Problematizing "Drugs": A Cultural Assessment of Recreational Pharmaceutical Use among Young Adults in the United States

Article excerpt

Recent trends in the recreational use of pharmaceuticals among young adults in the United States highlight a number of issues regarding the prob lematization of drugs. Two constructions of recreational pharmaceutical use are analyzed. On the one hand, categorical frameworks based upon epidemiological data are created by institutions and media and depict recreational pharmaceutical use as illicit in unqualified, absolute terms. This is done through discourses that equate nonmedical pharmaceutical use with culturally established forms of illicit drug use. On the other hand, users' multi-dimensional constructions of recreational pharmaceutical use emphasize social context, personal experience, and individual risk perceptions. The prob lematization of recreational pharmaceutical use points to intergenerational conflicts, as well as to struggles over definitions of "drug abuse" and "hard drugs," and highlights the impact of pharmaceutic alization on recreational drug use among young people.

KEY WORDS: Young adults, epidemiological trends, recreational pharmaceutical use, pharmaceuticalization, qualitative research, United States.

Recent epidemiological trends in the recreational use of pharmaceuticals among young adults in the United States highlight a number of issues regarding how drugs and drug users are problematized. This article compares some of the findings from my research on recreational pharmaceutical use in college contexts with the discursive efforts by government authorities and news media to problematize these practices and those who engage in them. This includes an examination of the cultural factors shaping this form of drug use and an emphasis on how these developments not only require us to rethink fundamental meanings commonly associated with pharmaceutical drugs and those who use them, but also to reevaluate the place of these drugs in Western society.

Two constructions of recreational pharmaceutical use are analyzed. On the one hand, categorical frameworks based upon epidemiological data are created and circulated by governing institutions and popular media and depict recreational pharmaceutical use as illicit in unqualified, absolute terms. This is done through discourses that equate nonmedical pharmaceutical use with existing, culturally established forms of illicit drug use. These discourses have several distinguishing characteristics: They define all nonmedical use as "abuse," they create cultural correspondences between illicit "hard" drugs and pharmaceuticals, and they emphasize the user's intent to "get high" as the primary factor motivating use.

On the other hand, the constructions of recreational pharmaceutical use reported by users describe this practice in more multidimensional terms which are sensitive to social context, existing personal knowledge and experience, and individual perceptions of risk, drug effects, and social outcomes. These frames for understanding recreational pharmaceutical use reveal definitions of "abuse" and experientially-grounded perceptions that differ from those offered in categorical discourses.

Finally, this article considers the implications of this state of affairs for the construction of recreational pharmaceutical use. The problematization of this practice points to intergenerational conflicts as well as struggles over definitions of "drug abuse" and "hard drugs." Ultimately, this process underscores the impact of pharmaceuticalization processes on recreational drug use among young people in the United States.

Background

During the 1990s, an important shift in drug use patterns occurred in the United States. Epidemiological data showed that greater numbers of people, especially young, collegeaged adults, reported using a variety of pharmaceuticals for nonmedical purposes (Colliver, Kroutil, Dai, & Gfoerer, 2006; National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2001). Although the category of nonmedical use includes several distinct patterns, including self-medication for physical and emotional conditions and functional use directed at increasing individual academic performance, it is the recreational aspects of this practice that have generated particular alarm in the public health literature as well as popular media (Harmon, 2005; McCarthy, 2007; Wilford, Finch, Czechowicz, & Warren, 1994). …