One of the great benefits, I think, in coming to university, especially to study the social sciences, is its beautiful potential to change us. It can liberate and free the mind from blind acceptance of customs, norms, and values, and, applied to the field of crime and deviancy, it can free us from the belief that our responses to criminal acts are necessarily rational, fair, and just. It reveals the potential to see the underlying power struggles and structural inequalities that our criminal justice system so often reproduces. In some ways, the experience is quite distressing – once the bubble is burst there is no return to ignorance. But with liberation comes inquisition, a change in perception, as though colours had become sharper and more vibrant, objects once considered insignificant, more conspicuous, at once possessed of great insight and shrouded in mystery. This ‘sociological imagination’ is perhaps a researcher’s greatest tool, an intuitive desire for knowledge and answers, to question reality, to “exit the matrix”.
Applying this tool to ‘substance misuse’ (to use the politically-correct Welsh terminology), we see that our responses to certain forms of drug-taking have historically been shaped (at least in part) by a dominant, quasi-religious view that such acts are malum in se, that is, evils in themselves. The rhetoric of ‘drugs’ tends not to include alcohol, tobacco, or a plethora of other legal or medically-available substances, but instead has an accumulated meaning that refers chiefly to the illicit and dangerous. The user is stereotypically depicted as the ‘junkie’, a needle-bound addict willing to do anything to get the next fix. Discourses surrounding therapeutic relief and pleasure are swept aside in favour of those highlighting addiction and risk. Even the more inclusive Welsh term of ‘substance misuse,’ which applies to both licit and illicit drugs, still carries a sense that illicit drug-taking automatically assumes mis-use and that recreational use can only occur within culturally accepted forms of drug taking.
Such a limited view of ‘drug-takers’ obfuscates the variegated nature of available drugs, so how useful (and rational) is it to construct an extra-legal division between legal and illegal drugs? The whole legislative framework of the Misuse of Drugs Act is supposed to be premised upon the ranking of harms, but recently this form of demarcation has been found wanting. In 2007, Professor David Nutt and colleagues attempted to break down the perceived divide between the true effects of drugs and their legality. The results, as shown below, are that our conception of licit as safe and acceptable and illicit as dangerous is somewhat skewed when comparing the relative harm posed by each drug. If this is the case, we must call into question the very nature of how we conceptualise and control substances and upon what knowledge we base drug policy.
If so many relatively safe drugs are anathema to our political culture, why and how is alcohol so acceptable, even celebrated, within our culture?
I want to briefly peer through an anthropological lens to “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange” by making some reflections on the nature of alcohol use in society.
One of the strangest experiences I’ve had at Cardiff University (where I study) was a walk-around with a police officer on a Friday night through the city centre. Usually being in such a setting comes with the prerequisite of being intoxicated, but on that evening I’d never felt so sober. Though I won’t go into the finer details of how messy our night-time economy is, it occurred to me that our love for alcohol is more than just an accepted aspect of social life. Practically every street in the city centre is adorned with bars, pubs, restaurants, and clubs all offering and advertising alcoholic beverages. TV adverts from the alcohol industry entice by demonstrating the social benefits of drinking: ‘drink this and you will have a good time’ being the basic message. Walking past the local college on A-Level results day, one sees nightclub representatives standing directly outside with flyers advertising cheap drinks and pictures of inebriated caricatures. In fact, even as I draft this at 9:30am on a train to London (to go wine tasting for a friend’s birthday no less), I am warmly reminded by the train manager that there is a fully licensed bar on board ready to cater to any desire I might have to intoxicate myself at this early hour.
Now, of course this is stating the obvious; of course we have places you can buy alcohol; of course this is normal, almost as if such establishments were part of the furniture of our societal home.
But why alcohol? Why do we not share the same exuberance and cultural acceptance for other drugs? This isn’t to say that illicit recreational substances are nowhere to be found in public spaces; one can sometimes detect the distinctive smell of cannabis in the park on a warm day, or in the packed smoker’s areas of more alternative venues, and being offered ketamine or MDMA is a regular feature in some clubs. Yet, this type of consumption runs against the grain of mainstream societal acceptance, is seen as a social ill and driven underground, with the unfortunate, and sometimes fatal, side effect of users not knowing with any certainty what is in the drugs they take. Forgetting the coffeeshops of the Netherlands for a moment, what would an alternative society where our favourite recreational drug of choice were not alcohol, but say ecstasy or a psychedelic, look like? And how does our current existence relate to our ingrained perceptions about harm, therapy, pleasure, and spirituality?
An important aspect of how people perceive different substances can be located within how they are treated in society and how individuals are socialised into conceptualising the normal and abnormal. A simple but useful example can be seen with regards to the accessibility of pubs to young people. I’m not suggesting that such establishments openly advocate the selling and use of alcohol to minors, but the very fact that, as we grow up, we can enter a pub with parents and can sit and have a meal whilst alcohol is freely sold and consumed around us means that alcohol is firmly normalised in our common understanding of the world. This type of cultural embeddedness lies in stark contrast to how children learn and experience the forbidden environment surrounding illicit drugs.
By looking at the case of alcohol, I do not intend to criticise its normalised existence; clearly most people can enjoy a drink without becoming alcoholics, but perhaps the dichotomy between licit as safe and illicit as dangerous is not particularly helpful, especially when the scientific expertise suggests that other substances pose less harm. Indeed, when the harm of many illicit drugs are balanced against a notorious British drinking culture, the case can be made for diversion of use from alcohol to safer substances. Clearly the safe-licit / unsafe-illicit dichotomy is rejected by many who experiment with illicit substances yet do not succumb to the stereotypical portrayal of the forlorn figure of an alienated drug addict, and most recreational users go on to lead perfectly ‘normal’ lives once the excitement of breaking out of childhood constraints wanes and the reality of adult life sets in.
Thus, if we’re going to say alcohol is acceptable to consume based upon its relative risks, then there must be a rational discussion about how we look at other substances which are not as dangerous, and this discussion needs to consider not only the health risks, but also the social risks associated with a criminalised substance.
Nutt, D., King, L., Saulsbury, W. and Blakemore, C. 2007. Development of a Rational Scale to Assess the Harm of Drugs of Potential Misuse. The Lancet 369(1047-1053).