Drugs are… good? No, that can’t be right. Can it?

Like most academics, I’m obsessive. I spend a lot of my free time doing searches for new research on recreational drug use. I do this partly because there’s a big gap in drug use and policy research that I’m waiting for someone to fill, and I can’t just let it go. I keep checking to see if someone’s addressed it yet, unable to seriously consider that I might have to be the one to fill it. Surely I’m just not looking hard enough. It must be hiding under some ethnographic couch cushion that I just haven’t lifted up yet.

You see, the perspectives and opinions that I have found in the field of social science drug research vary. There are different people coming from different backgrounds believing and arguing for different things. But almost all of the existing literature, both popular and academic, on illegal drug use is in agreement about one key assumption. It’s an unquestioned assumption which drives almost all research on drug users, yet drug users themselves laugh at it for its simplicity and ignorance:

The assumption that illegal drugs are inherently bad. All of them.

Can't it be both true and not true?

Can’t it be both true and not true?

Bad for individuals, bad for society. They are a scourge on humanity, they destroy lives and, boiled down to the essentials, are just a (complicated) problem to be solved. Some say we desperately need to find a way to get rid of all drugs. Some advocate for harm reduction, saying, well, drugs suck but we’re not going to get rid of them, so let’s at least reduce the harm they cause (while we figure out how to get rid of them). Some tout their potential medical benefits—man, have you been reading the news? Marijuana cures EVERYTHING!—but in doing so they maintain subservience to a strictly controlled biomedical framework as the only acceptable place for drugs that aren’t alcohol.

Probably thanks to where funding comes from, there just aren’t many researchers raising their hands from the back of the class to timidly propose that maybe, just maybe, we should question that assumption before we run around trying to solve problems. Because if our assumption is wrong, well, shit. Then the problem might be entirely different from what we think it is. There may not even be a problem.

Now, if you’ve ever actually worked with drug addicts, or been one, you may be about to angrily call me a naive idiot for implying that there’s no problem. Yes, some illegal drugs definitely cause problems. Huge ones.1 We’re all pretty aware of that. On the other hand, if you’ve ever been around responsible drug users, or been one yourself2, you may feel relieved to see this issue even acknowledged. Because the difference between problematic use or addiction and truly unproblematic recreational drug use, as muddled and complicated as the Venn diagram between the two may be, is what’s missing from most conversations about illegal drug users. The fact that its very existence is in question is what is wrong with the conversation on drug policy. The consistent denial of shades of grey is unforgivably ignorant after so many years.

Where are the social scientists critiquing the ‘all drugs are bad’ assumption?
They took drugs, they hugged, they laughed, they went home to their jobs and nothing bad happened. Why do researchers pretend these people don't exist?

They took drugs, they hugged, they laughed, they went home to their jobs and nothing bad happened. Why do researchers pretend these people don’t exist?

I have struggled to find existing research that really reflects the kind of work I’m currently doing. Everything comes from a problem-based orientation. That was my focus at the start, having drank the social-epidemiology Kool-Aid, but in keeping with the tradition of ethnographic research, I maintained no particular attachment to my original orientation and spent much of my time in the field questioning my own assumptions. Thus the conclusions I’m starting to reach from my fieldwork are somewhat unexpected, which is fairly common in anthropology. But because of it I’m at a loss to find many other researchers who think about drug use in the same way. Laymen, oh sure, plenty. But published research, not so much. (One can assume that this is heavily due to preexisting and self-perpetuating biases in funding sources. Paradigms don’t go down without a fight, especially those that are so usefully attached to marginalizing certain handy scapegoat populations.)

Some researchers have come close. Geoffrey Hunt, David Moore and others remind us to not leave out the concept of pleasure from analyses of drug use, but this is still a recommendation in service of the goal of use-reduction. I’ve also, of course, found research that challenges the mainstream status quo in other ways; Philippe Bourgois and Michael Agar are two obvious big names who’ve had incredibly profound effects on the study of addicted populations: “You can’t understand and explain an intoxicated corner of a society without a critique of the larger society that produced the historical conditions that make that corner the place that it is,” said Agar in his unbelievably entertaining memoir of a lifetime of drug policy research.

The goal I set out with in my research on ‘party drugs’ in the rave scene was based on that important idea, to figure out solutions through a holistic understanding of a drug-abusing population. But Bourgois and Agar study populations of drug users that generally, when it comes down to it, really hate the drugs that they use. They have good reason to. The difference in my research is that the underlying assumption that drug use is always a social problem is flawed when it comes to groups that may actually be using, and even benefiting from, recreational drugs in ways that don’t negatively affect them or the people around them.

What if non-addicted drug users really, just… kinda want their drug use to be left alone?

What if the problems stemming directly from their drug use are fairly minimal, and the benefits significant? What if most of the dangers are actually caused by the laws put in place to supposedly protect them?

If my guiding question is “Gee, why are all these people doing such a bad thing as consuming party drugs” (which, without the explicit value judgment, was indeed one of my research questions3), I’m asking the wrong question—if I’m asking it because I want to get them to stop, not because I really want to know the answer and am open to whatever it is. Taking for granted the same assumptions underlying most of the preexisting research, and asking “Why are these particular people using drugs?” only as a means of understanding enough to further the specific goal of a particular agenda—such as harm reduction or use prevention—my ears might not be open to hearing the actual answer, rather than an answer that confirms those same original assumptions. The actual answer might challenge those assumptions. The actual answer could be, for some people: Because there are few downsides and tons of upsides, and they know it.

I probably just haven’t looked hard enough for someone else who’s talked about this though. So does anyone know of published social science research on drug use that isn’t grounded in problem-based assumptions? Arriving at an answer that challenges the status quo is both exhilarating and terrifying, but since I’m only a grad student, and it’s a topic absolutely riddled with stigma, it leans more towards terrifying. So someone please point out the couch cushion that I’m overlooking so I can flip it over and see if there are any crumbs I can sweep up and cling onto to help prove I’m not crazy.

EDIT: I found one! It was published this year.


1Note that they are actually, in turn, only symptoms of deeper structural problems, usually socioeconomic in origin.

2And chances are you are one, because—surprise!—if you drink alcohol, you are a drug user. But fine, we’ll stick to illegal drugs.

3Even while I disagreed with the value judgement—I’ve always been a proponent of the positive aspects of illegal drug use—I got the sense that a subtext of detached Mr. Mackey-ness was necessary to appeal to those in charge of funding decisions and am only now realising that I’m going to have to openly challenge it, as career-destroying as it might be.


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