OG Kush. Sour Diesel. Wax, shatter, and vapes. Marijuana has come a long way since its seedy days in the back parking lots of our culture. So has Howard S. Becker, the eminent sociologist, jazz musician, expert on “deviant” culture, and founding NORML board member. When he published Becoming a Marihuana User more than sixty years ago, hardly anyone paid attentionbecause few people smoked pot. Decades of Cheech and Chong films, Grateful Dead shows, and Cannabis Cups later, and it’s clearmarijuana isn’t just an established commodity, it’s an entire culture. And that’s just the thingBecker totally called it: pot has everything to do with culture. It’s not a blight on culture, but a culture itselfin fact, you’ll see in this book the first use of the term “users,” rather than “abusers” or “addicts.” Come along on this short little studynow a famous timestamp in weed studiesand you will be astonished at how relevant it is to us today. Becker doesn’t judge, but neither does he holler for legalization, tell you how to grow it in a hollowed-out dresser, or anything else like that for which there are plenty of other books you can buy. Instead, he looks at marijuana with a clear sociological lensas a substance that some people enjoy, and that some others have decided none of us should. From there he asks: so how do people decide to get high, and what kind of experience do they have as a result of being part of the marijuana world? What he discovers will bother some, especially those who proselytize the irrefutably stunning effects of the latest strain: chemistry isn’t everythingthe important thing about pot is how we interact with it. We learn to be high. We learn to like it. And from there, we teach others, passing the pipe in a circle that begins to resemble a bona fide community, defined by shared norms, values, and definitions just like any other community. All throughout this book, you’ll see the intimate moments when this transformation takes place. You’ll see people doing it for the first time and those with considerable experience. You’ll see the early signs of the truths that have come to define the marijuana experience: that you probably won’t get high at first, that you have to hold the hit in, and that there are other people here who are going to smoke that, too.
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About the Author
Howard S. Becker is the author of several books, including Writing for Social Scientists, Telling About Society, Tricks of the Trade, and, most recently, What About Mozart? What About Murder?. He currently lives and works in San Francisco.
Read an Excerpt
Becoming a Marihuana User
By Howard S. Becker
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
The novice does not ordinarily get high the first time he smokes marihuana, and several attempts are usually necessary to induce this state. One explanation of this may be that the drug is not smoked "properly," that is, in a way that insures sufficient dosage to produce real symptoms of intoxication. Most users agree that it cannot be smoked like tobacco if one is to get high:
Take in a lot of air, you know, and ... I don't know how to describe it, you don't smoke it like a cigarette, you draw in a lot of air and get it deep down in your system and then keep it there. Keep it there as long as you can.
Without the use of some such technique the drug will produce no effects, and the user will be unable to get high:
The trouble with people like that [who are not able to get high] is that they're just not smoking it right, that's all there is to it. Either they're not holding it down long enough, or they're getting too much air and not enough smoke, or the other way around or something like that. A lot of people just don't smoke it right, so naturally nothing's gonna happen.
If nothing happens, it is manifestly impossible for the user to develop a conception of the drug as an object which can be used for pleasure, and use will therefore not continue. The first step in the sequence of events that must occur if the person is to become a user is that he must learn to use the proper smoking technique in order that his use of the drug will produce some effects in terms of which his conception of it can change.
Such a change is, as might be expected, a result of the individual's participation in groups in which marihuana is used. In them the individual learns the proper way to smoke the drug. This may occur through direct teaching:
I was smoking like I did an ordinary cigarette. He said, "No, don't do it like that." He said, "Suck it, you know, draw in and hold it in your lungs till you ... for a period of time."
I said, "Is there any limit of time to hold it?"
He said, "No, just till you feel that you want to let it out, let it out." So I did that three or four times.
Many new users are ashamed to admit ignorance and, pretending to know already, must learn through the more indirect means of observation and imitation:
I came on like I had turned on [smoked marihuana] many times before, you know. I didn't want to seem like a punk to this cat. See, like I didn't know the first thing about it — how to smoke it, or what was going to happen, or what. I just watched him like a hawk — I didn't take my eyes off him for a second, because I wanted to do everything just as he did it. I watched how he held it, how he smoked it, and everything. Then when he gave it to me I just came on cool, as though I knew exactly what the score was. I held it like he did and took a poke just the way he did.
