Three people sit in a circle holding a cigarette and a bottle of pills

Anthropology: Cultural Trends and Contended Meanings of Drug Use in Society

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘drug’?

It’s common for an image of illegality to arise – Drugs are bad, immoral, dangerous.

It is equally as common for people to associate drugs with medicine – Drugs are healing, helpful, effective.

But are there meanings beyond these opposing binary definitions? Is it possible that drugs are simultaneously both ‘good’ and ‘bad’?

An anthropological perspective on drugs goes beyond their popular label as ‘criminal’ and ‘immoral’. Instead, it directs our attention to other social factors that might motivate drug use. Additionally, it encourages us to be critical of one-line ‘truths’ that tell us what it means to ‘use drugs’ in the first place

How have Drugs been Defined on Paper?

In this article, a ‘binary perception’ means seeing something in one way and not the other, with little room for considering other ways of understanding that thing. In other words, ‘dichotomous thinking’, ‘polarized thinking’ or ‘black and white’ thinking.

The Macquarie Dictionary defines a ‘drug’ rather as: ‘a chemical substance taken for non-medical reasons to bring about change in behavior, mood or perception.

The Oxford Dictionary, in contrast, ascribes morality to the definition: ‘A drug is an illegal substance that some people smoke, inject, etc. for the physical and mental effects it has.

A large red prohibition side with 'No Drugs' written down its centre in white capitals, and filled with images of a syringe, pills and marijuana leaves
Image Source: jonathan357 via Wikimedia Commons

Unlike the Oxford, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines drugs as substances ‘intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease prescription.

A doctor in a white coat holds an orange bottle of drug pills towards the camera
Image Source:

But which definition is correct? Are drugs non-medical and only used for changes in behavior? Are they negatively defined by their illegal nature? Or are they more positively defined by their medicinal potential?

Definitions of drugs are not the whole story. This is because they only relate to societies with the capability of manufacturing and circulating these chemically refined products.

A Brief History and Anthropology of Drug use

Drug use before the 1970s

Anthropology has been somewhat late in its engagement with the field of drug addiction.

Up until the 1970s, anthropology had not yet developed a drug research tradition. The primary reason for this is the nature of anthropological research: it seeks to analyse and understand normative behaviours across different cultures, rather than so-called deviant behaviours like drug use.

Additionally, anthropology tends to have a ‘functionalist’ focus. This means that most social and cultural research centres on the nature of social cohesion and individual integration in society. Traditionally, drug consumption was not seen as an important factor in well-functioning societies, so it was typically left out of anthropological studies.

Drug use beyond 1970: ‘The War on Drugs’ and the HIV/AIDS pandemic

From the 1970s, the narrow anthropological focus began to change. The drug revolution gained momentum and a ‘war on drugs was announced by President Nixon in 1971. With the drug epidemic now at the forefront of social minds and entangled with social problems, anthropologists began turning their attention to drugs.

A black and white photo of President Nixon with 'the war on drugs' typed on the bottom left, Nixon holds a green marijuana leaf encased by a red prohibition sign
Image Source: Sophie Lovering via

These substances were no longer individualistic and irrelevant; they were key players in a pathological social fabric. This negative perspective on drugs, coupled with an explosive rise in drug use, was a catalyst for anthropological interest and research.

A black and white newspaper column titled 'US unveils anti-drug strategy'
Image Source: Published in the Guardian, 6 September 1989 (via The Guardian)

In the 1980s, anthropological attention to drug use was also heightened against the global backdrop of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. This interest in drug use ascribed two different meanings to drugs:

  1. Drugs as understood within the context of medicine and healing.
  2. The relationship between drug consumption, HIV infection and disease progression.

These two examples show us that drugs are tied to this ‘good’/’bad’ binary, even forty years ago.

Consequences of Binary Perceptions: Drug Stereotypes

Negative perceptions of drugs have saturated some countries. Unfortunately, in places like Colombia, the outward identity most visible to tourists is hinged on a dangerous reality of crime, corruption and risk.

