THE GRASS IS GREENER ON THE OTHER SIDE: the politics of Marijuana, socio-political alienation, identity and construction of reality

Posted: January 6, 2009 in ESSAYS /RANDOM COMMENTS
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All civilizations set rules concerning what is “real” and what is not. They set rules regarding what is “true” and what is “false”. All societies select data that would help declare the “real world”. Each one of these artificial constructed worlds is to some degree idiosyncratic and unique. Our perceptions are guided by concepts and interpretations. What is commonly thought of as “reality”, that which “exists”, or simply “is”, is a set of concepts, assumptions, suppositions, justification that are used to channel each individual’s perception in a specific and distinct direction. These rules governing the general perception of the world is more or less arbitrary. Very society establishes what Erich Goode calls an “epistemological methodology”.

Marijuana also known as Grass or Ganja does not find itself a place in this “real world”. It became a ‘stain’ in the very fabric of the society. It has to be hidden. It has to be tagged as subversive and thereby illegalized. It never could and never can occupy a position in the centre. Right from the very beginning marijuana has occupied its position as the marginalized. It has been a voice of the rebel. It has been the voice of the change. The questions that I am raising are not whether marijuana is safe or not, whether it should be legalized or not [though one can find passionate arguments supporting both side of the spectrum]. This paper is trying to look into the structure of marijuana use. Why is smoking marijuana banned? Is it because the society tries to play the authority that decides what is right and what is not or is the real reason elsewhere? Why doesn’t marijuana find a place in the ‘real’ world and is coloured as “false”? Is the political and social alienation that is associated with smoking marijuana a product of the substance or the society itself? This paper tries to raise certain questions regarding the use and effects of smoking marijuana and though is unable to find coherent answers; this paper happily submits itself as a problematic study of the ‘pot’.

The ‘real’ world consists of law-abiding citizens who believe in the values and principles of life. They work hard, earn money and live a happy life. They have faith in the central fabric of the society that needs to be protected all the time. They believe in discipline in their day-to-day lives. They believe in uniforms in schools. They believe in assembly lines in nursery. They believe that they have a right to remain silent. And who decides what is virtues, what is principles? The society itself decides that. Power is not governed through cohesion. Power is governed through consent. Laws are made so that the marginal can never break through the centre. Rolling a joint doesn’t fit in the “real world”. It is a destructive act. It tries to break free from all that that is held sacred by the society. Marijuana cannot be allowed within the social construction of reality.

Even societies with powerful scientific and empirical traditions contain subcultures, which have less faith in the logic of the senses than others. The subculture may have a different mode of reasoning than the main culture. These subcultures that refuse to follow the reasoning of the dominant culture are tagged the subversive cultures. Marijuana find itself submerged in such a ‘niche’ subculture.

To raise empirical questions concerning marijuana use is a problematic issue. Even the fundamental question of the effects of the drug on the human mind and body is hotly disputed.

Is marijuana a drug of “psychic dependence”? Or is it meaningless to speak of dependency in regard to marijuana? Does marijuana cause organic damage to brain? Are its effects criminogenic? How does it influence the over0all output of activity-in popular terms, does it produce “lethargy” and “sloth”? Does it precipitate is its impact on artistic creativity? What is the drug’s influence on mechanical skills, such as the ability to drive an automobile? Does the use of marijuana “lead to” heroin addiction?”

Erich Goode raises these questions in the essay “Marijuana and the Politics of Reality”. These questions, he writes can be answered within the scope of empirical sociological, psychological and pharmacological scientific techniques. He further states that these questions are occasionally answered but “the zones of widespread agreement are narrow indeed.”

There are both empirical and theoretical reasons to suspect that drug use (particularly marijuana) and drug-use attitudes may be related to overall sociopolitical ideology, notably attitudes in such spheres as authority, social differences, conventionality, social change, and social deviance.

Researchers have related drug use to positions on a variety of sociopolitical issues, including opposition to Vietnam war and identification with the civil-rights movement; a rejection or questioning of “the contemporary social establishment”; possible resistance to authority and youthful protests towards parental generation; unconventionality in terms of orientation, social relationship, and achievements; blaming a purportedly bad and hypocritical society for one’s problems; despair of achieving progressive social, political and economic change; and general rejection of what drug users regard as “an increasing oppressive interference in their private lives by government of all ideological complexions. (Paul M. Kohn and G.W. Mercer ; Drug Use, Drug-use Attitude, and the Authoritarianism-Rebellion Dimension )

In studies done on the relationship between drug use and sociopolitical ideology by R. H. Blum and E. A. Suchman, Blum reported that, in comparison to their non-using peers, students using illicit drugs were more in opposition to their parents, more left-wing politically, and more likely to perceive the political right-wing as dangerous to society. Sachman found that drug use was related to behaviour, attitudes, and self-images that constitute a “hang-loose ethic.” In general, this is a pattern marked by irreverence, questioning, or rejection of conventional values, and opposition to the traditional established order. Specific acts referred to by Suchman include the reading of underground newspapers; participation in mass protests; antagonism to the education system; and a perception of oneself as “rebellious, cynical, anti-establishment, ‘hippie’, and apathetic.”

