From the perspective of social conflict theory, substance abuse is primarily a problem of structural inequality and class conflict. While substance abuse is generally omnipresent throughout society, social conflict theory argues that minorities, the lower class and other marginalized groups are more likely to disproportionally suffer negative consequences as a result of substance abuse.
While the use of mind-altering substances has been a persistent activity throughout human history, the term substance abuse is generally used to signify an unhealthy, debilitating and antisocial dependence on any chemical substance. Generally, this is most often used to refer to illicit or illegal drugs as well as some legal but regulated substances such as alcohol or prescription medications. Substance abuse is generally regarded as personally and socially detrimental, and is usually considered a punishable offense by many state authorities.
Conflict theory refers to a group of social theories, most of which have roots in the works of Karl Marx. Conflict theory posits a model of society whereby different groups pursue their interests independently or against the interests of other groups. These groups compete for resources and power, and over time, some groups come to dominate others. The social order established by these dominant groups then comes to repress minority groups. One way dominant groups do this is through manipulation of the law and the legal process to reinforce the status quo.
Drugs Abuse and Socioeconomic Plight
Even though drug use is common throughout all levels of society, conflict theory points out that marginalized groups in society are more likely to be targeted for substance abuse violations than the dominant class or groups. For instance, it is commonly believed that poor communities and racial minorities suffer from higher numbers of drug use, although some studies have shown that substance abuse is just as prolific in rich, predominantly white communities. Additionally, it is commonly thought that poor and minority youths are more likely to engage in drug dealing as a means of overcoming their economic problems and sense of alienation, thus perpetuating destructive cycles of drug abuse and violence.
Drug Laws and Enforcement
Conflict theory argues that the law and the coercive power of the state (which is generally believed to function in the service of the higher class) is commonly targeted and deployed against marginalized groups as a means of reinforcing the social structure. This is not always intentional, but is oftentimes a consequence of preconceived or received attitudes and bias against marginalized groups. As a result, marginalized groups are more often assumed to suffer from drug abuse and to be more likely to commit illegal acts. Additionally, they are more likely to be seen as undesirables and thus given harsher punishments than their counterparts from the dominant class. This can, in turn, further perpetuate the cycle of substance abuse.
Power and Representation
Conflict theory illustrates how marginalized groups lack the power and representation necessary to better their place in the world, and how the status quo works to preserve and reproduce itself rather than change to accommodate equality. Thus, substance abuse is largely a social-structural problem, exacerbated by pre-existing social circumstances. Critics of conflict theory argue that structural inequality is not an excuse for making bad personal decisions, but they fail to realize that what they consider intolerable behavior in members of marginalized groups they often excuse in members of their own group. Since marginalized groups lack power in society, they also lack the representation and authority necessary to better their situation. Realizing this, they often sink further into the plights associated with substance abuse. However, through fighting for more representation and recognition in society, some communities manage to overcome their struggle with substance abuse.