Meet nitrous oxide: the fun drug that, because of prohibition, is terrible for the environment

The War on Drugs is an expensive, harmful disaster. It’s the most destructive and racist set of policies that exist in the modern era. But! Did you know that it’s not only bad for people, but for the environment too?

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Meet nitrous oxide. It’s a relatively harmless* drug that you probably know as “laughing gas.” Dentists and hospitals use it as an anesthetic, and it’s sold in little metal canisters to make whipped cream. If you’ve ordered something with whipped cream from Starbucks, they used nitrous oxide to make it.

It’s also a fun high.

It’s popular at music festivals, especially the hippie kind, because it mixes incredibly well with psychedelics. The familiar ksssht! of canisters discharging into balloons is a well-known sound around festival campgrounds. Even if you’re already having a pretty crazy trip, do a hit of nitrous while on acid or mushrooms and your spaceship will blast off ten times harder into the shattered, echoing universe (for about a minute).

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Nitrous is affectionately known as “hippie crack” for good reason.

People have been using nitrous as a medical painkiller, and as recreational drug, for over two centuries. It’s so safe, pregnant women use it in labour. But because the only drugs we’re allowed to enjoy legally are alcohol and tobacco (and cannabis if you’re Canadian or Uruguayan), it’s illegal to sell nitrous for recreational consumption. So that means there’s only one way recreational users can buy it: in those tiny canisters meant for making whipped cream. And do they buy them? Oh boy do they ever. Loads of them.The entire whippit industry is based on a lie that we all pretend is true: that these things are sold only to be used by bakers.

Hah. Not even the companies that make them believe that. You can buy whippits in cases of 600 at a time. No one’s eating that much whipped cream.

But because of drug prohibition, the don’t-ask-don’t-tell continues. And who pays the ultimate price from this nonsensical policy? The environment.IMG_1981

The canisters can’t be recycled because of safety concerns (in case the canister hasn’t been discharged of the gas), so millions of them end up in landfills. Each one gives you about a 30-second high, and then it’s chucked. Incredibly wasteful, right? But before you get mad at the people buying them, think for a minute about the logic behind the laws that create this setup.

We COULD change the laws and allow nitrous oxide to be sold in larger, recyclable containers. We COULD stop this charade, start being practical and allow recreational users to buy it in ways that don’t ravage the environment.

But because of drug prohibition, we don’t.

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Because of a set of laws that were only implemented in the first place as an excuse to lock up and disenfranchise the poor and people of colour (beginning with Black people in the Jim Crow-era USA, and Chinese labourers in Western Canada), we all just let this happen. A bunch of people believe the lie that says “drugs are so bad we need to arrest anyone who so much as carries them in their pocket,” so we throw single-use nitrous containers into landfills and burn entire fields of cannabis plants as if more carbon in the air is preferable to letting some people get high with their friends.

Realistically, we are never going to stop people from using this safe and fun drug. Why should we? Who are you or I to tell someone what they can and can’t put in their body, and worse, to use the violent power of the state to enforce that opinion?

Our drug laws right now aren’t based on safety. We know the’re not, as alcohol, widely known to be dangerous, is sold in corner stores, and yet people are still sitting in jail, taken from their families and communities, for having a joint on them.

Humans have been getting high since the dawn of time and that is N E V E R going to stop. We need to start looking at drug laws for what they are:IMG_1987

  • A way to control certain populations via selective enforcement (specifically, the poor and people of colour, especially Black and Latino men).
  • A way to make rich people stay rich (Big Pharma, alcohol and tobacco companies, private prisons and the vendors that supply them with food, toiletries and video calls).
  • An absolute disaster in every conceivable way.

So, here are some things you can do to help end drug prohibition:

  • Demand not just cannabis legalization from your politicians, but full drug legalization. (You can start with decriminalization, but legalization is the only goal that will end the Drug War’s devastation in Latin America and Asia.)
  • Educate your friends and family about the issues. Here are some tips for how.
  • Don’t use stigmatizing language (addict, junkie, druggie etc), and call it out when you see it.
  • Support politicians that openly critique capitalism, which is what drives the War on Drugs. Evil needs to be named.
  • Recommend the movie 13th to everyone you know (it’s on Netflix, here).
  • Don’t separate drugs into “the good ones” and “the bad ones.” All drugs can be used in beneficial or problematic ways. There are no “bad drugs,” only bad policies.
  • Learn about the racist origins of the War on Drugs.IMG_1988
  • Listen to people who use drugs that aren’t sanctioned and regulated by the government. We are human.
  • Realize that if you use alcohol or caffeine, you are a drug user too.
  • Think about why you won’t be arrested for using your drug of choice, and others will. People whose lives matter.
  • Demand change.

