Becoming a marihuana user*

by Howard S. Becker

The use of marihuana is and has been the focus of a good deal of attention on the part of both scientists and laymen. One of the major problems students of the practice have addressed themselves to has been the identification of those individual psychological traits which differentiate marihuana users from nonusers and which are assumed to account for the use of the drug. That approach common in the study of behavior categorized as deviant, is based on the premise that the presence of a given kind of behavior in an individual can best be explained as the result of some trait which predisposes or motivates him to engage in the behavior.1

This study is likewise concerned with accounting for the presence or absence of marihuana use in an individual’s behavior. It starts, however, from a different premise: That the presence of a given kind of behavior is the result of a sequence of social experiments during which the person acquires a conception of the meaning of the behavior, and perceptions and judgments of objects and situations, all of which make the activity possible and desirable. Thus, the motivation or disposition to engage in the activity is built up in the course of learning to engage in it and does not antedate this learning process. For such a view it is not necessary to identify those “traits” which “cause” the behavior. * Paper read at the meetings of the Midwest Sociological Society in Omaha Nebraska, April 25, 1953. The research on which this paper is based was done while I was a member of the stab of the Chicago Narcotics Survey, a study done by the Chicago Area Project, Inc., under a grant from the National Mental Health Institute. My thanks to Solomon Kobrin, Harold Firestone, Henry McKay, and Anselm Strauss, who read and discussed with me earlier versions of this paper. 1. See, as examples of this approach, the following: Eli Marcowitz and Henry J. Meyers, “The Marihuana Addict in the Army,” War Medicine, VI (December, 1944), 328–91; Herbert S. Gaskill, “Marihuana, an Intoxicant,” American Journal of Psychiatry, CII (September, 1945), 202–4; Sol Charen and Luis Perelman, “Personality Studies of Marihuana Addicts,” American Journal of Psychiatry, CII (March, 1946), 674–82. 2. This approach stems from George Herbert Mead’s discussion of objects in Mind, Self and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934), pp. 277-80. 3. Cf. Roger Adorns “Marihuana,” Bulletins of the New York Academy of Medicine, XVIII (November, 1942), 705-30. 4. Cf . Lawrence Kolb, “Marihuana,” Federal Probation, II (July, 1938), 22-25; and Walter Bromberg, ’’Marihuana: A Psychiatric Study,” Journal of the American Medical Association, CXIII (July 1, 1939), 11. Instead, the problem becomes one of describing the set of changes in the person’s conception of the activity and of the experience it provides for him.2

This paper seeks to describe the sequence of changes in attitude and experience which lead to the use of marihuana for pleasure. Marihuana does not produce addiction, as do alcohol and the opiate drugs; there is no withdrawal sickness and no ineradicable craving for the drug.3 The most frequent pattern of use might be termed “recreational.” The drug is used occasionally for the pleasure the user finds in it, a relatively casual kind of behavior in comparison with that connected with the use of addicting drugs. The term “use for pleasure” is meant to emphasize the noncompulsive and casual character of the behavior. It is also meant to eliminate from consideration here those few cases in which marihuana is used for its prestige value only, as a symbol that one is a certain kind of person, with no pleasure at all being derived from its use.

The analysis presented here is conceived of as demonstrating the greater explanatory usefulness of the kind of theory outlined above as opposed to the predispositional theories now current. This may be seen in two ways: (1) predispositional theories cannot account for that group of users (whose existence is admitted)4 who do not exhibit the trait or traits considered to cause the behavior and (2) such theories cannot account for the great variability over time of a given individual’s behavior with reference to the drug. The same person will at one stage be unable to use the drug for pleasure, at a later stage be able and willing to do so, and, still later, again be unable to use it in this way. These changes, difficult to explain from a predispositional or motivational theory are readily understandable in terms of changes in the individual’s conception of the drug as is the existence of “normal” users.

