Unit Six: Alcohol and Other Drugs

Drug use is nothing new to the human race. Throughout history , people have sought to alter their consciousness through the use of both legal and illegal substances. Most societies allow the use of certain drugs.  Such drug use is generally regulated, through either law or social convention. Opinions on drug use vary widely. Some groups call for a complete ban on all drugs, including alcohol.  Other groups believe that some drugs- such as alcohol and marijuana, can be used safely by mature people.  Other groups advocate that adults should be free to use any drug they please as long as they don not become a danger to others.

Drug Use in Ancient Times

As archeologists continue to unearth evidence, it is becoming clear that human beings have been using drugs of some sort since civilization began. Evidence in mummy hair in the South American Andes points to drug use thousands of years ago. Citizens of Sumer, the first true civilization, used opium for medical and recreational purposes some 5000  years ago. A book of ancient Chinese  poetry mentions the spinning of hempen threads by a young girl.[5] The Shu King, a book which dates back to about 2350 B.C., says that in the province of Shantung the soil was “whitish and rich…with silk, hemp, lead, pine trees and strange stones…”.

Early Drug Use in the United States

In Colonial America, hemp was a staple crop that most farmers grew. so valuable was it to colonial life, that governments passed “must grow” laws mandating that farmers had to grow hemp because of its multiple uses. In fact farmers could pay their taxes with hemp. It is likely that many colonists also used hemp for medicinal and recreational purposes. During the Civil War in the United States, both opium and its derivative morphine were regularly given to soldiers to relieve the pain of battle wounds.  During the 1870’s we see the first laws passed to prohibit the use of an opiate. The Chinese, who were imported to work as cheap labor building the railroads out West, brought opium with them. At first, their opium dens were tolerated. Then as anti-Chinese sentiment grew over competition for jobs, there was an effort to punish the Chinese for opium use. West Coast cities like San Francisco starting passing ordinances around 1875. These laws were aimed at the Chinese, not the drug. In 1898, Bayer, the German company known for producing aspirin, developed heroin. Ironically, this drug was marketed as a non-addictive substitute for morphine.

In the early 1900’s harmful and addictive drugs were readily available to consumers. Drug stores sold heroin, morphine, and other opiates over the counter. Even Coca-Cola contained cocaine until the company switched to caffeine in 1906. The early 1900’s were characterized as a period of reform. A number of individuals and groups wanted to legislate morals.  the Eighteenth Amendment was passed in 1919 which prohibited the production, distribution, and consumption of alcohol. In 1914 Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Act. This was the first federal law that restricted the sale, manufacturing, and distribution of drugs. the law was mild. It was more of a tax law requiring people who dispensed opium products to pay a fee and keep records.  The act did however, create a department that was assigned the task of eliminating drug addiction. this eventually leads to a change in American society where drug addiction is no longer seen as a medical problem but a legal problem.

The History of Making Drugs Illegal in the United States

Prior to the Harrison Act drug addicts were thought (by police and the public) to be sick and in need of help. But with various government actions (laws, court decisions, propaganda) the image of addicts and drug users changed from a medical to a criminal problem.  Once this change occurred, the solution became incarceration. Since the image of drug use has changed in society, it would be useful to understand the factors that affect our drug laws. The two major factors are cultural reasons and interest group lobbying.

Drug laws and policies reflect the perception that citizens have of drugs.  Certain drugs have negative stereotypes, while others do not. Governments may take steps to influence citizen opinions through the use of faulty research, propaganda or negative portrayals in the media.  In our nation’s history, opium, alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine have all gone through changes in public perception.

1.  Reefer Madness (Youtube)

2.  Poll finds 56% of Americans Favor Legalizing Marijuana

3.  Hundreds of Economists Support the Legalization of Marijuana

The power and social structure of a society also plays a role in controlling drug use.  For example, the prohibition of alcohol was in part an effort by middle class, rural, and native born Protestants against urban and immigrant Catholics.  In terms of race and social class, the punishment against the use of marijuana was severe when it was thought that only Hispanics and Blacks were users. When suburban whites starting using marijuana,  there was a push (users, parents, academics) to reduce the penalties for its use. Another interest group that fights against relaxing drug laws are the pharmaceutical companies. Drug companies are opposed to cheaper drugs that might be available but for which they do not have a patent on.  Drug companies lobbied leading up to the passage of the 1970 Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act to have amphetamines (which they held patents for to remain legal, and for marijuana to remain illegal.  Another interest group is the government itself. There are a number of government agencies devoted to the prevention of drug use. If drugs were legalized, then many workers in these agencies would face the prospect of being unemployed. The same holds true for workers in the prison industry.


