CRIM 420. Drugs and Society

Why are some drugs legal while others are illegal? Explore social and historical processes shaping drug policy and the causes and consequences of the use and abuse of consciousness-altering substances. (Prerequisites: CRIM 225 or CRIM 225s or SOC 225s and Exclude Frosh and Soph).

This course follows neither a “how to” nor a “just say no” agenda. One objective is to explore the social, cultural, political, and economic processes that shape drug policy and our understandings thereof.  A second objective is to provide a historical and theoretical grasp of the social causes and consequences of the use and abuse of consciousness-altering substances. Third, this course attempts to facilitate critical thinking skills.

“Nativism can find no better running mate than prohibition.” - Daniel Okrent (Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition)

“The very fact that the law (Volstead Act) is difficult to enforce is the clearest proof of its need of existence.” - Wayne Wheeler, Anti-Saloon League

“You smoke a joint and you're likely to kill your brother.” – Harry J. Anslinger

“Marihuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing.” – Harry J. Anslinger

“By getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” - former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman

The ingestion of chemical substances for purposes of consciousness alteration has been practiced in virtually all human cultures and in all epochs of history. Sometimes this activity has resulted in problems, sometimes not. The way in which a society defines and deals with drug use has a major impact upon whether drug use will result in abuse and generate related problems. Even the concepts of “abuse” and “addiction” are subject to societal definitions. Contrary to contemporary wisdom, the mere use of drugs does not necessarily constitute a “drug problem.” Rather, popular perspectives of the “drug problem” reflect social, political, economic and cultural agendas which are in many ways removed from the actual pharmacological effects of a particular drug. The total costs related to the use of all illicit drugs combined is minimal compared to the total social costs incurred via the use of a single licit drug such as alcohol or tobacco. Nevertheless, we typically think of alcohol and tobacco use as “normal” and the use of other drugs as “deviant.” Such conceptions are almost never based solely upon “objective” evidence, rather they reflect social conflicts and cultural fears.


Adler, Patricia A., Peter Adler, and Patrick K. O’Brien. Drugs and the American Dream. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.

Martin, Alyson and Nushin Rashidian. 2014. A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition.  New York: The New Press.

Perrone, Dina. 2010. The High Life: Club Kids, Harm and Drug Policy. Boulder CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.