*A note on the safety of nitrous oxide:

There are some risks of using nitrous oxide regularly. In a nutshell, using too much is not good. This applies to every drug in existence.

Relative to how much you have to use to experience harms, nitrous is pretty safe. That’s why it’s so common in medicine and dentistry. However, using too much (several canisters, multiple times a week) can lead to a vitamin B12 deficiency, which sounds like not a big deal, but it but can have many unpleasant (and, rarely, permanent) side-effects. Be careful when discharging a whip-it into a whipped cream dispenser, as gas comes out so quickly that the place around where the canister is punctured can get so cold that it can “burn” the skin. Also, don’t use it standing up as you can fall. IMG_1982

That being said, almost everything we do and consume has negative side-effects. Red meat has harms. Sugar has harms. Everything not consumed in moderation has harms.

But recreational drugs are defined in the public consciousness almost ENTIRELY by their harms. This framing needs to shift.

Everyone is well aware that there are risks from using drugs, but the disproportionate focus on those risks is mostly a product of “reefer madness”-style propaganda meant to justify keeping most drugs illegal. This is exactly the kind of stigma that furthers drug prohibition on behalf of the white supremacist prison industrial complex and foreign policy interests. Don’t fall for it.


If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro

Fear and Loathing in Atlanta: Racism and the War on Drugs

Content warning: racism, violence, forced miscarriage.

I was on my way to the airplane that would take me back home, to Canada. I boarded the train between the Atlanta airport’s two terminals, eyes bleary from sleep deprivation and last night’s makeup. A blind man and an airport employee helping him walked onto the train, led by his dog. Minutes passed in silence before he told a story, out of the blue, foggy eyes staring at nothing.

“One time I was leaving a store, and my dog, she led me into the wrong car,” he said to his helper. “It wasn’t my wife in the front seat. ‘I think you’re in the wrong car,’ I heard a woman say. ‘I think you’re right,’ I said.”

I shifted my backpack and smiled at the story.

“I’m just glad she didn’t have a .45 on her,” the blind man added.

“Yeah. That would have been messy,” the helper responded.

They said it seriously, but so casually. Like it was nothing. Normal.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I broke down crying.

* * *

Just five days in the U.S. south, at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference, changed how I view the work I’m doing. I’m a PhD student who studies the effects of drug prohibition on drug users and sellers. I know about gun violence, about racial oppression, about how the War on Drugs systematically targets the poor and people of colour. I’ve read everything I can get my hands on, I’ve watched the documentaries, I’ve talked to people, I’ve done a Master’s degree’s worth of ethnographic research on the subject. I’ve lived in Mexico and seen the ugly effects of cartel power in person. There’s a reason I’m doing this work. But I’d never seen what I saw in Atlanta, so much in so few days.

Monstrous things that seemed to faze no one. Monochromatic homelessness, all black. I was catcalled constantly on the street, and then later told I was an idiot for walking alone at night at all – you can’t do that here. The transit security guard on the subway had a gun. I guess all of them do. I got a physical shiver when I saw it, a weight in my stomach. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a gun in person. I live in the kind of place where you can go months, even years without seeing a gun.

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A group of black men being bothered by cops for no reason I could discern, one of the first things I saw when I got into the city.

I heard story after story of people being arrested for drugs, years of their lives and their mental and physical health taken away from them, families destroyed. Racial tension was everywhere. Fear was everywhere. Buzzing, insidious, toxic textures at the periphery of the senses. Fear seeped from the walls and coated every interaction. Hackles raised, human connection difficult without concerted effort. I made the effort and was rewarded with tiny moments of solidarity, bright sparks, smiles. Atlanta, like the US as a whole, is full of good, kind people, trapped in a cultural venn diagram of overlapping toxic systems that are slowly killing them and keep them turned against each other instead of against the systems themselves.

White supremacy is real, and it is everywhere. The geographic and economic segregation along racial lines was astounding. I sat eating a Big Mac in a McDonald’s at 11 pm on a Wednesday, the only white person among 30 black people. I then walked six blocks north and was hit by a wall of white bodies in confederate flag shirts—returning from a Garth Brooks concert, I later learned. I was very uncomfortable in the latter situation and felt fine in the former, but the sheer, naked, normalized segregation in both made me deeply uneasy.

