The Marijuana Smokers
Appendix - Research Experience
As Howard Becker pointed out almost two decades ago, drawing a
random sample of marijuana users is an impossibility. No list
of all users, or even a large number of users, exists.
There are several organizations concerned with marijuana. LEMAR,
for instance, as its name implies, has as its goal the legalization
of marijuana. The "Jade Companions" offer legal assistance
to those arrested for the possession of psychedelic drugs. It
would seem that these organizations provide a starting point for
the collection of an informal sample of marijuana smokers. One
problem with approaching an organization of this kind is that
each one, for good reason, fears publicity, police surveillance,
and harassment. LEMAR, for in stance, would certainly attempt
to keep a listing of their member ship from falling into the hands
of anyone outside its organization. Since the existence of the
organization is a matter of public record, they are, even without
notoriety, open to the possibility of harassment. If it were known
that a sociologist had interviewed their members, the further
likelihood of their attracting incriminating attention would be
multiplied several times. In fact, at the first organizational
meeting of the Stony Brook campus chapter of LEMAR, potential
members were dissuaded from joining if they were presently users
of the drug; "If you smoke, don't join," they were urged.
This advice protects both the individual in that his member ship,
if known, would automatically cast suspicion on the legality of
much of his behavior, as well as the organization, since a large
number of members who are vulnerable to arrest threatens its stability
and existence. In any case, none of the individuals associated
in a leadership capacity with the drug-related organizations whom
I contacted was willing to cooperate with the study. Not wanting
to threaten their already dubious relationship to the law and
law enforcement agencies, I respected their unwillingness. It
was apparent that a less formal means of sample recruitment had
to be found.
One of the main channels of access that I used to collect respondents
was through acquaintance with individuals who occupied positions
in organizations which, although in no way formally drug-related,
included marijuana users. This segment of the sample was generally
gathered by going with the "gate keeper" individual
to the place of employment and getting the names of users willing
to be interviewed. Many interviews were conducted on the job,
either during the lunch hour or a lull in work; others were carried
out after working hours, usually at the residence of the interviewee.
These organizations included two large New York universities,
a large publishing house, and a market research firm.
The second source of my sample was through friends and their acquaintances.
A kind of "snowball" method of gathering names was adopted,
whereby each interviewee would supply me with one or two names
of people who also used marijuana. Often the original person would
contact his acquaintance and ask if he would consent to an interview;
in this case, he received the refusal or the acceptance, not I.
Frequently, I initiated the contact. Considering the illegal nature
of the activities I questioned them about, the number of refusals
was negligible. In fact, when I contacted the individual directly,
only four refused. As to the rate of refusal through the indirect
route, I cannot estimate.
The main concern was that I might be a policeman. It is puzzling
to me as to why this was so, but their initial fears were fairly
easily quelled; after all, were I actually a policeman, I would
reassure them that I was not in the same soothing tones. Perhaps,
like everyone else, marijuana smokers often react to stereotypes,
and I certainly do not look like a policeman. The second
worry was that their names would be kept and used, that it would
be known publicly that they were lawbreakers. I was careful to
assure them of anonymity, and to explain my procedure as to the
use of names which invariably eased their doubts. It seems strange,
but these two worries, that I was a policeman and that their names
would be taken down, were articulated in a minority of cases;
in about two-thirds of the cases, this was not necessary. It seemed
that my original contact had vouched for my veracity, and that
was apparently sufficient.
It should be emphasized that this is not a representative
sample, and is in no way a cross-section of all marijuana
users. At this point, the collection of such a sample is impossible.
Therefore, to use the composition of this sample as an accurate
description of marijuana smokers in general would be completely
fallacious and misleading. To reason, for instance, that since
47 percent of my respondents were female, the same percentage
of all users are female, would be to distort the meaning of this
study. I am not presenting a profile of marijuana smokers, but
an analysis of the social structure of marijuana use. This unstructured
manner of collecting interviewees for a study of a deviant and
illegal activity has both advantages and drawbacks. The potential
interviewee in a complete stranger situation will normally fear
detection by law-enforcement agencies, and will be unwilling to
be interviewed in the first place, or, if willing, would be evasive
and even dishonest. Cooperation, then, would, have been problematic
had more formal techniques, such as neighborhood sampling, or
drawing from a complete listing of individuals working in an organization
known to include high proportions of individuals who smoke marijuana.
