The Drug War and User Culture

It might not seem like it at first, but the political side of drug use almost certainly factors into the dynamics of addiction and addict-related behaviors. Many of us have adopted memes about the horror stories of drug addiction. These ideas have been so embedded into us that they can manifest in self-fulfilling prophecies, resulting in the cliché narratives of drug use. In this piece, we explore the psychology of drug use and non-use.

Before we get into the deep end: This article originally appeared in Guerilla magazine (#2) by Write Brain Studios. If you’d like a fancy real edition, with a nice embedded 3-D style cover, you can pick it up here. This magazine also includes various fascinating writers from a range of topics. My friend Utheraptor, who coined the term dysdelic, is also featured! Kevin Ronca of Write Brain has been a previous guest on the podcast where we both discussed the drug war in an epic 3-hour episode. Check that out if these topics interest you.

If you are wondering where the cover photo comes from, it is of Shulk, a young scientist from Xenoblade Chronicles who has come face to face with a tyrannical god of his world. In a way, it resembles the sort of position some drug users or drug war activists (looking at you Carl Hart) find themselves in relation to the government. To be honest, I ran out of self-captured photography because I haven’t been outside much this winter so I decided to use this screenshot as it seems far more fitting than an arbitrary picture of flowers or a sunset.


Drug users are often expected to behave in antisocial ways. The term antisocial here does not refer to being socially avoidant but rather behaving in ways that are harmful or against the interest of other people. Behaviors can either be viewed as prosocial, meaning socially helpful behavior, or they can be seen as antisocial, meaning socially harmful or selfish behavior. Common stereotypes of drug users include the willingness to steal from others to support the habit, antagonistic behavior, and other behaviors seen as morally deranged.

These memes and stereotypes might seem useful for protecting ourselves against the self-interested behavior of the addict, but they may also enable such behaviors, allowing them to manifest in reality. This might seem counter-intuitive at first, but having the drug act as a scapegoat for the blame of antisocial behaviors allows drug users to avoid personal responsibility for these antisocial behaviors. It is the drug’s fault for these behaviors.

Ordinarily, having our reputation harmed because of the personal responsibility factor causes us to avoid engaging in antisocial behaviors. Our memes about drug use allow us to remove this personal responsibility while ingesting substances. This may even be a major motivator for drug use in some people. An individual may have antisocial urges and then turn to the drug to carry out those behaviors without the concern that their identity as a good person is threatened. No doubt these individuals are still subject to their guilt, but it may be a reduced amount that makes enacting such behaviors possible. The guilt may be directed at the consumption of the drug rather than the drug-induced behaviors. The drug-induced behaviors may be dismissed as outside the control of the user, thus not their responsibility. It is important to keep in mind that this will not apply to everyone, but it may be common enough that it is important to consider.

In a similar way, nonusers will sometimes scapegoat drug users as the cause of problems in society.

Polarization and War

Besides facilitating the scapegoating of the drug for antisocial behaviors, there is another component of user culture that isn’t often considered: drug use is not only stigmatized, but polarizing and political. Consider the case of opioid drugs. Admitting to happily enjoying such drugs is so highly taboo that most people will only consume these drugs in secret. The stigma exists even within the user culture of most non-opioid drugs, particularly among psychedelic users who view their drugs as the ‘good drugs’. To use opioids proudly would certainly lead to a crash of social reputation amongst most groups of people.

This stigma is helpful for deterring the use of opioids, but it is also greatly harmful to the users of opioids and even facilitates antisocial behavior against the non-users. Remember where this article started, with the concept of antisocial and prosocial behaviors. These behavioral tendencies are highly reciprocal. If someone is prosocial, we reciprocate back with prosocial behavior. This is also true of antisocial behavior. When someone is nice, we are nice to them because they seem to deserve it. Likewise, when someone is mean, we are mean to them because they seem to deserve it.