The study attempted to arrive at a general statement of the sequence of changes in individual attitude and experience which have always occurred when the individual has become willing and able to use marihuana for pleasure and which have not occurred or not been permanently maintained when this is not the case. This generalization is stated in universal terms in order that negative cases may be discovered and used to revise the explanatory hypothesis.5 5. The method used is that described by Alfred R. Lindesmith in his Opiate Addiction (Bloomington: Principia Press, 1947), chap. i. I would like also to acknowledge the important role Lindesmith’s work played in shaping my thinking about the genesis of marihuana use. 6. Most of the interviews were done by the author. I am grateful to Solomon Kobrin and Harold Finestone for allowing me to make use of interviews done by them.

Fifty interviews with marihuana users from a variety of social background and present positions in society constitute the data from which the generalization was constructed and against which it was tested.6 The interviews focused on the history of the person’s experience with the drug, seeking major changes in his attitude towards it and in his actual use of it and the reasons for these changes. The final generalization is a statement of that sequence of change in attitude which occurred in every case known to me in which the person came to use marihuana for pleasure. Until a negative case is found, it may be considered as an explanation of all cases of marihuana use for pleasure. In addition, changes from use to nonuse are shown to be related to similar changes in conception, and in each case it is possible to explain variations in the individual’s behavior in these terms.

This paper covers only a portion of the natural history of an individual’s use of marihuana,7 7. I hope to discuss elsewhere other stages in this natural story. starting with the person having arrived at the point of willingness to try marihuana. He knows that others use it to “get high,” but he does not know what this means in concrete terms. He is curious about the experience, ignorant of what it may turn out to be, and afraid that it may be more than he has bargained for. The steps outlined below, if he undergoes them all and maintains the attitudes developed in them, leave him willing and able to use the drug for pleasure when the opportunity presents itself.


The novice does not ordinarily get high the first time he smokes marihuana, and several attempts are usually necessary to induce this state. One explanation of this may be that the drug is not smoked “properly,” that is, in a way that insures sufficient dosage to produce real symptoms of intoxication. Most users agree that it cannot be smoked like tobacco if one is to get high:

Take in a lot of air, you know, and … I don’t know how to describe it, you don’t smoke it like a cigarette, you draw in a lot of air and get it deep down in your system and then keep it there. Keep it there as long as you can.

Without the use of some such technique8 8. A pharmacologist notes that this ritual is in fact an extremely efficient way of getting the drug into the blood stream (R. P. Walton, Marihuana: America’s New Drug Problem [Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1938], p. 48). the drug will produce no effects, and the user will be unable to get high:

The trouble with people like that [who are not able to get high] is that they’re just not smoking it right, that’s all there is to it. Either they’re not holding it down long enough, or they’re getting to much air and not enough smoke, or the other way around or something like that. A lot of people just don’t smoke it right, so naturally nothing’s gonna happen.

If nothing happens, it is manifestly impossible for the user to develop a conception of the drug as an object which can be used for pleasure, and use will therefore not continue. The first step in the sequence of events that must occur if the person is to become a user is that he must learn to use the proper smoking technique in order that this use of the drug will produce some effects in terms of which his conception of it can change. … he must learn to use the proper smoking technique …

Such a change is, as might be expected, a result of the individual’s participation in groups in which marihuana is used. In them the individual learns the proper way to smoke the drug. This may occur through direct teaching:

I was smoking like I did an ordinary cigarette. He said, “No, don’t do it like that.” He said, “Suck it, you know, draw in and hold it in your lungs till you … for a period of time.”

I said, “Is there any limit of time to hold it?”

He said, “No, just till you feel that you want to let it out, let it out.” So I did that three or four times.

Many new users are ashamed to admit ignorance and, pretending to know already, must learn through the more indirect means of observation and imitation:

I came on like I had turned on [smoked marihuana] many times before, you know. I didn’t want to seem like a punk to this cat. See, like I didn’t know the first thing abut it – how to smoke it, or what was going to happen, or what. I just watched him like a hawk – I didn’t take my eyes off him for a second, because I wanted to do everything just as he did it. I watched how he held it, how he smoked it and everything. Then when he gave it to me I Just came on cool, as though I knew exactly what the score was. I held it like he did and took a poke just the way he did.

No person continued marihuana use for pleasure without learning a technique that supplied sufficient dosage for the effects of the drug to appear. Only when this was learned was it possible for a conception of the drug as an object which could be used for pleasure to emerge. Without such a conception marihuana use was considered meaningless and did not continue.