Drug Use and Abuse

druguse1Before we can discuss drug use, it would be valuable to define what a drug is.  A drug is any substance that when consumed alters one or more of the functions of the human body. Drugs have a psychological or physical effect on the body. There is a difference between drug use and drug abuse.  Drug use is the act of internally processing chemical substances other than food that have psychological or physical effects. A person is using drugs when he/she takes an aspirin to relieve a headache or consumes a caffeinated beverage in the morning. What makes drugs a social issue is its potential for abuse. Drug abuse is the use of drugs despite harmful consequences and that violates approved social practices.  the use of drug will meet social disapproval if its use has negative consequences for people’s health, endangers their relationships with other people, or threatening to the safety of others.  One of the main concerns about drug use is its ability to produce dependence– a mental or physical craving for a drug and withdrawal symptoms when use of the drug is stopped.  there is a slight difference between drug dependence and drug addiction.  For professionals in the field, drug addiction refers to a physical dependency on a drug. Although most drugs of abuse are physically addicting, some, such as hallucinogens, are not.  Another problem associated with drugs is tolerance. Tolerance refers to physical changes that result in the need for higher and higher doses of the drug to achieve the same effect.   This occurs when the nervous system’s response to the drug is diminished. So more of the drug is needed for the same “fix”.  Drug tolerance then leads to the problem of potential organ failure, and in some cases death by overdose.

Types of Drugs

What type of behavior can we expect from a person on drugs? A person’s reaction to a drug largely depends on the type of drug that is used. The table below looks at the three main categories of drugs. Each of the main drugs that are used in the United States when then receive an individual examination.

Types of Drugs and Their Effects
Type of Drug Form Method of Use Immediate Effects Potential Effects of Long-term Abuse
Stimulants Tobacco smoke, chew increased heart and pulse rate heart and lung disease, cancer, high blood pressure
Speed swallow, snort inject large amounts of stimulation, increased activity mental and emotional disturbance
Crack Cocaine swallow, snort, inject increased energy, feelings of power loss of concentration, aggression, mental disturbance
Ecstasy swallow, inject sensation of floating, paranoia convulsions, irrational behavior, depression
Depressants Alcohol oral slurred speech, loss of inhibitions damage to the brain, heart, liver
Opioids oral, inject, smoke relief of pain, decreased awareness damage to the brain and nervous system
Cannabis oral, smoke relaxation, decrease in coordination repertory problems, loss of memory
Inhalants inhalation relaxation, drowsiness liver, kidney, and brain damage, vomiting
Hallucinogens LSD swallow hallucinations, anxiety, panic severe mental disturbances, nerve damage
Mushrooms swallow hallucinations, nausea sever mental disturbance nerve damage

From the table you can see there are three main types of drugs. The first are called stimulants. A stimulant is a drug that excites the body and stimulates the brain and central nervous system.  The second type of drug is a depressant. Depressants are a drug that slows the activity of vital organs in the body to create a relaxed, sleepy, feeling. The third type of drug are hallucinogens.  Hallucinogens are drugs that distort the senses and cause hallucinations. The various types of drugs are outlined below.


Alcohol is a drug that falls under the category of a depressant. It affects the central nervous system, slowing brain activity and muscle reactions. This contributes to it being a leading cause in accidents. Alcohol is a relatively safe drug when used in moderation but one of the most dangerous when abused. Any adult can legally purchase alcohol without a prescription.  According to the National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health, slightly more than half of Americans aged 12 or older reported being current drinkers of alcohol in the 2010 survey (51.8 percent).  Nearly seven percent of Americans are heavy drinkers. In 2010, about 10.0 million persons aged 12 to 20 (26.3 percent of this age group) reported drinking alcohol in the past month.