Drug use and media representations of Colombia

A man in a camo uniform holding a gun stands to the left of rows of square drug packages
Image Source: Carlos Julio Martinez AFP via Getty Images

Popular culture is a hub for the portrayal of sensationalized drug stereotypes. The movie ‘Colombiana’ (2011) is yet another depiction of Colombia as a perilous land of cocaine, crime and violence. Colombian woman Lina Salazar Ortegón expressed her disappointment in Hollywood for its continuing ignorance. She was disheartened that the film industry unrelentingly micro-analysed the dark side of drugs amplifying them at the expense of other important aspects of Colombian culture. This ‘darkness’ is visually represented in the movie poster below – the ‘tense’, rough display is likened to ‘exciting’ and ‘terrific’ reviews. The representation of Colombia in this way is applauded and valued by viewers.

A movie poster with a yellow background and the side profile of a woman bowing her head towards the gun she is holding, the movie title 'COLOMBIANA' is at the bottom
Image Source:

Carlos Macías, President of Por Colombia, has also disputed the film. He contended that the stereotyped depiction of Colombia is an unwitting attempt to make a profit at the country’s expense. Macías doesn’t deny that violence is a widespread problem, but at the same time, he recognizes the need for balance – a transgressing of binary perceptions of drug use that hold Colombia to this stereotype of menacing danger. “We want to provide people with the actual facts,” he says, “while at the same time remembering to include the country’s positive side … which is all too often left out.”

If you decide to take a trip to Colombia, it’s likely that the first person you tell will offer you some soft words of caution: be careful! But why this advisory phrase first, and not a question of ‘what are you most excited to see?’.

What do Binary Perceptions of Drugs Exclude?

Interestingly, despite the abhorrent view that much of society seems to take towards drugs, many of us actually consume them on a daily basis. Caffeine, sugar and alcohol all have addictive effects and can be classified as ‘drugs’. Yet, perceiving them in a negative light is uncommon.

‘Ugh, but I need my morning coffee!’

Caffeine is a stimulant drug. It increases activity in the brain and nervous system and has the potential to increase alertness and enhance concentration. But like other drugs, regular ingestion can lead to dependence and withdrawal symptoms upon cessation of consumption.

A white cup of black coffee on a white plate with a spoon on top of a table surface
Image Source: Julius Schorzman via Wikimedia Commons

We don’t see many criticisms of coffee consumption. In fact, it’s seen as an integral part of everyday life. In Melbourne, Australia, ‘coffee culture’ is trendy. It’s not just about the coffee itself, but the aesthetic that comes with it – cafes filled with plants and bohemian decorated walls. There is a ‘coolness’ to Melbourne’s coffee culture, and witty comments compete for the prize of who has the biggest caffeine addiction. But caffeine is a drug, is it not? And according to the Oxford Dictionary, this would make it ‘illegal’.

A drawing of the molecular structure of the drug caffeine with lines forming pentagon shapes and the symbols 'O', 'N', 'H3C', CH3'
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sugar, honey.

A table top with a pile of sugar and the word 'sugar' traced into it surrounded by donuts and cookies
Image Source: formulatehealth via Wikimedia Commons

Scientifically, sugar is classified as a food and not a drug. However, there is substantial evidence showing the link between added sugar and addictive behavior. Eating sugar releases dopamine in our bodies, and dopamine is a part of the ‘reward circuit’ in our brains that leads to addictive behavior.

From as early as the 1900s, sugar and chocolate have been known stimulants. The advertisements below show sugar to neatly fit the Macquarie Dictionary of ‘drugs’ – a chemical substance taken […] to bring about change in behavior, mood or perception.

But again, sugar isn’t illegal, and many of us consume it daily. Yet there are few negative attitudes towards people consuming it.

Drinking culture

Close up shot of group of hands clinking glasses with wine or champagne in front of bokeh background and plates of food
Image Source:

Alcohol is a depressant drug, meaning it slows down messages travelling between the brain and the body.