What was necessary for me to be able to approach my interviewees
was that someone in the network of social relations be able to
vouch for my veracity and basic harmlessness. Only in this way
was the cooperation of my interviewees assured. Moreover, this
method avoids the oft-trod route of studying individuals who have
come to some sort of official noticeincarcerated criminals,
for instance, or those who have made some sort of court appearance.
As we now know, deviants who have attracted some form of official
notice present a systematically biased view of any group under
study, unless, of course, that group under study is individuals
who have attracted public notice.
The severe and restricting drawback to this casual and informal
technique of gathering respondents is, of course, that the interviewees
were certainly not representative of marijuana smokers in general;
moreover, just how unrepresentative they were, is unknown. The
specific individuals known to me reflect my personal associations;
another researcher with a different set of acquaintances would
have drawn a somewhat different set of respondents. And the organizations
to which I had informal access do not necessarily house a cross-section
of the marijuana-using population. Moreover, the persons whom
the original contact designates as a potential interviewee will
be distinctive in crucial ways. For one thing, he must be willing.
For another, those who are so designated are likely to be obvious
and conspicuous enough users (to their friends, at least) for
the designator to think of him off-hand specifically as a marijuana
smoker. (In spite of the fact that I requested users of every
level of use.) In all, the sources of bias were strong and have
many ramifications. For this reason, we must consider this study
exploratory, and its findings tentative. We hope that the guesses
and hypotheses suggested by our data will be tested subsequently
by more careful instruments.
Since our sample is unrepresentative, it is important to describe
its composition. The respondents were slightly more than half
(53 percent) male, relatively young (the median age was twenty-two,
and three-quarters of the respondents were in their 20s), and
overwhelmingly white (8 percent were black, and five respondents,
or 2.5 percent, were Puerto Rican.) Slightly over a quarter (27
percent) had parents with a Protestant background, 44 percent
were Jewish, and about a seventh had Catholic parents (14 percent)
or had parents with different religions (15 percent). Not quite
four-fifths (78 percent) were single, and a tenth were divorced.
A high proportion were students; 4 percent were high school or
grade school students, a quarter (27 percent) were college students,
and about a tenth (11 percent) were graduate students. The occupations
of the remaining respondents were professional, technical, or
kindred, 26 percent; managerial, official or proprietor, 4 percent;
sales or clerical, 16 percent; manual laborer, 5 percent; unemployed,
5 percent; housewife, 3 respondents. A third of the fathers of
the respondents (34 percent) were professional, between a third
and a quarter (29 percent) were managerial, officials or proprietors,
and a quarter (24 percent) were manual laborers; the remainder
(14 percent) was made up of salesmen or clerical workers
Of the respondents who were not at the time of the interview in
school (or, if the interview was conducted in the summer, who
did not plan to attend school in the fall), not quite half had
dropped out either of college (4/5 of this group) or of high school.
In fact, about 25 percent of the total sample was a college drop-out.
(It is, of course, impossible to estimate the likelihood of these
respondents returning to college. It should be kept in mind that
only about half of all those in general who enter college
actually receive a bachelor's degree.) About 10 percent of those
not presently attending school had a graduate degree, and
about twice this number either attended some graduate school
without receiving any degree, or had received a B.A. without attending
graduate school. All of the respondents were residing in New York
or its suburbs at the time of the interview (although a few were
in transit); our findings, then, will apply most directly to the
New York subset of marijuana smokers, and only by inference to
users elsewhere in the country. The data are probably without
application outside the United States.
An estimate as to the degree to which my sample varies from the
large and unknown universe of all users would be sheer speculation,
of course. I suspect, however, that the following differences
would be observed between a random sample and mine:
- A random sample of all marijuana users would be overwhelmingly
maleprobably about three-quarters.