What makes the consumption of alcohol a social problem is its continuous or excessive consumption.  Alcoholism is the consumption of alcohol at a level that produces serious personal, social, or health consequences such as marital problems, occupational difficulties, accidents, or arrests. Physically, the continued use of large quantities of alcohol can result in indigestion, ulcers, degeneration of the brain and cirrhosis of the liver.  Withdrawal can be very dangerous, with the individual experiencing convulsions and delirium.

drinkinganddrivingThere are many social costs to the abuse of alcohol. According to information published by Ensuring Solutions to Alcohol Problems, a part of the George Washington University Medical Center, alcohol abuse costs American businesses $134 billion in productivity losses annually. In 2009, 10,309 people died in alcohol-impaired crashes. Alcohol-impaired crash fatalities accounted for 32% of all crash deaths. There is an alcohol-impaired traffic fatality every 48 minutes in the U.S.  There are intangible and unmeasurable cost due to disrupted families, spouse and child abuse, desertion, and countless emotional problems that arise from drinking. A number of studies have shown a connection between alcohol abuse and domestic violence.  among youth, excessive drinking is related to risky sexual behavior, vandalism, racist acts, homophobic violence and sexual assault.   One of the strongest risk factors for attempted suicide is alcohol use.

In the United States, the use and abuse of alcohol began to be seen as a social problem in the late 1800’s.  Alcohol use became illegal in 1919 with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. This effort was a failure. People continued to drink and organized crime flourished by supplying “bootleg” liquor. The Twenty-First Amendment of the Constitution nullified the prohibition on alcohol in 1933.

1.  Graphs on Alcohol Use and Abuse



smokingNicotine is the active ingredient in tobacco.  Cigarette smoking has been the most popular method of taking nicotine since the beginning of the 20th century. In 1989, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report that concluded that cigarettes and other forms of tobacco, such as cigars, pipe tobacco, and chewing tobacco, are addictive and that nicotine is the drug in tobacco that causes addiction. In addition, the report determined that smoking was a major cause of stroke and the third leading cause of death in the United States.

Nicotine is a stimulant that raises blood pressure, increases the heart rate, dulls the appetite, and provides the user with a sense of alertness. Cigarette smoking is the most prevalent form of nicotine addiction in the United States. Most cigarettes in the U.S. market today contain 10 milligrams (mg) or more of nicotine.  In addition to nicotine, smokers inhale other ingredients that increase the chances of contracting lung cancer, throat cancer, emphysema, and bronchitis. Inhaling secondary smoke contributes to respiratory infections in babies, triggers new cases of asthma and makes asthma symptoms worse.  Foremost among the cancers caused by tobacco is lung cancer-the number one cancer killer of both men and women. Cigarette smoking has been linked to about 90 percent of all lung cancer cases.  Nicotine can act as both a stimulant and a sedative. Immediately after exposure to nicotine, there is a “kick” caused in part by the drug’s stimulation of the adrenal glands and resulting discharge of epinephrine (adrenaline). Chronic exposure to nicotine results in addiction. Research is just beginning to document all of the neurological changes that accompany the development and maintenance of nicotine addiction. The behavioral consequences of these changes are well documented, greater than 90 percent of those smokers who try to quit without seeking treatment fail, with most relapsing within a week. Cessation of nicotine use is followed by a withdrawal syndrome that may last a month or more; it includes symptoms that can quickly drive people back to tobacco use. Nicotine withdrawal symptoms include irritability; craving, cognitive  deficits,  sleep disturbances, and increased appetite and may begin within a few hours after the last cigarette. Symptoms peak within the first few days and may subside within a few weeks. For some people, however, symptoms may persist for months or longer.

Current estimates indicate that approximately 60 million Americans smoke cigarettes. More men smoke than women. Smoking and education are inversely related. As education level goes up, the incidence of smoking goes down. Cigarette smoking is more common among unemployed adults than among adults who work full or part time. Thus, the poor and the uneducated are more likely to smoke.