Consider criminals, who are essentially defined as rule-breaking and antisocial. Laws exist partly to prevent antisocial behaviors that would harm society, at least in an ideal world. When someone becomes a criminal, we subject them to reciprocal antisocial behavior, i.e. prison. If I were to imprison someone innocent, such as my neighbor’s son, in the basement of my house, this would be viewed as downright sociopathic. Since the neighbor’s son is presumed to be innocent, this behavior is seen as highly non-reciprocal and motivates others to reciprocate the antisociality in order to make it fairer.

The reciprocal nature of sociality is due to our urge to make situations fair. Fairness is about reciprocity. This underlies part of the problem for drug users. Using substances is often seen as antisocial behavior by the public. This leads many people to treat the drug user poorly, as if to punish them for their antisocial behavior. Since this punishment is antisocial, the drug users will now have fuel that compels them to react antisocially towards judgmental non-users. This scenario evolves into a culture war. In a strange way, users and nonusers have become symbols for political parties in the drug war.

Polarization is the tendency towards reciprocal antagonism. What this means is that we form antagonistic or disagreement-centric relationships with our perceived opposition. In these relationships, there is a strong tendency for us to bias in favor of our ingroup and against the outgroup. In these situations, the antisocial tendency towards the perceived enemy is normalized. From the perspective of the drug user, the judgmental nonuser can be viewed as a hater that deserves reciprocity of antisocial behavior. Our urge to fairness and the differences in perception of what is fair or unfair can lead to these dynamics.

Often times, it isn’t that a person tries drugs despite all of their community opposing drug use. Instead, it is more likely that people are part of a community that accepts or even uses drugs themselves, or that an individual has fallen out with their community who opposes drug use. Once a person is outcast from their community, the obligation to follow their rules and norms goes out the window. This newfound freedom means that trying drugs no longer threatens their secure standing among their community, but rather, there is nothing to lose by trying drugs.

In some sense, being polarized from a community that opposes drugs, for any other reason, might also facilitate the use of drugs by the polarized individual. As an example, imagine a traditional conservative Christian American community that opposes drug use. Someone who becomes ostracized for homosexuality may then end up free from the rules set forth by that community. In this freedom, they will search for a new community to replace what was lost, as we are social creatures that desire community support. Those new communities will have different values and rules that are not confined to those of the ‘enemy’ community, in this case, the Christian American community.

Being free from traditional anti-drug societies gives us the freedom to question whether drug use is actually bad. What is considered antisocial is relative to the norms and values of the community. Without the influence of the community, our values can change and update based on what knowledge or beliefs we hold. In other cases, being ‘bad’ satisfies our urges to reciprocal Schadenfreude against the communities that have betrayed us. Drug use can become an expression of reciprocity for antisocial behavior, as can the many other antisocial tendencies of the drug user.

Now may be a good point to talk about antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). This is essentially the clinical term for what is colloquially referred to as sociopathy. ASPD involves a tendency towards antisocial behaviors like crime, norm violation, violence, and drug use. ASPD is associated with drug use. Due to this, individuals with ASPD likely find habitat in the non-conforming communities and those who violate other norms. They also likely try drugs easier because they feel less obligation to the social rules. Due to their antisocial nature, they will find refuge in the communities that allow their deviant behaviors to manifest without punishment.

But again, what is antisocial is relative to the community. People are likely not born antisocial. Instead, people might be born less sensitive to the pressures of conformity or with less ability to bond or have empathy for people. This may outcast them and facilitate their descent from ordinary society and into the counter cultures.

Even empathy seems to be saved for those we consider deserving. Again, consider the way we withhold empathy from violent criminals. Consider the polarized state of the political left and right. They often have little empathy for their opposition, meanwhile they are highly receptive to their own teammates. The most extreme state of polarization could be political war, in which both sides of a conflict very literally become violent sociopaths who are trying to serial kill each other in battle. We even see this in the drug war, where the judgmental nonuser side has decided that imprisonment, arguably a form of torture, is the appropriate action to deal with the violation of norms that drug use is considered to be.

Previously, I wrote an essay titled Tribalism of the Addict. In this essay, I detailed the evolution of antisocial tendencies that may emerge from drug use.

