BBC Radio 4′s eclectic sociology programme Thinking Allowed recently had a fascinating discussion on how drug users learn to experience the effects of a substance and how society has an influence on the personal drug experience.
We tend to assume that drugs have fairly fixed effects but sociology has a long history of studying how users learn to manage and steer the effects of particular drugs.
The programme touches on Becker’s classic study [pdf] ‘Becoming a Marihuana User’ where he charted the informal social initiation into dope smoking in 1960s America.
Importantly, it wasn’t just the rituals that accompanied the smoking that were socially acquired, but also knowledge about what ‘counted’ as the enjoyable aspects of the drug, how to steer the effects and so on.
This is known to be particularly important for psychedelic drugs, with the so-called set and setting having a big influence over the likelihood of having an enjoyable trip.
However, the same applies to drugs such as alcohol, where the effects of having a drink varies between cultures, largely ascribed to the beliefs each culture instils about what are the likely and permissible effects of drunkenness.
This was tackled in another sociological classic, David Mandelbaum’s 1965 paper ‘Alcohol and culture’ where he described the different effects of alcohol in cultures around the world.
However, if you’re looking for a punchy overview of the field, the Social Issues Research Centre has a great page on the social and cultural aspects of drinking which I highly recommend.
These situation or culture specific effects have been tackled on the cognitive and neural level, but unfortunately I can’t access one of the key papers in the field [update: pdf], although the abstract has the main punchline:
In situations involving inter-neuronal events, these processes of adjustment may take the form of learned modifications that can be re-evoked on future occasions by events that co-occurred at the time of the original modifications.
Sensitization, defined as the enhancement of a directly elicited drug effect, though adaptive, appears to represent facilitation within a system, making the effect easier to elicit on future occasions.
Like tolerance, sensitization of a drug effect can become linked to the events that co-occurred when the effect was originally elicited, making it possible for sensitization to come under selective event control.
In other words, the article argues that learned associations have an effect on the overall experience of repeat drug taking. Of course culture can create learned associations, but changing the context can also mean certain associations are no longer triggered, leaving a great deal of room for situation specific effects.
UPDATE: Thanks to commenter dangermusic for finding a copy of the ‘key paper’ noted above. I’ve added a link into the text above or you can just grab it here as a pdf.