The tobacco industry is faced with declining sales due to public smoking bans, increased tobacco taxes, and public antismoking campaigns. They have responded by increasing campaign donations to politicians in the hope of getting favorable legislation and increasing advertising in both the United States and in foreign countries. Cigarette smoking remains the leading preventable cause of death in the United States- accounting for one of every five deaths each year.

1.  Graphs on Tobacco Use and Abuse



marijuanaMarijuana comes from the hemp plant Cannabis sativa, a plant cultivated for at least 5,000 years and found throughout the world.  It is the world’s fourth most widely used psychoactive drug (following caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol), and by far, the most widely used illicit drug in the United States. The main active chemical in marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC for short. The potency of marijuana is determined by how much THC is present.

There are many slang terms for marijuana that vary from city to city and from neighborhood to neighborhood. Some common names are: “pot,” “grass,” “herb,” “weed,” “Mary Jane,” “reefer,”  and “ganja.” The most common method is smoking loose marijuana rolled into a cigarette called a “joint”.”  Sometimes marijuana is smoked through a water pipe called a “bong.” Others smoke “blunts”—cigars hollowed out and filled with the drug. Within minutes of inhaling, a user begins to feel “high,” or filled with pleasant sensations. THC triggers brain cells to release the chemical dopamine. Dopamine creates good feelings—for a short time.  Marijuana is not physiologically addictive and there is no evidence of a lethal dose.  It is difficult to classify marijuana in relation to other psychoactive drugs. It has sedative properties at the doses usually consumed in a cigarette form, but it also has definite hallucinogenic properties when taken in stronger doses. When consumed in low doses the drug produces feelings of pleasant euphoria and well being, along with sleepiness, heightened sexual arousal, increased awareness, difficulty in keeping track of time, a decrease in short term memory, and an increase in appetite.  Heavy marijuana use can lead to lung cancer, depression, anxiety, and long term memory problems. Marijuana is one of the few illicit drugs that has made claims of having medicinal properties. It is claimed to be successful in reducing or eliminating the nausea that accompanies chemotherapy treatments for cancer and in stimulating the appetites in the chronically ill.  Opponents of marijuana stress that its use is also associated with job-related problems, lower high school graduation rates and increase in criminal activity.

The level of marijuana use in the United States is far lower than that of alcohol. A 2011 survey showed  some 17.4 million Americans — or 6.9 percent of the population — saying they used marijuana in 2010, up from 14.4 million or 5.8 percent of the population in 2007. There has been some debate over the years about whether marijuana use can lead to the use of other drugs, such as cocaine and heroin. Clearly, people who use these other drugs often use marijuana first. However, there is no convincing evidence that marijuana itself causes a person to turn to these other drugs. Rather, the social circumstances or personal problems that incline certain people  toward drug abuse probably lead to marijuana first, possibly because of its accessibility.  Even if marijuana were not available, such people would probably abuse other drugs eventually.  In addition, obtaining marijuana often brings the user into contact with people who also knows how to obtain other drugs. It is probably these associations, not the marijuana itself, that produce a link between use of one drug and use of another.

1.  Graphs on Marijuana Use and Abuse




Cocaine is a stimulant derived from coca leaves and has become the third most popular psychoactive drug in the United States after alcohol and marijuana. Cocaine is a strong central nervous system stimulant.  It stimulates an area in the brain that regulates the sensation of pleasure, intensifying sexual highs and producing euphoria, alertness, and feelings of confidence. Although there are close to 2 million cocaine users in the United States, between 2006 and 2010 domestic cocaine use declined 37% according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Cocaine is typically snorted.  Snorting allows the cocaine to be absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream and into the brain. If a user wants a more potent dosage, cocaine can be injected in solution directly into the veins or chemically converted and smoked in the process called freebasing.  Because of the use of snorting, users often damage the nasal passes and can experience serious breathing difficulties.

