The Drug Experience: Cocaine, Part 3

Dan Waldorf and colleagues were ‘pleasantly surprised’ by the relative ease with which so many cocaine users managed to quit. Their research emphasises the importance of one’s personal and social identity in influencing drug use. (895 words)


In the last two Briefings, we focused on the most comprehensive ethnographic study of heavy cocaine users, conducted by Dan Waldorf and colleagues in Northern California. They interviewed 267 current and former heavy users of cocaine, a sample that did not include people in treatment programmes or in prison. Most of the respondents were ‘solidly working- or middle-class, fairly well-educated, and steadily employed.’

This research challenged many of the prevailing myths. In the present Briefing, we look at the process of giving up use of cocaine. Waldorf and colleagues interviewed 106 quitters—30 of these had received some form of treatment, whilst 76 stopped using cocaine without treatment.

When respondents were given a list of personal reasons for quitting, the most common (47% of sample) was given as health problems. The next most cited reasons were financial problems (41%), work problems (36%) and pressure from spouse and/or lover (36%). Only 7% cited actual arrest, although 28% cited fear of arrest as a reason for quitting.

Respondents were also given an open-ended summary question on the most important reason or reasons to quit. A total of 61% mentioned some form of psychological problem or stressful state caused by cocaine as the most important reason to quit. The next most common reasons were financial problems (23%), and severe or recurrent health problems or concerns (19%).

There was great diversity in actions that respondents took to quit using cocaine. Some made a number of attempts to stop before they actually succeeded. They despaired over the hold the drug had over them and had great difficulty in maintaining a resolve to stop using.

However, over a half of the sample stopped using on their first try, although this was not always easy. Two-thirds of the untreated cases stopped on their first attempt, whilst only one in five of treated cases did so.

More than 40% of all quitters reported making some sort of geographic move as part of their successful attempt to quit. Two-thirds of these people said they moved to another city or state, at least in part to help them stay away from cocaine.

The most frequently used strategies for stopping to use cocaine were social avoidance strategies. Nearly two-thirds of the quitters said they had stopped going to places where cocaine was being used, or had made conscious efforts to avoid seeing cocaine-using friends. Over 40% had also sought out new friends who did not use cocaine.

More than 75% of the sample became more concerned about their physical health whilst quitting, and acted upon these concerns. Two-thirds improved their eating habits, and a half undertook new programmes of physical conditioning.

Over half of the quitters sought out new interests, with 39% participating in sports to help them avoid using cocaine. Similarly, 55% of the sample used informal help, such as family or friends, to stop using cocaine.

Only 17% of the sample started using other drugs after quitting cocaine. Of those that did, the majority used only marijuana, which almost all had used before and during their cocaine use. Whilst 21% drank more alcohol, most drank less after giving up cocaine.

Most of this diverse sample had used cocaine heavily for a good number of years—but few were ever merely cocaine abusers. Moreover, their use had not led them to becoming stigmatised. The majority worked regularly, maintained homes, and were responsible citizens:

‘… a commitment to their everyday lives gave them a stake in normalcy and bonded them to the conventional world.’

The sample were different to heroin addicts in other studies, many of whom came from disadvantaged backgrounds, had been criminalised and stigmatised, and had few private resources (e.g. education, jobs).

For many of the present sample, prolonged use of cocaine stopped being fun and started disrupting, rather than enhancing, everyday lives. Since these lives had meaning and value, the difficulties caused by cocaine became powerful spurs for cessation.

The researchers were ‘pleasantly surprised’ by the relative ease with which so many cocaine users managed to quit. Their strategies were in general fairly common-sensical social avoidance strategies, designed simply to put distance between themselves and the drug.

Most of the quitters were able to manage the cravings they experienced after stopping cocaine use. They realised that cravings were only transitory—distractions caused them to subside. New interests and activities provided such distractions. Many quitters found cravings:

‘… little different from yearnings one might feel for an old lover – one feels the desire, but with time it subsides and one thinks of him or her less and less.’

These findings emphasise the importance of one’s personal and social identity in influencing drug use. A commitment to a conventional identity and everyday life helps form the social-psychological and social-organizational context within which control and cessation of drug use is possible.

It is commonly stated that drugs come to dominate identities and lives. This was true in the most problematic cases in the Waldorf study.  However, for the bulk of the sample, identities and lives usually dominated drug use. This is a critical fact that must be remembered when we try to help people overcome problems caused by drugs and alcohol.

Recommended reading:

Cocaine Changes: The Experience of Using and Quitting by Dan Waldorf, Craig Reinarman and Sheigla Murphy. Temple University Press, USA.