- It would be more heavily black.
- It might be slightly younger, possibly at a median age of
- It would contain a lower proportion of individuals with any
contact with college.
- It might include a lower proportion with a middle-class background.
- Fewer would be Jewish, more would be Catholic and Protestant,
and very few would have a mixed religious background.
The interviews took place between February and September 1967.
Rapport with the interviewees was, on the whole, excellent. Not
one interview was terminated by the interviewee. (I terminated
two; one received too many telephone calls for me to finish the
interview, and later attempts at scheduling proved fruitless,
and the second was a psychotic whose answers bore no relation
to the questions.) Many interviewees reported that the interview
was interesting; my rapid pace kept their interest from flagging.
More important, of course, is that I believe that I received honest
answers, although more than a casual check is impossible. I was
careful to point out inconsistencies when they did occur, and
I rarely allowed vague answers to pass unclarified. Most of the
individuals interviewed were supplying information about felonious
acts. Although relatively few reported serious crimes beyond drug
use, the few that did appeared to be candid about it, although
wary. When I asked one chronic user of amphetamine how he was
able to pay for such heavy drug use he thought for a moment, turned
to the tape recorder, which was running, and said, "Could
you turn that thing off? He then proceeded to divulge the nature
and frequency of the crimes which he did commit. When I asked
a former heroin addict the same question, she responded shyly,
"I was a prostitute." Undoubtedly, there were some evasive
replies, some probably lied. But I believe that, given the nature
of the enterprise which they were describing, this was minimal
and exceptional, and certainly not characteristic.
The author conducted all of the interviews (except two). About
half were conducted at the interviewee's place of domicile (or,
rarely, at that of a friend), a quarter were conducted at his
place of employment, and perhaps another quarter was done at the
author's residence. A scattered few were done in public placesa
coffee house, a restaurant, a bar. The first fifty were tape-recorded,
and the remaining one hundred-fifty were transcribed almost verbatim.
There is, of course, the matter of variables which influence interview
rapport. It is possible that the rapport is greatest when the
characteristics of the interviewer are the same as those of the
interviewee, although there are important exceptions to this,
especially for certain kinds of information. During the period
of the interviewing, I was twenty-eight years old, while the median
age of the respondents was about twenty-two. I was in fact told
frankly by a half-dozen respondents that had I been noticeably
older, they would not have been willing to be interviewed. Another
important factor was attire. To have done the interviews in a
suit, white shirt and a tie would have threatened rapport; at
the very least, it would have placed a chasm of distance between
myself and the respondents. My dress was always informal, usually
no different from that of the interviewees. In general, dress
may be considered a part of the "hip-straight" continuum.
(The word "hip" is both an adjective and a noun. It
is permissible to speak of "having hip." "Hip"
is also used as a verb: "I hipped him to the scene.")
To the users who did think of themselves as "hip," hair
style played an important role in their identification, as well
as in the identification of others. During the period of the interviewing,
I had very long and shaggy hair. Although I did not grow my hair
long for the study, it had a peculiar relevancy for many respondents
which I had not anticipated. Since the "hip" style is
itself so variable, or, at least, there are degrees of "hip,"
many participants in this subculture might have thought that my
innocuous style was exceedingly "square." As I was
walking into an East Village artist's loft, two members
of a motorcycle cult walked out, claiming that they felt "bad
vibrations." It should be noted that among many "hippies,"
the mere fact of wanting to conduct an interview is "square."
It is possible that this does not indicate the success of my unintended
disguise, but I was approached several times on the street in
the "East Village": "You want to cop some grass,
man?" (Sometimes hashish as well.) It is possible, however,
that anyone who appeared to have any money would have been approached.