Smoking marijuana is illegal, and therefore self-reported use of marijuana could be used as an indicator of rebelliousness. At the same time, however, it must be kept in mind that if a behavior-even an illegal one-becomes normative, then it may indicate conformity with one’s peers more than it reflects rebellion against the status quo.

Marijuana can be thought of as a kind of symbol for a complex of other positions, beliefs and activities which are correlated with and compatible with its use. In other words, those who disapprove of marijuana use often feel that he who smokes must, of necessity, also be a political radical, en- gage in “loose” (from his point of view) sexual practices, and have a somewhat dim view of patriotism. Marijuana use is seen (whether rightly or wrongly) to sum up innumerable facts about the individual, facts which can clearly place him along the liberal-radical dimension in a number of areas of social and political life.

(-Erich Goode)

Goode has observed elsewhere that marijuana use has a “sociogenic” quality in that marijuana is usually smoked with others and less frequently alone. As a consequence of this, Goode suggests that:

. . . marijuana users form a kind of sub community. This does not mean that a powerful bond of identity holds all users together in a closely-knit social group. But it does mean that users are more to identify and interact with other users than with someone who does not smoke marijuana.


. . . a certain degree of value consensus will obtain . . . [and] a value convergence will occur as a result of progressive group involvement…

Most of the literature on youth and marijuana use is impressionistic. A great deal has been written about the potential risks involved in smoking marijuana, the laws needed to control its use, and the life styles of users, but there has been very little systematic empirical research on the topic.

Edward A. Suchman, in a survey of 600 students at an American university, found that drug use was most common among those students who were dissatisfied with their education and unhappy with their parents. In contrast to Richard Brotman, however, marijuana use was more closely associated with attitudes that reflect more immediate personal life-style concerns rather than larger social or political ideals. That is, marijuana use is most closely associated with more permissive attitudes on drug use, sex, and to a lesser degree, alcohol. It is also closely associated with more favorable views of the hippie subculture, keeping abreast of underground opinion and participating in underground events rather than in civic affairs. These attitudes are pictured as part of a youth-related “hang loose” ethic that is essentially irreverent and anti-establishment. It is important to note, however, that Suchman found no relationship between marijuana use and an index that appears to measure confidence in people. He concludes, “While it [the ‘hang loose’ ethic] may represent antagonism to the conventional world, [it] does not appear to create apathy and withdrawal.

According to another study, marijuana users were less likely to be involved in more conventional activities of church, school, and community. The authors conclude that marijuana users were more likely than non-users “to prefer . . . activities which are somewhat unconventional and allow broader scope for youth initiative.”

A national survey of 2,000 college seniors revealed that along with a general dissatisfaction with the status quo there was a trend toward “‘privatism” or a primary emphasis on self-related concerns rather than social idealism.? David Riesman has commented on this phenomenon labeling it a “cult of intimacy.” In Writing from the perspective of his experiences with youthful psychiatric patients, Seymour Halleck has also observed a growing concern with “style” and “immediacy” which is similar to these other conceptions of privatism and youth-related concerns. Halleck suggests that drugs are becoming popular with these young people because they create “a sense of timelessness and reinforce tendencies to live in the present.” A more limited survey of college students in New England revealed that marijuana smokers could be contrasted to nonusers in that they are “more opposed to external control” than non- users. Although this objection specifically applies to control over marijuana use, this attitude also is generalized to possible additional controls over more private or personal concerns such as cigarette smoking, regulating parietal hours for undergraduates in college, and regulations concerning premarital sexual behaviours.

A large number of young and avant-garde artists– film-makers, poets, painters, musicians, novelists, photographers– used the drug and were influenced by the marijuana “high” (in Goode). Some of the results seem to be : an increasing irrelevance to realism; the loss of interest in plot in films and novels; a glorification of the irrational and the seemingly nonsensical; an increased faith in the logic of the viscera, rather than in the intellect; a heightened sense for the absurd; an abandonment of traditional and “linear” reasoning sequences, and the substitution of “mosaic” and fragmentary lines of attack; connective relying on internal relevance, rather than a common understood and widely accepted succession of events and thoughts; love of the paradoxical, the perverse, the contradictory, the unique rather than the general and the universal.

