Representing people who use illicit drugs

Representations of illicit drug users are fraught with problems, not just in terms of what some see as unfairness, but most importantly in terms of how they affect policy decisions, and how those policy decisions reflect a public consciousness that itself reflects those representations. Without a more serious engagement with illicit drug users, policy solutions are bound to fail again and again.

Our current political economic landscape breeds contradictions, which have deep sociological and criminological implications. One domain in which such contradictions are particularly sharp is that of drug use and drug policy. In 1971, criminologist Jock Young identified hedonism as a vital force that could easily be harnessed by liberal capitalism in its shift to consumption-based economies.[1] That same year, the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed in the UK, banning the supply, possession and use of several psychoactive substances. Since then, the appetite for illicit substances has grown by most accounts; the Crime Survey for England and Wales has reported relatively consistent levels of illicit drug use among the general population, with an increasing trend among older adults.[2] Illicit drug use has become a mainstay of the English social and cultural landscape. The UK is also characterised by a healthy night time economy which profits significantly from people’s drugs and alcohol use.[3]

In this context, illicit drug users have been publicly portrayed as either criminals or victims of the potential ill effects of the substances they take. The latter assumption in particular has been challenged by work that suggests that in most cases, the consequences of drug taking are not experienced negatively by people; in fact, many of those who take drugs in social situations describe an overall positive social experience, punctuated by feelings of relaxation, elation, joy, and connection to others.[4] These positive feelings and experiences are exactly the reason people continue to take drugs, despite any risks associated with their consumption.[5]

Many of the harms of drug use are related to the prohibition context.[6] The presence of an entirely unregulated market, alongside the absence of education and information about drugs, make for a dangerous and sometimes deadly combination.

Some MPs have expressed concerns about the current failures of drug policy and have found a channel to represent such concerns in the All Party Parliamentary Group on drug policy reform.[7] However, such minority concerns have been resisted by a rather monolithic Home Office position that stands against reform.[8] Whilst drug taking always implies risk, the risks are heightened by the current political-economic landscape and policy framework.[9] It is in this context that drug-related deaths have increased in the UK[10], and in relation to recreational drug consumption, young people are dying at an unprecedently faster rate due to lack of knowledge combined with higher purity of street drugs.[11]

To tackle these issues, drug testing at some UK clubs and festivals has been introduced by the Loop charity in collaboration with local authorities through multi-agency partnerships, without any backing from national government. Underpinned by a harm reduction principle, the organisation calls attention to the need for acknowledging the reality of drug use and provides non-judgemental advice and information to drug users about the substances they take, including information about their contents.[12]

This initiative has recently been discussed in parliament, where after restating the government’s position that drugs are harmful and their use must be curbed, the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service also stated that the government will not stand in the way of drug testing initiatives taken locally.[13] Though this initiative is a step in the direction of dealing proactively with the situation on the ground, it still operates in a policy landscape that continues to reify and criminalise drug users, rather than fully acknowledging drug users as agents. A channel to voice the motivations, concerns and desires of drug users themselves is lacking, while drug users continue to be portrayed as criminals or victims, rather than stakeholders in the debate. [14]

In my previous work, I noted how drug user voices are excluded from policy fora, in such a way that decisions are made for them, rather than with them.[15] Channels for drug users to construct their own narratives are lacking. Thus, there is a need to create platforms to open the drug policy debate in the direction of affected communities.


[1] Young, J. (1971). The drugtakers: The social meaning of drug use. MacGibbon and Kee.

[2] Williams, L., & Askew, R. (2016). Maturing on a high: An analysis of trends, prevalence and patterns of recreational drug use in middle and older adulthood. The SAGE handbook of drug and alcohol studies, 447-468.

It should be noted that the use of some substances in some groups has increased, and that the survey does not reach important populations including students, homeless people, prisoners, as noted by Hamilton and Sumnall, (2017) https://medicalxpress.com/news/2017-07-latest-drug-figures-habits.html

[3] Measham, F., & Moore, K. (2009). Repertoires of distinction: Exploring patterns of weekend polydrug use within local leisure scenes across the English night time economy. Criminology & Criminal Justice9(4), 437-464.

Roberts, M. (2006). From ‘creative city’to ‘no-go areas’–The expansion of the night-time economy in British town and city centres. Cities23(5), 331-338.

O’Connor, J., & Wynne, D. (2017). From the margins to the centre: cultural production and consumption in the post-industrial city. Routledge.

[4] Martin, D. (1999). Power play and party politics: The significance of raving. The Journal of Popular Culture32(4), 77-99.

Parker, H. J., Aldridge, J., & Measham, F. (1998). Illegal leisure: The normalization of adolescent recreational drug use. Psychology Press.

Askew, R. (2016). Functional fun: Legitimising adult recreational drug use. International Journal of Drug Policy36, 112-119.

[5] Winstock A and Nutt, D. (2013), ‘The real driver behind most drug use is pleasure, not dependence’, The Guardian, available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/apr/18/driver-drug-pleasure-dependence, accessed 02/07/18

O’Malley, P., & Valverde, M. (2004). Pleasure, freedom and drugs: The uses of ‘pleasure’ in liberal governance of drug and alcohol consumption. Sociology38(1), 25-42.

[6] Godlee, F., & Hurley, R. (2016). The war on drugs has failed: doctors should lead calls for drug policy reform. BMJ: British Medical Journal (Online)355.

[7] https://www.drugpolicyreform.net/

[8] Stevens, A., & Zampini, G. F. (2018). Drug policy constellations: a Habermasian approach for understanding English drug policy. International Journal of Drug Policy57, 61-71

[9] Rhodes, T. (2009). Risk environments and drug harms: A social science for harm reduction approach. The International journal on drug policy20(3), 193-201.

[10] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/deathsrelatedtodrugpoisoninginenglandandwales/2016registrations

[11] http://volteface.me/publications/night-lives/3-current-landscape/

[12] https://wearetheloop.org/

[13] https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2018-07-06/debates/E0DEEB30-1E43-44C7-AFF6-108381E254F4/MusicFestivalsDrugSafetyTesting

[14] http://volteface.me/publications/night-lives/

[15] Stevens, A., & Zampini, G. F. opp.cit.

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