The young people have started engaging in recreational drug

The steady increase of drug use since the 1960s and the tremendous
rise in the number of young drug users since the 1990s has deteriorated the
importance of subcultural theory in describing the framework behind illicit
drug use for young individuals. Subcultural theories apprehend drug use as an
activity which takes place only within small groups in a society which have
different values and morals from the conventional society. Nevertheless, since
the 1990s we have seen that drug use has become a classless and genderless
activity as people from different social backgrounds were engaged in illicit drug
use. In effect, the subcultural theory was no longer a reliable source to describe
drug use amongst adolescents and young people as it started turning from an
unusual and deviant activity to a normal and mainstream practice. This is
illustrated by the concept of normalisation which demonstrates that young
people have started engaging in recreational drug use for amusement and leisure
purposes. In our analysis we will observe that despite the critics, the concept
of normalisation provides a more appropriate and pertinent comprehension of
drug use amongst young individuals in the modern society.

The origins of subcultural theory and its
failure to improve our understanding of drug use amongst individuals.

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The earliest subcultural theories associated drug use with
criminal activity and considered it as an immoral deviant activity (Parker et
al., 1998:156). This is illustrated by Lombroso in L’uomo delinquent (1895) who believed that drug users were
physically and genetically abnormal and this biological deformity lead young
people to committing criminal offences. A young person taking drugs at this
period was considered to be a subhuman who could only live within small groups
and subcultures. This out of date perspective could no longer explain how a big
part of the population could be born with abnormalities and more significantly
how can so many adults grow out of drug use when they become older and overcome
their abnormality.

Subsequently, Durkheim has adopted the theory of anomie in
examining the causes of drug use. He believed that capitalism leads to an
inequality within society as some people become successful and rich whereas
others do not achieve those mainstream values of the conventional society and
feel excluded (Allan, 2005). As a result, the excluded individuals feel
disillusioned and start taking drugs and feel the need to join subcultural
groups which offer them a sense of solidarity. Indeed, Cloward and Ohlin (1960)
agreed that by been part of subcultural groups, drug users get a sense of
belonging and have the chance to become successful within their groups as they
formulate their own values which are different from the standards of the
conventional society. Moreover, Young in The
Drugtakers (1971) also stressed the importance of subcultures for drug users
due to the labelling which exists in the convention society meaning that if a
society has the perception that drug taking is an abnormal activity then this
is how it will be accepted as. Therefore, subcultures are significant for drug
users as within these groups the practice of drug taking is considered to be
normal and drug users will not be judged and regarded as victims. In effect,
the members of subcultural groups used to develop their own style by dressing
up in a weird way and listen to the same type of music. For example, the
members of the Beat generation during the 1950s wore casual clothing which was
considered to be revolutionary at the time and they listened to jazz music.

A similar assessment over capitalism was initiated by
Merton (1957) who believed that the features of consumerism and materialism
create a social hierarchy which eventually cause a structural strain for people
who are not capable of affording luxuries like expensive cars. Therefore,
Merton believed that social class is an important feature in determining
whether people will engage in deviant activities and unlawful activities like
drug use. Additionally, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in
its publication Resistance through
Rituals’ (1976) developed the view that youth subcultures constitute a part
of the working class because of their familiarity with subordination. From
their viewpoint, drug use is an international practice amongst youth culture
through which they want to demonstrate their resentment and resistance towards
the society.

However, the strain and the anomie theory were both
criticised by Taylor et al
(1973:107) for ‘predicting too little bourgeois criminality and too much
proletarian criminality.’ These theories failed to address the deviance of
young members from the middle class who were also engaged in drug use and did
not consider the ‘high profile popularity amongst the bohemian literary elite
of the Beat movement’ (Blackman,2004:108).
The latest evidence as we will see demonstrates that even successful
businessmen with high incomes and highly educated students are engaging in drug
use even if they abide by the mainstream values of the conventional society.
Therefore, the distinction between successful and unsuccessful people in
society does not constitute a significant aspect in determining whether a young
individual is involved in illicit drug use.

In addition, Paul Willis (1972: xlv-xlvi) condemned the
subculture theory and highlighted that the very use of the term ‘sub’ creates a
misconception and ‘an altogether misleading sense of absoluteness and dominance
of the main culture.’ Thus, the concept of subculture creates on itself an
inferior position for those groups in the society. In fact, the CCCS in The subcultural meaning of style (1979)
has acknowledged that the theory of subculture slowly starts to be weathered
away as the attention from the media and internet and more recently the social
media, has turned subcultural style into a mainstream style. Indeed, once a
small group starts acting in a deviant way or adopts a unique style it is
immediately advertised to the extent that it is well known globally and people
from around the world start imitating the same style. As a result, activities
like drug use can become fashion internationally through advertisement and no
longer constitute an activity which is taking place in small groups in
particular countries. The inadequacy of subcultural theory to address the
importance of social media and the disintegrated complex nature of the youth
culture has encouraged the formation of post-subcultural theories.