Other indicators of my ability to blend into the marijuana scenery
were several tribal greetings which I received from people unknown
to me on the East Village streets, as I went to and from interviews:
the extension of an open palm (which calls for slap into the palm),
spoken tokens of phatic communion ("Like, what's happening,
man?"), and similar examples of communication Once, while
sitting in a coffee shop, three young girls in their middle 'teens,
in "hippie" garb sat across the counter. (I quote from
my field notes):
They smile and wave. To me? I look around. It looks like me. One
says, "How's your trip?" Stupidly, I ask: "What
trip?" "You know," one says, giggling, with her
hand over her mouth, "LSD." Slowly realizing what's
going on, I ask "How did you know?" "Oh, we can
tellit's the glint in your eyes." Oh, yeah. Anyway,
here's the scene: they took me for a hippie. Why? What are the
Another indicator by which respondents, actual or potential, may
have sensed my lack of connection with law-enforcement agencies
and were, therefore, willing to confide in me, was in my understanding
and occasional use of slang terms. Although some are in current
use everywhere, such as "pot" and "grass,"
others are somewhat more esoteric: "spaced," "zonked,"
"blind," "wiped," to mention only a few for
the notion of being "high." It is interesting that many
of the respondents used these terms freelynone ever gratuitously
explained them to meassuming that I understood them.
It should be noted that any of these indicators of one's "purity"
i.e., lack of affiliation with the policecould be faked. Undercover
agents (such as the ones planted on Stony Brook's campus) learn
the argot, the manner of dress, the style of life, tonsorial cut
(or lack thereof), and so on. In fact, I interviewed an undercover
agent, a policeman who possessed all of the necessary appurtenances.
The user's naive faith in style leads him to believe that he is
able to sense a threat to him, when in fact, I doubt very
seriously if this is the case. When asked how he knows something,
a "hip" marijuana-using resident of the East Village
will often reply, "Vibrations, man." It must
be remembered that at least half of my respondents thought of
themselves as in no way involved in the "hip" way of
life. I interviewed Wall Street lawyers and corporation executives
as well as "hippies," dealers, and unemployed wanderers
who remained high most of their waking hours. For many, marijuana
did not change their basic style of life. Had the lawyers and
executives who smoked wandered into the habitat of the "hippies,"
they would have been thought of as "freaks." (For some
strange reason, the term "freak" has a dual usage. It
refers to a "square" who would be egregiously out of
place in a "hip" environment, and a "hippie"
who would be equally unfit for a place in "square" society.
Both would be freaks' in the opposite setting. When asked why
he wore a silver lame jacket on the stage when it was so hot,
a rock performer replied "Because I'm so freaky." It
was, of course, a boast. Usually, however, the term "freak"
has negative connotations.)
Therefore, these comments on "hip" only apply to a segment,
certainly less than half of the sample in full degree, since "hip"
is a matter of degree. But as a qualifier to this qualifier, it
should be noted that the more one was involved in the drug scene,
and with drug use, the more that one was likely to display a "hip"
style of life.
Perhaps in one respect, my rapport with the respondents may have
reduced the amount of information which I received, at least before
I began to probe and ask for elaboration. It was often assumed
that I knew what the respondent was describing. I received
the response, in the middle of a description: "Oh, I don't
have to go onyou know what I mean!" A pose of complete
innocence was not possible in many cases, although it is possible
that this approach would have yielded more information.
In addition to the responses to the formal interview, I observed
a great deal of drug-related behavior casually; I was a "participant
observer." In addition to the interview situation, I interacted
informally with many of my interviewees. Knowing that I was doing
the study, as well as for more personal reasons, they often invited
me to observe and take part in various drug-related social events,
such as parties, the "turning on" of a curious potential
marijuana smoker, the baking and eating of various foods in
which marijuana was cooked, feasts and dinners eaten while
high, LSD trips, "be-ins," "smoke ins," concerts
(listened to while high), drug sales and transactions,
and so on; I was called twice to calm frightened LSD "trippers,"
so that I spent two evenings doing just that (which taught me
both that LSD is not the harmless drug it is sometimes portrayed
by drug users to be, and the difference between temporary panic,
and hospitalization is often an understanding guide). I would
estimate that I observed about two or three thousand man-hours
of marijuana use in the eight months of the field research. That
is, the number of people times the number of hours I spent observing;
I spent about five hundred of my own hours in the company of someone
who was high.
