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Full Review
Real Drugs in a Virtual World
by Edward MurguĂ­a, Melissa Tackett-Gibson, Ann Lessem (Eds.)
Lexington Books 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Fire Erowid, 8/9/2008

In the June 2007 issue of Erowid Extracts, we published “Drug Web Cites”, an article describing how Erowid has been referenced and discussed in print literature. Just as that issue went to press, we received a copy of the new book Real Drugs in a Virtual World, an anthology of sociology articles that look at how online technologies impact the lives of drug users.1 It addresses issues such as how harm reduction websites, including Erowid, affect the use of club drugs, how drug information websites are utilized by drug-using subcultures, how individuals assess the accuracy of online drug information, and the impact of the internet on face-to-face conversations about drug use.

The book was written and edited by a group of professors and researchers led by Edward Murguía at Texas A&M University. In 2001, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) sent out a Request for Applications (RFA) to study raves and the use of “club drugs”. Murguía and co-author Melissa Tackett-Gibson thought it would be an interesting topic to study via the internet. They gathered a team of researchers and writers with expertise in related fields, including causal factors of drug use (Edward Murguía), the internet (Melissa Tackett-Gibson), internet and community (Sarah Gatson), raves (Joseph Kotarba), and music and drug use (Shawn Halbert), among others. The team wrote an application, submitted it to NIDA, and received a grant ($100,000 a year for two years with an additional $45,500 a year for two years to Texas A&M for housing the project) to study issues related to drug use, raves, and the internet.

Earth and I met Murguía in June 2002, when we participated in the small NIDA-sponsored conference Drugs, Youth and the Internet.2 Many of the non-NIDA-affiliated attendees at the conference were other researchers who had received funding under the same RFA. Murguía et al. give the topic a surprisingly fair treatment. They look seriously at a number of issues and report their findings without being driven by political concerns. We were very interested, as we skimmed the book, to see how central Erowid is to several chapters.

In “Causal Factors in Drug Use” Murguía discusses various theoretical models for what causes drug use and then compares them to a harm reduction site forum thread that specifically addressed why those reading the thread used drugs. Reasons given fell into six categories (ordered from negative to positive context): to satisfy an addiction, for self-medication, to avoid problematic reality, for happiness and pleasure, for friendship, and for insight and inspiration. He found that the reasons provided by users mapped well to the theoretical models, while helping to develop a more complex model of drug use.

In “The New Drugs Internet Survey”, Murguía and Tackett-Gibson describe a survey conducted on an unnamed drugrelated web discussion board. One of the questions they asked respondents was what type of websites they had visited in the previous six months to get information about recreational drugs. 88% of respondents selected that they had visited “drug education/harm reduction websites (e.g., DanceSafe, Bluelight, Lycaeum, Erowid)” and 84% rated such websites as “very credible”. The authors note that use of government-sponsored websites “pale[s] in comparison” to the use of drug education/ harm reduction websites and comment that, “One wonders whether political constraints may be limiting science based information” available on government-sponsored sites. The authors go on to state that, “[…] almost all of the respondents indicate that they will consult drug education/harm reduction websites in the future. We conclude that first they have found such sites credible in the past, and, second, that it is to be hoped that drug education sites stay objective and scientific in the future, because the health and welfare of many people now depends on this being the case.”

In “Deterrence of Harm to Self”, Azzurra Crispino looks at how people choose whether or not to use illegal drugs. She begins by citing the theory that “all individuals choose to obey or violate the law by a rational calculation of the risk of pain versus potential pleasure derived from the act”, a theory that purportedly leads policy makers to create sanctions powerful enough to overcome those perceived benefits. Crispino then asks whether that is how real people choose whether to use illegal drugs and what types of sanctions people are most concerned about, formal (legal penalties) or informal (community disapproval). She compares reports of drug use on with experience reports on Erowid, looking for differences in how people discuss drug use.

In reports on TheAntiDrug, “blame is put on family members, parents, and friends, but there is no discussion of choosing to use drugs […]”, which downplays the role of individual choice and responsibility for outcomes. Crispino notes that TheAntiDrug did not distinguish between negative consequences directly attributable to drug use (health issues, etc.) and those that resulted from external sanctions (legal and familial). Further, they often published reports of negative consequences for which there was no evidence of a causal relationship with psychoactive drug use.