I sent my partner a drunk text about how the food here didn’t feel digestible. That Big Mac haunted me. It was like eating ash and plastic, no nutrition at all. You don’t have to believe me, but I mean this honestly when I say that American fast food is worse than the fast food I’ve eaten in any other country. You can taste the difference in agricultural production and food standards. It hurt to think that it’s all that millions of people can afford. It’s barely food. They deserve so much better.

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These signs don’t exist where I live

I fended off catcalls as I walked home that night, a deep sense of shame and disgust at my skin colour setting in already, at how I was necessarily perceived to be one more white link in the chains that hold half that country hostage. I couldn’t hide my whiteness, so I shamefully found myself hoping people would at least notice my broken glasses and crappy old boots and think I’m poorer than I am. I’m not wealthy—I just barely identify as middle class—but I am not poor. Not like the homeless man to whom I gave my change instead of all the money in my pocket like I should have. My partner and I don’t make much money, but with free health care and the various other social and academic supports I have access to, I can afford to fly to conferences in other countries where I deal with the embarrassment of being a walking pile of privilege by hoping my taped-up glasses camouflage my relative wealth. I have to remind myself as I walk by that those people don’t have nothing because I have something: those people have nothing because a small handful of people have everything, and will not share until we make them. I channel that knowledge back into my work. Guilt is not productive. Action is.

jeff sessions is an absolute monster

So much blood on this man’s hands

The next day at the conference, I listened to a formerly incarcerated black woman on a panel tell her story. She was in federal prison for selling drugs, and she was pregnant when she was locked up. The water that came out of the taps in the prison was brown. She told them she couldn’t drink it, and they told her to go thirsty. One day, she began feeling pain in her belly. They took her to the infirmary—they didn’t have the right paperwork to get her to a hospital, and didn’t bother finding it. They shackled her, bleeding, to the bed, as she begged for help. She miscarried and lost her child. They threw her sheets, and the fetus, into the trash. Soon she was forced to return to her “job,” welding bunk beds for the men’s prison. Three beds high, three feet of vertical space per bed. The audience quietly cried as we listened. She sold things to people who wanted them, and the state robbed her of unborn child and gave her post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hers was not the only story like this.

* * *

Photo 2017-10-12, 3 59 53 PMI was saved by the people at the conference, hundreds of tiny lights in a landscape of confused darkness. Activists, scholars, authors, health care workers, psychonauts, researchers, patients, libertarians, socialists. All of us bound together by the knowledge that drug prohibition is the modern day Jim Crow and the driving force behind death and destruction in the Americas. We clung to each other for sanity, sharing our successes and failures, our experiences, our self-care rituals. Every victory was tainted by the knowledge that while capitalism stands, its vultures will always find a way to profit and oppress. Marijuana is being legalized—great! But anyone with a felony record is barred from working in the legal market, meaning all the people of colour who were selling it before—shit. Companies who make ankle GPS trackers, video call systems for prisons, and opioid medications pour billions of dollars into lobbying to maintain the system the way it is, while Black and Latinx communities have their young men stolen from them and their women and children surveilled by the state through the welfare system.Photo 2017-10-12, 6 42 40 AM

“Poor activist communities are being destroyed by the prison system,” said one panelist. “If you want to disrupt social justice, put all the men in prison and all the women under welfare surveillance.”

One woman on a psychedelics panel was asked about her experiences. She said she could never fully relax and enjoy a journey, given the space she occupies in the world. “Not even psychedelics can bring me to a place where I can escape from the reality of being black in America.”

Later I sat and watched Falcons fans on the way to a football game, laughing and shouting like everything was fine, and wondered if I was going mad.

Photo 2017-10-13, 8 31 07 AMSometimes, among drug policy activists, it feels like we’re the band playing on the Titanic. Sometimes it feels like maybe we can make a difference, like we’ll win. Like there’s no way we can’t win when all the evidence, and all the empathy, is on our side. But it doesn’t matter either way. We have to try. There’s just no other option.

We have to do this work. Or who will?

* * *

Tiny squares of paper, an unlikely team: Leslie, from San Francisco, and Mark, a 21-year-old from New Mexico who’d never been outside his home state. All conferences have a culture of drinking—the culture at this one is a bit more unique.

