Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

From Deviant to Disenfranchised: The Evolution of Drug Users in AJSI

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

From Deviant to Disenfranchised: The Evolution of Drug Users in AJSI

Article excerpt


In this paper, I review contributions to the Australian Journal of Social Issues (AJSI) that have addressed the subject of illicit drugs, illicit drug users, illicit drug use and the measures implemented in an attempt to control this illicit behaviour. This review provides an insight into the evolution of discourses surrounding illicit drug use (and of the policies that these discourses have influenced). This evolution is far from uniform. As intellectual and academic discourses have moved away from stereotypes of deviant drug users and towards the notion that drug users are self-determining individuals whose engagement (and opinion) is of importance, political representations of illicit drug users continue to suggest a greater concern with 'politics' than with formulating effective policy responses.

The use of (certain) drugs is constructed by many policy makers and public commentators as a social problem of potentially apocalyptic proportions. The threat that (certain) drugs allegedly pose continues to be used to justify their classification as illegal substances. Using these drugs is criminal behaviour. Those 'caught' using them are subject to punitive penalties (and accompanying social stigma). Despite the entrenched nature of this response, the AJSI, among other forums, has provided an intellectual space in which to critically consider legislative and public responses to the social problem of drug use. The following analysis of the tone and content of contributions to AJSI provides an insight into the evolution of intellectual and academic discourse about illicit drug use. Further, it provides something of a social history of illicit drug policy in Australia over the same period. In this review, I ask a number of questions:

* What do contributions to AJSI tell us about how drugs, drug use and drug users have been constructed in intellectual, policy and public discourse?

* How have these constructs influenced Australian drug policy?

* What do the articles tell us about the efficacy of the resultant drug policies? and, finally;

* What do the contributions published by AJSI tell us about the evolution of illicit drug policy in Australia?

Australian responses to illicit drug use--Historical Context

Australia became a member of the international 'coalition of the willing' against illicit drugs in 1961, (the year in which the first edition of AJSI was published) when Australian authorities ratified the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This international agreement committed signatories to the prohibition of the traffic, manufacture and use of narcotics including heroin, cocaine and (the erroneously classified) marijuana. It is arguable that the willingness of Australian representatives to ratify the convention was indicative of their lack of experience in dealing with problematic drug use. Australia was yet to confront illicit drug use on a significant scale. Unable to evaluate the efficacy of the prohibitive drug policies, Australia had little reason not to conform to the approach aggressively promoted by the United States--an approach expected of every 'good' international citizen.

In the 1930s, Australia was using 7.5 per cent of the world's legal heroin supply, three times as much as the British (per capita) and fifty times that of the United States (Rolfe 1989). Further, heroin consumption was to double in Australia between 1946 and 1951, an increase leading to pointed inquiries from the United Nations about Australia's attitude to heroin (Manderson 1993). The United States played a central role in pursuing these inquiries, in part because of the already established association of heroin with pathological and criminal 'junkies' in that country (Acker 2002). (1) Negative international attention was an increasing source of embarrassment for Australian policy makers; 'a blot on our nationhood' in the words of one Victorian parliamentarian. …

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