No person continued marihuana use for pleasure without learning a technique that supplied sufficient dosage for the effects of the drug to appear. Only when this was learned was it possible for a conception of the drug as an object which could be used for pleasure to emerge. Without such a conception marihuana use was considered meaningless and did not continue.CHAPTER 2
Even after he learns the proper smoking technique, the new user may not get high and thus not form a conception of the drug as something which can be used for pleasure. A remark made by a user suggested the reason for this difficulty in getting high and pointed to the next necessary step on the road to being a user:
I was told during an interview, "As a matter of fact, I've seen a guy who was high out of his mind and didn't know it."
I expressed disbelief: "How can that be, man?"
The interviewee said, "Well, it's pretty strange, I'll grant you that, but I've seen it. This guy got on with me, claiming that he'd never got high, one of those guys, and he got completely stoned. And he kept insisting that he wasn't high. So I had to prove to him that he was."
What does this mean? It suggests that being high consists of two elements: the presence of symptoms caused by marihuana use and the recognition of these symptoms and their connection by the user with his use of the drug. It is not enough, that is, that the effects be present; they alone do not automatically provide the experience of being high. The user must be able to point them out to himself and consciously connect them with his having smoked marihuana before he can have this experience. Otherwise, regardless of the actual effects produced, he considers that the drug has had no effect on him: "I figured it either had no effect on me or other people were exaggerating its effect on them, you know. I thought it was probably psychological, see." Such persons believe that the whole thing is an illusion and that the wish to be high leads the user to deceive himself into believing that something is happening when, in fact, nothing is. They do not continue marihuana use, feeling that "it does nothing" for them.
Typically, however, the novice has faith (developed from his observation of users who do get high) that the drug actually will produce some new experience and continues to experiment with it until it does. His failure to get high worries him, and he is likely to ask more experienced users or provoke comments from them about it. In such conversations he is made aware of specific details of his experience which he may not have noticed or may have noticed but failed to identify as symptoms of being high:
I didn't get high the first time.... I don't think I held it in long enough. I probably let it out, you know, you're a little afraid. The second time I wasn't sure, and he [smoking companion] told me, like I asked him for some of the symptoms or something, how would I know, you know.... So he told me to sit on a stool. I sat on — I think I sat on a bar stool — and he said, "Let your feet hang," and then when I got down my feet were real cold, you know.
And I started feeling it, you know. That was the first time. And then about a week after that, sometime pretty close to it, I really got on. That was the first time I got on a big laughing kick, you know. Then I really knew I was on.
One symptom of being high is an intense hunger. In the next case the novice becomes aware of this and gets high for the first time:
They were just laughing the hell out of me because like I was eating so much. I just scoffed [ate] so much food, and they were just laughing at me, you know. Sometimes I'd be looking at them, you know, wondering why they're laughing, you know, not knowing what I was doing. [Well, did they tell you why they were laughing eventually?] Yeah, yeah, I come back, "Hey, man, what's happening?" Like, you know, like I'd ask, "What's happening?" and all of a sudden I feel weird, you know. "Man, you're on, you know. You're on pot [high on marihuana]." I said, "No, am I?" Like I don't know what's happening.
The learning may occur in more indirect ways:
I heard little remarks that were made by other people. Somebody said, "My legs are rubbery," and I can't remember all the remarks that were made because I was very attentively listening for all these cues for what I was supposed to feel like.
The novice, then, eager to have this feeling, picks up from other users some concrete referents of the term "high" and applies these notions to his own experience. The new concepts make it possible for him to locate these symptoms among his own sensations and to point out to himself a "something different" in his experience that he connects with drug use. It is only when he can do this that he is high. In the next case, the contrast between two successive experiences of a user makes clear the crucial importance of the awareness of the symptoms in being high and re-emphasizes the important role of interaction with other users in acquiring the concepts that make this awareness possible:
[Did you get high the first time you turned on?] Yeah, sure. Although, come to think of it, I guess I really didn't. I mean, like that first time it was more or less of a mild drunk. I was happy, I guess, you know what I mean. But I didn't really know I was high, you know what I mean. It was only after the second time I got high that I realized I was high the first time. Then I knew that something different was happening.