Post subcultural theorists did not put emphasis on the
social constraints but instead they stressed the importance of agency whereby
individuals are capable of expressing their own free will. Indeed, Redhead
argued that ‘subcultures were introduced by subcultural theorists, not the
other way around’ (Redhead, 1990). Following Baudrillard’s critique of youth
culture, Redhead concluded that subcultures are ‘free-floating signifiers which
enhance differentiation of individual experience’ (1993). In other words, young
people no longer possess a permanent identity and instead they continuously
switch between different lifestyles. Similarly, Maffesoli introduced the concept
of ‘neo-tribe’ which has a flexible perspective as it highlights that people
are not restricted to a single subculture and they can choose to be part of
different subcultures depending on their state of mind and lifestyle choices (1996).

However, McKay (1998) reached a conclusion that there is an
international youth subculture due to the restrictive policing and political
opposition towards the rave culture in the 1990s. The rave culture was
associated with festivals which were ideal for drug taking and various protests
for the legalization of cannabis through the contribution of dance collectives
like Spiral Tribe (Blackman, 2004). The ultimate target of those demonstrations
was perceived to be a resistance towards capitalism and mainstream values.
Indeed, the rave culture critique illustrates a disagreement amongst
subcultural theorists on whether subcultures may exist only in one country or
internationally. Nevertheless, not all young people who are engaged in drug use
belong to the rave culture and they do not necessarily do it while they are going
out for clubbing. The concept of normalisation demonstrates that young people
can take drugs on their own without feeling the need to be part of a subculture.

The concept of normalisation and its relevance to
our understanding of drug use amongst young individuals

The concept of normalisation was developed by the
longitudinal study of Parker et al (1998) during the 1990s and was concerned
with how young people spent their leisure time. The statistics of the study
illustrated that recreational drug use is becoming a normalised activity as
more than one third of adolescents and young adults claimed to have taken drugs
before. Normalisation concentrates on how drug use which constitutes a deviant
activity that was common amongst subcultural populations can be assimilated
into the society and become a mainstream activity. It is important to note that
the study was focused on recreational drug use and how young people use drugs
like cannabis for pleasure and to relax during the weekends. In this way
recreational drug use is similar to the concept of Becker in the Outsiders (1963) who rejected the view
of the time that cannabis is associated with psychological traits and placed
emphasis on the pleasure that cannabis users receive from its consumption. The
taking of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin and the young addicted drug users
are not covered by the concept of normalisation as they are not considered to
be normal behaviours in the society.

The increase in recreational drug use in the 1990s is
completely different from the high amounts of heroin consumption during the
1980s by the working-class populations and unintegrated young people from the
society due to the rising unemployment in the heavy industry (Aldridge, 2011). This
illustrates the different motivation behind drug use that young people have
adopted in the 1990s and that it is no longer associated with the inequality
between the social classes. Instead, we can see that there is a social
transformation which altered the way and the conditions under which young
people are growing up. It is apparent now that the transition between childhood
and adulthood has been extended because young people nowadays tend to live for
longer with their parents and spend a lot of time in education as well as
postponing marriage.  As the period of
studying has been extended due to the postgraduate studies, this has also lead
to an extension in the period of youth which is a period where young people
tend to experiment and engage in drug taking. During this period young people
feel uncertainty and insecurity for the unpredictable future as they are not
aware of how successful or not they are going to be in their jobs and personal
relationships. The formation of this ‘risk society’ where young people are
scared of failure and are obliged to take risks to succeed originates from
individualisation (Beck, 1992). Subcultural inequalities are no longer a
justification for failure in life as success now depends exclusively on the efforts
of the young individuals. As a result, the fear of young adults to live independently
cause a lot of stress and anxiety and recreation drug use represents an escape
from the problems of their daily life.

The concept of normalisation was based on six features
including ‘drug availability, drug trying, drug use, being drug wise, future
intentions and cultural accommodation of illicit drugs in society’ (Parker et
al., 1998). Drug availability demonstrates that drug use is becoming more
normalised as young people can easily get access to drugs in schools and
colleges. The study has shown that most of the fifteen year olds had been
offered to either buy or try drugs in the past and by the age of eighteen
nearly everyone had been present in such situations (Parker et al., 1998). However,
Shiner and Newburn (1999) argued that the evidence of the study was
‘exaggerated’ and that the majority of young people still do not consider drug
use as something normal. Nevertheless, the concept of normalisation has never
supported that drug use is viewed as something normal as its attention was on
how drug use moved from the margins of the society to an activity which is now
becoming more socially acceptable.