Cocaine used to be an expensive drug which limited its use.  However, drug dealers discovered ways to produce cheap and potent drugs from cocaine. Crack is a smokeable form of cocaine, created by mixing cocaine, baking soda, and water and heating them. This potent drug provides an almost instant rush, reaching the brain within eight seconds, with peak effects within a few minutes.  Because crack’s effects are more short-lived and more intense than powder cocaine, there is a greater urge toward repeated use. Crack, compared with powder cocaine, is cheaper and provides a quicker high.  Because of this, crack has been an especially cruel plague for many poor communities.

High does or chronic use of cocaine can produce a schizophrenia-like or paranoid reaction. Heart rates of users can increase abnormally which in some cases can lead to cardiac arrest and death.  Lastly, for those who take cocaine intravenously, there is the danger of AIDS infection when dirty needles are shared with other users.

1.  Graphs on Cocaine Use

2.  Why We Took Cocaine Out of Soda


Narcotics (Opiates)

heroinNarcotics are powerful depressants that have a pronounced effect on the respiratory and central nervous systems.  Their main use is acting as a painkiller. Examples include natural substances such as opium, morphine, and codeine, and chemical alterations of those natural substances (heroin).  Medically they are used to relieve pain, treat diarrhea, and stop coughing. In high doses the negative effects are drowsiness, mood changes, and reduced mental functioning. Prolonged users experience severe withdrawal symptoms.  Besides the relief of pain, why would someone use an opiate?  They also produce a feeling of euphoria. Many users describe the first “rush” as similar to a sexual orgasm, followed by feelings of warmth and peacefulness.

Opiates are highly addictive. Some users become addicted after they use an opiate for medical reasons.  Daily heroin users who are addicted may spend $50 to $100 dollars a day on their habit. However, the image of the addicted narcotic addict should not be overdrawn. Some heroin users never progress beyond occasional use, called “chipping”.  They may continue this for years without addiction,  all the while maintaining a family , friends and a job.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, in 2010 there were 800,000 heroin addicts in the United States.

Opiate use can be dangerous for four reasons. This can be seen with the use of heroin.  First, they can include harmful impurities. Because of this, between 3,000 and 4,000 users die annually from drug overdoses.  Second, the sharing of needles is a major cause of hepatitis and HIV infection. Third, is the high cost of heroin. Users must spend time finding money to supply their habit. This means they might attempt theft and other crimes, and for women- prostitution.  Finally, possession of heroin is a criminal offense, which often leads to incarceration.


The main effect of depressants is the opposite of stimulants: they depress the central nervous system, along with having some painkilling properties. Depressants include almost all sleeping medications, barbiturates, and anti-anxiety drugs.

Barbiturates are used as sedatives or painkillers. They can have effects similar to alcohol, particularly in reducing people’s inhibitions. Most people become relaxed with using barbiturates. Effects range from slight lethargy or sleepiness from moderate use, to various levels of anesthesia, and finally to death from respiratory and heart depression if used in heavy quantities.  Addiction to barbiturates is so severe that withdrawal is more dangerous than withdrawing from narcotics.  Withdrawal can be accompanied by anxiety, nausea, cramps, hallucinations, and even fatal convulsions. A major problem with barbiturates is overdose.  Especially when used with combination of alcohol, it becomes easy to forget how much one has taken and inadvertently take too much. an overdose of barbiturates can slow a person’s breathing and heart rate to the point where coma or death occurs.

In earlier decades, barbiturates were often obtained legally through a physician’s prescription.  Today barbiturates are not prescribed as much as in the past having been replaced by other drugs, including tranquilizers. As a result, use of barbiturates has declined, especially among the young.


facesofmethAlso know as speed, crystal, crank or meth, methamphetamine is part of a subclass of amphetamines. It is a powerful addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. It can be injected, smoked, snorted, and ingested orally.  Smoking and injecting produce an almost immediate high and a “rush”; while snorting meth results in a high a few minutes later and ingesting (swallowing) the drug results in intoxication about 20 minutes later. Meth is most commonly smoked. People take methamphetamine to feel powerfully euphoric and alert. Meth causes an increased release of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain and also blocks the reuptake of this chemical. This results in a temporary overabundance of a substance (dopamine) responsible for much of the pleasure we feel in life – created artificially.  Methamphetamine use decrease appetite, heightens energy levels, enables people to be physically active for long periods, and provides a sense of euphoria similar to that of cocaine.

