SYMBOLIC ELABORATION IN SOLITARY DRUG USE RITUAL

Contents
The Ritual Objects
The Ritual Sequence
Ritual Drug Combinations
The Power of Ritual
Conclusion
References

As explained in chapter four, observing (parts) of the drug ingestion sequence may elicit recognition and specific thoughts and feelings in a user, that are unknown to non users. Such references may be very strong and can induce drug craving, which, in turn, may lead to drug use. Even the sight of disposed drug paraphernalia, such as scraps of aluminum foil or an empty lemon juice bottle can have such effects. To users these objects have meaning beyond their appearance or actual function. They are symbols for a state of consciousness favored above that without drug use. Ex-users are often also very susceptible for such signs of drug use. This chapter investigates the special meaning of the drug use rituals at the level of the individual user.

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The Ritual Objects

Most users (and also ex-users) of (illegal) drugs will normally speak positively about the actual effects of drug taking when such matters are discussed in a non-judgmental atmosphere (1). The frequent expression of these positive attitudes in the celebratory use of paraphernalia related to the administration sequence is a strong indicator of special meaning. Not only have certain paraphernalia developed into "shorthand emblems" (1) for specific drug user identities (the little coke spoon around the sniffers neck; a tattoo of a syringe, a T-shirt with cannabis leafs) but the actual use of these tools themselves --going through the ritual procedures and sequences-- may in fact add a large part to the effect. As Goldenweiser remarked, such actions generate "an overproduction of thought, emotion and activity. The elaboration of these processes is accompanied by pleasurable emotion, it becomes an end in itself" (2). This may add to the explanation of the frequent practice of booting. Another good example is the construction of the pipe by chasers. Although the specifications of this essential tool are dictated by pragmatic considerations, many users put a lot of care and precision in making such a pipe; the process is subject to a great degree of stylization and a good end result often gives overt satisfaction. Users are usually not very eager to share their pipe as these are rather fragile and might get fucked up by uncareful use.

Certain users' preoccupation with the preferred type of syringe can also be explained in ritual terms. The most commonly used syringe in Rotterdam is a 2 ml disposable with a detachable needle of 0.5 x 16 mm (5/8 x 25 "). Most IDUs prefer this 2 ml and for that reason it is dispensed by the municipal needle exchange schemes. A minority of IDUs favor the slimmer 1 ml insulin syringe with a thinner (0.36-0.40 mm.) fixed needle. Such preferences can be very strong as the following fieldnote depicts:

A male IDU of ± 35 years enters the Needle Exchange and asks for a syringe. He is handed a 2 ml two-piece pack. He asks if there are 1 ml insulin syringes available, as he does not use the 2 ml type. When he is told that only the 2 ml type is dispensed, he returns the 2 ml syringe and leaves.

This excerpt indicates that, from a harm reduction perspective, availability of several types of syringes at needle exchanges is important. In the next excerpt two IDUs explain their syringe preference:

Sjef tells he prefers the 1 ml type: "I prefer them because I've always used them. I feel more secure handling it, I'm experienced in using it." Jack: "I prefer the 2 ml spikes. I can't handle the other ones, they're so fragile. I find it harder to pull back the plunger and so."

Jack's explanation is in terms of the physical properties of the instrument. However, a careful look at Sjef's explanation shows that his reasons also focus on the symbolic meaning. Explanations such as "I've always used them" are much alike those often used by devotees to explain religion and other customary behavior --That is just the way things are; It is the custom; We follow the liturgy of the church. "Ritual is commonly validated by its supposed antiquity" (3). The phrase "I feel more secure handling it, I'm experienced in using it" not only refers to a standardized pattern of syringe use, but also illustrates the anxiety reduction properties of the familiar syringe (4). Thus, for Sjef the preferred type of syringe has ritual value, as it enhances and thus symbolizes a positive outcome of the ritual sequence. Again, a blend of instrumental and symbolic motivations is found.

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The Ritual Sequence

Another indicator of special meaning is that parts of the ritual sequence for many users seem just as important as the complete process. Durkheim already observed this phenomenon in his early studies of religion. He wrote "When a sacred thing is subdivided, each of its parts remains equal to the thing itself. ... [I]t has the same powers, the same efficacy" (5). In the highly secular drug subculture under study here, it was not expected to find examples that fit this description completely. However, a rich gamut of examples that illustrate the point was found. For some users the quality of certain parts of the drug taking sequence is indicative for the results of the whole procedure. For example in the following example the quality of heroin is judged on how it runs along the aluminum foil while heated:

In the mean time Achmed shows him how good the dope runs on the tin-foil "You see, I told you, it's always good with him (the dealer)".

