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Education: Higher Education

Seeking Pleasure, Managing Moods: User’ Experiences with Psychoactive Drugs

Class 5. College Students


This class invites students to consider the place of psychoactive drugs in their own world, including the college setting. It repeats the theme of similarities between people using drugs illicitly and patients seeking to manage feelings and cope with problems by taking medicines prescribed by physicians. It also introduces performance-enhancing drugs with an article from a university student newspaper discussing students’ use of steroids in hopes of improving their academic performance. While earlier readings about users of heroin and other illicit drugs have focused mainly on working class users (as in the Progressive Era) or people deeply involved in a criminal subculture of drug use (as in the 1940s and 1950s), the Pierce article shows that college students can also be drawn into the use of heroin.

Class Resources
  • Greene, Jeremy A. and David Herzberg. “Hidden in Plain Sight: Marketing Prescription Drugs to Consumers in the Twentieth Century.” American Journal of Public Health 100 (May 2010): 793-803.
  • Pierce, Todd G. “Gen X Junkie: Ethnographic Research with Young White Heroin Users in Washington, D.C.” Substance Use and Misuse 34 (1999): 2095-3114.
  • Stock, Erin. “Academic Steroids.” The Tartan (Carnegie Mellon University student newspaper.) 10/14/2002, 1, 4.

Discussion Questions
  1. Have the students bring examples of advertisements for prescription-only psychoactive medications from popular magazines to class. Compare the advertisements directed to physicians in the 1950s and 1960s as illustrated in Herzberg, “The Pill You Love” to those directed to consumers or patients in the contemporary period. What images of those who consume, or perhaps should consume, medications to manage mood or behavior appear in each venue? How does gender appear in the newer advertisements? What do you think of the long, dense text discussion—e.g., warnings, side effects—that must accompany these advertisements?
  2. Compare the white middle class heroin users that Pierce describes to the heroin users encountered in Malcolm X’s Autobiography and William Burroughs’ Junky. Malcolm X describes a largely black urban world, while Burroughs was a white man from a wealthy family who developed the knowledge to navigate the underground drug world effectively for his own ends. How do the dynamics of urban and social (including racial) geography differ for Pierce’s young white users? In what ways do the risks these users faced compare to those Malcolm X or William Burroughs faced?
  3. Discuss what you know about patterns of psychoactive drug use on your campus (legal or illegal; prescribed or not). How would you distinguish various kinds of drugs and reasons people use them? Do distinct social groups prefer different forms of drug use? In what ways do groups establish norms to manage the risks associated with drug use or set limits on what is acceptable use? Are there norms, such as drinking games, which encourage heavy levels of use? To what extent, and in what forms, do you perceive drug problems on your campus? In what ways have the readings for this module influenced how you might think about these problems? How has the student newspaper on your campus covered issues related to drug use?
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