A black symbol of the chemical composition of ethanol/alcohol with the letters H and C forming links
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, drinking alcohol is a huge part of many cultures around the world. From drinking at family gatherings, at celebrations, or after work – alcohol has a solid place in numerous societies around the world.

A black and white photo of a group of men sitting around a table with a few drinks on the table
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lithuania, one of the world’s heaviest alcohol consumers, suffers from some of the worst rates of alcohol-related diseases. In this sense, we see the ‘evil’ perspective of drugs. But where does this stand when the drug forms such an important part of social life and community?

What are the Benefits of Understanding Drugs through an Anthropological Lens?

Anthropology invites us to see the world from the perspective of someone else. In this way, it is extremely useful in critically challenging singular definitions that ascribe a ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’.

In today’s society, we have an endless cosmos of information at our fingertips. Despite the presence of viewpoints and knowledge that differ from our primary beliefs, it is still difficult to perceive other cultures through a mental framework other than our own. This often leads us to perceive social phenomena in a polarized way, which can lead to stereotyping and misunderstanding (as has been seen in the case of Colombia)

Gaining insight into how different people perceive and interact with drugs has also contributed to deeper understandings of addiction and the effect it has on society.

A figurine dressed in orange sits alone on a small rock with a group of figurines standing in a circle in the background
Image Source:

Traditional Perspectives of Drug Addiction in the United States


In the early days of anthropological interest in drug use, the approach was primarily a legal one. This approach is premised on the notion of drugs as illegal and immoral. The drug user is said to commit crimes to support their drug use, warranting an array of punitive responses by the criminal justice system. This is a relatively individualistic approach.


Another perspective of drug addiction comes from the medical perspective. Here, drugs are key players in mental or physiological disorders. Attention is turned away from immorality and punishment towards an understanding of the individual.


Delving further into the individual’s lifeworld, the psychological perspective has emphasised the disjuncture between the addict’s personality and their unsupportive social environment. Here, anthropologists have looked beyond the individual. They have conducted fieldwork in the ‘streets’ to obtain valuable insights into the relationship between drug use and environmental influences.

This perspective is important because it allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the reasons people use drugs.

A silhouetted side profile with an outline of a brain filled with colourful drugs
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons


Similar to the psychological perspective, the sociological view perceives drug addiction as a product of society, rather than simply something tied to the individual.

Sociologists have recognized that society can contribute to the development of social problems by labelling drug addiction as deviant. Thus, the construction of certain substances as drugs in different societies is a key focus in anthropology. Are they painted as an individual issue? Or a social issue?

Anthropologists are increasingly focusing on the subculture of ‘street life’ that fosters drug consumption. However, fieldwork in this area is challenging. Partly due to the anonymous and concealed nature of drug exchange and use. This makes participant observation (a research technique) particularly difficult.

A plurality of perspectives: what does this mean?

All in all, these four perspectives demonstrate that the ways we deal with drug addiction will vary depending on how we look at the problem. Do drugs merely serve an individualistic and recreational purpose? Or are they a reflection of broader social conditions?

These nuances are important to consider when looking at drug use in different societies. It might be counterproductive and inappropriate, for example, to punitively jail someone with drug addiction because of a mental disorder.

Summing up

Drug use is heavily intertwined with different sociocultural fields. These fields range from the chaos of ‘street life’ to the healing potential of the medical realm. Therefore, relying on the single dictionary definition mentioned at the beginning of this article may not be accurate. Adopting an anthropological perspective can help us understand the complexities and diversities in drug use and addiction.

In sum, the case of drugs shows us that social phenomena always have contested meanings. Strictly ascribing to a binary perspective can be damaging. It leaves little room for cultural understanding and can hinder appropriate responses to social issues.

Works cited:

Bennett L., Cook P. Alcohol and drug studies. In: Sargent C., Johnson T., editors. Handbook of Medical Anthropology: Contemporary Theory and Practice. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press; 1996, p. 2350–251

Singer, M 2012, ‘Anthropology and addiction: an historical review’, Addiction, vol. 107, no. 10, pp. 1747-1755.

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