There may be a relationship between the purity of the heroin and it's behavior on the aluminum foil, but again this lore is not based on objective information, although it is a widely spread belief among chasers. That there is a real relationship between means (running on foil) and ends (good quality heroin) is questionable as during the fieldwork the community fieldworker came across an adulterant with exactly this valued specification. After winning the confidence of a middle level dealer, he was shown a powder, having the specifications of ideal heroin. It exhibited the consistency and light brown color, associated with so called Stuif Paak, a Pakistani heroin and it melted and ran along the foil as only heroin of exceptional quality is rumored to do, without leaving a trace. But it had no psychoactive effect whatsoever. The dealer was aware of the beliefs and practices of chasers and told the fieldworker that this powder is used for adulteration in order to take advantage of the demand for good running heroin. Likewise, some smokers relate cocaine's effect to the taste and numb feeling that it produces:

"When I smoke and I don't get that certain taste in my mouth I won't get high from that coke it's hard to describe, I have to feel it in my lips and in my throat, and if I don't feel it, I won't get stoned from it".

Cocaine may, however, be cut with related substances (e.g. procaine) that do cause a numbing effect but do not have the same psychoactive effects. Again, the behavior does not fit a means- end schedule.

In the next example John visited a friend one night. He brought along a little heroin:

John showed a little heroin and proposed to smoke it. First his friend agreed, but a few minutes later he said "Maybe better not, I have to work tomorrow morning." John, who already had started to prepare for smoking got a little out of balance and, looking disturbed, he said "What are you doing now? You can't do that. Don't break the ritual."

This Garfinkelian breach of the ritual (6) revealed that, for John, the start of the drug use sequence resulted in an increased craving for the drug. Often short before the administration of drugs, users get highly aroused (7). When involved in conversation, some users cease talking and may even get annoyed when others continue. They want to concentrate on the task at hand and the anticipated state of consciousness --a major function of ritual (4). As one IDU explained:

"As soon as I put it on the spoon my stomach turns around and I know it's gonna happen, I'm gonna feel that intense rush."

Such strong reactions are not unusual. An ex-user explained how, in the time shortly after her detox, she would start to crave when she received her salary. She did not dare to go on the streets with money in her pocket --for her money equaled dope. Similar accounts have been described before (8). She also reported that one time, three years after her detox, when she was walking on the street in a neighborhood with high drug activity, she had to throw up after smelling a wasted shot. During the fieldwork such physical reactions were also observed:

When Achmed took his first 'zucht' (sigh=smoke), Nadir was shivering. Nadir touched Achmed saying: "did you see that, just from the smell I get cold shivers and chicken- skin", and he shows it to him, "I have that especially when I'm sick, what a reaction isn't it". Achmed says he is familiar with it too.

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Ritual Drug Combinations

Many drugs are often combined in shared administration rituals. The combination of heroin and cocaine is most evident in the study sample, but other drugs are combined also. The use of methadone, prescription drugs and alcohol in various combinations is a notorious example, especially favored by impoverished users, who cannot afford heroin and cocaine. Chasers frequently combine their heroin and/or cocaine use with intensive tobacco smoking. Monroe, for example, always lit a filter cigarette before she started chasing. While chasing, she took some puffs, but often the cigarette just burned up in the ashtray. For numerous users, smoking cigarettes is strongly associated with heroin or cocaine use and after quitting these drugs, they frequently noticed drug craving when smoking tobacco. One former heavy cocaine user, who smoked the drug in Marlboro cigarettes, reported that months after he stopped smoking cocaine, he would often still taste cocaine when smoking a Marlboro. Likewise, two smokers of tobacco and cannabis (not involved in this research) classified themselves as nicotine addicts, but said they smoked cannabis only recreationally. Because of the harm associated with regular tobacco smoking and their awareness of these effects on their body and performance, they (independently) decided to stop smoking tobacco, but continued the use of cannabis. However, in the Netherlands cannabis is generally smoked in hand-rolled joints with tobacco. They tried smoking pure cannabis from a pipe, but did not like this as they often had to cough, because of inexperience with the distinct smoking ritual and they missed the feeling of the joint (and of course also the cigarette) between their fingers which they associated with sociability. Therefore, their continued recreational cannabis use hampered their efforts to stop smoking.

