despite experimentation by Beatle John Lennon and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, peyote outside of official religious contexts is still perceived as deviant. Western society has yet to accept the idea that spiritual experiences can result from drugs – “Western culture has, historically, a particular fascination with the value and virtue of man as an individual, self- determining, responsible ego, controlling himself and his world by the power of conscious effort and will. Nothing, then, could be more repugnant to this cultural tradition than the notion of spiritual or psychological growth through the use of drugs” (Watts 1968:74). Conversely, some cultures outside of the United States were founded on spiritual notions that identify with the idea that drugs can open doors to the mind and to higher powers. Western philosophy coupled with the integration of religion as a form of control creates the deviance associated with drug use in modern America.

Although clearly not its sole purpose, religion in America acts as a form of social control regarding youth and drugs. A study from 1981 concludes that “the greater the importance of religious beliefs and the more often church services are attended, regardless of the religion or denomination in question, the less likely that the individual uses drugs” (McIntosh et al 1981:70). The idea that Western religion, primarily Christianity, affects consumption of drugs in youth offers a partial explanation for the deviant label. As drug ingestion is not a customary practice in Western religious traditions and is adamantly discouraged, social control theory suggests that religion in this context serves to mark drug use as deviant. All in all, religion everywhere seems to have great power over the consensus of regarding drugs as deviant, whether it be to gain spiritual understanding, get in touch with a greater power, or deter people from consuming what is believed to be sinful.


Issues revolving around drugs are highly political, and laws, regulations, scheduling, and norms reveal the connection between drugs and power. Drug policies in America focus on criminalization, ultimately resulting in further social marginalization based on race and class and strengthening the power of the wealthy white in America.

A marijuana leaf emblem, along with some overall statistics on the war on drugs.
Money spent and arrests of the “War on Drugs”

Simply put, the racial disparities seen in the United States’ criminal justice system are due in part to the war on drugs, which targets non-white citizens. In fact, almost 80% of people currently in federal prison and almost 60% of people currently in state prison for drug offenses are black or Latino (Race and the Drug War). A study in 2006 on race and drugs in Seattle found three main causes of this racial disparity in the criminal justice system – law enforcement focus heavily on crack offenders, the system prioritizes outdoor drug markets, and police resources are concentrated in racially heterogeneous areas (Beckett el at. 2016). The racially heterogeneous areas are generally inner-city regions that contains high populations of gangs. Subcultural theory suggests that “an individual’s involvement with a particular social group, in which favorable attitudes to drug use exist, is the key factor in encouraging drug use” (Hunt & Joe-Laidler 2016:461). This explanation for drug use is most clearly applicable to gangs. Gangs in general have an extensive history of being in some way involved in the world of drugs, whether that be regular use or dealing (Fleisher 2015). In addition, as mentioned before, the 2006 study found that law enforcement focus a lot of efforts on crack. The sentence for possession of a single gram of crack is equal to the sentence for possession of eighteen grams of cocaine (Race and the Drug War). Crack is primarily consumed by poor people, as it is cheaper than cocaine. The criminalization of drugs not only targets drug subcultures, but in turn targets people of color and lower social standings.

Arresting of a man known as "El Chapo" who is dressed in a blue shirt and being taken away by men in uniform.
Legendary Mexican drug trafficker is seized by Mexican police

Politicians and authoritative figures have shaped the language and social spheres around drugs for centuries. While running for office, US President Donald Trump stated, “they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists,” in regard to Mexican immigrants during his series of campaign speeches. Some people assume that information provided by governmental or scientific communities within the United States regarding drug use are inherently the full truth. A majority of the United States population is fed information mainly from news stations that create bias and perpetuate oppressive institutions as exemplified in Gregory J. Martin and Ali Yurukoglu’s “Bias in Cable News: Persuasion and Polarization.” These statements exemplify the construction of a racially defined criminalization of drug use on Mexican immigrants which in effect pushes this idea to other people of color, while legal systems tend to get away with illegal activity involvement with processes of drug use. In the article “HIV, Drugs, and the Legal Environment,” the authors discuss negative policing practices, internationally and nationally, while specifically addressing “a recent U.S. study of female drug users experiencing police sexual misconduct, Cottler, O’Leary, Nickel, Reingle, and Isom (2013) found that 96% had sex with an officer on duty, 77% had repeated exchanges, 31% reported rape and 54% were offered favors by officers in exchange for sex; only half used condoms.” In effect, the punishment of this industry continues to rest on the shoulders of people of color as expressed in the paragraph prior. The establishment of the war on drugs still has an immense impact on the way Americans continue to label, stigmatize, and even socialize racially defined groups to this day.  While neglecting the magnitude of influence the United States has within different drug trades, the classification and fault of the socially defined negative effects of drugs, continues to be placed on people of color. The construction of drug use, the way it’s consumers are criminalized, and the persistent authoritative powers controlling these actions, language, and processes impact tens of thousands of lives for a majority of people of color within a system that continues to perpetuate and endorse cycles of poverty, eviction, and neglect from root systemic issues.

