Intoxication and US Culture: An Interview with Craig Reinarman

by Ingrid Walker

Published April 2016


This issue of NANO: New American Notes Online explores intoxication in ways that differ from typical drug and public health discourses, and popular representations. Often discussions about the experience of intoxication are sidestepped in social and academic discourse. When we do address intoxication, it is fraught with social tensions related to harm to the self, others, and the community. Craig Reinarman has consistently included normalized substance use and pleasure in his exploration of issues related to substance use. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with him about what Huxley called “the principal appetites of the soul.”

Professor Reinarman’s research and professional service have focused on drug use, addiction, law, treatment, and policy. He is the author of American States of Mind (1987) and co-author of Cocaine Changes: The Experience of Using and Quitting (1991) and Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice (1997). In his most recent book, Expanding Addiction: Critical Essays (2014), Reinarman and co-editor Robert Granfield highlight the historical and cultural interstices through which the disease concept of addiction has been typically constructed while offering a critique of the reductionist “chronic relapsing brain disease” model. He co-edited the New Social Studies on Alcohol and Drugs book series (SUNY Press) and has served as a consultant to the World Health Organization’s Program on Substance Abuse in Geneva, Switzerland.

Ingrid Walker: In “Policing Pleasure: Food, Drugs, and the Politics of Ingestion,” you write:

There are surprising similarities between the pleasures of food and the pleasures of drugs, as well as overlapping policy issues. Moreover, both food and drugs now face a number of potentially troubling issues: medicalization is casting an ever-wider net over the behavior of citizens. (54)

Is public discourse about the pleasures of food and drink in the United States a potential model for addressing other psychoactive pleasures? What is it about drugs, pleasure, and intoxication that makes them so difficult to discuss in this country?

Craig Reinarman: Yes, I think we would enrich public discourse about drug use and drug problems if we compared them to other substances that give pleasure, like food. I’ve been frustrated over the years with U.S. temperance culture. We are the country that went farthest in trying to ban various substances. We’re also the only ones who have tried national prohibition of alcoholic beverages. The fears that drove temperance and prohibition continue to shape the foundation of our conversations, putting boundaries around what’s possible to say.

The result is that we have a very impoverished way of talking about these things, leaving little cultural space between abstention and addiction. But national prevalence surveys and many other studies consistently show that even most cocaine and heroin users are more like those who have a glass or two of wine—they are controlled users. If that’s true of heroin, it’s got to be more so of alcohol and other more easily controlled drugs. This is not to suggest that people should go out and try “hard drugs”; it is only to say that the cultural imaginary of the depraved dope fiend is a crude stereotype that does not fit the majority of drug users.

IW: I live in Washington state where the legalization of marijuana over the last two years is starting to change the culture. Discussing marijuana use and enjoyment is becoming normalized. I notice that fewer people express concerns about marijuana now that it’s available and used.

CR: The demographic bulge of baby boomers is coming into more social positions of leadership and the majority of baby boomers have had experience with cannabis—well over 100 million Americans over the age of 12 have at least tried it. For that reason and others, the scare tactics that have been deployed since Reefer Madness in the 1930s tend to fall on increasingly deaf ears now. The harshness of prohibition, the skyrocketing of marijuana arrests under Clinton (750,000 arrested for possession every year for many years), is no longer seen as acceptable. A movement has risen from the harshness, injustice, racism, and trampling of human rights in drug law enforcement. Most Americans now know that this is overkill. To paraphrase Jimmy Carter, who put it well: we don’t want the medicine to be worse than the disease.

So the drug policy reform movement has growing support from what I call a “cultural and political constituency” of people who have used drugs and know people who use drugs and have normal lives. That movement now has more organizations with more members and more money than ever before in history, and it has been changing the conversation by getting counter-arguments out there.

All of this is starting to add up to some real political momentum. The Drug Policy Alliance and other allies in that coalition have had some successes like Washington, Colorado, and now Oregon and Alaska, and of course in the 23 states and the District of Columbia that have passed medical marijuana laws. These organizations have dragged these issues out into the light of day where it’s possible for people to talk differently about drugs.

IW: What hasn’t been as prevalent in Washington is a discussion of the pleasures of marijuana use or intoxication. It has been essential for the reform movement to focus on the social injustice of the drug war, but that context makes it especially difficult to focus on pleasure.

CR: Some people in the drug policy reform movement have focused on pleasure. Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance and NORML, for example, has long maintained that cannabis use is “a simple pleasure like having a beer after work” and that it’s not the state’s business to interfere with that.

