Not all drugs are created equal. Some nudge open the door to addiction, and others break that door down. Some have innocuous origins, and others were crafted for no other reason than to poison and corrupt. Similarly, the attitudes and stereotypes towards different types of drugs are not all equal. Some drugs are welcomed and celebrated; others are avoided and pushed into the shadows. Some are associated with a particular demographic, and some can be found in every home. What society says about drugs, and the people who use them, says an equal amount (if not more) about the society itself.
Marijuana is a good example of a drug that has undergone a cultural metamorphosis. Profiling the change, the Washington Post tells the story of how the TV show Beverly Hills 90210 (1990-2000) portrayed it in an “overwhelmingly” negative light, culminating in a peripheral character dying from a heroin overdose after starting with marijuana. But 90210 (2008-2013), the fourth television series in the franchise spawned by the original show, featured a popular high school teacher who smoked marijuana every day while he was in college. Parents unintentionally ate pot brownies, the results of which made for comic fodder. Two characters find love when they meet at a medical marijuana dispensary.
Similarly, the character of Shaggy from the 1969 cartoon series Scooby Doo was often thought to be a nod to the burgeoning, drug-fueled counterculture movement of that decade. The character was unshaven, wore ill-fitting clothes, had a voracious appetite, was a slacker, and acts “a little goofy and high,” in the words of the actor who played Shaggy in the 2002 live action feature film Scooby Doo.
Television, explains the Atlantic, “fell in love with marijuana.” While the big screen made no secret of its love of weed, with Cheech & Chong entertaining audiences as far back as 1978’s Up in Smoke, the changing message on television is what charts the course of the attitude shift towards marijuana. Part of that change comes from ever-increasing numbers of people supporting moving marijuana into the cultural mainstream, either by calling for its use to be decriminalized, or outright legalized.
In 2013, 58 percent of Americans felt that the use marijuana should be made legal. When Gallup first posed the question to survey respondents in 1969, only 12 percent answered the same way. The change may be generational in nature. Describing the support for marijuana as “soaring,” a 2014 CNN/ORC International poll that showed people aged 18 to 34 supported marijuana legalization by 64 percent, while 39 percent of people aged 65 and older agreed with legalization.
As a sign of how much the ground has moved on the topic of marijuana legalization, Newsweek posited that the 2016 United States Presidential Election might be decided by candidates’ views on marijuana regulation and criminalization.
Of course, not every attitude towards the march of marijuana is positive. In 2008, the conservative Parents Television Council said that the widespread acceptance of marijuana is a sign of “Prime Time [Going] to Pot,” decrying that the depictions of “moronic potheads” in film series like Harold & Kumar have now become the face of the American everyman. The “teen-targeted sex series” Gossip Girl “rightly condemns” the use of illegal drugs like cocaine, but, as the PTC sees it, turns a blind eye to underage teens drinking and smoking marijuana, and it is an example of how television has made marijuana usage look harmless and beneficial.
While perceptions of marijuana are swinging towards the positive, harder drugs still remain unpopular. A YouGov/Huffington Post poll from 2013 shows that only about 10 percent of Americans favor legalizing heroin and cocaine. Many of the people who support marijuana regulation draw a clear line between that and so-called “hard drugs.”
The poll results are similar to those of a 2006 survey conducted on behalf of the Daily Telegraph and the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts. Seventy-five percent of the 3,000 people interviewed in one of the largest surveys in Britain felt that the sale and possession of hard drugs, such as heroin or crack cocaine, warranted criminal prosecution; only 33 percent wanted the same penalties for “soft drugs” like cannabis.
Merely 17 percent of the survey’s respondents felt that drugs like heroin and cocaine could be consumed without significant risk, or that the risk was comparable to alcohol and smoking. By contrast, 64 percent felt that marijuana usage was comparatively harmless. Seventy-eight percent of the people responding to the survey felt that alcohol caused the most harm, with illegal drugs being cited by 55 percent.