Fear and loathing in Atlanta, hotel escalators like an Escher drawing. We managed to get to a club, where I danced like I could drown out my thoughts if I just moved hard enough. I listened to the lyrics of all my favourite hip-hop songs as if I’d never heard them before. Pain, power, poetry. They wrapped around my heart and pulled it down into the ground. The energy on the dance floor, the smiles, the movement—they crackled with intensity. I never wanted to leave.Photo 2017-10-14, 9 17 08 PM

Later, we stayed up til long past sunrise, trying to make sense of what we’d experienced that week. Legs stretched out on the hotel carpet, ears ringing. Talking to Leslie that night had been a moderating influence in the stark differences I kept seeing between our two countries. There were certain things she said didn’t exist in San Francisco either. But still, I began to feel terrible for how many times I pointed out how things like needing to carry mace with you is not normal in Canada, and should not be normal anywhere, let alone a country with this much wealth and resources. Transit officers with guns on the subway should not be normal. Having to ask whether the tap water is potable should not be normal. Fearing shootings in public should not be normal. Spatial segregation by race and class in a multiracial society should not be normal. Having to create GoFundMes to pay for surgery should not be normal. People fighting tooth and nail to keep professional sports team names that are straight-up racial slurs should not be normal.

Canada, like every country, has many serious problems that need immediate attention. I could write endless pages about what’s wrong with the capitalist, colonial state that I live in (and I often do.) Racism, inequality, misogyny, homophobia—they all exist in my home too. But it’s not the same. It’s just not.

Sometimes, we just sat in silence, the weak morning sun peeking through the hotel curtains.

“I’ve been very angry and afraid of other people for a very long time,” realized Mark numbly.

* * *

Photo 2017-10-14, 11 26 02 PMI’m not naïve: I knew all of this existed. I’ve been obsessed with American politics, how similar our two cultures seem until you scratch beneath the surface, for years. It’s not possible to be a hip-hop fan from a young age, or study the War on Drugs for a living, and avoid the global vortex of injustice and power that centres on the US. But knowing about it, and coming face to face with the sheer day-to-day mundanity of it all, are two different things. I’ve been all over the West and Northeast, where the cracks in the cultural pavement are more subtle, but touching and seeing and smelling a Southern American city for the first time, while listening to first-hand stories from around the country, poured gasoline on my deep belief that to accept conditions like this as “just the way things are” is the most dangerous possible reaction. The normalization of structural violence, white supremacy and drug prohibition allows all of it to continue, at a scale that boggles the mind. I don’t want to become complacent. I don’t want to get used to it. I don’t want to accept it.

Judges who own bail companies and have shares in private prisons is not okay. A man facing five years in prison for picking mushrooms in a forest in Washington is an outrageous injustice. Thousands being held without even being charged, imprisoned for the crime of not being able to afford bail. Dozens of people shot every day by police. Women sexually violated by roadside cavity searches. All because human beings like getting high, and a group of wealthy, powerful people figured out how to turn that desire into capital by weaponizing racial oppression.

None of this is okay. Nobody deserves this kind of life.

I love Americans, I really do. They are incredible people, and so many of them have accomplished amazing things in the face of all this oppression. Watching American activists at work, fighting tirelessly under such difficult conditions, inspires me every day to work harder, work better, listen more closely, see more critically. But the country itself, the ideas that prop it up… How can we wake up the white American prohibition-supporting mainstream—which includes most liberals—to what is happening to people in their own country because of their complacency? I want to run around and shake people. Rip out the tentacles of media propaganda poisoning their minds, convincing vast swaths of the US that it’s their neighbours who are the problem, not corruption and inequality.Photo 2017-10-11, 12 54 33 PM

I guess it’s easier to be in denial, to feel like surely all those black people are wrong, overreacting with their protests and kneeling, than to confront the fact that your whole worldview is based on a mammoth lie. They’re like cult members—they just double down on their beliefs when they’re confronted with reality, because changing those fundamental beliefs, admitting the lie, would be too painful to bear. Maybe that’s how we need to start treating Trump supporters: like cult members who need deprogramming. They’ve bought into a certain narrative, that the US is fundamentally good, and to shatter that illusion would destroy a part of their very identity, their sense of self. Maybe we need to give them an out that allows them to shift that narrative towards something that provides the same positive identity, but acknowledges the truth: if you love your country, the most patriotic thing you can do is help to make it better for everyone in it.

* * *

It was Sunday morning. I’d slept for two disoriented hours. As I walked towards the subway train that would take me to the airport and the sweet sanctuary of home, I was torn between desperately wanting out, and feeling an urgent need to stay—there’s not enough time, I need to talk to more people. As if there could be an amount of time, or enough conversations, that would quiet the existential dread in my belly.