Even after he learns the proper smoking technique, the new user may not get high and thus not form a conception of the drug as something which can be used for pleasure.

A remark made by a user suggested the reason for this difficulty in getting high and pointed to the next necessary step on the road to being a user:

I was told during an interview, ’’As a matter of fact, I’ve seen a guy who was high out of his mind and didn’t know it.”

I expressed disbelief: “How can that be, man?”

The interviewee said, “Well, it’s pretty strange, I’ll grant you that, but I’ve seen it. This guy got on with me, claiming that he’d never got high, one of those guys, and he got completely stoned. And he kept insisting that he wasn’t high. So I had to prove to him that he was.”

What does this mean? It suggests that being high consists of two elements: the presence of symptoms caused by marihuana use and the recognition of these symptoms and their connection by the user with this use of the drug. It is not enough, that is, that the effects be present; they alone do not automatically provide the experience of being high. The user must be able to point them out to himself and consciously connect them with his having smoked marihuana before he can have this experience. Otherwise, regardless of be actual effects produced, he considers that the drug has had no effect on him; “I figured it either had no effect on me or other people were exaggerating its effect on them, you know. I thought it was probably psychological, see.” Such persons believe that the whole thing is an illusion and that the wish to be high leads the user to deceive himself into believing that something is happening when in fact, nothing is. They do not continue marihuana use, feeling that “it does nothing” for them.

Typically, however, the novice has faith (developed from his observation of users who do get high) that the drug actually will produce some new experience and continues to experiment with it until it does. His failure to get high worries him, and he is likely to ask more experienced users or provoke comments from them about it. In such conversations he is made aware of specific details of his experience which he may not have noticed or may have noticed but failed to identify as symptoms of being high:

I didn’t get high the first time… . I don’t think I held it in long enough. I probably let it out, you know, you’re a little afraid. The second time I wasn’t sure, and he [smoking companion] told me, like I asked him for some of the symptoms or something, how would I know, you know… . So he told me to sit on a stool. I sat on – think I sat on a bar stool – and he said, “Let your feet hang,” and then when I got down my feet were real cold, you know.

And I started feeling it, you know. That was the first time. And then about a week after that, sometime pretty close to it, I really got on. That was the first time I got on a big laughing kick, you know. Then I really knew I was on.

One symptom of being high is an intense hunger. In the next case the novice becomes aware of this and gets high for the first time:

They were just laughing the hell out of me because like I was eating so much. I just scoffed [ate] so much food, and they were just laughing at me, you know. Sometimes I’d be looking at them, you know, wondering why they’re laughing, you know, not knowing what I was doing. [Well, did they tell you why they were laughing eventually?] Yeah, yeah, I come back, “Hey, man, what’s happening?” Like, you know, like I’d ask, “What’s happening?” and all of a sudden I feel weird, you know. “Man, you’re on, you know. You’re on pot [high on marihuana].” I said, “No, am I?” Like I don’t know what’s happening.

The learning may occur in more indirect ways:

I heard little remarks that were made by other people. Somebody said, “My legs are rubbery,” and I can’t remember all the remarks that were made because I was very attentively listening for all the cues for what I was supposed to feel like.

The novice, then, eager to have his feeling, picks up from other users some concrete referents of the term “high” and applies these notions to his own experience. The new concepts make it possible for him to locate these symptoms among his own sensations and to point out to himself a “something different” in his experience that he connects with drug use. It is only when he can do this that he is high. In the next case, the contrast between two successive experiences of a user makes clear the crucial importance of the awareness of the symptoms of being high and re-emphasizes the important role of interaction with other users in acquiring the concepts that make this awareness possible:

[Did you get high the first time you turned on?] Yeah, sure. Although, come to think of it, I guess I really didn’t. I mean, like that first time it was more or less of a mild drunk. I was happy, I guess, you know what I mean. But I didn’t really know I was high, you know what I mean. It was only after the second time I got high that I realized I was high the first time. Then I knew that something different was happening.

