The Drug(ged) Identity

As a young person living in the 21 st century, images and portrayals of drugs and their
consumption can’t be escaped. Whether it’s shown on television, rhymed in rap songs, or blown up on billboards informing us of the dangers of drug addiction, it’s a common theme and topic of discussion in our youth. Drug use has always been a subculture, especially in relation to crime. Amongst the youth however, it seems that there is a “desubculturalization” on the use of drugs; it’s becoming increasingly normalized and perceived as an expression of the consumer-based, youth cultural lifestyle. If peer pressure was the culprit for drug use amongst youth in the past, the finger is now pointed at the normalization of it.

So, what exactly is the normalization of drug use? Is drug use now seen as a “common thing” that young people experiment on and experience? Sure, but it’s also about how the use of drugs have shifted from the periphery to the centre of youth culture and the
youth leisure landscape. This doesn’t necessarily mean that young people are taking drugs on a daily basis (remember that there is a distinction between using drugs recreationally and being addicted to them), but that many social events and gatherings are associated with the consumption of drugs and, from it, the creation of social bonds. Exploring this social aspect of drug consumption can yield a better understanding of why it’s becoming normalized, as for many young people, the use of drugs is heavily tied to social reasons.

Drug use becomes a site where the creation and recreation of youth identities, both
cultural and personal, are formed, and where social ties are built and strengthened. If the stereotypical perception of drug use is associated with nightclubs and rave parties, the time and place in which young people engage in this activity are now more varied and flexible. It could be a Wednesday night and a group of friends are hanging out while drinking some alcohol and smoking some cannabis. At a dodgy and cheap hostel, a group of backpackers could be sharing a joint while bonding over the experiences they’ve gained from their trip. At a music festival, the use of drugs doesn’t just add to the bodily and psychological pleasure of the music, but ties together the whole social experience of the event. It can be said that young people engaging in drugs gain certain cultural capitals that are valued within their social circles. Namely, a shared identity and a sense of belonging with groups of other young people participating in the same activities they do. This is significant for the youth, whose exploration and commitments to personal and social identities play a crucial part in their adolescence.

Seen from this perspective, consuming drugs is tied to a sense of purpose. This purpose builds into not only one’s sense of belonging, but also their sense of empowerment and maturation. Despite being told otherwise and being aware of the risks, choosing to still engage in this activity can symbolize taking control of one’s life and making a decision: a
marker of adulthood. While drug use does lead to negative consequences at times (even destructive ones), its consumption from the perspective of an age-related activity that’s aimed at identity exploration and social belonging can be perceived in a positive light. It’s not that it’s necessarily wrong or bad, as there are positive sides to many things. Even so, should this normalization be dismissed as just something that young people do? It’s important to recognize that young people do find social benefits from drug use, one that grants them a sense of belonging, of being a part of a community who share similar leisure interests. However, care should be given when drawing the line between acknowledging these benefits, and condoning the activity.

Interestingly though, the average use of illicit drugs amongst youth in the world has either declined or stabilized in the past decade, which goes against with what we would expect with this normalization of drug use, in that consumption levels will increase.
However, this perhaps points to the fact that this phenomena isn’t necessarily in terms of numbers and statistics, but in terms of the way we now perceive the use of drugs. Personally, I see drug use as something that young people would try at least once in their lives. Whether that’s out of curiosity, fun, or for the sake of participating in that friendship-group spirit. Maybe this is the way you and many others perceive it, too.

It would be simplistic to say that the reason why drug use is becoming more
normalized is because young people are able to explore their identity and find a sense of
belonging in social activities related to drugs. It could however, play a role. Acknowledging that there is a process of desubculturalization regarding the use of drugs, and that there is a strong social aspect to it is important. It allows us to understand drug use from the perspective of the youth, and where it is positioned right now at the youth leisure landscape.