The question is, who can say this most credibly? Drinkers would be an important group who could speak out about the motivations for their use. Alcoholic beverages are not about thirst quenching. Drinkers don’t have to hide behind the food conversation, they can say “We like the buzz. It’s fun.”

Howard Becker wrote about this more than half a century ago in a piece about the marijuana tax act. He focused on how the testimony given in the congressional hearings could simply presuppose certain moral values having to do with the Protestant work ethic. His point was that anything done just for pleasure was considered morally suspect, that there is something inherently sinful about pleasure for the sake of pleasure.

But, in the long run, drug prohibition is doomed because it cuts against the grain of consumer culture. Everything else in our culture is geared toward indulging and gratification. Our economic health depends on it. Prohibition tries to deny this and its message increasingly fails.

For a long time, cigarette advertising was focused on pleasure. “Alive with Pleasure,” Newport cigarettes’ tagline, said it. That assumption of pleasure drives mass consumption culture but is at loggerheads with the Protestant work ethic. At work, we are told to keep our noses to the grindstone, but the rest of the time we are encouraged to enjoy, to gratify ourselves. Right now, that consumer culture is also in conflict with growing insecurities: economic inequality, the hollowing out of the middle class, and lost jobs. A larger and larger share of population can no longer participate in the pleasures of mass consumer culture. So there may be a way in which mass consumer culture and the joys of consumption come up against the new economic insecurity. But more broadly, prohibitionist discourse cuts against everything advertising is selling us and the culture that has grown up around that.


Newport cigarette advertisement, Stanford School of Medicine database (ca 1991)


IW: In “On the Cultural Domestication of Intoxicants,” you write: “We fret so much about the iniquity of addiction . . . that it is easy to lose sight of the ubiquity of intoxication in human history.” (153) What is it about pleasure that makes it difficult to discuss? And what makes intoxication an even more challenging topic?

CR: I understand drinking and other forms of drug use as a release from the pressures of modern life, from the many demands for our labor and our attention, for our competence and responsibility. So unless people have some sort of forum in which they can loosen up a little, the pressures of modern life are likely to find less healthy forms of release. The Scandinavian criminologist Nils Christie once observed, "To fight inebriety, we will have to make our societies less sober" (19). He did not mean we need to go out and get intoxicated all the time but, rather, that we have to loosen up, socially.

Part of the difficulty is inventing a vocabulary through which this can be articulated. The linguistic root of intoxication is poison; ideally, we need to think of a better word. Andrew Weil suggested “consciousness alteration” although that does not seem to have stuck. There are many ways in which modern capitalist society makes available a huge array of tools to change how we feel. The boundary between going to an amusement park or a climbing gym, or therapy, or yoga and having beer, wine, ecstasy, cannabis and all the rest is not a bright line but a blurry one. The notion that we could take a drug and change our mood did not begin with the hippies of Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s; it started with the pharmaceutical industry and psychiatry. So the notion that you can carve out a small subset of drug use practices for prohibition doesn’t make a lot of sense.

My colleague Peter Cohen makes the argument that what people are talking about when they talk about addiction is the unusually strong bond between bodies/minds and a particular substance. Some of those bonds are ratified by society; others are stigmatized. But the idea that one group of substances is inherently and distinctly dangerous is nonsense.

IW: In a period of decriminalization and changing public policy, how might Americans re-conceptualize intoxication to understand its attraction, value, and expressions better?

CR: If you talk about drug use as a cultural practice, rather than deviant or criminal behavior, it can be seen as part of a larger set of cultural practices, things people do and have done in all cultures and all epochs of history. If you understand it in that way, it is not attached to a sense of pathology and does not have a valence of fear. Another way to make this point is to recognize that illicit drug use has been “normalized,” a term I got from Parker, Aldridge, and Measham’s book, Illegal Leisure (1998), on adolescent drinking and drug use in the U.K. They offer strong evidence from large representative samples that most young people have used drugs, may do so again, and that most of the people they know feel the same way. That is, drug use is no longer a fringe activity of deviant and marginalized people but a cultural practice of educated, employed, and engaged people who live otherwise rather normal lives. The majority of them do not subordinate their life rhythms to their drug use; they subordinate their drug use to their life rhythms.

