Drug issues are highly political in just about every country in the world.
It is the second most lucrative industry in the world behind the trade and sale of arms. Even oil isn’t as lucrative an industry. Drugs and the drug trade have both historically and in recent times been used as a justification by world powers for military intervention, and multinational companies relentlessly market tobacco and obsolete prescription medications to “Third World” countries. The more one looks at issues of drugs, the more intricate the relations of power and knowledge become.
Which substances are defined as drugs, how their supply and use is regulated, how society responds to people who use drugs – all of these are political issues. Tobacco and alcohol are the two substances that cause the most physical harm and damage in the world, according to a report by Melissa Raven of the Dulwich Center, but both are legal in most countries, which illustrate the aforementioned point. The status of various drugs has been greatly influenced by political and economic interests. For example, marijuana was inaccurately classified as a narcotic and prohibited for primarily economic reasons in years past.
While there continues to be a focus on illicit drugs, problems associated with prescribed medications receive little attention. Benzodiazepines (so-called minor tranquilizers such as Valium) continue to be prescribed for millions of people, often for long periods of time, despite clear evidence of the potential for these drugs to cause dependence and other problems. Women are much more likely than men to be prescribed these drugs, and it has been argued that this practice is a strategy for adjusting women to unjust circumstances. The use of benzodiazepines has declined somewhat in recent years, but antidepressants such as Prozac have filled the gap. Psychiatric drugs are also sometimes used for inappropriate reasons, for example to sedate patients for long periods of time. Other worrying forms of drug use that are often overlooked include the use of laxatives and diet pills which is common among young women.
Disparities in the responses to drug use by different members of the population, based on issues of class, race and gender, are common. For example, young black males are much more likely to be jailed for illicit drug use than other people who commit the same crimes. And the meanings associated with drug use can only be understood within culturally and socially specific contexts.
Dealing drugs offers one of the few available routes out of poverty to badly educated poor young people. As such it is understandable, rational behavior, often engaged in by the most competent and ambitious people in that situation, not signs of major psychological pathology.
Language is central to many of the important power issues. The term “narcotic” has profound social and legal implications. “Drug abuse” has different connotations than “drug-related problems.” When the terms “drug-dealers” and “drug-pushers” are used, pharmaceutical companies, doctors, and pharmacists rarely figure in the thought process.
Even when less judgmental terms are used, language issues are important. To many people, the term “addiction” implies some sort of extraordinary condition arising from abnormal psychobiological processes, and requiring specialist treatment. Furthermore, there is often the assumption that addictions are lifelong problems which cannot be cured, only held in remission. Diagnostic terms also have significance. The words alcoholic and addict have the advantage of being succinct. But what impact does it have when a person is labeled as an alcoholic (or the less confronting “problem drinker”) as opposed to a “person with an alcohol problem?” Does the former make it harder for them to see themselves as separate from the problem, and to focus on their strengths and resources rather than their deficits?
Issues of gender are also relevant because there has generally been a neglect of women’s drug use/problems in the drug field. There have been many examples of inappropriate generalization of research on men to the situation of women. For example, one study based its disease model of alcoholism on questionnaires completed by 98 male members of Alcoholics Anonymous. The data from women were discarded precisely because they were so different from the men’s. Such research exclusively on men has time and again been used to argue that male-orientated services should suffice.
Women who use drugs are often considered doubly deviant within a patriarchal society. This can result in more oppressive responses to their drug use. The most powerful example of this is how some pregnant women have been placed under profound surveillance and have even been prosecuted and incarcerated because of their drug use and the perceived immorality of their actions in relation to their unborn child. Another way in which issues of gender and drug use intersect is in relation to domestic violence. Many domestic violence shelters have a policy against accepting drug-affected women, and yet many survivors of domestic violence use drugs as a way of coping.
Whether it be in relation to the ways in which different drugs are classified, the ways in which tobacco and alcohol companies exploit notions of glamour in their advertisements, or the fact that drug use can be a form of self-medication to mitigate the effects of trauma and injustice, relations of power intersect with drug use in a myriad of ways. As people try to consider new ways of working with issues of ‘addiction’ and drug use, it seems relevant to ask: how can society remain conscious of the political nature of drug use and the language used to describe and understand it, and what implications does this have?
If you or someone you know is struggling with drug addiction, reach out today. One of our trained addiction specialists is standing by to help.