First, it is really interesting to see how students classify alcohol and tobacco when they only see the pharmacological description of the drugs. Based on the effects of the drug, students usually classify both alcohol and tobacco as illegal controlled substances, but the reality in our country is that both are totally legal! As an adult you can buy and consume as much of these as you'd like. Why would our country allow such dangerous substances to be consumed by so many people? Because deviance is relative.
For a more reliable understanding of drugs and their effects, checkout the book Buzzed by Kuhn et al.
Another connection to the relativity of deviance is that for many years, drug use was considered a medical problem. If you are using drugs and harming your body or those around you, you need help. If you are psychologically addicted to drugs, you need help. As detailed in the book Reefer Madness, Eric Schlosser shows how Marijuana went from being a medical/social problem to being a criminal one. This change in the law shows how relative the law can be about marijuana. Furthermore, the laws criminalizing Marijuana are in many cases relative to where you are. Sometimes it depends on how the state handles the crime, sometimes it depends on how the local law enforcement handles the crime. An excerpt from Schlosser's writing:
Some states classify marijuana with drugs like mescaline and heroin, while others give it a separate legal category. In New York state possessing slightly less than an ounce of marijuana brings a $100 fine, rarely collected. In Nevada possessing any amount of marijuana is a felony. In Montana selling a pound of marijuana, first offense, could lead to a life sentence, whereas in New Mexico selling 10,000 pounds of marijuana, first offense, could be punished with a prison term of no more than three years. In some states it is against the law to be in a room where marijuana is being smoked, even if you don't smoke any. In some states you may be subject to criminal charges if someone else uses, distributes, or cultivates marijuana on your property. In Idaho selling water pipes could lead to a prison sentence of nine years. In Kentucky products made of hemp fibers, such as paper and clothing, not only are illegal but carry the same penalties associated with an equivalent weight of marijuana. In Arizona, where marijuana use is forbidden, the crime can be established by the failure of a urine test: a person could theoretically be prosecuted in Phoenix for a joint smoked in Philadelphia more than a week before.So, what this is showing is that Marijuana laws (and drug laws in general) have changed over time and are still different from place to place; the relativity of deviance.
Another example of the relativity of deviance is how drug crimes are punished. In another post, I showed how kids from the suburbs were being given a lighter punishment than poor kids from Chicago Housing Projects and in this post, I show how drug arrests are disproportionately given to minorities than to whites. The sentencing project highlights this as does the ACLU. And another way the relativity of deviance favored those of higher social class was through sentencing laws that unfairly targeted poor drug users much harsher than wealthier ones. Until 2010, crack cocaine (cheaper and used by poor minorities) was punished 100 times more harshly than pure powder cocaine (more expensive and used by wealthier people). Here is a quote from the ACLU:
The scientifically unjustifiable 100:1 ratio meant that people faced longer sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine than for offenses involving the same amount of powder cocaine – two forms of the same drug. Most disturbingly, because the majority of people arrested for crack offenses are African American, the 100:1 ratio resulted in vast racial disparities in the average length of sentences for comparable offenses.
Lastly, another relation of drugs and deviance is the stigma associated with drugs. Chicago Magazine published a story about the rapidly growing heroine problem in St. Charles claiming the lives of dozens of teens but the community was afraid to acknowledge this because of the stigma of drug use. This stigma lead to three teens dumping the body of their friend who had overdosed back into the poor Chicago neighborhood where they had bought the drugs.