Michel Foucault’s concept of “technologies of the self” is useful here. It means things we can do to ourselves to change our awareness, how we feel, think, and do. He generally used this notion to call attention to the ways in which modern individuals are encouraged to internalize social controls, but his definition is broader than repression. Drugs, it seems to me, are technologies of the modern self – whether for medicine when we are sick, anti-depressants like Prozac, anti-despondents like crack, ecstasy at a rave, or the quotidian pleasures of wine with dinner, a beer after work, or passing a joint among friends.

Thinking of drugs as technologies of the self and the various forms of drug use as cultural practices can be helpful because it carves out discursive space between abstention and addiction, cultural space in which the use of such technologies of the self is normalized. In that sort of cultural space, the boundaries between licit and illicit, practice and problem, are softer, but that does not mean anything goes. It would then be possible to articulate norms that moderate substance use and keep it within bounds. Within that sort of normative architecture we can expect people to behave responsibly, which can work to everyone’s advantage. For example, my colleague Sheila Murphy has culled a certain piece of wisdom from hundreds of interviews with serious drug users, which she summarizes this way: “If you really like drugs, then you can’t do too much of them because then you’ll have to give them up” (personal communication). This is a moderating norm that comes from people who like to get high, not a punitive law imposed on such people by the state. Given the widespread failures and huge costs of punitive prohibition, attending to the organic social controls invented by users themselves is the only long run solution to our drug problems.

IW: I thought your argument for the domestication of substances helped uncouple the discussion of pleasure and intoxication from what has been an almost essentialist relationship with addiction. Are there are other related factors that would help support a conversation about intoxication and pleasure in substance use that might not be linked to addiction? In other words, aside from addiction, what are we afraid of in talking about intoxication?

CR: It’s a great question.

I teach a course called Drugs and Society and I walk into the first lecture and list some of the words used for intoxication: bombed, blasted, smashed, shit-faced, etc. Then I ask, what are the other words you associate with substance use? When students have called out their contributions and we’ve accumulated a long list, I tell them they’ve barely scratched the surface, that there are more words for drunk than for anything else, that Benjamin Franklin listed 200 words for drunk centuries ago.

Then I point out to them a curious thing: the majority of these words talk about the destruction of ordinary waking consciousness as a good thing. Why do we so often talk about the destruction of ordinary consciousness as a good thing?

Later in that opening lecture, I read students a long list of drug war horror stories that suggest the perverse lengths to which the U.S. has gone to suppress drug use to get the students to think about what sorts of fears motivate this and how those fears are constructed, cultivated, sustained, and mobilized. I compare the history of drug scares in the U.S. (since the anti-alcohol hysteria of the 1820s) with drug control in other modern industrial democracies—none of which has gone to our extreme. Why? What is it about American society and its history that make our culture uniquely vulnerable to fears of altered states of consciousness? The short answer is that in the culture of the “self-made man” (and woman), self-control is inordinately important; so anything that is thought to loosen the grip of self-control (drugs) is likely to be inordinately feared.

Various forms of intoxication render the rational mind momentarily useless. Getting in touch with the non-rational side of ourselves through episodic intoxication is a kind of escape from rationality: you visit that other side. The drug warriors say this is a horror to be avoided at any cost; drug users say it is pleasurable and even functional.

At its root, our fear is the fear of letting go, losing control. That’s a starting place. And then you have a lot of fears that have to do with overdosing or other negative outcomes of drug use. The Center for Disease Control has noted the quadrupling of opiate overdose deaths (more often from prescribed painkillers these days). The news is full of these stories. So the fear is not merely invented; drugs can, as I remind the students, hurt you.

It is important to consider the context in which our fears take hold. Drug scares make sense to a broad swath of people because of their precarious position in society—growing inequality, declining economic security, the hollowing out of the middle class—all of which makes for anxiety about falling, about losing what we have. In Fear of Falling, Barbara Ehrenreich, mentions drugs in passing, but focuses on how we cling to whatever class status we’ve managed to achieve. Such insecurities are particularly acute at the moment, so fears about drugs and addiction should be interpreted against this backdrop.

Another facet of fear of drug use is that through addiction someone you love will be lost to you. Or, that you will be lost to yourself. It is a rational fear, though often exaggerated. The media and politicians speak about all this in terms of worst-case scenarios because that is what attracts readers, viewers, and voters. But this approach tends to leave us with a preferred inference: that we can avoid addiction only by abstinence.

Ironically, one of the great advances of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was to shift the public discourse of prohibition and temperance away from the notion that anyone who puts the bottle to their lips would become addicted and face disaster. AA pointed out that most people can and do drink in moderation, but that some people are especially reactive to alcohol and find it very difficult to drink in moderation. The point is that much more is going on in addiction than mere molecules of a drug meeting receptor sites in the human brain or body. Sadly, we tend to lose sight of this in favor of demonizing the substances themselves.

