Marijuana Use and Social Relationships

Testing Differential Association Theory

In one of the earliest and most important sociological studies of drug use, "Becoming a Marihuana User," Howard Becker (1953) interviewed dozens of marijuana users about their initial experiences with the drug. He found that most new users were unable to get "high" on marijuana until they had gone through a three-stage process of social learning. That is, through social interaction with more experienced users, new users (1) learned the proper technique for smoking marijuana, (2) learned to perceive the effects associated with the "high," and (3) learned to enjoy these effects--to experience the "high" as pleasurable. Becker's work set the tone for subsequent sociological research by portraying marijuana use and other drug-related deviance as routine outcomes of "normal" social learning processes. Whereas researchers in other disciplines continued to view drug use and "abuse" as symptoms of individual pathology or maladjustment, micro-normative researchers in the sociology of deviance looked instead to the social environment—relationships with family and friends—for answers to the question, "why do people use illegal drugs?" Consequently, sociological research on drug-related deviance has provided strong support for theories of social learning, such as Sutherland's differential association theory (1947) or Akers' social structure/social learning theory (1998).

In a study of marijuana use among college students , "Differential Association and Marijuana Use," Orcutt examines the close parallels between Becker's empirical account of the process of becoming a marijuana user and Sutherland's micro-normative theory, which we examined earlier. This study also illustrates some of the uses and limitations of survey research for examining the influences of social relationships and personal attitudes on the deviant act of marijuana use. The data for this study were collected from two universities in the early 1970s, when marijuana use was on the increase in the U.S. As shown in the following graph, the results show a strong relationship between students' own use of marijuana and the number of their four closest friends who use marijuana. When none of a student's closest friends use marijuana, the chances of that student using are less than one out of ten. On the other hand, when all four friends are users, approximately nine out of ten students are themselves users. What are the odds of marijuana use when two friends use and two friends do not use? Sutherland's theory of differential association would predict a 50/50 split under these circumstances, which is close to the results shown below for both universities. These and other findings from this and more recent research on drug-related deviance (Akers 1998) provide solid support for Sutherland's position that intimate, personal relationships are the primary source of learned techniques, definitions, and motives for deviant behavior.


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