[How did you know that?] How did I know? If what happened to me that night would of happened to you, you would’ve known, believe me. We played the first tune for almost two hours – one tune! Imagine, man! We got on the stand and played this one tune, we started at nine o’clock. When we got finished l looked at my watch, it’s a quarter to eleven. Almost two hours on one tune. And it didn’t seem like anything.

I mean, you know, it does that to you. It’s like you have much more time or something. Anyway, when I saw that, man, it was too much. I knew I must really be high or something if anything like that could happen. See, and then they explained to me that that’s what it did to you, you had a different sense of time and everything. So I realized that that’s what it was. I knew then. Like the first time, I probably felt that way, you know, but I didn’t know what’s happening.

It is only when the novice becomes able to get high in this sense that he will continue to use marihuana for pleasure. In every case in which use continued, the user had acquired the necessary concepts with which to express to himself the fact that he was experiencing new sensations caused by the drug. That is, for use to continue, it is necessary not only to use the drug so as to produce effects but also to learn to perceive these effects when they occur. In this way marihuana acquires meaning for the user as an object which can be used for pleasure.

With increasing experience the user develops a greater appreciation of the drug’s effects; he continues to learn to get high. He examines succeeding experiences closely, looking for new effects, making sure the old ones are still there. Out of this there grows a stable set of categories for experiencing the drug’s effects whose presence enables the user to get high with ease.

The ability to perceive the drug’s effects must be maintained if use is to continue; if it is lost, marihuana use ceases. Two kinds of evidence support this statement. First, people who become heavy users of alcohol, barbiturates, or opiates do not continue to smoke marihuana, largely because they lose the ability to distinguish between its effects and those of the other drugs.9 9. “Smokers have repeatedly stated that the consumption of whiskey while smoking negates the potency of the drug. They find it very difficult to get ‘high’ while drinking whiskey and because of that smokers will not drink while using the ‘weed’” (cf. New York City Mayor’s Committee on Marihuana, The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York (Lancaster, Pa.: Jacques Cattell Press, 1944, p. 13). They no longer know whether the marihuana gets them high. Second, in those few cases in which an individual uses marihuana in such quantities that he is always high, he is apt to get this same feeling that the drug has no effect on him, since the essential element of a noticeable difference between feeling high and feeling normal is missing. In such a situation, use is likely to be given up completely, but temporarily in order that the user may once again be able to perceive the difference.


One more step is necessary if the user who has now learned to get high is to continue use. He must learn to enjoy the effects he has just learned to experience. Marihuana-produced sensations are not automatically or necessarily pleasurable. The taste for such experience is a socially acquired one, not different in kind from acquired tastes for oysters or dry martinis. The user feels dizzy, thirsty; his scalp tingles; he misjudges time and distances; and so on. Are these things pleasurable? He isn’t sure. lf he is to continue marihuana use, he must decide that they are. Otherwise, getting high, while a real enough experience, will be an unpleasant one he would rather avoid.

The effects of the drug, when first perceived, may be physically unpleasant or at least ambiguous:

It started taking effect, and I didn’t know what was happening, you know, what it was, and I was very sick. I walked around the room, walking around the room trying to get off, you know; it just scared me at first, you know. I wasn’t used to that kind of feeling.

In addition, the novice’s naive interpretation of what is happening to him may further confuse and frighten him, particularly if he decides, as many do, that he is going insane:

I felt I was insane, you know. Everything people done to me just wigged me. I couldn’t hold a conversation, and my mind would be wandering, and I was always thinking, oh, I don’t know, weird things, like hearing music different… . I get the feeling that I can’t talk to anyone. I’ll goof completely.

Given these typically frightening and unpleasant first experiences, the beginner will not continue use unless he learns to redefine the sensations as pleasurable:

It was offered to me, and I tried it. I’ll tell you one thing. I never did enjoy it at all. I mean it was just nothing that I could enjoy. [Well, did you get high when you turned on?] Oh, yeah, I got definite feelings from it. But I didn’t enjoy them. I mean I got plenty of reactions, but they were mostly reactions of fear. [You were frightened?] Yes. I didn’t enjoy it. I couldn’t seem to relax with it, you know. If you can’t relax with a thing, you can’t enjoy it, I don’t think.