The response indicates the curious position that alcohol occupies in popular culture. On the one hand, its dangers are well known, with numerous laws surrounding its distribution, sale and consumption. On the other, it is considered legally untouchable, a rite of passage and an inherent part of Western culture. Perhaps nothing can exemplify this better than the 2009 “beer summit” held at the White House and hosted by President Barack Obama, in the presence of Joe Biden, his Vice President, who abstains from alcohol because of having “too many alcoholics in [his] family.”, Entire industries and genres of entertainment have sprung from the fascination that Americans have with distilling homemade liquor under the noses of the federal government, celebrating the presence of alcohol as a way of life and part of their culture.
But even alcoholics make up the biggest consumers of alcohol in America (more than 10 percent of drinkers drink more than half the alcohol drunk in a year), and even as alcohol-related fatalities are the third most preventable cause of death in America (88,000 deaths a year), there remains what The Fix calls a “near universal acceptance” of alcohol in American culture and society.
Alcohol may be in the middle of a cultural tug-of-war, but one of the substances mentioned in the YouGov surveys remains firmly on the margins. Like marijuana, heroin has evolved over the past generation; throughout the 1960s and 1970s, says LiveScience, heroin users were thought to be primarily inner-city men from ethnic minority backgrounds. But the health commissioner for the city of Baltimore (the “heroin capital” of America, according to The Fix) told USA Today that heroin addiction is not limited by demographic.
More women and middle-class people are falling under the sway of heroin, with the health commissioner saying that users include both teenagers and 60-year-old individuals.
Most people, says The Economist, have the idea of a heroin addict looking like “a bum sitting under a bridge with a needle in his arm.” However, according to Forbes magazine, the reality is that heroin users are often white and suburban. Ninety percent of new heroin users are white, according to a study published in the JAMA Psychiatry journal, and quite possibly getting addicted because they were introduced to opiates via prescription medication.
Such is the scope of this particular scourge that it even has a name: hillbilly heroin. Now, a majority of heroin’s users aren’t poor minority people under bridges, but white people who developed a dependency on legal opioids (usually in the form of their prescription medication), then turned to heroin because they lost access to their drugs (either because the heroin is cheaper, or it doesn’t require a prescription). What NBC calls “the new face of heroin” is “white, wealthy and living in the suburbs,” according to a Tech Times article.,
The perception still persists that heroin is primarily an “ethnic” drug problem, partly due to disproportionately high arrest rates of African Americans. In 2009, the Human Rights Watch reported that black people were three times more likely to be arrested for drug possession than white people. This occurs, even though, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, white people tend to use cocaine and heroin more than any other ethnic group.
The reason may be what the Chicago Sun-Times called the frequency with which police arrest people of low income and ethnic minorities. In Cook County, Illinois, for example, home to 5.24 million people and the city of Chicago, African Americans comprise 73 percent of arrestees, even though they make up only 25 percent of the county’s overall population. Minority women in particular tend to be low income, have little to no education, and little to nothing by way of job skills. They usually have some form of mental health condition and have been abused sexually and physically, sometimes as children. They often do not have a family network (or if they do, it is not one from which they can derive much support). They generally have children to provide for, and if they are found with drugs, they tend to be convicted for possessing a relatively small quantity of drugs.
Not coincidentally, heroin use has doubled among women and white people, according to data released from the Centers for Disease Control and reported by TIME magazine.
As a result, black people have considerably more risk factors for the abuse of drugs than white people, which leads to arrest rates that are 10 times higher. This continues the stereotype that drugs are primarily a problem related to ethnicity, low income, or inner cities.
While heroin has traditionally been considered a problem for people on the fringes of society, cocaine paradoxically has enjoyed a modicum of popularity, partly due to its associations. In celebrity culture, says the BBC, “partying” has become a euphemism for cocaine abuse.Cocaine is still considered a social lubricant. As a stimulant, it makes users feel confident, alert and active. Inhibitions are dulled, and in a fast-paced, sexually charged environment like a club or a party, that quality can be very attractive.
