New Study: Punishing Drug Users Does More Harm Than Good

New Study: Punishing Drug Users Does More Harm Than Good

Friday, October 19, 2001.

New research suggests that punishing drug users could increase the likelihood that they will continue using drugs. Howard B. Kaplan, a sociologist and director of the Laboratory for Social Deviance at Texas A&M University, said that punishment lowers self-esteem, thus increasing the likelihood of continued deviant behavior.

“When a person is punished by society for a deviant behavior such as drug abuse, he or she is stigmatized and alienated, and this increases the likelihood of that person becoming motivated to act against social conventions,” said Kaplan.

He explained that when people are subjected to “negative social sanctions,” such as arrests or expulsions from school, they feel isolated from conventional society. As a result, they become unable to escape their past.

The low self esteem caused by such stigmatization, Kaplan notes, increases a person’s likelihood of continued deviant behavior. As a result of experiencing self-rejection, a person loses motivation to follow the rules of the society that has condemned him or her. Not only is there this loss of motivation, but there is a gain of motivation to continue deviant behavior, he explains.

Kaplan, whose research is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says even as stigmatized people experience self-rejection, the need for them to feel good about themselves is always present and causes them to redefine their deviant behavior as acceptable, or even good, he explains. In what social scientists refer to as “secondary deviance,” the person continues to behave in the deviant manner as a means of defense against the societal reaction to the initial behavior, he adds.

Kaplan recommended that sanctions be created that include a component emphasizing societal acceptance. He explained that sanctions must be imposed in a context where giving up deviance, such as drug use, will be rewarded by conventional society

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