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The Drug Experience: Cocaine, Part 2

While cocaine is portrayed as having a very high addiction potential, the majority of people who use the drug do not have a problem. Research by Dan Waldorf and colleagues reveals a number of social and social psychological factors that influence how a person uses a drug. (887 words)


Cocaine is often portrayed as having a very high addiction potential, and that most people who use it are risking serious physiological and psychological harm. Whilst some cocaine users do develop difficulties, the majority do not.

The most comprehensive ethnographic study of heavy cocaine users was conducted by Dan Waldorf and colleagues in Northern California. They interviewed 267 current and former heavy users of cocaine, a sample that did not include people in treatment programmes or in prison. Most of the respondents were ‘solidly working- or middle-class, fairly well-educated, and steadily employed.’

These researchers showed that about a half of interviewees maintained a controlled pattern of cocaine use, some of them for even up to a decade. According to Waldorf, controlled use can be defined as either, ‘regular ingestion without escalation to abuse or addiction, and without disruption of daily social functioning’, or ‘a pattern in which users do not ingest more than they want to and which does not result in any dysfunction in the roles and responsibilities of daily life.’

Based on their observations, Waldorf and colleagues described the ideal type of controlled users:

  • ‘Controlled users tended to be people who did not use cocaine to help them manage pre-existing psychological problems, and did not also abuse other drugs, especially alcohol.
  • Controlled users generally had a multiplicity of meaningful roles which gave them a positive identity and a stake in conventional life (e.g., secure employment, homes, families). Both of these anchored them against drifting toward a drug-centered life.
  • Controlled users, perhaps because they are more anchored in meaningful lives and identities, were more often able to develop, and stick to, rules, routines, and rituals that helped them limit their cocaine use to specific times, places, occasions, amounts, or spheres of activity.’

This research suggests that a stake in conventional life and identity are central for understanding continued controlled use. Such stakes seem to keep a person’s drug use from overtaking their life and identity. They also facilitate an individual reasserting control after a period of problematic use (I will discuss this issue in a later Briefing).

The fact that these social and social psychological factors mitigate against cocaine misuse and related problems suggests that not everyone need develop a problem with cocaine, even when using heavily as this population was.

At the same time, it follows that those people with the least stake in conventional life may be at the highest risk for problematic cocaine use. Cocaine, and in particular crack, have had a marked impact in poor neighbourhoods, causing problems to many individuals and communities.

Obviously, these forms of social control are not fool-proof for maintaining controlled use. Some people with a large investment in conventional life did lose control of their cocaine use and develop serious problems. Waldorf and colleagues report that:

‘… after scouring our other interview transcripts, we could not put our fingers on any one magical ‘factor X’ that explained why some people get into trouble and others did not.’

Other researchers in the US and other countries have reported controlled use of cocaine by a significant proportion of users (see Decorte, 2000 for review).

Waldorf and colleagues recognise that some well-intentioned parents and policy makers might not want to broadcast findings about controlled use for fear of facilitating the denial of some misusers or increasing the risks for some new users.

However, they contend that the:

‘… considerable possibilities for exercising control over cocaine use can be seen as cultural resources that can facilitate personal capacities for control and social capabilities for harm reduction.’

The researchers made the very good point that if the only frameworks in society for interpreting one’s drug-using behaviour are addiction and abstinence, then the idea that one can and should exercise control can atrophy. The interviews revealed that one important reason that control was possible for so many of the participants was that they believed that it was possible. They believed that cocaine was ‘not necessarily addicting, that it could and should be used in a controlled fashion.’

Whilst cocaine is often portrayed as a powerful reinforcing psychoactive drug, we sadly do not often hear that its powers are also mediated by users’ norms, values, practices, and circumstances. We underestimate the powers of social, social psychological and cultural aspects, whilst overestimating the pharmacological power of the drug.

Waldorf and colleagues point out that heavy cocaine users have taught us:

‘… that beyond the drug itself, how users think about and behave towards drugs matters a great deal. Cultural norms matter. Subcultural practices matter. How closely we look out for each other matters. The uses to which we put consciousness-altering substances matters. The personal and social resources of users matter. The values placed on productive daily lives matters. And, of course, the social distribution of opportunities for productive lives matters…’

Recommended reading:

Cocaine Changes: The Experience of Using and Quitting by Dan Waldorf, Craig Reinarman and Sheigla Murphy. Temple University Press, USA.

The Taming of Cocaine: Cocaine Use in European and American cities by Tom Decorte. VUB University Press, Belgium.

> pdf document

> Part 3