[How did you know that?] How did I know? If what happened to me that night would of happened to you, you would've known, believe me. We played the first tune for almost two hours — one tune! Imagine, man! We got on the stand and played this one tune, we started at nine o'clock. When we got finished I looked at my watch, it's a quarter to eleven. Almost two hours on one tune. And it didn't seem like anything.
I mean, you know, it does that to you. It's like you have much more time or something. Anyway, when I saw that, man, it was too much. I knew I must really be high or something if anything like that could happen. See, and then they explained to me that that's what it did to you, you had a different sense of time and everything. So I realized that that's what it was. I knew then. Like the first time, I probably felt that way, you know, but I didn't know what's happening.
It is only when the novice becomes able to get high in this sense that he will continue to use marihuana for pleasure. In every case in which use continued, the user had acquired the necessary concepts with which to express to himself the fact that he was experiencing new sensations caused by the drug. That is, for use to continue, it is necessary not only to use the drug so as to produce effects but also to learn to perceive these effects when they occur. In this way marihuana acquires meaning for the user as an object which can be used for pleasure.
With increasing experience the user develops a greater appreciation of the drug's effects; he continues to learn to get high. He examines succeeding experiences closely, looking for new effects, making sure the old ones are still there. Out of this there grows a stable set of categories for experiencing the drug's effects whose presence enables the user to get high with ease.
The ability to perceive the drug's effects must be maintained if use is to continue; if it is lost, marihuana use ceases. Two kinds of evidence support this statement. First, people who become heavy users of alcohol, barbiturates, or opiates do not continue to smoke marihuana, largely because they lose the ability to distinguish between its effects and those of the other drugs. They no longer know whether the marihuana gets them high. Second, in those few cases in which an individual uses marihuana in such quantities that he is always high, he is apt to get this same feeling that the drug has no effect on him, since the essential element of a noticeable difference between feeling high and feeling normal is missing. In such a situation, use is likely to be given up completely, but temporarily, in order that the user may once again be able to perceive the difference.CHAPTER 3
One more step is necessary if the user who has now learned to get high is to continue use. He must learn to enjoy the effects he has just learned to experience. Marihuana-produced sensations are not automatically or necessarily pleasurable. The taste for such experience is a socially acquired one, not different in kind from acquired tastes for oysters or dry martinis. The user feels dizzy, thirsty; his scalp tingles; he misjudges time and distances; and so on. Are these things pleasurable? He isn't sure. If he is to continue marihuana use, he must decide that they are. Otherwise, getting high, while a real enough experience, will be an unpleasant one he would rather avoid.
The effects of the drug, when first perceived, may be physically unpleasant or at least ambiguous:
It started taking effect, and I didn't know what was happening, you know, what it was, and I was very sick. I walked around the room, walking around the room trying to get off, you know; it just scared me at first, you know. I wasn't used to that kind of feeling.
In addition, the novice's naive interpretation of what is happening to him may further confuse and frighten him, particularly if he decides, as many do, that he is going insane:
I felt I was insane, you know. Everything people done to me just wigged me. I couldn't hold a conversation, and my mind would be wandering, and I was always thinking, oh, I don't know, weird things, like hearing music different....I get the feeling that I can't talk to anyone. I'll goof completely.
Given these typically frightening and unpleasant first experiences, the beginner will not continue use unless he learns to redefine the sensations as pleasurable:
It was offered to me, and I tried it. I'll tell you one thing. I never did enjoy it at all. I mean it was just nothing that I could enjoy. [Well, did you get high when you turned on?] Oh, yeah, I got definite feelings from it. But I didn't enjoy them. I mean I got plenty of reactions, but they were mostly reactions of fear. [You were frightened?] Yes. I didn't enjoy it. I couldn't seem to relax with it, you know. If you can't relax with a thing, you can't enjoy it, I don't think.
