Theoretical Approaches to Drugs
1) The structural-functionalist perspective examines the role drugs play in the maintenance of order and
stability in a society. They assert, for example, that drugs perform the following functions:
1) Some drugs (e.g., alcohol) ease social interaction
2) Some drugs (e.g., caffeine, Valium, Ritalin) help people cope with the demands of modern life
3) Drugs are an important source of economic activity, providing jobs for hundred of thousands of
2) The conflict perspective focuses on how social power shapes the lives of everyone in a society.
Throughout the history of the U.S., officials have acted to outlaw the drugs favored by powerless people,
especially racial minorities and immigrants. For example, in the mid-nineteenth century, whites on the
West Coast outlawed the opium used mainly by Chinese immigrants; about 1900, southern whites who
feared black violence pressed to outlaw cocaine; by 1920, the tide of European immigration led to
Prohibition, which banned alcohol; and a decade later, rising immigration from Mexico prompted a legal
ban on marijuana. Moreover, the social standing of the user has much to do with how severely our
society punishes illegal drug use.
• Conflict theorists also note that it is powerful corporate interests who sell highly profitable drugs—
including alcohol and tobacco—with the full protection of the law, even though these two drugs are
linked to more deaths annually than all the illegal drugs combined.
3) The symbolic interactionist perspective examines the varying meanings that people attach to
individual behavior, including drug use. From this perspective, a drug that is defined by one group as
part of a religious ceremony may be considered dangerous by another group. Also, a drug may be legal
at one point in time, and outlawed later on (e.g., cocaine in the U