Due to the taboo nature of drug use, the user of substances is often driven to live in the shadows, concealing their use to prevent persecution. Incidentally, chronic lying and drug use are both associated with antisocial personality disorder. There are likely two sides of this problem, that someone who is antisocial will be more likely to use drugs due to chronically disregarding social rules and norms or that the drug user is forced to take on the symptoms of antisocial personality disorder to deal with real problems.

The drug user is forced to lie in order to protect themselves, which may facilitate a learning process for navigating the social space of chronic dishonesty. The drug user may become further distanced from those they lie to. The drug user may grow to resent the persecuting others who give the drug user pressure to lie. It is a truly unfair situation, one that likely further provokes stress-induced urges to consume the drug as a coping strategy.

Eventually, the individual who lives in the veil of lies may become desensitized to the negative feelings surrounding this lifestyle. Once this occurs, the individual may adapt the newfound strategy of deception to solve other problems in their life in their desensitized state, simply because the strategy is useful and the cost (the negative affect/guilt) is no longer preventing such behavioral evolutions. Once the person has accepted that they are ‘bad’ and internalized this into their identity, they may allow themselves to do other ‘bad’ things, because they are no longer feeling the reward of being a good person. They may then seek out alternative rewards through antisocial behavior once they have identified themselves as antisocial or immoral.

Another issue is that living in the shadows can lead an individual to feel frustrated and alone, which may lead them to seek out peers who they can be honest with, such as fellow drug users. The new group of peers may share this tendency to separate from previous social circles and also the feelings of resentment and rejection surrounding the experience. This may lead the group to bond by rejecting their persecutors, which may often be much of traditional society since drug use is widely stigmatized.

In essence, the connection between antisocial tendencies and drug use may stem from an evolution of an individual’s personality that emerges from their rejection from mainstream society. This experience essentially creates an ‘us-versus-them’ scenario, a ‘drug user against society’ scenario. Once the drug user has left the socially normal society, there is no longer the same obligation to follow the social norms and rules of that society. Instead, one can apply similar strategies that one has applied to their drug use, like concealing the rule-breaking behaviors.

These drug-using communities will also attract those who already break the rules as well. Even those who are not antisocial initially will be in close proximity to those who are naturally inclined toward antisocial behavior. The influence of the antisocial personalities on these communities will increase the general rate of normalized antisocial behaviors within these communities.

The Value of Empathy

The positive side is that the drug war seems to be waning to some degree. People are developing sympathy for drug users. Carl Hart, a respected neuroscientist, has come out suggesting that he is a ‘responsible user of heroin’. While he has faced pushback, the reception by the public seems to be somewhat good. This seems to be progress, although scenarios of culture war often work in tides, coming and going with time.

To understand addiction and dependency, we can look at a previous essay titled When Addiction is the Right Choice. This focuses on a different perspective than what we’ve been exploring in this article so far. Instead of looking at the political dynamics, this gets into the raw nitty gritty of the mindset of being an addict or being dependent on drugs.

Drugs can be used in a lot of different ways and even be addictive in different ways. You can build a life that is dependent on something that isn’t innate to your psychology. If you build such a life, to stop the drug you must essentially destroy your life and do something else potentially. Then your choice can become to maintain the addiction or live a ruined life.

This is most obvious in the case of stimulants and opioids which could be seen as performance enhancers in some ways. These drugs can often provide an actual utility to one’s life. Stimulants give motivation to do tasks that don’t provide enough motivation to produce action. The risk of using stimulants is that you could build a life in which you have a responsibility to constantly engage in such tasks and your ability to have motivation to do these tasks depends on the use of the drug. Opioids allow one to embrace induced suffering and conflicts beyond one’s ordinary capacity. The risk of using opioids is in building a life in which you frequently embrace conflicts that you would not normally be able to handle. Your ability to maintain your life becomes dependent on the consumption of the drug.

