Growing up, both in a small college mountain town and later in the Denver suburbs, my parents, mentors, and peers advocated a life of work hard-play hard (so long as the play was responsible). This approach to life hints at the value placed on both entrepreneurship and leisure in American culture. There is a belief that we should be able to work hard enough to allow us free time away from these obligations, time to simply ‘enjoy life’.

In the dominant American ideology, only certain types of activities are seen as valuable ways play in our free time. Drugs can be an accepted element of a leisure activity, but only to the extent that the leisure involving drug use fits with other dominant cultural values.

In “Untapped: Exploring the cultural dimensions of craft beer”, Dr. J. Beckham argues that it is important to look at the complex relations between leisure and work throughout history to understand the way we value leisure in American society today.

From the outset in the Greek slave state, leisure was a marker of status, setting apart those who could afford to avoid manual (and thus menial) labor and instead engage in sports, art, philosophy and politics, from those who could not. This reversed by the end of the Middle Ages with the rise of the Roman Empire and Christianity with it. Leisure moved from social to individual activities and idleness was seen as a sin while manual labor was highly valued. According to Dr. Beckham, this sets the stage for our conception of leisure in the capitalist and consumerist based culture in America. We particularly value leisure activities that can be used to make a profit; call it entrepreneurial leisure.

Entrepreneur: a person who organizes, manages, and takes on the risks of a business or enterprise.

Leisure: a freedom that comes from ceasing activities, most often referring to time free from work or similar duties.

We sell the idea of entrepreneurial leisure as a way to thrive in the capitalist system. A common trope regarding career success tells us, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Not only can we love our work, but we can turn our love into our work. Not all leisure pursuits valued in American culture turn a profit for the person at play. Dr. Beckham points out that leisure activities have become increasingly linked to goods and services in America’s consumerist culture. To participate in these activities, you have to have the economic means.  To have the economic means, let alone the time for leisure, implies that you are a productive and hard working member of society. You have to be able to afford the leisure, both the cost of the activity and the cost of time away from work. Furthermore, the leisure activity is criticized when it threatens an individual’s productivity or ability to give back to the economy.

Where do drugs fit in with leisure and work?

For Dr. Beckham, the rise of craft beer illustrates the way that leisure is valued within the context of work. The narratives about the founding of the microbrew and craft beer industries tell a story about the successful and admirable blend of work and leisure. The story goes: an entrepreneur found a passion for brewing beer as a hobby. Through innovation and dedication to the craft, he was able to transition his hobby into a successful business and got ‘paid to play’. Thus, for craft brewers whose play is economically productive, alcohol is an accepted part of leisure.

Not all alcohol use linked with leisure is looked upon in such a favorable light. During the prohibition movement, alcohol was linked with crime, laziness, and a pitfall leading to poverty. Saloons were labeled as dangerous, crime-ridden, and corrupt. Harry Levin argues in his article, “The Alcohol Problem in America: From Temperance to Alcoholism” that “drinking became an all-purpose explanation for social problems” leading to prohibition. Although alcohol consumption is once more legal and accepted within certain limits, the link between alcohol, danger, and crime continues. This link is often found when discussing drinking in college where alcohol use in fraternities are tied to death, sexual assault, and shady legal dealings in lawsuits against these institutions.

Particular uses of other drugs have been similarly labeled as dangers to the fabric of society, often linked to a lazy or unproductive character of the drug user. When the narrative surrounding the use of the drug changes to fit within the capitalist society, it is seen as more acceptable.

Opium use, for instance, was seen as a justified drug as a medicine in the form of laudanum, and more modern strands such as morphine. Yet, when it came to getting a high smoking opium, the drug use was tied directly to a lack of productivity. Cigarettes, once used as a symbol of power and sexuality in media and society, are now surrounded by a negative stigma. Aside from health concerns, they are seen as a crutch among the workforce–every smoke break is a distraction from the job. The narrative around marijuana is undergoing a different transformation. What was once labeled “the assassin of youth” by Harry Anslinger is now being rebranded by non-profit lobbying groups such as NORML. This rebranding includes efforts to connect the use of marijuana with medical benefits and demonstrate that marijuana users can and are productive members of society.

The perception of drugs in American culture is a complex one, and the role drugs play in correlation with leisure and work is only one very small facet. It is tied to cultural ideas that place value on profit, hard work, and productivity. The use of drugs that threatens the capitalist system are depicted in a negative light while users that can exist alongside and even promote capitalism are more permissible.