Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

Talking about Drugs: Towards a More Reasoned Debate

Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

Talking about Drugs: Towards a More Reasoned Debate

Article excerpt


This article aims to outline and discuss a number of issues that arise from the current popular conceptualisations of 'the drug problem'. It is argued that debates focus on 'taken - for-granted' understandings of key terms and concepts, and in doing so, fail to grasp the complexities of the ways in which the drug problem is currently understood. The article therefore discusses current popular discourse by exploring the ways in which key terms are employed, and how these serve to simplify the issues concerned, and, at the same time to establish false divisions; key amongst these is the division between legal and illegal drugs. This article argues that it is only in acknowledging these complexities and contradictions that the debate can move forward.


This article emerges from the convergence of a number of issues that have come to the fore over recent years which both demonstrate the relationship that our society has with drugs, but which also serve to construct and shape our continuing discussions about drugs. These issues are identified as: 1) sporadic moral panics about illegal drugs and their use - often fuelled by single cases which receive a great deal of media attention (Murji, 1998); 2) the reconfiguring of drug use as a 'crime problem' over the last 20 years, rather than any other kind of 'problem' e.g. social, health or deprivation, arising from a reductionist notion that drug use causes crime (Hammersley and Dalgarno, 2012); 3) a persistent determination to ignore the fact that we are a drug-using society, especially when we include legal, and yet very harmful substances (Seddon, 2006); 4) undermining of attempts to assess relative harms associated with drug use (Nutt, 2009) and the ensuing media furore, which culminated in his removal from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the government advisory body, set up to monitor the classification of drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971); and 5) the reclassification of cannabis, from Class B to Class C, then back again over the past 9 years.

These issues come together to demonstrate our confused and confusing relationship with legal and illegal substances, between which we have constructed false divisions. Over 40 years ago Young pointed out that this division was 'unfortunate in its consequences and incorrect in its assumptions' (Young, 1971: 10). We are bound up in a seemingly inescapable feedback loop where it is generally believed that certain drugs are illegal because they are harmful and that they must be harmful because they are illegal. This view simply ignores the social construction of both the law and perceptions of acceptable and unacceptable forms of behaviour, as well as the fact that legality does not make substances harmless. It is clear, however, that we are currently in a situation in which the law is 'running to catch up' (for example, with the introduction of temporarily outlawing 'legal highs') and a significant reality gap has emerged between what is deemed acceptable and unacceptable behaviour (illustrated by the significant numbers of people who take cannabis) and discussed within the ongoing debate about normalization of drug use (Parker et al., 1998; Parker, 2005). So, we are now in a situation that is structured around debates about competing ideas and approaches about the best way ahead to address what is seen as a significant social issue, and yet the fundamental underpinnings of the issue are contested. As Cohen (1971) stated 'a 'social problem' consists not only of a fixed and given condition but the perception and definition by certain people that this condition poses a threat...and that something should be done about W (Cohen, 1971:14).

There is a prevalent and powerful popular discourse in British society that speaks entirely to simplistic notions of drugs and their use and it tends to do this in two key ways: firstly, we are constantly made aware, especially in certain sections of the media, of the evils of drugs, (often as a result of cases in which an 'innocent' young person has died, and even when the links between a drug and the tragic event are tenuous); and secondly, with the focus on those who are deemed to be rather less innocent, the discussion centres on the 'fact' that 'drugs cause crime' because people commit crime in order to fund their drug habit (Hammersley, 2008). …

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