The darker side of the performance enhancement provided by these drugs comes when you are increasingly able to cope with the social side effects that occur because of the drug use. As you could imagine, this opens the doors to total ethical derangement. One could use drugs to numb the pain of hurting other people while on drugs. Though, I actually suspect that people’s values are not totally offline in most cases of drug use or maybe even addiction. We often see unempathetic and inconsiderate behaviors from those who use drugs heavily, but we also see nonusers having a deficit of empathy for users that isn’t dependent on the ingestion of any drug, but is closer in mechanism to political polarization. The stigma associated with drug use may produce such polarization and may even drive antisocial behaviors of users and nonusers towards each other. Not to mention, to become a user often means being already outcast from society or else committing yourself to acquire social hate due to the ever-present stigma. Some users may fall into the behavioral memes associated with addicts due to confirmation biases and stereotypes. Just believing in the meme that addiction makes one disregard their values might make users justify misbehavior by blaming the drug for their actions.

This idea that it isn’t only some arbitrary compulsion that must be maintained, but also one’s actual lifestyle is one common theme that is important for understanding addiction. No one really talks about it, but the addict might actually lose their job if they were to stop using drugs. The choice to go sober could ruin their lives. In this case, the choice to continue using the drug may actually be the best choice that the addict can make. Life without the drug could become too difficult, particularly if that life was created while on the drug. Even when one’s drug use has negative effects, stopping could be even more problematic. For those of you who are using coffee to perform at your job on a daily basis, you might actually understand the difficulty of suddenly ceasing use.

Even if one’s life wasn’t built while on drugs, the existence of tolerance to the drug can lead one into seemingly inescapable situations. In the midst of addiction, one reaches a point where the effects of the drug are normalized, where one’s baseline state creeps back in as one becomes used to the effects. While taking the drug might initially provide utility, later on, the drug provides only a maintenance of baseline functioning. At this point, the cessation of the drug is like an antidrug. The effects and the associated utility are also reversed. Stopping the drug is a performance diminisher. This essentially means that addictive drugs that provide utility in daily life provide a window of opportunity for which an individual could successfully use the drug as a performance enhancer. It might even be possible to become responsibly addicted to drugs if one has a dedicated time span to allow themselves to quit without repercussions. Whether or not this is practical is debatable and would likely have to be studied in detail.

Due to stigma, someone who uses a drug and becomes an addict cannot go to their boss and explain the situation and ask for time off to recover. The same goes for personal responsibilities set by the individual’s social network or school or family and so on. Addiction could be far more solvable if we actually addressed this problem. Stigma is one of the factors maintaining people’s addictions. If you express this stigma, you are also promoting the existence of addiction. Though, the stigma might act as a preventative strategy to keep people away from ever trying drugs.

The situation gets more complex when one is using drugs for problems other than school or work, such as trauma. Unfortunately, traumas are often pretty individualized experiences which means that it will be harder for outsiders to understand or empathize with. In these cases, a person might even just use drugs and lie in bed (there are also reason besides trauma that someone would do this). There are numerous problems that drugs could help people deal with that are barely even describable. One might be afraid to go in public and use the drug to go outside. The same individual might use the drug to cope with the guilt of staying inside to avoid going in public and taking care of responsibilities. This is only one example and the list of other examples would be endless.

In order to fix these problems, we should create situations for which continued use of the drug is actually the wrong choice to make, particularly from the users’ perspective. This would primarily involve giving an individual space to quit, which is kind of what rehabilitation does. Another problem here is that the drug use may have been inspired by the utility the drug provides in situations that the addict faces regularly. In this case, those specific issues would have to be dealt with. So for example, in the example of being afraid of going out in public, the person would need to learn to enter public without the drug. In that case, rehabilitation is clearly not a solution.”

. . .

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2 thoughts on “The Drug War and User Culture

  1. Hello.

    I’ve been a fan of your work for sometime. In the past few years a favorite post of yours (Xenotypy) has become password protected. I would really like to revisit the material. Is there a chance it could be rereleased or I be made privvy to the password.




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