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Points Roundtable, “Becoming a Marihuana User”: Nancy Campbell

Updated: Aug 29, 2023


Marijuana was a quiet drug in 1953. It was smoked, and by “many people,” as Becker wrote, but it wasn’t “a Social Evil which deserved a place in the ‘Social Problems’ course every sociology department taught.” Instead, “relatively few people used marijuana and they didn’t make a lot of trouble, so despite the efforts of some authorities, no public was crying out to get rid of the practice.”

So how did the young graduate, who landed a research position on the staff of the Chicago Narcotics Survey, come to write an essay that shaped much of the drug scholarship to come? Mostly by hanging out in jazz clubs as a teen.

Becker Becoming

Becker argued that most marijuana smokers were students of the drug long before they became “social deviants” or consistent smokers. They had to be brought into the community by other, seasoned drug users, who showed them how consumption was done. The first session was invariably a disappointment: smokers didn’t feel any effect because, as Becker put it, “you had to learn to be high.” That meant piecing together a narrative to understand the experience, and then wanting to experience that sensation time and again. After talking with fifty regular smokers, Becker identified the three steps that needed to be taken in order to become a marijuana user:

1.) Learn how to smoke in a way that produces real effects

2.) Recognize the effects and connect them back to the drug’s use

3.) Learn to enjoy these effects, and actively seek out recreating them

From teacher to student, marijuana spread across the country in the 1960s, and Becker saw this kind of shared knowledge creating a legitimate “drug culture,” with experienced smokers bringing new users into the fold. With more people learning how to “properly” use the drug, Becker watched the incidence of unpleasant drug experiences diminish, as remedies were proposed for experiences that remained unsound, and as fears of police intervention were minimized. (Well, for some; several of our panelists will discuss this idea later on).

In a celebration of his work, Points has gathered together five of the most prominent voices in the field of drug studies to comment on this rerelease and the lasting importance of Becker’s work. Ranging from examinations of the book through the lenses of race relations to modern policy recommendations, our five contributors – Nancy Campbell, Mary Jane Gibson, Amanda Reiman, Cookie Woolner and Carl Hart – have each written a short essay on what Becker’s six-decade-old paper means to them, and where they see its applications today. Their contributions will be run every Tuesday from now through October, with the final contribution coming from Howard Becker himself. We are thrilled and grateful to host such a conversation.

In our first contribution, Nancy Campbell, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, remembers an interview she conducted with Becker in 2005, along with her current thoughts on the lasting importance of his work.

Nancy Campbell

Author’s Note: My interview with Howard S. Becker took place on January 4, 2005—a decade before I learned that Becoming a Marihuana User was to be reissued. With great pleasure, I have here interwoven the two texts, which turn toward each other in a testament to the mysterious process of “becoming.”

Every topic is a perfect place to study something, and when you start out to study something your job is to figure out what it’s the best place to study. Everett Hughes

“I was a 15-year-old piano player in Chicago . . . There was another guy in the band, maybe a year older than me, a saxophone player, . . . and during the intermission we went out in the parking lot, and he produced a half pint of gin and asked if I wanted a drink. I didn’t want to look square so I got it down, and the next week, since I was such a good student, he produced a joint and asked if I wanted to get high. I said sure, and I quickly realized that that was better than drinking gin. So I came into contact with drug users, you could say, because I was one.”

So Howie told me in a 2005 interview. Soon after finishing his PhD at the precocious age of 23, Becker met Alfred R. Lindesmith, one of two University of Chicago sociologists to write dissertations about opiate users in the 1930s. Of Lindy, Becker said, “He wandered into it, he was a criminologist who ran across a junkie, Broadway Jones, who invented himself, . . . Lindy was a kind of naïve farmboy for all his immersion in the quasi-underworld . . . he was a kind of simple, straightforward guy.” Echoing the Hughes quote above, Becker noted, “There are some topics that just really bring out certain issues in a very clear way. It seemed like drugs did that for him. The whole difference between habituation and addiction . . . is the perfect way to model the symbolic interaction point of view about human experience . . . because there’s such a difference between the physical action and the psychological experience, the individual experience. The difference shows you what’s due to interaction with other people.”

Drug policy was an ideal place for Lindy to show interaction between “the addict” and “the law.” His book on the topic excited the attention of federal Bureau of Narcotics Chief Harry J. Anslinger, who persecuted Lindy throughout his career. Following in Lindy’s footsteps but asking about marijuana rather than opiates, Becker thought it was “just so blatant and obvious” that people had to learn to get high through a social process involving interactions between other people and experiences. Throwing open standard formulations—that drug users took drugs to “escape” or to “solve” personal or psychological problems, or that they had a priori psychological traits or predispositions that made them different from non-users—Becker traced how users learned to say “yes” in the process of inventing themselves, of becoming marijuana users.

“[I]t wasn’t until years later that I realized what that research was actually about,” Becker told me. “It’s about how people learn to interpret their own inner sensations.” Drugs provided a “perfect place to study that phenomenon because you have this very ambiguous physical and mental experience and then you have to figure out what happened to you.” When I asked the obligatory question about what he thought the role of drugs in the sociology of drugs might be, Becker talked about the weather. Drugs and drug effects had to be dealt with, taken care of, factored in as Northerners factor in snow and Southerners drought. Whole social infrastructures get built up to deal with the weather—and basic needs and desires are built into social worlds.

Acquired tastes, too, are built into social worlds: think, as Becker does in Becoming, of marijuana as like oysters or dry martinis. Although everybody has appetites, some of us learn to like eating oysters, drinking dry martinis, or getting high. These activities are “shaped into particular kinds of desires that are built into social organization.” As people learn to make meaning of marijuana experiences, they learn that they are having “fun,” and marijuana acquires the meaning of an object used for pleasure, even if initial experiences are mildly aversive. There is no automaticity here, no predictable stimulus coupled to response, no “brute” sensation at the root of behavior. And, as with the weather, there is less predictability than there might appear:

“If a stable form of new behavior toward the object is to emerge, a transformation of meaning must occur, in which the person develops a new conception of the nature of the object. This happens in a series of communicative acts in which others point out new aspects of his experience to him, present him with new interpretations of events, and help him achieve a new conceptual organization of his world, without which the new behavior is not possible” (Becoming, p. 61).

Users learn to say “yes” in ways that enable them to reshape themselves and their worlds around uncertain pleasures and acquired tastes. For Becker it is relationships and activities—not substances—that matter. Marijuana may be ready to hand in some social worlds. But becoming a marijuana user is a process of turning both toward and away from objects, activities, persons, and things.


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