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The Power of Ritual

Many users are well aware of the symbolic power imposed on parts of the ritual sequence or objects essential for the performance of the sequence. The following IDU started working as doorman at a house address where only smoking was allowed. He tells:

"I stopped shooting up two days ago", he tells, "... I quit kinda radically; I brought back the container and the box of syringes to the exchange program."

By removing the essential paraphernalia he prevents the onset of the ritual sequence. It would probably have been a greater effort and cost much more stress to abstain from injecting, if a syringe would have been available. A similar process seemed to be at work in the case of Monroe. Monroe had relapsed into heroin use after she detoxed and was clean for some months. Just as before quitting, she chased her heroin. Prior to her detox Monroe was very uncompromising about her aluminum covered pipe and smoking foil. These tools had to satisfy her strict specifications. After her relapse she however only used a rolled up piece of thick paper, something she would not have done before detoxing. When she was asked about this discrepancy she explained:

"Then it becomes such a ritual again and I do not want that to happen. For me that would be a sign of being completely into it again. You know, saving the interest for the next morning, etc."

For Monroe the aluminum covered pipe acted as a strong symbol for the demanding lifestyle she was trying to give up.

In chapter four it was shown that drug craving can have an effect on the performance of parts of the ritual. The preceding examples demonstrated that ritual and it's distinguished parts, drug paraphernalia, ritual places and situations in which drugs were used and other related cues can also influence craving. Many, for the superficial observer, insignificant cues can elicit drug craving and subsequent use. For that reason, users who try to regain control over their drug intake limit their exposure to certain stimuli associated with their drug use rituals. They may avoid certain places or even move to another town. Often people try to avoid meeting their (former) using buddies:

"I really tried to stay out of his way, but every time I met Hank I felt the urge coming up. I knew we were gonna do cocktails and that's what happened, each time we ran into each other".

All these phenomena are related to the specific mindset produced by the performance of the ritual sequence. The ritual and its parts focus attention by suppressing or excluding distractive thoughts and stimuli. Thereby it appeases motivational conflict, curtails anxiety and fear and increases confidence in a good result of the task at hand (4, 9) --the high longed for. This phenomenon is again not limited to illegal drug use. For example, many users of tobacco who try to stop smoking find this especially difficult in certain situations (e.g. at parties or when offered a cigarette by an ignorant), at moments that are normally associated with smoking (getting up in the morning, after completing a certain task, or after dinner), or when using drugs that are often combined with tobacco (e.g. coffee or alcohol). The drugs may be different, the ritualized complex of physiological, psychological and social processes resulting in craving, drug seeking behavior and drug use, is alike.

"Special meaning is [also] indicated by either obsessive performance of the ritual, or continued performance ... after the rationale is no longer present" (1). Such examples of what may be called hyper ritualization were also observed during the fieldwork. Chasers can sometimes get really upset when the heroin does not run well on the foil or chars quicker than expected, which is taken as an indicator of poor smoking quality. But most examples concerned IDUs. In particular older ones, who have few accessible veins left. In chapter six it was presented that they continue injecting until all veins are used up. With injecting careers sometimes exceeding twenty years, for some the needle has become an integral part of their life and the most dependable source of comfort and security. They will carry on injecting just for the feeling of the needle:

Bennie was trying to shoot up but it wasn't working out very well. His right arm was tied off with a belt. There were three large injection sites on the outside of his underarm. In one he was searching for a vein. The syringe contained a mixture of a heroin solution and a little blood. He continued searching for at least 20 min. In the meantime he was participating in the conversation. Then he examined his other arm for a willing vein. He looked concentrated at his left hand, turning it in the light. He tried a spot on the back of the hand, but after a while he gave up, took a piece of tin foil from the table, put some brown powder (heroin) on it and started chasing through a crummy tinfoil pipe. When prompted, he explained "It is not working out, because I am not all that concentrated, when I go to the bathroom I'll fix up in no time." His inability to shoot up didn't seem to arouse him at all. On the contrary, he stayed calm and relaxed. He may well have enjoyed just playing with the needle.