Furthermore, the significant increase in drug trying throughout
the 1990s amongst young people was accompanied ‘by the closure of gender and
class differences’ (Aldridge, 2011) in drug use. Indeed, the evidence showed
that the children of middle class families scored higher rates of drug use than
the offspring of low income families. Hence, drug taking appears to have cut
off its link with problematic youth issues like poor educational performance
and delinquency (Webb et al., 1996). The evidence rejects the pathological
justifications of subcultural theories for drug use and replaced by a
cost-benefit analysis where young people are now capable of assessing the benefits
and risks of their drug taking. This is shown by the fact that the majority of
young people most commonly use cannabis which is a recreational drug instead of
poly drug use. Even when certain young individuals are engaged in poly drug use
in clubs, their action is usually viewed with great caution by their coevals. This
evidence undermines the arguments of Shildrick (2002) that young people are not
aware of what recreational drug use actually means and that they are not able
to distinguish it from problematic drug use.

The fact that drugs are becoming part of our everyday life
means that even people that are not taking drugs still have a decent knowledge
about their effects. This is an important aspect of normalisation because in
the past knowledge regarding drug use was only known to the particular groups
that were engaged in drug taking. As a result, abstainers are now able to
distinguish between hard and soft drugs. The abstainers of drug use are now
becoming similar to the abstainers of tobacco who despite the fact that they
know of the negative effects of consumption they do not consider it as a
deviant activity. Hence even if abstainers are present when drug taking and
drug dealing occurs they very rarely report such incidents to the police. The
behaviour of abstainers contradicts the arguments of Ramsay and Partridge
(1999) that the majority of young people still view drug use as something ‘unusual
or exceptional’. Abstainers are now more aware of the differences between
recreational and problematic drug use. Hence recreational drug use is not an
uncommon activity for abstainers as they have a lot of friends and relatives
who smoke cannabis.

Recreational drug use is becoming easily accommodated into
the ‘mainstream cultural arrangements’ not only because it is now equally used
by men and women but also because the motivation behind it has to do with
relaxation and leisure (Aldridge et al., 2011). Although there is an
exceptional minority of young drug users who are addicted and may try to make
money out of drug dealing, the majority of drug use between young people is
recreational. Especially after studies which have shown that alcohol can be
more harmful than many forms of recreational drug use, the gap between legal
and illicit drug use has now closed. Normalisation enables us to understand how
drug use changed from been an activity that was common in particular groups
which were ‘characterised by difference and a wholesale rejection of mainstream
values’ and became mainstream and popular ‘amongst groups that are generally
conforming’ to mainstream values (Aldridge et al., 2011). The fact that young
people engage in drug use this does not automatically mean that they do not
follow other mainstream social values. Indeed, young people argue that their
consumption of illicit drugs indicates that they follow the capitalist norm of
independent consumer choice.

Moreover, the media has contributed to the process of
normalisation as newspapers and television programmes continuously advertise
how drug use is popular amongst celebrities and how problematic this is. Media
fails to provide a comprehensive understanding of drug use amongst young people
and by using a negative vocabulary and a notion of ‘othering’ for drug users it
encourages government agencies to promote strict drug regulations (Blackman,
2004). The normalisation of drugs with its notion of increased drug use amongst
young people has led to what Foucault characterised as ‘a discourse of
regulation’ (1975). Through normalisation, the government classifies drug users
as something different from the established social norms and introduces
prohibitive drug policies in order to conform the drug taking populations to
the rest of the society. Therefore, despite of the departure from the
subcultural theory, illicit drug users and especially ‘hard’ drug users are
still exposed to stigmatisation and isolation in the wider society. There is a
conflict between the restrictive drug policy and the objectivity of science which
created a ‘dual status’ for drug users as they are simultaneously ‘outside and
inside society’ (Blackman, 2004). During the noughties there was a decline in
the drug taking as there was a reduction from 20% to 15% in the ages between 11
to 15 and a decline from 30% to 22% for the ages between 16 to 24 (Aldridge et
al, 2011). Despite of the decline in the noughties the level of drug use
remains high and the rates are very similar to the ones recorder during the
1990s. For example, the level of drug users for those aged 16 to 24 was 22.6%
in 2009 and 23% in 1994 (Aldridge et al, 2011). As a result, there is a
continuity of high levels of drug use and drug trying amongst young people
which signifies that the tremendous increase of drug use in the 1990s was not
merely a fashionable trend but a long lasting phenomenon.