IW: Pekka Sulkenen writes, “The real challenge in cultural studies of drug and alcohol use is to theorize intoxication itself.” (254) What are the critical aspects of intoxication overlooked by scholars?

CR: Sulkenen is right. For one thing, there are different repertoires of intoxication in different cultures, some leading to drinking-to-drunkenness (e.g., Russia) and others exerting a moderating influence (wine in the Mediterranean region). Craig MacAndrew and Robert Edgerton long ago demonstrated that while drinking everywhere alters consciousness, the behaviors that are thought to follow from that alteration differ radically from culture to culture. The same point holds for other forms of drug use and intoxication. Their core point was that the consequences of intoxication are not given in the chemistry; they are a matter of culture and learning.

One key criterion for problematic drinking and drug use is the loss of control. That fear of losing control is central to thinking about intoxication. When we think about substances that we haven’t used, it’s hard to appreciate that we can come back from intoxication without losing ourselves. For many people, the whole point of getting intoxicated for a couple of hours is precisely to lose, or at least loosen, control—temporarily. The trick is to properly organize the settings in which this occurs so as to reduce risk and harm (no drinking and driving, etc.).

Some people are frightened by the experience of alterity. If you have a fragile sense of who you are—and society as currently organized makes lots of us fragile in this way—then the idea of calling that into question in an altered state is likely to be scary. Still, other people seek and like it, sometimes more than they like themselves when sober. That can be a risk factor, but it is not the case for most users of most drugs most of the time.

The brain disease model says that chronic drug abuse rots the brain, but that picks up the story after chronic drug use has taken place. What about all the other factors that have led up to chronic drug abuse in the first place? In Expanding Addiction: Critical Essays, Robert Granfield and I critique the conceptual imperialism of addiction discourse, its essentialism and biological reductionism. Looking at those other sociological and cultural ingredients is crucial if we really want to understand the drug use practices of the majority as well as the extreme of addiction.

IW: I would like to close with a personal observation and related question. When I am among friends and family, enjoying our intoxicants of choice, I notice that being “intoxicated” is rarely on my mind. It makes me wonder if, for most controlled substance users, intoxication is not an extreme point but, rather, something that is intrinsic to the perceived enjoyment of a substance. In your own experience, do you find that you see other people’s practices as “intoxication” and your own as “just having fun?” In other words, do you find that you personalize “intoxication,” or is it what happens to other people?

CR: My experience is like yours in that I rarely feel intoxicated and almost never think of my own state of consciousness as intoxicated. Personally, I tend to find the word “intoxication” a bit extreme for quotidian forms of drug use. I see it as referring to being drunk or seriously stoned, not as enjoying a mild buzz from, say, a glass or two of wine or a hit or two of cannabis. But I don’t see other people’s drug use as more extreme than my own. Most ingestion of so-called intoxicants is a rather mundane pleasure.


Works Cited

Becker, Howard. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Free P, 1963. Print.

Christie, Nils. “Drugs in Dry Societies.” Drugs and Drug Control, Scandinavian Studies in Criminology 8 (1987): 13-21. Print.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. Fear of Falling. New York: Pantheon, 1989. Print.

Granfield, Robert, and Craig Reinarman, eds. Expanding Addiction: Critical Essays. New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

MacAndrew, Craig and Robert B. Edgerton. Drunken Comportment: A Social Explanation (1969). Clinton Corners, NY: Eliot Werner, 2003. Print.

Parker, Howard J., Judith Aldridge, and Fiona Measham. Illegal Leisure: The Normalization of Adolescent Recreational Drug Use. New York: Routledge, 1998. Print.

Reinarman, Craig. “On the Cultural Domestication of Intoxicants.” Intoxication and Society: Problematic Pleasures of Drugs and Alcohol. London: Palgrave McMillan, 2012. 153-171. Print.

---. “Policing Pleasure: Food, Drugs, and the Politics of Ingestion.” Gastronomica 7.3 (2007): 53-61. Print.

Sulkunen, Pekka. “Between Culture and Nature: Intoxication in Cultural Studies of Alcohol and Drug Use.” Contemporary Drug Problems 29.2 (2002): 253-276. Print.



P. Lorillard. Newport cigarette advertisement (ca 1991). Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising. Stanford School of Medicine database. n.d. 23 Jan. 2016. < 20Sports&subtheme_name=Water%20Sports>