In contrast, Crispino describes that Erowid experience report authors primarily “categorized their drug use as being something they chose to do […]”. Erowid authors discuss wanting to be in control of their drug use and “making sure one ingests a substance in the safest way possible.”

Crispino also compared how TheAntiDrug and Erowid handle reports of serious injury or death. While TheAntiDrug focuses heavily on such reports, generally submitted by family members, Erowid has a policy of requiring external verification or at least discussion with the submitter before assuming such second-hand reports are authentic. She states that, “TheAntiDrug’s format of letting parents and siblings discuss family members’ drug use does provide for reporting of catastrophic consequences […]. However Erowid’s fact-checking editorial process probably makes their information more accurate.”

Crispino concludes that authors on both sites seem significantly more concerned with direct negative consequences of drug use than with either legal ramifications or societal disapproval. She proposes that drug users have already self-identified as outsiders and therefore the deterring effects of mainstream culture have little effect.

In “Assessing the Likelihood of Internet Information-Seeking Leading to Offline Drug Use by Youth”, Sarah Gatson looks at questions related to online communities. She asks how Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) affects human communities and choices. Gatson reports that, “Beginning in September 2001 and going through June 2003, I engaged in qualitative assessment and observation of the networked counter-cultural website known as Erowid.” After describing the importance of Erowid to the online drug culture “scene”, she declares that, “Erowid places itself first and foremost at the center of a national (international) socio-cultural and legal debate about the presence, use, abuse, and legitimacy of drugs.”

In her research, Gatson visited and categorized approximately 290 sites that appear on Erowid’s reciprocal links page. She identified sites that contained direct CMC access such as mailing lists, chat rooms, or message boards, and rated each by how likely online reading was to lead to offline communication and drug use. This process was designed to identify what percentage of these reciprocal link sites seemed likely to lead online information seekers towards drug use. Though her analysis categorized half of the sites as concerning, she clearly notes that visitors were interested in illegal drugs before visiting the sites. Consequently, the biggest area of concern for parents is that recreational drug related forums may facilitate further interest and use, but do not “instigate generalized youth interest in drug use”.

It is worth noting that Gatson only looked at sites linked to from Erowid’s reciprocal links page, not sites linked to from our psychoactive communities page or from psychoactive-related vaults. At the time, links displayed elsewhere on Erowid were not replicated on the reciprocal links page.

She then selected two sites that had well used CMC. She contacted their webmasters, described her project and her plan to participate in the forums and follow up with any face-to-face community interaction that was available. She reports that she “was met with courteous and informative responses, but not the easy follow-up in offline contact that my initial perusal of the sites-nor my own extensive online experiences-had led me to expect.”

In a later chapter, “Illegal Behavior and Legal Speech”, Gatson discusses Erowid as “an archive of a culture”. This reflects one of the ways we have envisioned our work from the beginning: as a type of postmodern anthropology. Gatson says, “An Internet site like Erowid is itself an ethnography in that it is representative of a dispersed social group with diffuse boundaries in which its members write their own narrative of their society, as it is, and how they wish it to be.”

Although our primary role is that of cultural documentarians rather than participants of the drug-using subculture, in the modern anthropological tradition we adhere to, the validity of one’s understanding of a culture or community is based on whether one is a part of that culture or community. If there is too little connection between anthropologists, researchers, or documentarians and their subjects, the resulting research is likely to be inaccurate. Erowid was started out of our personal and academic interest in psychoactives, but we are only peripherally involved in many aspects of the field. We maintain connections and involvement with a variety of communities in order to better be able to serve their needs, represent their actions and viewpoints, and act as their trusted recorders and archivists.

Considering the volume of information posted online about recreational drugs in the last decade, and the work that Erowid has done to help facilitate an improvement in quality of and access to this type of information, one of the things this book makes clear is how little scholarly attention has been paid to the impact that ubiquitously available drug information has on choices made by readers. This book and a handful of academic papers constitute the breadth of research to date examining this critical issue. We appreciate the authors dipping their toes into this topic and hope that others follow in their footsteps.

1. Murguía E, Tackett-Gibson M, Lessem A. (Eds.). Real Drugs in a Virtual World: Drug Discourse and Community Online. Lexington Books. 2007.
2. Erowid F. “Face to Face with NIDA: A Conference on Drugs, Youth and the Internet“. Erowid Extracts. Oct 2002;3:2.

Originally Published In : Erowid Extracts 13

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