In other cases the first experiences were also definitely unpleasant, but the person did become a marihuana user. This occurred, however, only after a later experience enabled him to redefine the sensations as pleasurable:
[This man's first experience was extremely unpleasant, involving distortion of spatial relationships and sounds, violent thirst, and panic produced by these symptoms.] After the first time I didn't turn on for about, I'd say, ten months to a year....It wasn't a moral thing; it was because I'd gotten so frightened, bein' so high. An' I didn't want to go through that again, I mean, my reaction was, "Well, if this is what they call bein' high, I don't dig [like] it." ... So I didn't turn on for a year almost, accounta that....
Well, my friends started, an' consequently I started again. But I didn't have any more, I didn't have that same initial reaction, after I started turning on again.
[In interaction with his friends he became able to find pleasure in the effects of the drug and eventually became a regular user.]
In no case will use continue without such a redefinition of the effects as enjoyable. This redefinition occurs, typically, in interaction with more experienced users who, in a number of ways, teach the novice to find pleasure in this experience which is at first so frightening. They may reassure him as to the temporary character of the unpleasant sensations and minimize their seriousness, at the same time calling attention to the more enjoyable aspects. An experienced user describes how he handles newcomers to marihuana use:
Well, they get pretty high sometimes. The average person isn't ready for that, and it is a little frightening to them sometimes. I mean, they've been high on lush [alcohol], and they get higher that way than they've ever been before, and they don't know what's happening to them. Because they think they're going to keep going up, up, up till they lose their minds or begin doing weird things or something. You have to like reassure them, explain to them that they're not really flipping or anything, that they're gonna be all right. You have to just talk them out of being afraid. Keep talking to them, reassuring, telling them it's all right. And come on with your own story, you know: "The same thing happened to me. You'll get to like that after awhile." Keep coming on like that; pretty soon you talk them out of being scared. And besides they see you doing it and nothing horrible is happening to you, so that gives them more confidence.
The more experienced user may also teach the novice to regulate the amount he smokes more carefully, so as to avoid any severely uncomfortable symptoms while retaining the pleasant ones. Finally, he teaches the new user that he can "get to like it after awhile." He teaches him to regard those ambiguous experiences formerly defined as unpleasant as enjoyable. The older user in the following incident is a person whose tastes have shifted in this way, and his remarks have the effect of helping others to make a similar redefinition: A new user had her first experience of the effects of marihuana and became frightened and hysterical. She "felt like she was half in and half out of the room" and experienced a number of alarming physical symptoms. One of the more experienced users present said, "She's dragged because she's high like that. I'd give anything to get that high myself. I haven't been that high in years."
Excerpted from Becoming a Marihuana User by Howard S. Becker. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of University of Chicago Press.
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What People are Saying About This
“A sort of Richard Feynman of the social sciences, notable for his street smarts, his informal manner, and his breezy, pungent prose stylea Northwestern professor who was just as at home playing piano in saloons. . . . A Beckerian analysis of a social ‘world’ asks how, in any culture or subculture, someone comes to be called an insider while someone else gets pushed outside. Simple as it is, this approach has proved immensely influential in the study of everything from drug addiction to queer theory. . . . The influence of Becker’s early work remains profound.”
“Becker’s classic essay Becoming a Marihuana User still sparkles with insight all these years after its original publication. The idea that one has to learn to be high on cannabis, that the highs users report are not intrinsic and automatic effects of the drug, was completely novel. It is consistent with the observations and experiments of many subsequent researchers who have concluded that effects of psychoactive drugs result from interactions of pharmacology, expectation (set), and environment (setting). Becker was also the first expert to talk about marijuana use, when everyone else called all consumption of the drug ‘abuse.’ At present, our society is moving, with many bumps and stops, toward total acceptance of marijuana, as both a medical and recreational drug, not to mention a source of superior fiber, a highly nutritious oil, and new foods. In writing Becoming a Marihuana User, Becker pointed the way toward a more enlightened, rational view of cannabis. I could not be more pleased to see his wise words republished.”