In a grassy field, police dressed in camouflage with guns inspect drugs within a trunk of a car.
US border patrol inspecting trunk of a car


Consumption of illicit drugs is often stigmatized because of the associated health risks. However, our understanding of health is subjective given that, as John Metzl states, “health is a desired state, but it is also a prescribed state and an ideological position. We realize this dichotomy every time we see someone smoking a cigarette and reflexively say, “smoking is bad for your health,” when what we really mean is, “you are a bad person because you smoke.””(Metzl 2). It is not hard to think of similar health-related judgements that we make on a daily basis, such as fat-shaming and the stereotypes of “not getting enough time outside” and sedentariness around gaming. Gamers, obese people, and drug-users alike are subject to external moral judgements based on on health.

However, the health argument (against drugs) comes short given that drug scheduling in America does not always correlate with health outcomes. A classic example of this contradiction is the fact that marijuana is Schedule I drug (the most highly controlled rank, with the lowest being Schedule V), while tobacco and alcohol are legal for sale for anyone above the age of 21. Meanwhile, two studies have used drug rankings to demonstrate that “that the risk of cannabis may have been overestimated in the past” (Lachenmeier and Rehm 2015:4) and have both ranked alcohol as the most dangerous drug they studied (ibid; Nutt el al 2010).This contradiction between the implied dangers of highly scheduled drugs versus the actual levels of danger associated with those drugs demonstrates that the stigma and perceptions around drugs is about more than just health.

America has a history of criminalizing drugs used by marginalized groups. When marijuana was first made illegal, it “was dubbed in the press as the ‘killer weed’ and…a ‘gloomy monster of destruction,” even though “circa 1930 (just 7 years before it’s criminalization was complete in 48 states), the dominant public attitude towards marijuana was apathy” (Goode and Yehuda 16-17). This apathy stemmed from the fact that it was not widely used. Marijuana consumption was only prevalent in in some urban black and Mexican-American communities. Yet despite long held nationwide apathy towards the drug, marijuana was the Federal

Reefer Madness movie poster.
Poster for a movie inspired by the Marijuana moral panic in the 1930s.

Bureau of Narcotic’s “crisis where no basis for it existed”(Goode and Yehuda 18). In the 80’s, the drug to panic over was crack, a cheaper version of powder cocaine that was more widely used by blacks and the poor. Studies found that “babies whose mothers were exposed to crack were…more likely to be born premature, have significantly lower birth weight, suffer seizures,” among other health issues (Goode and Yehuda 2018). What these studies did not consider is that these health issues were known to be associated with mothers who are malnourished, which was more likely to happen to poor blacks (Goode and Yehuda 218). These perceived drug crises are examples of moral panics, described as “strong, widespread fear or concern that something evil is afoot, that certain enemies of society are trying to harm some or all of the rest of us” (Goode and Yehuda 11). In 2016, it became abundantly clear who those enemies are when John Ehrlichman, formerly Richard Nixon’s (Nixon being the instigator of the America’s War on Drugs) domestic policy chief, explained “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people” (Lobianco). Marijuana and crack alike were demonized with health concerned rhetoric and policy, but the health approach was simply a clever guise used to target blacks and other minorities.   

Drugs obtain the deviant label based on the assumed health consequences, but there is much evidence to show that policy makers have ulterior motives for criminalizing them. From “reefer madness” to the war on drugs, drug policy has targeted minority groups, which explains why marijuana and peyote (which is almost exclusively used in Native American spiritual rituals) are Schedule I drugs. Targeted drug policy results not only in targeted enforcement – it also creates wider social prejudices against those who use them, based on perceptions of health.


YouTube Videos

These YouTube videos are apart of a series sponsored on Facebook and other social media platforms as “CUT”. In each video, different labeled groups of individuals smoke weed together for the first time debunking societal norms around smoking marijuana.