Methamphetamine use is associated with a number of negative effects, both short and long term. short term effects include higher pulse rate, higher blood pressure, increased body temperature, convulsions, and nervousness. Long term effects include sever psychological and physical dependence, violent behavior, and paranoia, chronic fatigue, depression, open sores and infections on the skin from picking and scratching at imaginary bugs, tooth decay and severe weight loss.  During the coming down period, the user may become agitated and potentially violent.

1.  The Faces of Meth



LSDHallucinogens, also called psychedelics, are drugs that produce sensory experiences that represent a different reality to the user. They often produce visual hallucinations.  A person using hallucinogens may react to trivial everyday objects as if they had great meaning.  Awareness of sensory input and mental activity is intensified, thoughts are turned inward, and users are less able to differentiate between themselves and their surroundings. Hallucinogens occur naturally in the peyote cactus, some mushrooms, and certain fungi and other plants.  Hallucinogens have no accepted medical use in which their benefits outweigh their disadvantages.

Examples of hallucinogens are lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), psilocybin, peyote.  and phenylisopropylamine know as STP.  The psychedelic drug phencycliddine (PCP) also know as angel dust, is perhaps the most dangerous. All are taken orally. Tolerance to hallucinogens builds up rapidly.  There is no physical dependence or withdrawal. For some people , though, psychological dependence occurs.

The drug ecstasy is a synthetic drug with stimulant and hallucingogenic effects. Users say that ecstasy produces a high for up to 6 hours, with feelings of euphoria, empathy,  and heightened senses.  Ecstasy use has been declining since it height of popularity at the end of the 1990’s.    The popularity of hallucinogens such as LSD peaked in the 1960’s.

Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse is the use of a prescription medication in a way not intended by the prescribing doctor. Prescription drug abuse includes everything from taking a friend’s prescription painkiller for your backache to snorting ground-up pills to get high.

prescriptiondrugdeathsAn increasing problem, prescription drug abuse is especially common in young people. The classes of prescription drugs most commonly abused are: opioid pain relievers, such as Vicodin or Oxycontin; stimulants for treating Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), such as Adderall, Concerta, or Ritalin; and central nervous system (CNS) depressants for relieving anxiety, such as Valium or Xanax. The most commonly abused OTC drugs are cough and cold remedies containing dextromethorphan.

In 2010, approximately 7.0 million persons were current users of psychotherapeutic drugs taken nonmedically (2.7 percent of the U.S. population), an estimate similar to that in 2009. This class of drugs is broadly described as those targeting the central nervous system, including drugs used to treat psychiatric disorders (NSDUH, 2010).   Among adolescents, prescription and over-the-counter medications account for most of the commonly abused illicit drugs by high school seniors.  Nearly 1 in 12 high school seniors reported nonmedical use of Vicodin; 1 in 20 reported abuse of OxyContin.  Prescription drugs act directly or indirectly on the same brain systems affected by illicit drugs. Using a medication other than as prescribed can potentially lead to a variety of adverse health effects, including overdose and addiction.  Between 1991 and 2010, prescriptions for stimulants increased from 5 million to nearly 45 million and for opioid analgesics from about 75.5 million to 209.5 million.




Why Do We Use Drugs?

Drug abuse is a very complicated process involving biological, psychological, social, and cultural factors.  In terms of biological influences, there is now evidence that suggests a heredity connection to some people becoming alcoholic. As to a biological connection to drugs other than alcohol, there are a number of theories relating to tolerance, drug metabolism, and others, but there is little evidence that such factors make some people more biologically susceptible to drug addiction.

Although personality and psychological processes are undoubtedly important in the lives of individuals, they are probably not sufficient, by themselves, to explain drug abuse. Psychological problems have social sources, such as family experiences. Some addicts exhibit psychological deficiencies, while others do not.

Sociological explanations of drug abuse focus on the role of culture, social structure, and social interaction.  The drug abuse problem is shaped in part by the exercise of social, political, and economic power. Many sociologists believe that drug abuse is a learned behavior that is transmitted through the socialization process of particular culture or subculture. People “learn” what drugs to use, where to buy them, how to use them and what a particular high is supposed to feel like.