I passed a Muslim family outside the subway station. I wanted to run up to them, to every person of colour I saw and tell them I’m sorry for how hard it is to be them on this continent. I want them to know that I see them, I see what the world is doing to them, and it’s not okay, and I’m doing what I can to change things. That their experiences are real and valid. I don’t want to be one more person feeding into the twilight zone society that pretends this isn’t happening.

Photo 2017-10-12, 7 06 38 AMI’ve been texting with Mark regularly since I got back. We supported each other through our re-entry. “I was in a weird fugue state for a week when I got home,” he told me. “It felt like everything was going in slow motion.”

The airport alone was a surreal experience. I kept seeing innocuous but slightly bizarre things. I saw ads about “shopping for health care” and thought, those words don’t make sense together. I watched a man in the seat ahead and across from me sit and read all of the Wall Street Journal. He spent a particularly long amount of time on an article called “NFL weighs new anthem rules.” At one point, he pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket, counted them, and then put them back in his pocket.

I watched the guy next to me do a crossword puzzle, and it felt… I don’t know. Amazing. Ridiculous. Something. How can you do something so benign and simple and quaint and pleasant when the world around you is falling apart? How can you be so calm when 96 of your fellow citizens will die today from being shot with a gun? How are you not screaming with pitchforks at the front gates of every billionaire’s house?

I wanted to turn to the people across from me and ask, “Did you know that we’re living in the darkest timeline and everything we’re told about the way things work is a racist lie?”

But I couldn’t figure out exactly how to word that, so instead I asked them about football.
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I did talk with another Canadian headed to the same flight as me, and told her how I was feeling. “Atlanta is nothing,” she said. She’d gone to school in North Carolina, and left when she was done her degree because, she said, “it was too racist.”

* * *

When I started crying on the train after the blind man’s story, I couldn’t stop. I made my way to a fast food area with tables in the airport, sat down and sobbed. A woman—this woman—was playing the cello nearby, and I lost myself in the music, slow and sad. My body heaved as I wept. I was ignored by the other people at the tables. No one said a word to me.

By the time the music finished, I had too. I locked eyes with the cellist, whose name turned out to be Jenn, and she walked straight over to me as I stood up. She embraced me tightly, and I felt everything all at once.

We broke apart and I thanked her for her music. “I needed that,” I said.

“I could tell,” she answered. “Is there anything you want to share?”

We talked for a while, with another woman, and every second was both confusing and nourishing. Nothing I managed to verbalize about my feelings seemed to surprise them, and they were sympathetic. “It’s important to accept that not everyone is capable of feeling as deeply as you do,” one of them told me. It makes sense as a short term strategy, but it’s a pill I still refuse to swallow for the long-term. Everyone is capable. We’re just torn away from each other. We can rebuild empathy.

I had to go. They both hugged me goodbye as I wiped away tears, trying not to be embarrassed. “It’s okay,” I sniffed. “I’m okay.”

Jenn held my shoulders as she looked into my eyes. “It’s alright if you’re not okay, too.”

I felt the warmth in her words, and smiled. “I will be.”

* * *

Photo 2017-10-15, 1 49 54 PMOn the plane, I listened to Kendrick and let every word cut into me like wounds I never want to heal, wounds my soft, safe body will never actually have.

I’ll prolly die anonymous, I’ll prolly die with promises
I’ll prolly die walkin’ back home from the candy house
I’ll prolly die because these colors are standin’ out
I’ll prolly die because I ain’t know Demarcus was snitchin’
I’ll prolly die at these house parties, fuckin’ with bitches
I’ll prolly die from witnesses leavin’ me falsed accused
I’ll prolly die from thinkin’ that me and your hood was cool
Or maybe die from pressin’ the line, actin’ too extra
Or maybe die because these smokers are more than desperate
I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges
Body-slammed on black and white paint, my bones snappin’
Or maybe die from panic or die from bein’ too lax
Or die from waitin’ on it, die ’cause I’m movin’ too fast
I’ll prolly die tryna buy weed at the apartments
I’ll prolly die tryna defuse two homies arguin’
I’ll prolly die ’cause that’s what you do when you’re 17
All worries in a hurry, I wish I controlled things

If I could smoke fear away, I’d roll that mothafucka up
And then I’d take two puffs
I’ve been hungry all my life
I’m high now
I’m high now


If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro

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.

Notes

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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Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro