An actual discussion from me? Yep, apparently! This discussion was borne from a few books I have read recently, and had me wondering a few key things.

  1. Is casual drug use in books- without some kind of greater message- ever acceptable? (Either to you personally, or on a global level?) Is there actually such a thing as “casual” when it comes to drugs?
  2. Is casual drug use common? Am I impossibly sheltered?
  3. Does the author have a responsibility to frame drug/alcohol/tobacco use in a certain way?
  4. Does the age group make a difference when talking about this?

So, the idea for this post started when I mentioned to Amber that I felt a little squicky with the casual drug use in The Love Story of Ivy K. Harlowe. In fairness, I think it semi-resolved itself by the end, but not as much as I’d have liked? There are some cases of the characters, who, for reference, are between 17-20, doing ecstasy fairly casually, and even some mentions of things like cocaine. I did really enjoy the book, and like I said, there was some resolution to the issues I had, so please don’t mistake this for my disliking the book- quite the contrary! But it did provoke this discussion.

This topic also came up in an adult book I’ve read recently (and loved!), The Last One at the Party. Here, the main character tries to drown out her problems (and mental health issues) with illegal drugs, but soon learns how unsustainable it would be. In The Girls Are All So Nice Here, drugs were rampant on the main character’s campus, and everyone seemed very… cool with it, which was surprising to me.

I’m also not talking about books in which drug use is presented as a cautionary tale, or when the author highlights recovery from an addiction (Heroine immediately comes to mind).

So, let’s go!

I mean, for me, personally? Not really? Or rather, nothing harder than say, alcohol or marijuana use (especially since the US is reaching legality of the latter, and our antequated views on the former lead to more problems than it solves). I’ll also say that while I’m certainly no expert, nor do I profess to be, but becoming addicted to such things is way too easy- plus, who knows what could be in them? That in itself is a risk. Obviously, if the author is presenting it as a risky behavior, that is a different story altogether, and one I can tolerate.

It was risky, you see.

Okay guys seriously, am I hopelessly naïve? I know I am older than YA characters, but was around the same age as the characters in both The Last One At the Party and The Girls Are All So Nice Here. So I feel like my ancientness age cannot be the only factor at play. Look, I went to college, where obviously there was underage drinking (see last section on the US’s absurd reactions to alcohol and how it just makes it more taboo). But drugs? I mean, there was one girl on my swim team who I heard rumors about doing cocaine. But she was kicked off the team, so who knows. The point is, the casualness of it kind of throws me because I literally have never encountered it. And that’s a good thing, for me! But I guess I can’t help but wonder if I am woefully out of touch? Are the books in which this is commonplace more accurate? I am just being out of touch?

And I don’t want to be judgmental either! Which makes this seem like a very fine line. Am I being judgmental for finding drug use irresponsible? I am not sure. Maybe. But I also don’t want to see anyone hurt, or worse. So I guess that is why I wanted to talk about it!

This admittedly is a loaded question. And my answer is both yes and no. Look, no author owes the reader anything. If someone wants to write about a protagonist who does drugs all week and still manages to fulfill their life’s destiny, okay, you do you. But likewise, as a reader, I am also not compelled to like the story.

And it’s a gray area indeed, because no character is perfect. We all have flaws, and perhaps someone’s “flaw” is that they smoke, or chew tobacco, or pop pills. But I feel like there should be some concerted effort to show the negatives of these choices, at least. Obviously, we may not see a character thirty years in the future suffering the effects of their pack-a-day habit. But maybe show how it impacts the character on the daily? Alcohol is obviously going to be even more gray, because in moderation, I have really no issues with adult characters drinking. Even underage characters drinking, if they are doing so safely (not driving, in moderation/not to the point of blackout) I can live with it to an extent.

I mean. ?

Yeah, I think for several reasons age matters in this context. Obviously, legality (whether we think it absurd or not) plays into this. And unfortunately, I do think authors with younger characters face more scrutiny all around, not just when drugs or alcohol enter the mix. Plus, for better or worse, younger readers are more impressionable. Not to say they aren’t smart enough to make decisions for themselves; they certainly are! But painting drug use as “casual” seems more irresponsible in a younger age group, perhaps because it isn’t something that is (or should be) casual.

Look at Niylah, cautioning young Jasper on the effects of drugs! (She makes him the tea anyway, but… )

So, what is my bottom line? I suppose that my tolerance level decreases as the riskiness increases. Someone without addiction issues having a cocktail? Cool, can I join? Someone thinking they should take a fistful of drugs from some rando named Skeeter on the corner? I’m probably not loving it.

Where do you stand? Impressed that I managed to insert The 100 GIFs into a post about drugs? Let’s chat! 

Posted May 14, 2021 by Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight in Discussion, Discussion Challenge / 42 Comments

42 responses to ““Casual” Drug Use in Books: A Discussion

  1. Ohhh yeah I’ve thought about this with drugs in books, but also with alcohol. Reading The Fever King I was kind of …not okay with how much the teen characters drank (like we’re talking black out drunk) and how it was never addressed? Clearly they were doing it because they weren’t okay!! But I do think there is author responsibility to either make the characters say “yeah this unsafe behaviour!” or someone else step in and say it. Because of course it’s fair to write about problematic behaviour (world is a hard place ?harsh things need to be in books too) but I want to know the authors’ stances on it too I guess? (Also I feel hopelessly naïve on this too so ? Who knows.) I enjoyed your discussion!!

    • YES that is the thing. Like okay, a teen nursing a beer or two probably won’t send me over the edge (especially an older teen) but blackout drunk with NO consequences?! Dude. The first time I ever drank, I got so sick, because I had no idea how it worked, and I wish more books talked about that! I was 19 and in college but I am lucky I was okay honestly- I threw up for DAYS, no lie- but the people I was with were shall we say, expert drinkers? So like YEAH there needs to be some kind of lesson I feel? So yep, I agree completely! (And thanks!!)

  2. Personally, I have always been uncomfortable with “casual” drug use in books. In my very limited, almost non-existent experience, it’s never just casual and there’s always something sinister behind it. And it’s true that authors don’t really owe the audience anything but I still believe they should be mindful of their audience. Like you, I’m always wondering if I’m being hopelessly naive though because I hardly see people discuss this! Thanks a lot for discussing this!!!

    • Aw thanks! Yes that is exactly how I feel! Because if you’re doing such things, well, something is likely wrong, yeah? Especially when it comes to anything illegal, like. That scares the crap out of me, and I get uncomfortable reading about it being no biggie!

  3. I have always been uncomfortable reading anything with drugs in it. My mother was a drug addict so it makes it hard to read books with drugs in them. But last year I read an awesome book where “magic” mushrooms was a big part of the book. Even though I was uncomfortable about the drugs, it did make the book awesome.

    • Aw I am so sorry that you have that personal connection. I know a few people in a similar situation, and I imagine it must be extra hard. I mean, I can get that with the magic mushrooms- look at my GIFs from The 100, they are making Jobi Tea! So it is a similar situation, I suppose. But Idk how the mushrooms were, but in The 100, they were probably similar to messed up mushrooms, but in the apocalypse, I can forgive some wonky nuts ?

  4. I have very strong views about recreational drug use. My cousin started with pot and died free-basing, burned along with the house he was in. I believe some people have addictive personalities, and no drug (or addictive substance) can be used casually by them. My issue isn’t if the author chooses to have drugs in their story, but it does bother me to see them glamorized or not really serving a purpose in the story, just there to be there. I worked in high school for 12 years, I know there are some kids that live that life, and we lost students to drugs over the years. If drug use or drinking are not an important part of the plot, it’s not like I looking for them in the story, you know?

    • Holy SHIT Sam, I am so sorry about your cousin! I think that is the thing- is it ever just recreational? No one knows if they have addictive personalities until it is too late, generally, hence why it’s such a tough thing to navigate.

      And that is exactly how I feel- often it does have a great purpose, to be a cautionary tale, or something a character has to overcome, etc, and I am obviously here for those! But just doing stuff like that and pretending it’s no biggie just does NOT sit well with me.

  5. I don’t think you’re naive for being unaware of the likely rampant drug use at your college. 😉
    There was a pretty heavy abuse of methamphetamines at my high school, generally taken by the girls to lose weight. Pot was a big one, generally smoked by the guys. Not *everyone* did drugs (and I didn’t) but I’d guess half the school was abusing drugs and/or alcohol.
    In college, I was unaware of it for the first two years, but we had a huge cocaine problem, especially in the dorms. Which is hilarious, because it was a school known for growing and smoking pot (Humboldt State University, in CA). But apparently cocaine was happening- initially as a study boosting drug. I did lose people to ecstasy, which was a popular drug in the 1990s and early 2000s, especially for clubbing.

    Personally, I think of ‘casual drug use’ not as ‘I went to a party and tried a thing’ but as ‘I take this thing maybe once a week- I can function without it, but I have a reason for using it’. And while you are correct that street drugs can be cut with things (especially the powders and pills- it’s common). However, addiction is highly personalized- some people are predisposed to get addicted after trying a thing once or twice, others can habitually imbibe in a thing and not get chemically addicted (note: depends on the thing). I’ve done cocaine once and will never do it again because it was an un-fun experience and I don’t want to pay for and risk my health for something that isn’t enjoyable. But it was actually offered to me by a coworker (I was about 24), because corporate drug use is also pretty rampant. I had an ex who did whippets, but I won’t touch those or hallucinogens- especially not acid. I value my brain matter too much.

    All that to say, casual drug use doesn’t bother me in books, so long as there’s a point. It doesn’t need to be a morality tale regurgitation of my DARE program, but it should serve the character development or the plot somehow. Like everything else in a story. If it’s just there to make the book feel ‘edgy’, then I’m likely to yeet the book entirely for its pretentiousness.

    • Bwhahah Beth that cracked me up ? I mean people did pot, I know that, and like I said there was some other stuff I heard about here and there, but I really was sheltered I guess! Same in high school- I knew a few people who were kind of known as the “class potheads” hah, but like, overall I guess I didn’t think it was so prevalent? Also HALF the school?! Damn. Unless they were all somehow *incredibly* good at hiding it, it definitely was NOT half the school for me. No way.

      And wait lost as is… lost friendships or like, DIED-lost!? I hope the former! I think part of the thing is, clubs here are almost non-existent. And like, in college, I wasn’t too far from Philly, but most people seemed to stick to bars or apartments or frat houses (bleh) just because it was expensive as hell to get to the city and it was kind of a poor school tbh.

      OH same, same. I don’t think a one-off a drug user makes. Also WHOA a co-worker!? Cocaine?! Like- this is what I mean by me being incredibly naïve- I genuinely did not think this existed in the non-media world! (Also another term may be “boring” and “doesn’t get out much”. )

      Bwhahahha CACKLING at “morality tale regurgitation of my DARE program” ??? And you’re right, I don’t need it to be that either, but I also kind of hate when it’s done to be “edgy”, or make the character seem “cool”, like you said!

      • That makes sense! My college with the big cocaine problem was very isolated in the woods, and I’m guessing people had a trade pipeline with other colleges for the hard stuff (I really only know about it because I became friends after with my dorm supervisor, and she had some horror stories about it). The pot use at Humboldt was just kind of shrugged at. I mean it was *everywhere* (and yet, I didn’t do pot or anything until I was in my mid-20s).

        My high school was *mostly* poor with one pocket of very wealthy kids. So the meth users tended to be on the poor scale (a house down the road from me was one of many that cooked it) and the alcohol abuse was both (I do know one of the wealthy kids went to rehab in college because their drinking got so bad). And lost as in died- X is apparently a fun drug but does not mix well with other house party drugs nor existing medical conditions. My high school was over 1,600 students though, so I imagine that had an influence. And we were close enough to Tijuana that most of the high school clubbing happened down there (where, as you can imagine, drug use is pretty lax). Also, there was a marine corps base in the town next to mine, so lots of drug trade happening through that (many high school girls hooking up with idiot marine 20-somethings).

        I join you in the naivety about professional setting drug use! I was *shocked*. He was a nice guy, in his 40s, and a medical engineer- very smart, wealthy, etc. He had low-key parties where a dozen people would come over and play guitar and drink. And then snort lines in the guest bedroom. It was wild, and really opened my eyes to how *much* of that goes on in every workplace with people who can afford to do hard drugs.
        (but let me tell you- snorting is not an easy thing to do, and cocaine gives the taste of crushed-up aspiring in the back of your throat for *days*, and cocaine makes you move/think/etc faster but not smarter. I was talking so fast, no one could understand me. It did not feel fun *at all*).

        Personally, I need my authors to do their research, no matter what they’re writing, so it comes from a place of authenticity. So if they are unwilling to understand how drugs can have an interplay with self-esteem, relationships, etc. and make that part of the novel, then they’re likely just trying to be cool and I’m not having it.

        • Wowww that is. Wow. I am so sorry for the friends you lost. That is heartbreaking, and I cannot even imagine what it did to their families. Also that is fairly bananas that you were so close to Tijuana- I definitely would assume that had a lot to do with ease of obtaining stuff. Also EW about the military jerks sleeping with high school kids. Men are trash, really. My high school was a wealthier sort, it was a Catholic school (I am not Catholic, nor was I then hah, but they had a swim team- a good one- and my public school didn’t, so) but I know there was some alcohol and pot use obviously. My brother went to the public school, but I feel like it was about the same?

          Yeah I don’t really “get” the appeal of harder drug use honestly? The cocaine thing sounds rather terrifying, and I am WAY too afraid of death to ever be willing to do anything like that. I feel like it would be even worse in a professional setting- like no one ever even peer pressured me in high school or college, but professional almost seems… harder to turn down? Especially when the person has their shit together on the outside, you know?

          YES yes I agree with you completely- you said it much better than I could have! But that really is the bottom line- if it is just for “edgy points” then it’s a no from me.

  6. It really changes your experience when someone you love has their life ruined by drugs. Casual use may be possible for some, but it’s impossible to tell before you try, and once the habit is established it’s too late. So messages that “hey, drugs and alcohol are fun and no problem” are never entirely accurate, and it does seem irresponsible for authors to give that perspective without any balance from the other side. Recently I read Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block and was quite shocked by the casual use going on there — as well as casual teen pregnancy, WTH? Call me old and boring, but that was my reaction.

    • That is exactly it- no one knows when, for them, it may cross the line from “fun night out” to life destroying, even deadly. So I agree that it isn’t a great perspective, and even less so for younger readers who may be more susceptible to taking that message to heart. No I am with you, and I am FINE with being “boring” just cause I don’t think kids hurting themselves is entertaining!

  7. Interesting discussion! I think I was the opposite of sheltered as a teen because everybody in my friend group drank underage and did drugs. I was the only teen I knew who was always sober. Meth and heroine are surprisingly easy to find in rural areas, so most of the teens I knew used those.

    I actually don’t read books that include drug use because I have drug addicts in my family, and I have no desire to “see myself” in literature. I avoid books that sound similar to my real life. I’m fine with authors writing about drug use, but they have to do it realistically. Regular drug use will have a massive impact on a character’s life. Drugs kill people and destroy families.

    • Thanks! And wow, I mean, good for you for being sober during all that! That’s really something, I had no idea! I genuinely don’t think I ever knew anyone (at least, any close friends) who did that stuff, which is why it was so shocking to me to read about I guess. It always just seemed to me to be such a dangerous road to go down- I never had any interest, nor opportunity, to be honest!

      I don’t blame you at all- sometimes we need to escape those things, not read about them! I agree too, there is no way that someone is doing hard drugs every weekend and everything else is totally fine. It just seems like a lie, and a dangerous one.

  8. A lot of the books I’ve been reading recently have had casual drug use, too. Mary Jane, Astrid Sees All, and Tales from the Umbrella Academy (it’s a comic series, and it’s also Klaus). I’ve been noticing it more and more in contemporary books, but it’s rarely something I see in fantasy stories. Why do you think that is?

    Lindsi @ Do You Dog-ear? ?

    • Ahhh yes you do make a good point, it’s MUCH more prevalent in contemporary! Like the GIFs suggest, The 100 went into it a bit- Abby had a pretty rough reaction to pills, which they handled really well, and there was some more pot-like drugs that were just supposed to be a bit more light, but hmmm I DO wonder why! I wonder if it just seems, like Beth said above, “edgy” in contemporaries? So more authors do it? It’s a great question!

  9. I do think the author has a responsibility when it comes to YA books. Ya and middle grade authors don’t think about what they put in their books enough. They put in unrealistic expectations of relationships and everything else. They may not think anything of it, but it is important for them to know that they are shaping the minds of kids, so they need to be responsible with how they portray the kids in their stories.

    • That is a REALLY good point. I think there IS a level of responsibility, I agree, and it’s not always taken into account. There are definitely other issues that have been handled poorly in YA and middle grade, that have me scratching my head like “did this author realize that young people are reading this?” Oy.

  10. I personally am never a fan of casual drug use in books (honestly, even casual use of marijuana usually bugs me). As someone who saw teen drug use really mess up my brother’s life (he’s in his fifties now, and he never did really get back on a great trajectory), I worry anytime I see it portrayed as “no big deal.” Consequences are real.

    • Shit, I am so sorry about your brother, Nicole. I hear so, so many stories like that, which is why I just cannot think it’s all fun and games. Because first of all, I feel like things can’t be going great in life if you turn to that sort of thing, and then NO, it is never just casual, because like you said, consequences ARE real, and life destroying (or even deadly) in many cases.

  11. This is a really good question. I think when it’s a contemporary novel, it’s a bit different than fantasy or paranormal because those “rules” and way of life tend to be different anyway. I mean, I don’t think the characters should be falling down drunk and doing lots of drugs with NO comment on it for any genre, but I do think it’s more “expected” for it to be commented on in a contemporary novel…no matter the age. I think showing some sort of consequence, even if the characters don’t all stop doing drugs, etc. is probably a good idea for most books but especially YA. I wouldn’t want it to be too encouraging, but I’m also not going to blame the author if they don’t do it. It’s all a personal preference on that.

    As for my real life, I don’t drink or do any illegal drugs. I never have. However, I have plenty of friends who drank and did pop (and probably other things) throughout high school without any real consequences. So it’s definitely a real thing that happens. I think people just randomly doing cocaine or something is probably a bit much. I mean, those drugs are going to more negatively affect you than pot or alcohol so they probably shouldn’t been portrayed so casually, at least not without some sort of comment on how bad it can get or does get, etc. depending on the book.

    Anywayyy I feel like I’m rambling, but good topic! hah

    • Aw thanks! And yes the consequences, especially in YA are key for me. And I think it also depends on what substance we’re talking about- like okay we don’t have to have an afterschool special every time a character opens a can of beer, but harder stuff? Yeah let’s not be too lax, eh?

      The “pop” typo cracked me up because not knowing it was a typo, someone could be like “wow Lauren over here being afraid of soda” ?? That is the thing- obviously I know kids drink and such, and like, stuff that is along those lines I definitely won’t judge as much. But the random cocaine THREW me, frankly!

  12. So, as someone who also doesn’t like casual drug use in books, I will say that I (and loads of friends/people I knew) did it. This was the 80’s.

    For me, I hit a point where I thought it was going to be an issue and just stopped cold, on my own and I don’t do anything – not even a casual drink. It’s not anything I even feel like doing.

    The others ranged from growing up and moving on like me, others got worse and arrested and I knew several that overdosed so even though I had my phase and turned out fine – I was in riskier situations at times and know enough people who didn’t turn out like me and think there should always be at least some context showing consequences.

    Karen @ For What It’s Worth

    • Oh wow! It seems like the 80s were really a wild time! Also, that is really awesome that you were able to stop so cold turkey like that, I am so glad!

      That is so scary about the others though- and exactly why I think consequences need to be shown. Like you were certainly lucky, and some people ARE, but those people who weren’t, well, that is why I think authors need to be careful!

  13. I’m not really into drug depictions in books but I’m not against it per se, as long as it’s handled responsibly if it’s in a YA book or whatever. And The Girls Are All So Nice Here (that title) has looked good to me, so… this is an interesting topic! I’ve never been into drugs myself, even pot really, although it amazes me how acceptable it has become, even in areas otherwise all religious right and whatnot. I live in a very red county and good grief pot shops are everywhere now (well, not really, but you get the idea). I did read a book recently where the protag mentioned doing pot casually like all the time (wish I remembered the book) and I was slightly taken aback. I must be old fashioned??

    I never really ran with a druggie crowd in high school, I mean we drank like fish, but not the other stuff really. And great point about authors not HAVING to do anything, but we don’t HAVE to like the story either. I agree completely with #4 as well as Jobi nuts.

    Oh, and there’s this.

  14. this is such an amazing and informative post, i loved reading it. this is an amazing question to ask, and i agree with your viewpoints☺️☺️

  15. Even though our experiences are different – I grew up seeing many people use drugs recreationally, but my best friend also passed away from an overdose, so I have ~opinions~ on this. I think recreational drug use is realistic, like I said, I’ve seen it, but I think there should always be some sort of demonstration of how its NOT a good decision. Especially in YA, but frankly, I think it’s a lesson every age needs. People can be influenced by their peers regardless of age. All I would ask is the author somehow show how it’s bad news, not something to be flaunted. Like don’t make the characters *cooler* because they’re doing drugs. It’s not something that should be a status symbol. If that makes sense. Great discussion!

    • Oh my goodness Molly, I am SO, so sorry for your loss. That is beyond heartbreaking. And that is the thing- not that it doesn’t happen, but that it doesn’t really happen without consequences, you know? And yes that is exactly my thought process too! Like- obviously people DO turn to drugs for many reasons, but I also think there is a responsibility to show that it isn’t going to turn out great. Thank you ♥♥

  16. I don’t think I’ve ever read a YA book with casual drug use outside of underage drinking or smoking, but the author has always made a point to highlight that those are things that teenagers shouldn’t be doing. When I’ve come across it in books for adults it hasn’t crossed my mind (especially when I read American Psycho which is set in 1980s New York so I expected it there). I don’t think that books for younger readers necessarily need to have morals in them, but they are written for people whose minds are still learning and developing so I feel like authors of YA books shouldn’t be featuring substance abuse or even casual usage if they don’t have something to say about it.

    • That is really good! I have seen drinking and smoking presented as no big deal, which irritates me too. Especially smoking, because there is just everything unhealthy about that, and so I feel like that isn’t even a “casual” thing at this point. Depending on the age, I can kind of handle a small amount of drinking, because like I said, I think the US has extremely absurd and antiquated views on alcohol that help no one. But drug use, yeah, you have to have a message for me. It’s just dangerous, as evidenced by all the comments of people who have been affected by it!

  17. I agree with you for the most part. I feel like when I was the age of the characters in these books, I probably wouldn’t have liked them if they didn’t have some kind of message about the drugs and how they aren’t good. But I know these days that marijuana is becoming more acceptable, so that is one thing to deal with. I didn’t drink till college, but I know high school kids were drinking when I was in high school and still are. So a little bit is okay with me. And I know I had aunts and uncles who would be okay with their kids having a drink or so as long as they were at home and not going anywhere else.

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