Understanding Drug Addiction Through a Sociological Perspective

By: Samantha Ward

“The opposite of addiction isn’t just sobriety; it’s connection.”​​

- Johann Hari

What is sociology?

Simply put, the field of sociology looks at societies, the interactions that occur between individuals within those societies, and the patterns in these interactions, in order to explain phenomena. It’s a field that I’ve grown to love because you can deconstruct anything that you’d like and find an explanation for why it occurs. Substance use is no different; you can understand addiction through biological and psychological theories, which focus on the relationship between the individual and their drug of choice, but sociological theories take a zoomed-out perspective to see what has happened in society that has affected individuals and led them to have this relationship in the first place. 


Take Skid Row, for example. Skid Row is a neighborhood in Los Angeles that has become completely isolated from the rest of the city and is home to thousands of residents who live in tents, struggle with mental illnesses, and are battling drug addiction. Christopher Rufo, a writer for The New York Post, took a walk down a street within the neighborhood and saw “men smoking methamphetamine in the open air, women selling bootleg cigarettes on top of cardboard boxes… a man completing a drug transaction from the window of a silver sedan… and slumped across the entryway of an old garment business, a [man] injecting heroin into his cracked, bare feet.” Skid Row has become a place of lost hopes and dreams. This is an area where many of LA’s marginalized and forgotten have been dumped and neglected. It’s a place that sheds light on how cruel and unforgiving our society can be.

So, how did Skid Row become LA’s epicenter for drug addiction? 

In 1876, Skid Row was the last stop of the transcontinental railroad. Many people were arriving looking for work and a new beginning in life but didn’t receive either. The reputation of Skid Row quickly plummeted; it was known as the neighborhood filled with individuals who were unemployed and homeless, which resulted in the area and its inhabitants becoming ostracized from the rest of the LA community. As the population of Skid Row grew, so did the magnitude of its problems. Policymakers pondered over solutions to help the residents of Skid Row, but they were met with backlash from others in the community. During this time period, a writer for the L.A. Times voiced this backlash by saying: “Don’t help this class. It’s a crime against the community to do it.”

Stigma and Prejudice

The backlash from the community was heard by those in power. Surrounding Skid Row today are other highly developed districts of the city that have maintained an image of success and prosperity despite being right next door to the poverty-stricken neighborhood. The way that this has occurred is through a “policy of containment.” In the 1970s, city planners and politicians joined forces to re-envision Skid Row and drew lines to contain the growing population of the neighborhood and the activities that occurred within it. Boarders, which were really just streets that acted as buffers, had harsh lights installed around Skid Row to make leaving the area a psychologically uncomfortable experience, locks placed on surrounding trash cans in other districts so there would be no need to leave looking for food, and police officers patrolling the edges of the neighborhood to ensure residents wouldn’t leave - and if they did, they would be confronted. Skid Row was subsequently labeled as the “containment zone,” so the surrounding neighborhoods could keep their image up by keeping the “undesirable populations” of Skid Row out. 

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Lived Environment and Poverty

Skid Row was and still is completely neglected. A snowball effect emerged when travelers first arrived at Skid Row from the transcontinental railroad, and every single decision that was made by those in power to contain Skid Row residents has resulted in those inhabitants not only struggling with drug addiction but struggling to survive. The policy of containment has made it incredibly difficult for residents of Skid Row to leave, potentially making them even more likely to remain addicted to drugs. Skid Row is just one example of how those who are marginalized by society can become susceptible to drug addiction.

Legislation 

Another example of how decisions made by those in power can lead to a lack of opportunities and cause setbacks for individuals is the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, signed by Ronald Reagan. This act toughened laws on sentencing specifically for crack-cocaine users, despite crack and cocaine being chemically identical, meaning that they are the exact same drug. 5 grams of crack cocaine was equal to 500 grams of powder cocaine in terms of the minimum amounts necessary for sentencing. Crack was significantly cheaper, which made it more accessible and many of its users were from the Black community, while powder cocaine was much more expensive so it was often used by affluent White Americans. Because less crack cocaine was required to be sentenced to prison than powder cocaine, this resulted in a disproportionate number of Black Americans being incarcerated. Felony sentences made it so that if these individuals were released from prison, the opportunities available in their lives were extremely restricted, such as finding a new job. Having restricted opportunities like these can result in an individual turning and sticking to drugs, whether it be selling and/or using, because of availability as an opportunity to that individual. 

The Take-Away

So what can we learn from Skid Row, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, and a sociological perspective of drug addiction? While there are biological and psychological explanations that are truthful and shed necessary light on aspects of drug addiction, a sociological explanation reminds us that we are connected and there is a cause and effect relationship among all of us that can fuel drug addiction as well. There are decisions that we can make as individuals, especially if we are in positions of power, that can have a butterfly effect and create catastrophic conditions for those within our communities if we are not careful. Furthermore, it is critically important that we do not judge someone for where they are at in life, because we have no idea what looming forces have brought them to be in that position. Looking at those struggling with drug addiction with compassion and understanding is vital because as a reminder, we are all connected and the decisions that we make could help someone get out of that position.

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References

1. Drive-By Do-Gooders. (2013). What is Skid Row? How did it start? How do we help?  Retrieved March 30, 2022, from https://www.drivebydogooders.org/alt-of-skid-row-factsscope

2. Morhaim,  Dan. (Mar 2021). The war on drugs has not only failed, it’s worsened drug use in America | COMMENTARY.  The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved March 30, 2022, from https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/op-ed/bs-ed-op-0309-crw-morhaim-drug-war-20210308-3o7ulj6d3jelfmkxv5ftz6r3uu-story.htm

3. Harris, Jonny. (Mar 2021). Skid Row Explained. Retrieved March 30, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKo8Sv99MkM

4. Rufo, Christopher F. ( Feb 2020). The moral crisis of Skid Row, LA’s most notorious neighborhood. The New York Post. Retrieved March 30, 2022, from https://nypost.com/2020/02/18/the-moral-crisis-of-skid-row-las-most-notorious-neighborhood/

5. Buczynski, Matthew. "Lecture 10: Cocaine." Neuroscience of Drug Addiction, 1 Mar. 2021, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg. PowerPoint presentation.