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Terms such as addiction and dependency are frequently used to describe patterns of illicit drug use. However, there are no universal definitions of these terms and they are frequently used inconsistently and interchangeably. As a result, it is difficult to estimate the number of drug users who can be described as addicted or dependent. Addiction tends to refer to dependence on a particular drug or drugs, which has developed to the extent that it has a severe and harmful impact on an individual drug user. The term implies that the drug user is unable to give up drug use without incurring adverse effects.
Dependency can refer to physical and/or emotional dependency and drug users may experience one or both forms. Drug users can become physically dependent on drugs, thus continuing with their drug use in order to avoid the physical discomfort of withdrawal. They can also become emotionally dependent on drugs; for example, relying upon drug use to seek pleasure or to avoid pain. Drug-scope (a UK-based independent center of expertise on drugs) suggests that the term dependency is preferable to addiction because the latter is linked to negative images of drug use.
Sociologists have been influential in highlighting the importance of societal reaction to drug use. Drawing upon the insights of symbolic interactionism, Howard Becker’s classic study Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (1963) drew attention to the processes by which individuals became drug users within a deviant subculture. Employing the notion of a career, he highlighted how the labeling of individuals as deviants by the public and agents of social control (including criminal justice agencies and medical professionals) helped to increase levels of drug use. He argued that by attaching a stigmatizing label to a drug user, the individual responds to this new identity. Other influential research, such as Jock Young’s The Drugtakers (1971), has highlighted the role of the media in amplifying drug use.
Sociological analysis of drug use has played a significant role in challenging the medicalization of so-called deviant behavior. Sociologists have challenged the practice of referring to drug use as a disease with the implication that it can be cured solely through medical treatment. In particular, feminist sociologists have been highly critical of this approach, which fails to recognize the links between women’s subordinate position in society and their use of illicit drugs.
- Becker, H. (2003) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. Free Press, New York.
- Ettore, E. (2007) Revisioning Women and Drug Use: Gender, Power and the Body. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.
- Young, J. (1971) The Drugtakers: The Social Meaning of Drug Use. MacGibbon and Kee, London.