The Drug Users' Code

How Unspoken Agreements Between Users Can Be Harmful

Models pose as marijuana smokers
Marijuana smokers follow the drug users' code of passing the joint. Dennis Hallinan/Getty Images

What is the Drug Users' Code?

The drug users' code is an unspoken, unwritten set of expected behaviors between drug users, that are followed in order to show membership in the social network of drug users, and to demonstrate solidarity with other users. These behaviors may be taught directly from other users, especially while going through the phase of initiation into drug use, or they may be picked up by observing the behaviors between groups of users.

Why the Drug Users' Code Developed

People who use drugs have, for decades, done so in secrecy. They have usually had to obtain their drugs through illicit means, typically through networks of other users, and drug dealers who seem more like friends than business associates. The side effects, risks, and negative consequences of drug use have also had to be managed through well-meaning co-users rather than professional intervention, using strategies gleaned more from folklore and urban myth than on legitimate medical evidence.

Furthermore, people who use drugs may rely on anecdotes and personal experiences rather than objective knowledge. And the perceptions and thought processes of people who use drugs are affected both by influences such as set and setting, and by the effects of the drugs themselves -- sometimes being so far removed from reality that they involve delusions and hallucinations.

So this adds up to a very unreliable source of information about perhaps the most important aspects of your well-being -- your mental and physical health.

Yet research has shown that people who use drugs have a high level of commitment to a drug users' code -- an unspoken set of rules and principles which guide choices and behavior around drug use.

Unfortunately, given the unreliability of the information drug users provide to each other, this can lead to significant, even life-threatening consequences for the person receiving the advice or attempts at help.

The Drug Users' Code in Action

Here are some examples of the drug users' code which can worsen, rather than improve the outcome:

-- If you were given or sold cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs by an older person when you first tried it, you should do the same for the next generation.

What you think this means: You are cool, not a hypocrite, you respect each person's freedom of choice, and you don't discriminate on the basis of age.

What it really means: You are a poor role model who could be a critical step in a life disrupted, or even ended prematurely, by current or future drug use.

-- If you have alcohol, a joint, or another smokable substance, you should pass it around.

What you think this means: You have a generous spirit, and feel a sense of camaraderie with other drug users. Plus, other users will like and accept you.

What it really means: You are being taken advantage of, and you are exposing yourself to whatever orally transmitted diseases the other person may have, and vice versa.

-- You have heard that vitamin C, marijuana, ecstasy, tranquilizers, or heroin can end a bad trip.

What you think this means: If someone is having a bad trip, you should give them these substances, because they might work.

What it really means: You could be giving someone confusing advice -- they will be frightened further when these substances do not help them feel better and may well make them feel worse. If they have an adverse reaction to anything they have taken, you will be complicating their medical help, when they receive it, and they could overdose on heroin.

So if you care about other drug users, forget about these unspoken rules of behavior. Don't share drugs of any kind, whether prescribed or not, with anyone, especially a young person.

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