Bennie seemed in the middle of giving up injecting. Judging the discrepancy with his obvious inability to hit a vein, his explanation seems merely self-deception, which may well be part of the process. The crummy pipe indicates that chasing is still only viewed a necessity, while pleasure remains pursued by injecting. Bennie did not seem to suffer pain or anxiety --he did not display visible signs of pain or disturbance. For that matter, he (or this event) may be an exception:

On his arm Gus had some smaller and larger abscesses and trying to take a fix he needed to be alone without talking around. When it wasn't working out he got very aroused and angry. His partner, Ria Vis with whom I sat in the living room (Gus was in the bedroom) said that this happens all the time. "He's stubborn, if he just asked me I'll help him and then its done". "It looks like you enjoy it", she shouted to the bedroom. "In the end he asks me anyway, wait and see." ... And so it happened.

Some users were observed to inject solutions that contained quantities of the drug, too minuscule to sort an effect:

He cuts the plastic bag open to get the remaining coke out. There is only a little left on the plastic. With a knife he carefully scrapes the coke from the plastic. It is almost nothing. He takes the filter from the spoon and wipes off the plastic and the knife. Then he puts the filter back in the spoon. There is even a little flint of plastic in the spoon. "There's coke on it, it will come off in the water." Now he checks the table for coke crumbs. He finds two, picks them up and adds them to liquid in the spoon. "I wonder if I will feel a thing from this." ... He tries four spots before he hits a vein. Then, while booting looses the vein several times. Finally he stops and takes the needle out of his arm. ... "It's to less, I don't feel a thing. Tomorrow I've got money again. Then I can buy heroin and cocaine again. When I shoot cocktails I shoot less."

Not only does this user shoot a quantity of which he must know that it will not sort an effect, he is also booting, although, due to the condition of his veins, this is very difficult and he runs the risk of wasting the whole shot. Moreover, he is checking the table for cocaine crumbs he might have missed. Some users can get really obsessed with this activity. During the fieldwork at the house addresses only one other example of such frantic and obsessional behavior was observed. At the Central Station, where the more marginalized and often homeless drug users hang out, this "digging for diamonds" (10) is more common. There it has even drawn the attention of the surveying police officers, who have named people acting like this chicken (11). Such behavior is traditionally associated with intensive use of stimulants (12). In the current study mainly with heavy use of cocaine. Most users are aware of the obsessional quality of cocaine. In particular when binging on the drug obsessive thinking may interfere with the desired high, as this user explained:

"There I go again with that coke, I just took a shot. Often the needle is still in my arm and I'm in the flash. But already I'm thinking about the next shot. You're so busy with the next one that you ruin the flash you're in."

In the Rotterdam scene this is referred to as the famous last shot. The cocaine rush is ruined by anxious and distractive thoughts about where and how to get more.

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Conclusion

This chapter presented evidence of symbolic elaboration in solitary drug use ritual. It should, however, be understood that not all research participants experience these phenomena in the same degree. For example, to some users the order of the administration sequence is of main importance, whereas others just want to get the drug into their body. Therefore, as with any form of ritual behavior "Intragroup variation in the extent to which the event is perceived as a ritual" can also be expected in drug use rituals (1).

Learning processes play an important role in ritual. For the last forty odd years, behavioral scientists have emphasized conditioning factors in drug use and especially in relation to relapse after detoxification (8, 13, 14, 15). Based on these studies several extinction procedures have been designed and evaluated with varying results (16, 17, 18). However, such approaches have often omitted the social dimensions of the rituals of drug users. The functions rituals fulfill in the given social space and their effects on the collective consciousness of the community of users are frequently not considered. In the next chapter the analysis will focus on the social functions and meanings of drug taking rituals.

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References

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  17. O'Brien CP, Greenstein R, Ternes J, McLellan AT, Grabowski J: Unreinforced self- injections: Effects on rituals and outcome in heroin addicts. In: Harris L (ed.): Problems of drug dependence, 1979: Proceedings of the 41st Annual Scientific Meeting, The Committee on Problems of Drug Dependence, Inc. NIDA Research Monograph 27. DHEW Pub. No. (ADM) 80-901. Washington, DC: Supt. of Docs., U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1980: 275-281.
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