In other cases the first experiences were also definitely unpleasant, but the person did become a marihuana user. This occurred, however, only after a later experience enabled him to redefine the sensations as pleasurable:

[This man’s first experience was extremely unpleasant, involving distortion of spatial relationships and sounds, violent thirst, and panic produced by these symptoms.] After the panic time I didn’t turn on for about, I’d say, ten months to a year… . It wasn’t a moral thing; it was because I’d gotten so frightened, bein’ so high. An’ I didn’t want to go through that again, I mean, my reaction was, “Well, if this is what they call bein’ high, I don’t dig [like] it.” … So I didn’t turn on for a year almost, accounta that…

Well, my friends started, an’ consequently I started again. But I didn’t have any more, I didn’t have that same initial reaction, after I started turning on again.

[In interaction with his friends he became able to find pleasure in the effects of the drug and eventually became a regular user.]

In no case will use continue without such a redefinition of the effects as enjoyable.

This redefinition occurs, typically, in interaction with more experienced users who, in a number of ways, teach the novice to find pleasure in this experience which is at first so frightening.10 10. Charen and Perelman, op. cit., p. 679. They may reassure him as to the temporary character of the unpleasant sensations and minimize their seriousness, at the same time calling attention to the more enjoyable aspects. An experienced user describes how he handles newcomers to marihuana use:

Well, they get pretty high sometimes. The average person isn’t ready for that, and it is a little frightening to them sometimes. I mean, they’ve been high on lush [alcohol], and they get higher that way than they’ve ever been be- fore, and they don’t know what’s happening to them. Because they think they’re going to keep going up, up, up till they lose their minds or begin doing weird things or something. You have to like reassure them, explain to them that they’re not really flipping or anything, that they’re gonna be all right. You have to just talk them out of being afraid. Keep talking to them, reassuring, telling them it’s all right. And come on with your own story, you know: “The same thing happened to me. You’ll get to like that after awhile.” Keep coming on like that; pretty soon you talk them out of being scared. And besides they see you doing it and nothing horrible is happening to you, so that gives them more confidence.

The more experienced user may also teach the novice to regulate the amount he smokes more carefully, so as to avoid any severely uncomfortable symptoms while retaining the pleasant one. Finally, he teaches the new user that he can “get to like it after awhile.” He teaches him to regard those ambiguous experiences formerly defined as unpleasant as enjoyable. The older user in the following incident is a person whose tastes have shifted in this way, and his remarks have the effect of helping others to make a similar redefinition:

A new user had her first experience of the effects of marihuana and became frightened and hysterical. She “felt like she was half in and half out of the room” and experienced a number of alarming physical symptoms. One of the more experienced users present said, “She’s dragged because she’s high like that. I’d give anything to get that high myself. I haven’t been that high in years.”

In short, what was once frightening and distasteful becomes, after a taste for it is built up, pleasant, desired, and sought after. Enjoyment is introduced by be favorable definition of the experience that once acquires from others. Without this, use will not continue, for marihuana will not be for the user an object he can use for pleasure.

In addition to being a necessary step in becoming a user, this represents an important condition for continued use. It is quite common for experienced users suddenly to have an unpleasant or frightening experience, which they cannot define as pleasure- able, either because they have used a larger amount of marihuana than usual or because it turns out to be a higher-quality marihuana than they expected. The user has sensations which go beyond any conception he has of what being high is and is in much the same situation as the novice, uncomfortable and frightened. He may blame it on an overdose and simply be more careful in the future. But he may make this the occasion for a rethinking of his attitude toward the drug and decide that it no longer can give him pleasure. When this occurs and is not followed by a redefinition of the drug as capable of producing pleasure, use will cease.

The likelihood of such a redefinition occurring depends on the degree of the individual’s participation with other users. Where this participation is intensive, the individual is quickly talked out of his feeling against marihuana use. In the next case, on the other hand, the experience was very disturbing, and the aftermath of the incident cut the person’s participation with other users to almost zero. Use stopped for three years and began again only when a combination of circumstances, important among which was a resumption of ties with users, made possible a redefinition of the nature of the drug:

It was too much, I only made about four pokes, and I couldn’t even get it out of my mouth, I was so high, and I got real flipped. In the basement, you know, I just couldn’t stay in there anymore. My heart was pounding real hard, you know, and I was going out of my mind; I thought I was losing my mind completely. So I cut out of this basement, and this other guy, he’s out of his mind, told me, “Don’t, don’t leave me, man. Stay here.” And I couldn’t.