Those with conventional, traditional and “classic” tastes in art will view these results in a dim light.

What is “real” is the world as the un-drugged person perceives it. Any alteration of the “normal” state of consciousness is destructive and inherently distorting. Drug use, it is claimed, is “a way to shut out the real world or enter a world of unreality”. As with every issue relating to marijuana, the construction of reality itself is problematic with both sides staking their claim to what is considered as “reality”. Perception changes the reality.

So is there a definite answer to the problematic aspects of use of marijuana? Is there a certainty that can be proclaimed? Or is the answer in the fuzzy lines?

Civilizations have their different ways of validating reality. The reality will never be uniform or comprehensive. The way a given culture chooses to view the material world is both arbitrary and conventional. Yet the arbitrary decisions of the culture are accorded a semi-sacred status. The decisions and the rules formulated cannot be questioned. Empirical and scientific rules and status becomes the basic arbiters of the reality. Yet different subcultures in the same society vary in their conception of what is real. The access to power and legitimacy is denied to these subcultures because they would undercut the very authority and legitimacy of the centre, the ‘stable’ society. He who dominates in an given society tries to enforce his views and vision of the reality on the rest of the society, both in terms of legitimacy (moral hegemony) and making sure that others do not go against him. He generally believes that he does it for the benefit of the society. He believes that the individuals should be restricted for their own moral and scientific well-being. The society is not a combination of individuals who have equal voice in everything. However, society is ruled by an identity that can enforce and impose their own unique versions of reality and what is right on others.

Imposing a dominant mode of thinking about reality and controlling the behaviors of the people require strategy. Thus, the scientific status of one or another reality becomes a political and tactical issue. The non-rational beliefs shape perceptions of empirical testable assumptions. He who thinks of marijuana use as wrong is likely to exaggerate its criminogenic effects; he who thinks of it as beneficial will minimize its impact.

The line between what can and cannot be tested empirically is fuzzy, nonexistent and irrelevant to most people. Therefore, anyone who does not agree with me on the scientific matters is wrong and those who do not agree with me on matters of taste and style are wrong. Marijuana can be seen as a kind of symbol for a complex of other positions, beliefs and activities that are correlated with and comparable with its use. In other words, those who disapprove of marijuana use often feel that people who smoke must also be a political radical, engage in “loose” sexual practices, and have a somewhat dim view of patriotism. Erich Goode notes that marijuana use is seen (whether rightly or wrongly) to sum up innumerable facts about the individual, facts which can clearly place him along the conservative-liberal-radical dimension in a number of areas of social and political life.

Marijuana is a problematic issue that is not going to get any answers any time soon and therefore I come back to the same questions:

Is marijuana use a response to social or political alienation? Or since marijuana use increases the probability of a negative reaction from authorities, does this reaction create and reinforce the alienation of the young?


E. A. schman, The hang-loose ethics and the spirit of drug use in “Journal of Health and Social Behavior”, 1968, pp. 146-155.

Erich Goode, Marijuana and the Politics of Reality, “Journal of Health and Social Behavior”, American Sociological Association , 1969, pp. 83-94

Richard Brotman, Irving Silverman, and Fred Suffet, Drug Use Among Affluent High School Youth in Erich Goode (ed.), “Marijuana”, New York: Atherton Press, 1969, pp. 128-136.

James W. Clarke and E. Lester Levine, Marijuana Use, Social Discontent and Political Alienation: A Study of High School Youth, “The American Political Science Review”, American Political Science Association, 1971, pp. 120-130.

Paul M. Kohn and G. W. Mercer, Drug Use, Drug-Use Attitudes, and the Authoritarianism-Rebellion Dimension, “Journal of Health and Social Behavior”, American Sociological Association, 1971, pp. 125-131

R. C. Knight, J. P. Sheposh, J. B. Bryson, College Student Marijuana Use and Societal Alienation, “Journal of Health and Social Behavior”, American Sociological Association, 1974, pp. 28-35

R. H. Blum, “Student and drugs”, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1969.

Richard L. Zweigenhaft, Birth Order Effects and Rebelliousness: Political Activism and Involvement with Marijuana, “Political Psychology”, International Society of Political Psychology, 2002, pp. 219-233


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