The cultural transmission of values regarding drug use can be seen by comparing patterns of alcohol use among different ethnic groups in the United States.  Some groups, such as Jews and Italians, incorporate alcohol into highly regulated family actives such as meals where moderation is emphasized.  This teaches youngsters to value the moderate use of alcohol. In contrast, among the Irish, it is acceptable for males to drink outside of the family context and drinking is viewed as an approved way of reducing frustrations or tensions.

1.  Drugged Out America


The Societal Cost of Drug Abuse

The consumption of alcohol and other drugs takes a costly toll from society. some of the major costs are outlined below.


Accidents.  Each year by alcohol alone, one third to one-half of the drivers in fatal traffic accidents have been drinking and about 15,000 people die in traffic accidents involving alcohol.

Crime.  In well over half of the homicides in the United States, the victim, the perpetrator, or both were drinking at the time of the crime. Studies of meth and heroin users document that many commit property or violent crimes in order to pay for their habit. Estimates of the total overall costs of substance abuse in the United States, including productivity and health- and crime-related costs, exceed $600 billion annually. This includes approximately $181 billion for illicit drugs,1 $193 billion for tobacco,2 and $235 billion for alcohol.3 As staggering as these statistics are, they account for mainly crime done by users. If one factors in the international cartel of drug traffickers, the numbers are much higher.

Family Problems.  Alcoholics are seven times more likely to become separated or divorced from their spouses than other people.  Drinking proceeds acts of family violence in 25 to 50% of all cases of domestic violence. Substance abusers are violent more frequently and inflict more serious injuries.  They are more likely to attack partners sexually, and are more likely to be violent outside the home than non-substance abusers. Alcohol and drug abuse increase the likelihood of domestic violence; not only during periods of intoxication, but also during periods of sobriety.  Some caution is needed when studying alcohol and drug abuse with domestic violence. Those who study the dynamics of domestic abuse say there is no real research to indicate that alcoholism and drug abuse causes domestic violence.  No evidence supports a cause-and-effect relationship between the two problems. The relatively high incidence of alcohol abuse among men who batter must be viewed as the overlap of two separate social problems.

Work Problems.  People who abuse alcohol or illicit drugs have twice the rate of work absenteeism as other workers and are much morel likely to jump from one job to another, to be fired by their boss, and to be involved in a workplace accident.  The loss to companies in the United States due to alcohol and drug-related abuse by employees totals $100 billion a year, according to the The National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information. However, costs can be measured in the expense of absenteeism, injuries, health insurance claims, loss of productivity, employee morale, theft and fatalities. According to NCADI statistics alcohol and drug users, are far less productive, use three times as many sick days, are more likely to injure themselves or co-workers, and are five times more likely to file a worker’s compensation claim.

The War on Drugs

The U.S. drug war is fought on two fronts: stopping the flow of drugs into the United States and using the criminal justice system to punish those who sell and use illegal drugs within the United States.  In 1971, President Nixon officially declared a “war on drugs,” identifying illegal drug use as “public enemy number one.” A myriad of high-profile but ultimately unsuccessful campaigns against drug abuse defined President Reagan’s strategy to combat the drug epidemic. Reagan officially launched the “War on Drugs” on June 24, 1982, with the creation of the White House Office of Drug Abuse Policy. First Lady Nancy Reagan joined the movement, announcing the “Just Say No” campaign in 1982.  In 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed. President Reagan signs an omnibus drug bill, which appropriates $1.7 billion to fight the drug crisis. $97 million is allocated to build new prisons, $200 million for drug education and $241 million for treatment. The bill’s most consequential action is the creation of mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses. Possession of at least one kilogram of heroin or five kilograms of cocaine is punishable by at least ten years in prison. In response to the crack epidemic, the sale of five grams of the drug leads to a mandatory five-year sentence. Mandatory minimums become increasingly criticized over the years for promoting significant racial disparities in the prison population, because of the differences in sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine.  In 1989, President Bush appoints William Bennett to lead the new Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). As drug ‘czar’ he campaigns to make drug abuse socially unacceptable.  Federal spending on treatment and law enforcement increase under Bennett’s tenure, but treatment remains less than 1/3 of the total budget.  Over the past forty years, the War on Drugs has caused momentous transformations in crime policy, magnifying racial disparities in incarceration and amplifying the prison population.   According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 55% of federal prisoners and 21% of state-level prisoners are incarcerated on the basis of drug-related offenses. This means that over a half million people are presently incarcerated as a result of anti-drug laws.  Since the official war on drugs began in 1971, the United States has spent over $1 trillion dollars trying to prevent drug abuse. It is estimated that each year the federal government spends approximately $25 billion on this effort, with individual states spending close to $30 billion.