Television Shows

  • That 70’s Show: a comedy television show about the life of teenagers aired from 1998-2006. Includes scenes where friends are smoking weed together.
  • Breaking Bad: a drama television series about the life of a chemistry teacher who decides to cook meth in order to support his family.
  • The Wire: This drama television series examines the narcotics scene in the urban parts of Baltimore from all different levels of the drug business. 
  • Cops: This reality television series shows policemen arresting other individuals across the United States nation. This show often frames the arrested individuals as deviant criminals. Drugs play a vital role shaping those who are arrested as deviant and sinister. 
  • El Chapo: This crime drama television series follows the notorious Mexican drug lord known as “El Chapo”, from his early beginnings as a cartel member in Guadalajara to his third arrest in 2016. 

News Coverage


BooksPatricia A. Adler's ethnography that deals details six years of fieldwork on deviant careers.Front cover of Erich Goode's "Drugs in American Society," a sociology book about drug use, perspective, and societal opinion

Adler, Patricia A. 1993. Wheeling and Dealing: An Ethnography of an Upper-Level Drug Dealing and Smuggling Community. Columbia University Press. Sociologist Adler participated in six years of fieldwork that focused on deviant careers, the details and analyses of which are found in her book, Wheeling and Dealing. 

Goode, Erich. 1984. Drugs in American society. New York: Knopf. Erich Goode is a sociologist who writes about drugs in a sociological perspective while giving personal accounts from individuals who have used and been impacted by drug use as well.


Beckett, Katherine, Kris Nyrop and Lori Pfingst. 2006. “Race, Drugs, and Policing: Understanding Disparities in Drug Delivery Arrests.” Criminology 44(1):105-106-137. (

Becker, Howard S. 1993. Becoming a Marihuana User. University of Chicago Press.  (

Clarke, Robert C., and Mark D. Merlin. “Historical Aspects of Psychoactive Cannabis Use for Ritual and Recreation.” Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany, 1st ed., University of California Press, 2013, pp. 211–240. (

“Cocaine and Crack facts.”, Retrieved November 28, 2018, 2018. (

Fleisher, Mark S. 2015. “Gangs and Drugs: Connections, Divergence, and Culture.” Pp. 193-134-207 in The Handbook of Gangs., edited by S.H. Decker, and D.C. Pyrooz.Wiley and Sons. (

Goode, Erich and Yuheda, Ben. 1994. Pp. 1-11 in “Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance.” Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers.

Goode, Erich and Yuheda, Ben. 1994. “A prelude to Moral Panics: Three Moral Crusades.” Pp. 13-19 in “Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance.” Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers.

Goode, Erich and Yuheda, Ben. 1994. “The American Drug Panic of the 1980s.” Pp. 206-222 in “Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance.” Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers.

Hunt, Geoffrey, and Karen Joe-Laidler. 2015. “The Culture and Subcultures of Illicit Drug Use and Distribution.” Pp. 461-462-477 in The Handbook of Drugs and Society., edited by H. Brownstein. John Wiley and Sons.

Lobianco, Tom. 2016. “Report: Aide says Nixon’s war on drugs targeted blacks, hippies.” CNN, Retrieved November 28, 2018.(

McIntosh, Alex et al. “The Effect of Mainstream Religious Social Controls on Adolescent Drug Use in Rural Areas.” Review of Religious Research, vol. 23, no. 1, 1981, pp. 54–75. (

Metzl, Jonathan M. 2010 “Introduction: Why ‘Against Health’?” pp 1-12 in Against Health: How Health Became the New Morality, edited by Jonathan M. Metzl and Anna Kirkland. New York: NYU Press.  JSTOR,

Nutt, David J., Leslie A. King, Lawrence D. Phillips and on D. Independent Scientific Committee. 2010. “Drug Harms in the UK: A Multicriteria Decision Analysis.” Lancet (London, England) (

“Race and The Drug War.”, Retrieved November 28, 2018, 2018. (

Reinarman, Craig. 1994. “The Social Construction of Drug Scares.” Constructions of Deviance: Social Power, Context, and Interaction edited by P. Adler and P. Adler. Boston: Wadsworth Publishers.

Shanon, Benny. “Altered States and the Study of Consciousness — The Case of Ayahuasca.” The Journal of Mind and Behavior, vol. 24, no. 2, 2003, pp. 125–153. (

Smith, Huston. “Do Drugs Have Religious Import?” The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 61, no. 18, 1964, pp. 517–530. (

Urban, Hugh B. “The Native American Church: Ancient Tradition in a Modern Legal Context.” New Age, Neopagan, and New Religious Movements: Alternative Spirituality in Contemporary America, 1st ed., University of California Press, Oakland, California, 2015, pp.26–44. (

Watts, Alan. “Psychedelics and Religious Experience.” California Law Review, vol. 56, no. 1, 1968, pp. 74–85. (

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