Becker: Becoming a Marijuana User

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Can marijuana use be explained by some predisposition, allowing some predictor of marijuana use to be determined?

Howard Becker approached this issue in 1953 in an article on “Becoming a Marihuana User” in the American Journal of Sociology. Here is the abstract.

“An individual will be able to use marihuana for pleasure only when he (1)) learns to smoke it in a way that will produce real effects; (2)) learns to recognize the effects and connect them with drug use; and (3)) learns to enjoy the sensations he perceives. This proposition based on an analysis of fifty interviews with marihuana users, calls into question theories which ascribe behavior to antecedent predispositions and suggests the utility of explaining behavior in terms of the emergence of motives and dispositions in the course of experience.”(35)

One of the topics Becker discussed with subjects was when users “didn’t get high the first time.” Becker is part of the sociological tradition which influenced Zinberg’s Drug Set and Setting. which also discusses drug use as learned behavior. Becker observes that a user must learn to smoke marijuana properly, and “must learn to enjoy the effects he has just learned to experience.”(36)

In his concluding remarks, Becker criticizes predictive theories regarding marijuana use. This criticism still holds today, as research reported below will demonstrate.

“In comparing this theory with those which ascribe marihuana use to motives or predispositions rooted deep in individual behavior, the evidence makes it clear that marihuana use for pleasure can occur only when the process described above is undergone and cannot occur without it. This is apparently so without reference to the nature of the individual’s personality makeup or psychic problems. Such theories assume that people have stable modes of response which predetermine the way they will act in relation to any particular situation or object and that, when they come in contact with the given object or situation, they act in the way in which their makeup predisposes them.”(37)