I walked outside, and it was five below zero, and I thought I was dying, and I had my coat open; I was sweating. I was perspiring. My whole insides were all … , and I walked about two blocks away, and I fainted behind a bush. I don’t know how long I laid there. I woke up, and I was feeling the worst, I can’t describe it at all, so I made it to a bowling alley, man, and I was trying to act normal, I was trying to shoot pool, you know, trying to act real normal, and I couldn’t lay and I couldn’t stand up and I couldn’t sit down, and I went up and laid down where some guys that spot pins lay down, and that didn’t help me, and I went down to a doctor’s office, I was going to go in there and tell the doctor to put me out of my misery … because my heart was pounding so hard, you know… . So then all week end I started flipping, seeing things there and going through hell, you know, all kinds of abnormal things … I just quit for a long time then.

[He went to a doctor who defined the symptoms for him as those of a nervous breakdown caused by “nerves” and “worries.” Although he was no longer using marihuana, he had some reoccurrences of the symptoms which led him to suspect that “it was all his nerves.”] So I just stopped worrying, you know; so it was about thirty-six months later I started making it again. I’d just take a few pokes, you know. [He first resumed use in the company of the same user-friend win whom he had been involved in the original incident.]

A person, then, cannot begin to use marihuana for pleasure, or continue its use for pleasure, unless he learns to define its effects as enjoyable, it becomes and remains an object which he conceives of as capable of producing pleasure.


In summary, an individual will be able to use marihuana for pleasure only when he goes through a process of learning to conceive of it as an object which can be used in this way. No one becomes a user without (1) learning to smoke the drug in a way which will produce real effects; (2) learning to recognize the effects and connect them with drug use (learning, in other words, to get high) ; and (3) learning to enjoy the sensations he perceives. In the course of this process he develops a disposition or motivation to use marihuana which was not and could not have been present when he began use, for it involves and depends on conceptions of the drug which could only grow out of the kind of actual experience detailed above. On completion of this process he is willing and able to use marihuana for pleasure.

He has learned, in short, to answer “Yes” to the question: “Is it fun?” The direction his further use of the drug takes depends on his being able to continue to answer “Yes” to this question and, in addition, on his being able to answer “Yes” to other questions which arise as he becomes aware of the implications of the fact that the society as a whole disapproves of the practice: “Is it expedient?” “Is it moral?”11 11. Another paper will discuss the series of development in attitude that occurs as the individual begins to take account of these matters and adjust his use to them. Once he has acquired the ability to get enjoyment out of the drug, use will continue to be possible for him. Considerations of morality and expediency, occasioned by the reactions of society may interfere and inhibit use, but use continues to be a possibility in terms of his conception of the drug. The act becomes impossible only when the ability to enjoy the experience of being high is lost, through a change in the user’s conception of the drug occasioned by certain kinds of experience with it.

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 personal 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.

This analysis of the genesis of marihuana use shows that the individuals who come in contact with a given object may respond to it at first in a great variety of ways. If a stable form of new behavior toward the object is to emerge, a transformation of meanings must occur, in which the person develops a new conception of the nature of the object.12 12. Cf . Anselm Strauss, “The Development and Transformation of Monetary Meanings in the Child,” American Sociological Review, XVII (June, 1952), 275-86. This happens in a series of communicative acts in which others point out new aspects of his experience to him, present him with new interpretations of events, and help him achieve a new conceptual organization of his world, without which the new behavior is not possible. Persons who do not achieve this proper kind of conceptualization are unable to engage in the given behavior and turn off in the direction of some other relationship to the object or activity.

This suggests that behavior of any kind might fruitfully be studied developmentally, in terms of changes in meanings and concepts, their organization and reorganization, and the way they channel behavior, making some acts possible while excluding others.

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