One problem which any sociologist of deviant behavior faces
is that he has access to information concerning illegal activities
of his respondents which, if publicity and conviction ensued,
could result in long prison sentences for those so generously
supplying the information. In order to secure this information
in the first place, the researcher must assure his subjects of
complete confidentiality, that their names will be revealed to
no one. A betrayal of trust would be suicidal. This is both a
matter of professional ethics, as well as a question of sheer
practicality: if it became known that sociologists were unable
to keep their word concerning confidentiality, that, by revealing
compromising information about oneself, one thereby was placed
in serious trouble, the student of criminal behavior would not
long be in business. Adhering to the rule of confidentiality is
absolute, a rule that must not be broken.
No serious researcher of crime questions the maxim. But alas,
it is not so clear-cut. The sociologist is often called upon not
only to find out about illegal activities, but, as I said, to
observe them as well, and occasionally to participate in them.
The journalist-writer of a recent book, The Seekers, Jess
Stearn, refused even to be present when drugs were present in
the same room: "It was against the law to knowingly stay
where marijuana was smoked." As the book testifies, Stearn
learned nothing about drug use. There is no handy rule of thumb
here. My colleague, Ned Polsky, admits that he has been unwilling
to witness a number of illegal acts which were morally repugnant
to him (beatings, for instance), and, in so doing, slightly compromised
his role as a sociologist.
In my case, then, I witnessed hundreds of cases of drug use, possession,
and/or sale. As I said about one hundred of the interviews were
conducted in the place of residence of the respondent, or a friend
of his. In about half of these cases, or about fifty interviews,
the respondent used marijuana during the interview. The
likelihood of that many respondents smoking during the interview
was far greater than would have been expected randomly, judging
from the fact that the overwhelming bulk of the sample claimed
to smoke less than daily, and even the daily smokers did not typically
remain high during the whole day. My chances of hitting the respondent
while he was smoking, then, was far smaller than the 50 percent
of the at-home interviews I did, or even the 25 percent of the
total. This was a most curious tendency. Possibly talking about
the drug stimulated the respondents to smoke. When I asked one
respondent to describe the marijuana high, he said, "I'll
have to get high first," and lit up a pipeful of hashish.
There is, of course, the issue of criminality of the author's
behavior. It was witnessing crimes "taking place," i.e.,
I knew that the respondent possessed and used marijuana. In addition,
I was present during several purchases, which is also a criminal
offense. By law, one must report felonies of which one has knowledge.
And in this sense, in not reporting criminal acts, my behavior
was criminal. Obviously, I share this trait with every other criminologist
or researcher of deviant behavior who does his research "in
the field," i.e., in the open air outside the jail cell or
correction house. (And any criminologist who does all of his work
within the confines of an institution of incarceration itself
cannot be taken very seriously as a criminologist.)
I felt it to be of great importance to protect my respondents'
identity in any way that I could. I followed a number of procedures
to assure them of a relative degree of protection. When a subject
was contacted, I wrote his name on a small slip of paper. After
the interview was complete, I destroyed the slip, and I no longer
had either the name or any way of contacting the individual. At
no time did I have a list of any more than twenty individuals
(who were potential interviewees); at no time did I have a list
of any of the respondents who had already been interviewed. Moreover,
since I have gradually allowed myself to forget the names of all
the respondents whom I interviewed, I am not at this time able
to get in touch with any but a tiny handful of the subjects of
my study. Truman Capote claims to have cultivated the ability
of almost total recall after an interview, an ability which he
employed in the writing of In Cold Blood. With regard to
names at any rate, I cultivated precisely the opposite skill:
that of forgetfulness.
This precaution was a way of making sure that the fact that I
had written down names and telephone numbers of respondents and
potential interviewees did not place any of them in jeopardy.
They were assured anonymity, and I felt that it was necessary
to do whatever I could to protect that. If, for some reason or
in some way, the research became known to law-enforcement officers
who saw me as a route to the names of users and, possibly, suppliers,
I would be able to at any given time to be of as little use to
them as possible, even in the case that they confiscated the names.
After the interviews were completed, of course, I became of no
use to them whatsoever.