Heroin, by contrast, is more associated with the numbing, blanket feeling of trying to escape from stress or hardship. The dichotomy may explain why cocaine use enjoys a level of acceptance, but heroin consumption is seen as a sign of trouble.
It’s not only that cocaine is used in popular, trendy settings, but that it’s also used in the right settings. In the worlds of fashion, entertainment, media and public relations, cocaine is a way of life. The Daily Beast describes the 2013 movie The Wolf of Wall Street as an “outrageously depraved orgy of sex [and] cocaine.”
Cocaine’s dangers are well known, so much so that, as the YouGov surveys above indicated, the same people who would support the regulation of marijuana support the continued criminalization of cocaine. But in the same breath that the media decries it, says the BBC, the glamorization of celebrity culture can’t help but push cocaine into the spotlight.
That kind of attention gives cocaine an unlikely popularity, even in an era when celebrity deaths from cocaine overdoses become breaking news in a 24/7 news cycle. According to the National Institute of Health and the BBC, respectively:
Despite its well-documented deadliness (including severe psychosis, depression and death), cocaine is now the second-most popular drug in the world, provided by a $10 billion industry from Colombia. The $170 price tag for a gram of cocaine (in 2000) adds to the allure.
After the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” boom of the 1980s, cocaine proved so popular that demand exceeded supply. Cutting corners, cocaine manufacturers used baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to strip the drug of its purity, rendering it cheaper to produce and procure. The process involved heating the cocaine to the point where it made a cracking noise. From that, the derivative of crack cocaine got its name.
But because crack is so easy to manufacture and cheap to sell, its clientele is primarily found among the lower income demographic. Similar to heroin, however, arrestees found with crack cocaine faced tougher sentences than arrestees found with comparable amounts of pure cocaine. Five grams of crack cocaine, for example, would net a mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years. For a person to receive five years for possession of pure cocaine, however, they would have to be arrested with 500 grams, a full 100 times more than crack. This disparity existed even though both crack cocaine and cocaine do not cause significant differences in the potential for addiction; instead, says US News & World Report, the disparity existed due to race.
According to US Sentencing figures, crack cocaine is the most skewed drug when it comes to the number of offenses: in 2009, there were 5,669 sentenced crack cocaine offenders, and 79 percent of them were black; 10 percent were white, and 10 percent were Hispanic. For powdered (pure) cocaine, however, the 6,020 cases comprised of 17 percent white offenders, 28 percent black offenders, and 53 percent Hispanic offenders. People convicted because of offenses related to powdered cocaine spend an average of 87 months in prison, yet people who are convicted of crack cocaine offenses spend 115 months in prison.
The Los Angeles Times claimed that there never existed a scientific basis for the disparity in sentencing; only a perception that, since crack was easier for poorer people to obtain, poorer people were prosecuted more than wealthier (and potentially white) offenders. As put by Senator Dick Durbin, the crack/powder disparity has resulted in African Americans being incarcerated at six times the rates of white Americans (for the same crime) and made the United States the world leader in incarcerations.
The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the disparity by increasing the amount of base
cocaine that is required for mandatory minimum prison terms to go into effect, thereby bringing crack cocaine closer to powdered cocaine in terms of the necessary criteria. The Act is expected to reduce prison populations by 1,550 between 2011 and 2015, saving $42 million in doing so. As much as this does to close the sentencing disparity, time is yet to tell whether the perception of crack cocaine being a drug for low-income minorities will erode, or whether the attitudes and stereotypes toward types of drugs and their users are too culturally ingrained to ever fully go away.
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 “Hillbilly Heroin: The Painkiller Abuse Wrecking Lives in West Virginia.” (June 2001). The Guardian. Accessed July 7, 2015.
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