Despite all the money spent on the war on drugs, the policy has proved to be a dismal failure. We have not stopped the supply. Those who want to use drugs have no problem finding them. The drug laws have not achieved their goal of deterring crime by severely punishing the seller and user. The number of adults arrested for drug offenses grew from about 500,000 in 1980 to approximately 1.7 million in 2007.  The United States imprisons a larger fraction of its population for drug offenses than European nations do for all crimes.  This has led to tremendous overcrowding of both the courts and prisons. Taxpayers are forced to shoulder the burden of paying for an ever expanding prison system. Violence and murders associated with the drug trade have added an additional burden to families and society.

Future Prospects

legalizedrugsThe revision of U.S.-inspired drug policies is urgent in light of the rising levels of violence and corruption associated with narcotics. The alarming power of the drug cartels is leading to a criminalization of politics and a politicization of crime. And the corruption of the judicial and political system is undermining the foundations of democracy in the United States, as well as several other countries.  some policy analysts suggest that the single-minded pursuit of a “drug-free society” is unrealistic.  Instead we should recognize that drugs, although certainly not desirable, are probably her to stay.  Our society should take steps to learn to live with drugs in such a way that they cause the least harm.  Some proponents argue that marijuana and a few other drugs be given the same status as alcohol: legal but highly controlled substances. One idea is to “decriminalize” the use of these drugs by making simple possession of them for one’s own use either a misdemeanor or a non-criminal offense.  Another idea is to view drug use as a health issue, and not a moral issue, where the focus is on treatment and therapy.

1.  Drug War Clock

2.  Poll Shows Most Americans Think War on Drugs a Failure



   Social Problems in Film

Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  Traffic.  A conservative judge is appointed by the President to spearhead America’s escalating war against drugs, only to discover that his teenage daughter is an addict.

2.  Leaving Las Vegas.  An alcoholic screenwriter tries to drink himself to death.

3.  The House I Live In.  From the dealer to the narcotics officer, the inmate to the federal judge, a penetrating look inside America’s criminal justice system, revealing the profound human rights implications of U.S. drug policy.

4.  Flight.  An airline pilot saves almost all his passengers on his malfunctioning airliner which eventually crashed, but an investigation into the accident reveals a troubling history of drug abuse.




Social Problems in Books

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  The New Jim Crow  by Michelle Alexander

2.  The Strength of the Pack by  Douglas Valentine

3.  Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair





Eitzen, D. Stanley and Zinn, Maxine Baca      2012  Social Problems  (Twelfth Edition) Boston:   Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)

Sullivan, Thomas J.

2012  Introduction to Social Problems   (9th Edition) Boston:  Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)



  1. Office of National Drug Control Policy (2004). The Economic Costs of Drug Abuse in the United States, 1992-2002. Washington, DC: Executive Office of the President (Publication No. 207303). Available at www.ncjrs.gov/ondcppubs/publications/pdf/economic_costs.pdf (PDF, 2.4MB)
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Best Practices for Comprehensive Tobacco Control Programs—2007. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/stateandcommunity/best_practices/pdfs/2007/bestpractices_complete.pdf (PDF 1.4MB).
  3. Rehm, J., Mathers, C., Popova, S., Thavorncharoensap, M., Teerawattananon Y., Patra, J. Global burden of disease and injury and economic cost attributable to alcohol use and alcohol-use disorders. Lancet, 373(9682):2223–2233, 2009.

Copyright ©2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved


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